When I was deciding what to preach on this week, someone in my house said, “Ooh, do the Gospel According to Disney Princesses!” (Someone in my house has always been a fan of Disney princesses; she is alone in that fascination.) I thought, “Hmmm, should I preach on Sleeping Beauty, who falls in love in a single day and then spends the rest of the movie asleep, waiting for a kiss to bring her back to life? Or should I preach on Belle, the beauty who falls in love with her beastly captor, and possibly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? Or should I preach on Ariel, who gave up her voice for a man? Oddly enough, that is not where I found inspiration this week!
Instead I kept returning to The Lion King. The animated movie from 1994 opens with the sun rising and all of the animals being called by song to gather together. A son has been born. And not just any son, but the son of King Mufasa, the king of all the animals and the ruler of Pride Rock. Once all the animals have gathered for the presentation of the new prince, the old shaman/priest Rafiki arrives and anoints the newborn Simba. Rafiki then walks out on this great stone platform and lifts up the prince for all to see. The animals cheer. And then the clouds part and the sun breaks through in glory lines upon the child, Simba, and all the animals bow as the song crescendos: The Circle of Life.
Since we are in church and you know this is part of a sermon, I’m guessing you have already made some comparisons between this story and our sacred story. Perhaps you were reminded of the story of Jesus’ birth, when people gathered to worship. Or you heard echoes of Isaiah and Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps you were reminded of the story of Jesus’ baptism, when the sky broke open. Or perhaps you were reminded of the baptisms we do here, when I anoint the child with water, and present him or her for all to see. All of these are certainly valid connections to the scripture.
But the connection I want to highlight is what happens when Simba gets a little older. In case you haven’t seen the story, Simba’s uncle, Scar, is jealous of the young prince, and he seeks to destroy both the cub and his father so that he himself can take over as king. He orchestrates a chain of events that results in the death of King Mufasa—and then Scar convinces Simba that it his fault. He tells Simba to run away and never come back, for all the people will be furious with him for killing their king. Simba runs away, terrified. Alone in the jungle he ultimately makes friends, and begins to live by the motto “hakuna matata,” which means “no worries.”
He is a young adult when he encounters his best friend from childhood, a young lioness named Nala, who tells him how horrible life is back in Pride Rock since Scar took over. Scar is a cruel king, and he has let the hyenas run wild, which means basically that all the food is gone. They are all starving. Nala begs Simba to come back, but Simba refuses. He is not his father’s son. He is not brave. He is not king. But then an other-worldly vision changes his mind.
I will pause the retelling here to tell you something new I learned about this story this week. The writers of the story credit two previous stories for their inspiration: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the story of Moses. While Simba only thought he was responsible for someone’s death, Moses actually was responsible. He killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Israelite slaves, and then he ran away to hide in the wilderness. He settled in Midian, where he met his wife and as far as we know, planned to live out his days. Until an other-worldly vision changed his mind.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
Over the years scholars and preachers have had much to say about the meaning of this phrase “I am,” or “I am who I am,” or “I am being who I will be.” But because of the story of Simba and the Lion King, I’m looking at this story a bit differently today. Before Moses asks for God’s name, he has already been told: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now, granted, Moses was “adopted” by the princess when he was placed in the Nile River. But he was returned to his biological mother to be nursed and raised. So he did not grow up in the castle completely isolated from his people. He was connected enough to his heritage to kill someone who was mistreating a kinsmen. He would have known his people’s story. His mother would have taught him about their God. Had he forgotten? Had he tried to forget? There, in exile, had he turned his back on the God of his people, stopped believing in a God who never lifted a divine finger to help them? Or, there, in exile, had he forgotten who he was—an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? He asked both questions: Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh; and Who are you, to send me?
Let’s go back now to our story of Simba from The Lion King. After Simba says he can’t return to Pride Rock, he encounters Rafiki, the old shaman who anointed him, who served as an advisor to Simba’s father Mufasa. Rafiki assures Simba that his father is still alive, and he leads Simba on a race through the jungle. Simba’s hope keeps building until they arrive at a small pool and he sees . . . his own reflection. Rafiki says, “Look harder! You see? He lives in you!”
Then Simba’s father appears to him in a cloud in the night sky. Simba hears his father’s voice from heaven saying, “Simba! Simba, you have forgotten me.” “No, how could I?” Simba answers. His father says, “You have forgotten who you are so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life.” Simba argues, “How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.” Mufasa’s deep voice rings out, “Remember who you are! You are my son! The one true king. Remember who you are!” As Simba pleads with him not to leave, the vision or ghost fades away as the voice echoes, “Remember who you are!”
For Simba, for Moses, for us, the answer to many questions is: remember who you are.
Some of us, like Simba, need to be reminded of who our parents are—the lessons they taught us, how they raised us. Other of us—not so much! Some of us learned lessons we’ve spent years unlearning. But all of us need to look at our reflection and see more than age spots or acne, more than wrinkles and imperfections. We need someone like Rafiki to say, “Look harder! You see? God lives in you!”
We may not see God appear in the sky, but the message to us is the same. God could say to us, “You have forgotten me!” We would say, “No, how could I?!” But the response is the same: If we forget who we are, we forget who God is, because we were created in the image of God, and God is within us. We must take our place. We must remember who we are.
Like Moses, we need to be reminded of who God is—the God of our ancestors, the God who was faithful then, the God who will be faithful now. And, like Moses, we need to be reminded that we are who we are because of who God is. Every one of us, every person on earth, could have been lifted up at Pride Rock as the child of the Most High. And every one of us could have been in the crowd, bowing down to another and another and another.
Remember who you are.
A jazz musician I like sings a song called “Remember Who You Are.” I offer one verse as our benediction: You are the singer and the song, the painter and the painting. Don’t waste your life in waiting—make your mark. And remember who you are.