Some of you may not know who Katniss Everdeen is. Imagine a world that has been destroyed by human action and lack thereof. Imagine a world after the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires; after the rising oceans have swallowed up much of the land; a world after one more brutal war.
Suzanne Collins tells us a story envisioning an America that has been destroyed, ecologically as well as culturally. She envisions the emergence of an empire based on division and inequality; an empire built on military power and control of the media. The name of the empire is Panem, and panem is the Latin word for bread, as in panem et circenses, bread and circuses.
The empire of Panem has its own version of the circuses. It’s a nationally televised tournament in which each year one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the twelve districts of Panem. This may at first sound like some version of the Olympic Games, but it’s not about the youth of the world competing for victory and fame; the teenagers selected to participate in the Hunger Games fight to the death until only one remains. Year after year, like a graduating class in spring, they are sent into the arena with the cheerful greeting, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
The world Suzanne Collins depicts in The Hunger Games trilogy is fiction, it is fantasy, but it is frigheningly close to the world we know, with its daily violence, the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the environmental abuses, and the ever grotesquer realities of reality tv.
The three novels tell the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who draws strength from sources the empire cannot control. At the reaping, the annual random drawing that determines which teenagers will participate in the deadly spectacle of the games, she steps forward to take the place of her little sister, Primrose, whose name had just been drawn. And then Katniss participates in the games, but she follows her own set of rules; with courage and skill she out-maneuvers the game designers, and she and her partner Peeta both end up as champions.
This is unprecedented; you can imagine that the masters of Panem are quite worried after this victory that turned the rules of their game upside-down. What if others follow the champions’ example and defy the empire’s rules of deadly competition? “Katniss Everdeen,” says President Snow, “you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.”
Well, if you haven’t read the books yet, I won’t spoil them for you if I tell you that in the end, after many twists and turns, the world of the hunger games gives way to a world without hunger, a world where all people are alive and free. And it’s all because of an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things; it’s all because of one teenager who draws strength from a source the empire cannot control, and her spark becomes a wildfire of change and renewal.
It’s all fiction, of course, fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Jesus said [Luke 12:49], “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And kindle it he did, with his whole life, and the spark became a wildfire.
Katniss Everdeen came to mind recently when I read again the words from 1 John 3, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This statement has a very heroic ring to it, like a young woman of great courage stepping forward publicly to take her little sister’s place in a deadly game and defying the powers that be.
I thought about others who laid down their lives, like the Christian martyrs who bravely stepped into the arena where the lions were waiting. I thought about Martin Luther King, Jr. shot in Memphis for his conviction that the universe was bent toward justice. I thought about Bishop Romero shot at the altar during mass in El Salvador for his gentle witness to the love of Christ.
There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire that the shroud of death cannot suppress, a fire that the heavy blankets of oppression cannot smother. It’s the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals; it’s the fire that illumined the path for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom; it’s the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it’s the fire that God kindles for the sake of freedom and fullness of life.
We hear “laying down one’s life for one another” and we think about one heroic moment of sacrifice, and we’re both inspired and intimidated. Inspired because we are privileged to witness an extraordinary act of selfless love, and intimidated because we can’t imagine we’d have what it takes to go and do likewise. I suspect the writer of 1 John knew about this odd mix of feeling both great and small in the presence of people of great courage, and so he offers us everyday people an everyday example of what he has in mind: Look around, he says, open your eyes and hearts, pay attention, and when you see a brother or sister in need of life’s necessities, lay down your life for them – if they’re hungry, give them something to eat; if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink; if they need clothes or a roof over the head, help them out.
What I hear him say is, laying down our lives for one another is laying down our desire to live for ourselves. It’s laying aside our claim to our own lives, and allowing the love of God to use our lives to change the world. It’s allowing the fire of God to burn in us and to reorient us toward our little brothers and sisters.
The rules of the hunger games are brutally simple: It’s kill or be killed. Do whatever it takes to come out a winner. But Katniss knows another way out: The rules of the game can be subverted. The rules of the game can be changed. Stay true to yourself.
As followers of Jesus we believe and proclaim that the rules of the game have been changed. His life of self-giving allows us to see the love that is at the heart of all things. Yes, it is love that is at the heart of all things, not violence, or the harsh wisdom of everybody for themselves, or the frustrating endurance of systems of oppression—it is love’s power, love’s wisdom, and love’s endurance.
We all want to change the world and make it a better place. We want to be part of rebuilding communities that have been destroyed, and we want to do what we can to keep our communities strong and vibrant. We want to understand if our way of life contributes to the flourishing of God’s creation or if it is ultimately destructive. We want to be part of bringing down the empire of death and spreading the kingdom of life. We want to know if we are living in the truth of God’s love or in the greater convenience of the empire’s simple rules of survival. And sometimes we catch ourselves thinking that all we’re doing amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket, that we’re not doing enough and never will, and our worried, little hearts condemn us.
Apparently the writer of 1 John knew about that, too. “My little ones,” he says, “let’s not just talk about love. Let’s not just sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real. And whenever our hearts condemn us, let every act of love, every small act of laying down our lives for one another, reassure our hearts and remind us that we are on the path of truth; for God is greater than our hearts.”
Our hearts are fickle, easily manipulated by fear, but our hearts are not the supreme court of our lives. Our court of final appeal is God, and we see God’s character most fully revealed in Jesus who laid down his life for us. His life is the complete embodiment of divine love, and his commandment for us is to love one another in the same way, in a million everyday ways. His call to us is to stay true to ourselves and to God by staying true to each other. That is how the love of God will continue to be embodied in the world and change the world.
Nancy and I went to Belmont United Methodist Church on Friday to watch a documentary, Tent City, USA. The film tells the story of a community of homeless men and women here in Nashville whose campsite was destroyed by the flood two years ago, and it follows some of them closely in their struggle for housing and for a voice at the tables of power. After the screening, Tee Tee, Stacey and Bama, MacGyver and Wendell came to the front of the room, and it was like they had just walked in from the end of the movie.
The reason I mention this is because today we give thanks for Room in the Inn and the countless volunteers that make this vital ministry possible, and I want to thank all of you who have participated during the season that ended in March. I hope you will be back in November, when another season begins, to help us embody the love of God with some of the most vulnerable citizens of our city.
But there’s another reason I wanted to tell you about this film, and this too has to do with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. After the screening, MacGyver, one of the homeless men we met in the film, told us how he’d been doing these past few months, and it was obvious things were not going well; he used the word complicated at least five times. But then he talked about his daily efforts to be there for others. He told us how he watches when billboard workers are taking down the large vinyl tarps printed with ads, and he saves the pieces for people on the street who need shelter. He told us how he ran into a guy who didn’t have a sleeping bag, and he gave him one he had stashed away safely somewhere. When he heard about another guy who needed a tent, he gave him a small one he had kept in case he would need it. It wasn’t a great tent, but it was better than nothing.
MacGyver had very few of the world’s goods, but when he saw a brother or sister in need he didn’t close his heart. He laid down his life for them. This is what we do, in a million ways, great and small, and it will change the world.