“The Gospel in Disney: Aladdin”

Exodus 3: 7 – 12, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Since children remain in worship on the first Sunday of the month, it was important to me to choose a family friendly movie in our movie sermon series. The spectacular family friendly movie that is out right now (and which I highly, highly recommend) is Aladdin. Karen and I were on the edge of our seats through the entire movie – the bright colors, the flying carpet, the enchanted lamp, the shape-shifting genie – all truly magical! The movie even received a thunderous applause when it ended! What is Aladdin about? Aladdin is a folk tale of Middle Eastern origin. It is one of the tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, and is one of the best known and most told fairy tales of all kind.

There are three primary characters. First, there is Aladdin. Aladdin is a charming street rat. He is an orphan, living on the street with his monkey friend, Abu. The scene opens with Aladdin in the market in tattered clothes, stealing from vendors. We want to judge him, but be careful, what we are actually seeing is a diamond in the rough. Aladdin is eager to leave his life of petty thievery behind, believing he is destined for greater things.

The second character is Princess Jasmine, the Sultan’s daughter. She longs to experience life beyond the palace walls and use here title to better serve the people of Agrabah. According to the law, she must marry a prince by her next birthday. But none of the princes suit her – she wants to marry for love.

The third character is the Genie confined to an oil lamp. The genie is a colorful and larger-than-life presence with the ability to grant wishes. The genie is played by Will Smith. (I know there are some who are a bit hesitant to see this Aladdin remake since many remember Robin Williams with great fondness as the genie in the 1992 movie. While Will Smith is not Robin Williams nor does he try to be for he depends on his own comedic sensibilities, he definitely holds his own.)

What do all three of these main characters have in common? They are all trapped. Early in the movie, Jasmine releases the birds in the palace from the cage –a symbol of liberation. She is just as caged as her pet birds. She feels caged as does Aladdin. Both in circumstances they didn’t ask for. Sure, Aladdin’s cage is dirt and rat-filled, while Jasmine’s cage is gold plated with pretty jewels on it, but they’re both still in cages. And the Genie trapped in a lamp is in a cage of sorts, too – a cage of eternal servitude.

Aladdin comes across the magic lamp, and rubs it. The genie magically appears and grants the boy three wishes.

Aladdin’s first wish is to become a prince! After all, he wants to marry Princess Jasmine. Show movie clip of Aladdin entering the city as a prince. Once Aladdin is transformed into a wealthy prince, he attempts to woo the princess, only to be spurned. Aladdin says to Jasmine’s father, “Your majesty, I am Prince Ali. I will win your daughter!” Jasmine’s response? “How dare you! I am not a prize to be won!” Here Aladdin learns about authenticity – to stop pretending to be someone he’s not. A lesson in liberation.

Later in the movie, Aladdin finds himself drowning – of course, his second wish is to be saved from death.

Now, he has only one more wish left.  What will it be? Selflessly, his third wish is to free the genie from a life of eternal servitude…even if it means losing Jasmine forever. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t mean losing Jasmine. Hey, this is a Disney movie, after all.

The theme throughout the movie is liberation… and when liberation is achieved, we discover “a whole new world” as the famous song in Aladdin goes. (We will hear that song a little later.)

Likewise, the theme throughout the Bible is liberation. The Bible was written for those who are oppressed by people who are oppressed. This is especially evident in our scripture passage this morning from Exodus. God said to Moses, “I have seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. I have come to rescue them, to liberate them from the power of the Egyptians.” Indeed, those ancient words of liberation that we sang earlier in worship this morning – “Let my people go”- first uttered by Moses traveled across the ages to reach the ears and lips of another enslaved population, laboring in the cotton fields of Alabama, who sang:

God down, Moses,

Way down to Egypt’s land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

Few of the enslaved African Americans who first sang this knew the full biblical context from which the song emerged. Slave owners would have the book of Exodus removed from the Bible so that the slave would not believe that escape is God-ordained. The story of the exodus, however, found its ways into the hearts of African-Americans and inspired the abolition movement in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement in the twentieth century. Moses’ call to “let my people go” echoed with new force from the lips of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr. For centuries, the Bible’s stories of liberation have offered hope to the struggling – from enslaved African Americans to poor, rural Latin American farmers who developed a theology called “Liberation theology.” The Bible was written for those who are oppressed by people who are oppressed.

Liberation is a key theme in the movie, Aladdin; it is a key theme in the Bible; it is a key value in our church life together. As Open and Affirming Congregation we work for the full liberation of the LGBTQ community. As an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation we work for the liberation of the migrant.  In fact, our racial justice team is partnering with the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice. A few of us recently went to Adelanto Detention Center and we visited with two wonderful young men, asylum seekers. Sara Schoonmaker and Lizbeth visited with Jose from Angola . Sue Hammond, Keith Osajima and I visited with NGnedjo from Cameroon. NGnedjo is 29 years old. He escaped from a civil war in Cameroon. Unfortunately, he is living in very depressing conditions at the Adelanto Detention Center and has been there for 3 years. He is locked up though he has not committed a crime – he is simply waiting for his court date. In three years, he has had three visits. We were one of the three visits. He has no family in the United States and is incredibly lonely.  He said this, “In Cameroon, I was not safe, but I was free. In the United States, I am safe, but not free.” Safety and freedom are both absolutely essential for the healing of our whole selves. At the end of our visit, he shared scripture passages of liberation that give hope. Quite honestly, no one is free until we are all free. My liberation is bound up with your liberation; our liberation is bound up with NGnedjo’s and Jose’s liberation.

Through the liberation of all, we discover “a whole new world.” Show video clip of Aladdin and Jasmine flying on the magic carpet.  May we fly from breakdown to break through, from hindered to hopeful, from broken to blessed, from hurt to healed, from tribulation to jubilation, from trepidation to liberation. May we fly free and discover a whole new world! Amen.