The story of God selecting David, an unlikely choice, to be King of Israel reminds the Rev. Yvette A. Flunder of two films about penguins: the documentary “March of the Penguins” and the animated movie “Happy Feet.”
The reading was 1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13. Flunder led the final morning worship service of the week at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 26 in the Amphitheater. Flunder said of the reading:
“I return to this passage often when I see God move in ways that confound the obvious and the expected outcomes for so many of us who are perhaps slated to be the least likely to succeed, the least likely to be loved, the least likely to graduate, perhaps the least likely to be healthy, wealthy and wise.”
Flunder said there is plenty of material to consider and preach on in “March of the Penguins” and “Happy Feet,” and that each film touched her in its own way.
The documentary tells the story of the emperor penguin’s commitment to breeding and courtship. The penguins migrate 70 miles to their ancestral lands, and in a mating ritual, sing unique songs to one another.
“When they hear the song, sung by someone that touches them, the song that they love to hear, the song that turns their head in that direction, they are moved to love the one who sings it,” Flunder said.
Once the mother penguin lays an egg, the couple must separate. The mother strikes out for the sea to replenish herself and bring fish back for the family, while the father battles subzero temperatures and bitter winds, keeping the egg warm. When the mother returns, the couple must find one another again in a crowd of thousands of penguins.
“What would happen is the father would sing the family song and the mothers would be drawn toward the sound of that song,” Flunder said. “And what was also beautiful about it is, by that time, the father will have sung the song enough that the babies will also know how to sing it. So there’s a duet that the mothers come home to.”
In the animated movie “Happy Feet,” a young penguin named Mumble is born into a colony of emperor penguins. There’s only one problem: He cannot sing, and thus cannot participate in the essential culture and rituals of his species.
But Mumble can dance, and in fact, he can’t help but to dance. His odd passion makes him an embarrassment to his family, and tension is brewing among his tribe because their once-reliable supply of fish has run dry. As is too often the case, Mumble, the other, becomes a scapegoat upon whom the tribe blames their troubles.
“People who have been othered are often blamed when things don’t work out the way we’re accustomed to them working out,” Flunder said. “It certainly happens in religion, doesn’t it? We have destroyed people’s homes. We have burned people alive. We have done all sorts of things when we blame a group of people for our concept of an angry deity. They knew, and (Mumble) knew that even those close to you will often fear and reject what they do not understand.”
Mumble’s elders exiled him from their community, despite his protests that his dancing was not to blame for their troubles. Mumble understood that the Divine was not angry at his happy feet. “Essentially, the God who made me understands my uniqueness and my otherness and I need to celebrate me the way that God celebrates me,” Flunder said.
Mumble came to understand the true source of the food scarcity. He saw gigantic fishing boats sweeping up troves of fish, exhausting the penguins’ food source. In trying to follow the boats, Mumble became trapped under the water, and was rescued and brought to shore by a tribe of penguins from another region. Mumble was overjoyed to discover that these penguins danced, too. The creatures broke into an exuberant collective dance.
“There’s a place for us somewhere,” Flunder said. “A place for us where there will be peace and quiet and open air that waits for us. Somewhere, there is a place where we will feel affirmed, and at home and loved. And perhaps this is that environment, but there are some of you who, like me, will have to leave this environment, and go back into the fray and have to face people who hate you before they know you. But God creates moments like this for us to be strength to one another.”
In the midst of Mumble’s delight at having found a community of dancing penguins, he remembered that his tribe was suffering and that he alone among them knew how to end their suffering. Through trials and tribulations, Mumble was able to save the day and unite the two groups of penguins; they were stronger together.
“We’ve got to find our commonality across all of the things that are designed to divide us,” Flounder said. “This is not easy work, because sometimes we fear that we won’t be accepted or understood, and we run into those walls that divide us. But if we can both sing and dance, if we can be multihued with multiple languages, imagine what we can do when we all make the same peace walk and decide to have the same peace intention.”
Mumble was misunderstood and othered, but he did not allow the judgment of his tribe to diminish his spirit or tarnish his self-love. He persevered and brought about peace and unity. Flunder said that it was Mumble’s unique gift that allowed him to connect with the other tribe and ultimately save his family.
“It’s the same thing that David did,” Flunder said. “It’s the same thing that you must do. It is the same thing that we must do. To all the Davids and all the Mumbles who are here: Do not concern yourself with your otherness, because your otherness is your gift. Keep dancing. And someone, somewhere, will appreciate the greatness in you.”
Flunder encouraged the congregation to share their gifts with the world. “Dance until you set dancers free,” Flunder said. “Sing until you set singers free. Speak justice words until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Cover your children and your grandchildren in preparation for the new world that they can create. And the beauty of it is, the God of dancing is the God of singing, and the God of singing is the God of new birth, new growth and new possibility.”
The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, former vice president of the Department of Religion, presided. Nicholas Stigall, Chautauqua Institution Organ Scholar, played the prelude, “The Peace May Be Exchanged,” by Dan Locklair, while the Motet Choir sang. The opening hymn was “Why Should I Feel Discouraged?” by Civilla Durfee Martin, with Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, on organ. Barbara Williams, coordinator of Unity at Chautauqua, read 1 Samuel 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13. The sermon concluded with Flunder and her wife Shirley Miller singing “Oh Happy Day,” by The Edwin Hawkin Singers. The postlude was Toccata from Symphony No. 5, by Charles-Marie Widor. Support of this week’s services is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Marie Reid-Edward Spencer Babcox Memorial Fund.