The Island and the Kingdom

September 9, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

When Sam first sees Suzy, it through the reflection in a mirror. She is sitting in front of the mirror looking into it, and he is standing behind her. They are both eleven years old and they live on the imaginary island of New Penzance, a creation of film director Wes Anderson, whose movie "Moonrise Kingdom" was the best I saw this summer. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to share it with you, because it is rich with things worthy of our reflection.

Let's return for a moment to the moment of Suzy and Sam's meeting, which happens in a church - a church that looks a lot like this one. Suzy is singing the role of the raven in the church's summer pageant - a production of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde." She is awaiting her entrance in a basement dressing room and sitting with a group of her female peers - who are all also dressed as birds. The imagery is obvious: we are meant to see these girls as "birds of a feather who flock together." Sam Shakusky, an earnest boy with thick spectacles, wearing an impeccable Khaki Scout uniform and coonskin hat, has broken away from his troop to go exploring through the church. The year is 1965 - which will evoke its own associations for those of you who were alive in that era - and the Khaki Scouts are kind of a Boy Scout organization, only funnier. They are obviously a creation of Wes Anderson's nostalgia -extremely dedicated to troop discipline and unity, and the achievement of excellent camping and wilderness skills. Their troop leader, Scout Master Ward, played by Ed Norton, is a math teacher during the year but he insists that being a Khaki Scout is his real job.

So young Sam Shukusky, the weird little scout with the perpetual coonskin cap, has come to the church pageant with his troop, and has parted ways with them - in defiance of the Khaki Scout rules. He has stumbled upon this mysterious enclave of girls with wings, and he recognizes immediately that Suzy is not just one of the flock. She is special. With her black kohl-lined eyes, she radiates mystery - and woundedness. We see all of these things, and so does he. We also notice that one of Suzy's hands is all bandaged up. What happened to your hand? he asks. I got hit in the mirror, she responds. Really? How'd that happen? he asks. The script specifies that he is taken aback. Suzy shrugs. I lost my temper at myself. She is cool as a cucumber, totally self-possessed. The screenplay reads, "Sam is deeply intrigued by this." And so, of course, are we. We realize that this pretty blonde girl has a violent temper, and that she is self-destructive. This is not going to be the average boy meets girl fairy tale.

Suzy and Sam's bond is created in that moment, two wounded pre-adolescents deeply recognizing each other as kindred souls. But just minutes into this charged encounter, Sam is discovered by a harried church volunteer and thrown out of the dressing room, sent back to join the Khaki Scout troop that doesn't want him - we have already learned that he is its most unpopular member.

We will soon learn that sweet, nerdy Sam is a foster child whose foster family doesn't want him back when he's finished with summer camp with the Khaki Scouts. We're sorry, says his foster father over the phone to the police officer calling to tell the man that Sam has run away. But he's emotionally disturbed. We can't take him back. So if you do find him, don't bring him back. We're so sorry. (We all know the expression, "to be voted off the island." But what happens when you're voted off the mainland and to the island?)

Islands are interesting symbolically. They are often seen as idyllic places, free from the concerns of the real world. "Escape to the island of ________________." But more commonly, in literature and film, islands are metaphors for human vulnerability, isolation, alienation, abandonment - as islands are literally vulnerable and isolated when dramatic weather and turbulent seas cut them off from the mainland. It did not surprise me that Moonrise Kingdom's dramatic conclusion featured a huge storm and that Suzy and Sam wound up needing to be rescued from the steeple of the church where they met. In the end, Suzy and Sam's story was not one about romance, but about salvation: Salvation through being truly seen and recognized by someone new who opens your heart, and salvation by being truly seen and recognized by people who thought they already knew us, had already seen all there was to see of us.

"No man is an island," wrote John Donne. "No man stands alone." What struck me watching this story unfold was how small an island community is, and how easy it is, therefore, for everyone on it to think they know each other intimately. I immediately symbolically connected the island to the life of the church. Churches and islands are beautiful places set apart that look shining and idyllic from a distance. When you get there, to the island or the church, the terrain seems easy to navigate, small, well-mapped, and manageable. But like an island, the church is afloat on a greater mystery, on the ocean of a deeper reality.

Suzy and Sam, both captives of the claustrophobic island culture, run away together. And even if you could relate to their worried parents or to devastated Scout Master Ward, you could not help but root for them. (I hope we can watch this movie together when it comes out on DVD.) Who among us has not longed to break free from the assumptions and false intimacies of the tiny island communities in which we spend our lives? The island of family, the island of school, the island of workplace, the island of church, the island of town, the island of the various organizations you belong to - all of these small, independent territories floating along on the larger ocean of our lives - wouldn't we love to occasionally jump and swim far offshore just to get some perspective? Just to pull ourselves up - or be helped ashore - somewhere else, dripping wet, panting hard, and unburdened by everyone's smug knowledge of who they think we are? If nothing else, don't we long, at times, to just jump into the water, to feel how deep it really is? To be reminded of the greater mystery on which we are so tenuously anchored? Floating or swimming in those deep waters, how grateful we are again to experience the solid ground of our small island under our feet.

Sam and Suzy run away into the island, into its interior, where they can find each other, where they can "know and be known", which is ultimately the only salvation we can offer each other. Remember their initial meeting in the mirror? It reminded me of the famous passage in Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child… Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror. Then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Suzy and Sam want to meet face to face, to know each other not as their parents or peers see them, but as God knows them, as the soul knows. Some people have squawked at the very innocent sexual exploration that the two of them share on the beach, but they have certainly missed the point. Suzy and Sam's encounter is a spiritual one. It is about recognizing, relating to, and welcoming the brokenness and vulnerability in another. It is about finding beauty and attractiveness within the wounds, and it is about taking up each other's life cause in friendship and solidarity. It is about recognition of an inner beauty and integrity in the other, and trusting in that. "When I was a child, I trusted like a child." There are things about seeing as a child and speaking like a child that we should never outgrow.

During one of their first conversations in the woods, while they are getting acquainted, Suzy shows Sam what she has packed and brought with her. A portable record player. Ten cans of cat food and a kitten. A leather suitcase full of hard-cover fantasy fairytale books. She shows him a pamphlet with a broken tea cup illustration on the front, entitled "Coping With the Very Troubled Child." Sam asks, "Is this you?" When she says yes, Sam laughs at her. Very coolly, Suzy responds, "You sure know how to make friends," and goes off by herself to sit on a rock and cry. When Sam finds her to apologize, he says, simply,

I'm sorry. I'm on your side.

I know, she replies.

It's a deeper moment than it first seems to be. Sam and Suzy recognize each other's wounds but they don't define each other by them. That is the essence of friendship, and - by the way - it is also essence of religious hospitality. Sam isn't laughing meanly. He is laughing with her, not at her. In exchange for her trust, he will grant her his: Later, on the beach after they experience their first awkward but adoring kiss, he confesses to her, "It's possible I may wet the bed, by the way."

And it is in this scene that we learn something else about Sam. He is not emotionally disturbed, he is traumatized. He is an orphan whose parents were both killed in a car accident. Suzy, whose head is full of the fantasy books she has been reading, says that she has always wanted to be an orphan, as their lives are always so much more exciting. Sam looks at her, tears in his eyes. "I love you," he says, "But you don't know what you're talking about."

While on the beach, their place of discovering each other and themselves, the young pair decide that the official name for the inlet isn't special enough, and they decide to rename it from Mile 3.25 Inlet to something else. What the name is, we don't learn until the very last scene of the movie, when we see a watercolor landscape of their tent pitched on the beach, their wet clothes hanging to dry - a painting made that day by Sam. Written in the sand with seashells just at the water's edge are the words, "Moonrise Kingdom."

Moonrise Kingdom.

What a romantic name for a little beach cove. Awfully grand, too, for a stretch of sand half the size of Peggotty Beach, and you know how small that is. But I get it. I got it as soon as I saw the painting. "The kingdom, the power and the glory, Amen." Wes Anderson had made another Biblical allusion, another religious reference (intentional or not). He takes these characters out of the church building and into the kingdom, where they experience the salvation of being recognized, understood, accepted and loved - despite their wounds - loved as they are. "Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." A spiritual, as well as a romantic, coming of age for both of them. The kingdom, the power and the glory. Seeing the name Sam and Suzy had chosen for their cove, I also immediately remembered Jesus' teaching, "The Kingdom of God is within you."

This is not just a pretty sentiment, this teaching, it is the greatest responsibility of our lives. The kingdom of God - a realm of inviolable dignity, beauty, belovedness and divinity - is not utterly beyond, and inaccessible in this lifetime. It is as much part of our environment in the here and now as the sand under our summer feet. The kingdom is right here, within each of us on this, our own beloved island.

Thy kingdom come, yours and mine, in sunrise and moonrise, hour unto hour, day unto day and season unto season. May we give our hearts fully into this sacred potential and thereby make our church an island where all storm-tossed souls may help each other ashore to experience the salvation of compassionate understanding and love.