Sermon for February 11th, 2018
2 Corinthians 4:15-18
15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Faith & Film VI: The Last Jedi
Three Minute Film Synopsis
The film begins with a small band of rebel fighters on the run from a militant empire, its evil tyrannical leader, and his feared henchman. The rebel fighters' only hope rests in finding a reclusive Jedi Knight, the last of his kind, who can train a young apprentice to be the galaxy's next great new hope.
The old Jedi Master reluctantly agrees to train the young apprentice, but then the student impulsively decides to leave before the training is complete, in order to re-engage with besieged friends fighting the war, and to save the day.
Several great battle scenes follow, as well as some great high speed chases, an epic light saber duel, some surprising revelations and plot twists...and just when all seems lost, and defeat is imminent for our heroes, they somehow manage a few more surprises, some amazing luck, and they escape from their enemies to fight another day...more precisely on December 20th, 2019, when the next episode is scheduled to come out in theaters.
If you are a die-hard Star Wars fan, you may have noticed that I actually summarized the plot of not just the most recent Star Wars film, but about every Star Wars film made to date. Clearly, it is a successful and well-crafted plot structure that has earned its place as the most profitable, influential, and watched film franchise of the past 40 years.
And yet, it you look just a little deeper...this film, Episode VIII, the "Last Jedi" actually turns that whole traditional Star Wars plot on its head, throws everything we've come to expect out the window, and recreates Star Wars for the 21st Century.
Star Wars, Reformed
In the previous Star Wars Film, Episode VII, "The Force Awakens," a young girl named Rey has traveled to the remotest part of the Galaxy in order to find her hero, Luke Skywalker, the famous Jedi Master. In the film's final scene, she has finally found him, standing on top of a hill on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean on some distant planet. She climbs the hill, approaches him, and hands him his lightsaber--the symbol of everything that the Jedi (and Star Wars itself) stands for. She offers him the lightsaber, and then the film ends. We've spent the last two years since that film wondering what will happen next, wondering what Luke will do, excited and full of hope about seeing this legendary hero spring back into action, to make everything right and good and familiar again.
And finally, in Episode VIII, at the beging of "The Last Jedi" we get to finish the scene:
- Film Clip #2 - Lightsaber
We could really stop right here. That one scene, more than any other, is a metaphor for the entire film, and for the Star Wars film franchise in general. When Rian Johnson, the writer and director of The Last Jedi, was given the impossible task of making a film that would live up to all the hopes and dreams and expectations of three separate generations of die-hard Star Wars fans while drawing in a whole new generation, changing just enough to keep the story fresh and relevant, but also holding on to all the familiar traditions and unwritten rules...he decided to throw out all the sacred cows out the window right at the beginning.
Make no mistake, the ways of the Jedi in Star Wars are nothing less than a system of religious belief and practice--Luke Skywalker even refers to it as the "Jedi Religion." And throughout the course of the film, we see the wisest practitioners of this religion (Luke Skywalker and the Jedi Master Yoda) burn down the sacred Jedi temple and their sacred books, declaring that the era of the Jedi must come to an end, in order for what they believed to live on.
Here's a clip of Luke's first lesson to his student, Rey:
- Film Clip #3 - Lesson
In Rey's description of the force, I'm reminded of Ecclesiastes 3: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.
And then Luke tells her "This is the Lesson: That force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die the light dies is vanity! Can you feel that?"
There was a very similar time in the history of Christianity, when some of its wisest thinkers felt that there was a danger...that people were becoming too attached to our sacred buildings and texts and symbols and practices and were at risk of missing the point, the reason we started doing of all those things in the first place. And so they threw almost everything sacred out the window and started over again. They were the Reformers of the 16th century that gave birth to the Protestant movement, and to the Presbyterian church.
A New New Hope
But I actually want to go back even further than that--a long time ago in this galaxy, in a different country far, far away: Ancient Israel, about halfway through the first century. Jesus of Nazareth, who inspired many Jews of his day with the hope that he was the long awaited Messiah, the one who would restore balance to the force--I mean, who would restore Israel to its former glory--had been crucified by Rome. His few remaining followers were scattered and on the run, persecuted by the Roman Empire. There were rumors that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that he would soon come back to save his people, but it had been twenty years since his departure...and people were beginning to despair.
It was to these people that the Apostle Paul wrote the words of today's scripture passage: Do not lose heart in this momentary affliction. Don't look at what can be seen, but instead at what cannot be seen. Paul's words signaled a shift in early Christian thinking away from the tangible, the temporal (i.e. God as a physically present messiah with earthly power to change political realities) to the intangible, the spiritual, the personal (i.e. God as Holy Spirit living within each of us, transforming our hearts and minds).
Back to Star Wars. Throughout this film, the question of where the characters should place their hope is raised over and over again. And we know what the answer is supposed to be--you put your hope in the savior, the lone hero fighting against the odds. The opening sequence of the film shows the brave pilot Poe Dameron facing down the entire Imperial Starfleet in his tiny X-Wing Fighter. Luke Skywalker, the famous (but now reclusive) Jedi is referred to by one of the characters as the "spark of hope that will light the fire that will burn down the First Order (the bad guys)." And the young heroine Rey surrenders herself to her nemesis, Kylo Ren, with the steadfast the hope that she can save him, redeem him through the power of her love, just like Luke Skywalker saved and redeemed Darth Vader in the original series.
And yet, as quickly as these hope-giving heroes are established, the film completely dismantles them. Poe Dameron is demoted and repeatedly chastised for his recklessness and failure to be a team player. Luke Skywalker squarely rejects and even undermines the hope that is placed in him and the entire Jedi order. And Rey fails in her attempt to redeem Kylo Ren, her efforts only helping him to become more powerful and resolute in his evil.
Where then is hope to be found? There is a touching scene near the end of the film, when it seems that all hope is lost. The scene finally reunites Luke Skywalker with his sister, Princess Leia, and I think it begins to answer that question, where is hope to be found?
- Film clip #4 - Luke and Leia
They are talking about Leia's son, Ben Solo, who has become the evil leader of the First Order, Kylo Ren. Leia acknowledges that her son is gone and Luke tells her that no one is ever really gone. And then he puts something in her hands--some golden dice that belonged to her husband, Ben's father, Han Solo. No one is ever really gone. Luke is not talking about her son. He's talking about Han Solo, who was killed in the previous film. No one is ever really gone . . . "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal."
Leia herself is quoted in the film by other characters as saying that "hope is like the sun; if you only believe in it when you can see it, you'll never make it through the night."
Just like Paul's teachings in the early Christian church, this film signals a massive shift away from lone heroes and earthly saviors as a source of hope, to a more mature understanding that hope is a spiritual force that resides in each one of us, that transcends all of us and is greater than any of us. Toward the climax of the film, Poe Dameron proclaims that "WE are the spark of hope that will light the fire that will burn down the First Order."
One more clip. This is the closing scene of the film, and drives the point home even further.
- Film Clip #5 - Boy
It's tempting to speculate that maybe this boy is really special, that he's going to be a major character in the next film; maybe he's even related somehow to the lineage of the Skywalker family. But if I understood correctly the message of this film, it's the opposite: Hope can come from anywhere, anyone, and lives in all of us.