Proverbs 22:4-6
4The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life. 5Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; the cautious will keep far from them. 6Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.

1 Corinthians 13:11-12
11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Matthew 18:18-20
18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Three Minute Plot Summary
Into the Woods is a Broadway musical adapted for the screen, and it can be roughly divided into two parts. In part one, characters from several well-known fairy tales are woven together around their respective wishes:

  • Cinderella wishes to go to the festival.
  • Rapunzel, locked in a tower, wishes to see the world.
  • Prince charming, and his equally charming brother, wish to find their true loves.
  • Little Red Riding Hood wishes to bring her grandmother a loaf of bread.
  • Jack (from Beanstalk fame) wishes that his cow would give milk. His mother wishes they weren’t so poor.
  • The Baker and his wife wish that they could have a child.

The Baker and his wife cannot have a child because they have been cursed by the witch next door, who is herself under a curse, and wishes to be young and beautiful again. In order to lift their respective curses, the witch sends the Baker and his wife “Into the Woods” on a quest to find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Of course, the cow is Jack’s, the cape is Red Riding Hood’s, the hair is Rapunzel’s, and the slipper is Cinderellas. All of these characters also happen to go “Into the Woods” in pursuit of their own well known quests and wishes.

And by the end of part one, they have all succeeded. Cinderella goes to the festival and marries Prince Charming. His brother finds and marries Rapunzel. Little Red Riding Hood makes it to her grandmother, and is rescued from the Big Bad Wolf by the Baker. Jack climbs the beanstalk and comes back with enough treasure to provide for his family and buy back his cow, the Baker and his wife have a son, and the witch becomes young and beautiful again.

But then, remarkably, the movie continues. It goes on past the “Happily Ever After,” and in part two, the characters find themselves back in the woods, where the very actions and events that brought about their happy endings have unexpected, tragic consequences. Relationships fall apart. Some characters die. Some face disillusionment, shame, guilt, fear, and self-doubt. They blame each other, or their circumstances, or their parents. Eventually, however, some of the characters learn how to work together, they form a community and they help each other. They learn when to hold on, and when to let go. They learn that wishes, like children, often take their own path–they come true, but they don’t always come free.

Sacred Cows and Godly Witches
This is the last sermon in our annual series on Faith and Film, and I think it’s a fitting finale to a great bunch of films. The first three films in the series centered largely around the intersection of Science and Religion. By contrast, these last three films have explored the intersection between fantasy and reality. The first three films were about strong, independent individuals, while these last three have been about interdependent communities.

Along the way, we’ve noticed and talked about Christ-types and God-types in film. This film, Into the Woods, wins the prize for the most unlikely or unexpected Christ/God types. We often think of God as a male, but in this film the God type is a female: The witch, who acts as an all-present, all-powerful parental voice throughout the film, and is the driving, motivating force that assembles and propels the other characters, the one the other characters fear, blame, or rebel against. She is also the character who speaks the truth, even when it is painful truth.

If the God-type seems bizarre, the Christ-type is even more bizarre…but our own Andrew Grine (9 years old) gets the bonus points for being the first to recognize this unlikely Christ type: It is Jack’s friend and companion, the cow Milky White. White, of course, is the color of sinless purity and innocence. In the Bible, Jesus is betrayed by his friend Judas and sold for 30 pieces of silver, and in this film, Milky White is betrayed by his friend Jack and sold for five very large pieces of giant gold. Like Jesus, Milky White dies, is buried, and on the third day is resurrected from the dead by our God-type, the Witch! In John 6:51, Jesus says that whoever eats the bread of his flesh will live forever, and in the film, Milky White’s milk has the power to give eternal youth to whoever drinks it.

Into the Woods
Color is always an important thing to notice in films, and this film begins (and ends) with gray clouds in the sky. In fact, in the opening scene, it’s actually gray clouds reflected dimly in a pool of water, calling to mind our passage from Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” The colors of the villages and the castles and the houses the characters live in are all gray. The woods, on the other hand, are full of vibrant color: Green leaves, red berries, blue skies and yellow sunlight. In the woods the characters see things more clearly, they see themselves more clearly, and they know things they never knew before.

The woods are a metaphor for those liminal spaces that are somewhere in between heaven and earth, where we are closer to truth and beauty and reality than the “fairy tales” we try so hard to create for ourselves in our day-to-day lives. Jesus often retreated to places like this for prayer and clarity. Sometimes it was a desert and sometimes it was a garden. These places are not altogether safe or peaceful–remember Jesus was tempted in the desert, and Red Riding Hood was tempted in the woods. Jesus cried tears of anguish in the garden of Gethsemane, and many characters in our film experienced pain and loss in the woods. But these in between places are places of spiritual growth and transformation.

Children Will Listen
A major theme in the film is the relationship between parents and children. Throughout the film, both parents and children move past the simple, black and white fairy-tale roles they are assigned toward that “gray-area,” toward a more nuanced, more complicated perspective. Sometimes children stray from the path their parents have chosen for them. Sometimes the path the parents chose for them is the wrong path. Children and parents, despite their best efforts, sometimes cannot protect each other, cannot save each other.

This seems to contradict today’s passage from Proverbs, which tells us “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; the cautious will keep far from them. Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”

I think it’s helpful to remember that the Bible is also a pretty complicated, nuanced piece of literature itself. It is not nearly as “black and white” as some preachers make it out to be. It has a whole lot of gray space. In fact, just two books before Proverbs is the Book of Job, where we find a man who is (according to God) blameless in all things, including the raising of his children. And yet his children stray from the path, and Job is unable to save them. Some scholars believe that the Book of Job was written as a counter-argument to the Book of Proverbs, a reminder that life is not always as easy or as simple as just “doing the right thing” or “choosing the right path.” Ultimately, wise parenting (and wise Bible interpretation) comes from negotiating between complicated, opposing arguments, in finding the right balance between extremes.

No One Is Alone
The song we heard for the anthem today–No One Is Alone–comes from the climax of the film, after Cinderella has left her unfaithful prince, after the Baker has lost his wife, and after both Red Riding Hood and Beanstalk Jack have lost their parents. All of these “orphans” come together and adopt each other as a sort of non-traditional family.

They sing this song to comfort each other, and I think it’s easy to misunderstand the words, to misread the message:

“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you; You decide what’s good. You decide alone. But no one is alone.”

I don’t think the song is saying “you decide what’s good” as in, hey–whatever works for you is right, you can do whatever you want to as long as you think it’s right. Instead, I think it’s saying “you decide what’s good” as in “you alone are responsible for your own choices. No one, not your parents, not your friends, not your Bible, not your pastor, can make decisions for you. All they can do is point you in what they hope is the right direction…but you alone must use your God-given intellect to choose the path you will follow. When the Israelites of the Old Testament lost their leader and spiritual parent in Moses, Joshua put it to them this way: “Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you; You decide what’s good.

Life is complicated, messy, and full of difficult choices. But most of us are still looking for easy solutions, for straightforward answers and fairy-tale endings. We look to God for help in the scriptures, or in prayer, but often what we find seems obscure, or it comes only in brief flashes of color while we are wandering in the woods. We want God to give us a compass, but what God gives us instead…is a community.

You decide what’s good. You decide alone. But no one is alone.

In the film, it is only when the characters come together in community that they begin to heal, begin to find help and direction. In our spiritual journeys, it is only when we come together as the family of God–all of us orphans, all of us adopted–that we can begin make sense of this complicated, gray world, that we can begin to navigate the thorns and snares along our paths. When two or three are gathered in my name, says Jesus, I am there among them.

Someone is on our side. And we are not alone.