Sermon for February 20th, 2022

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Matthew 2:13-15

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Matthew 10:26-31

26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Faith & Film X: Dune

Three Minute Film Synopsis

Dune is based on the classic sci-fi novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. The story had a huge influence on countless science fiction enthusiasts, among them a young George Lucas (the creator of Star Wars) and also...your pastor. I first read the novel Dune when I was 14 years old. I watched the 1980s film version shortly thereafter, and I watched the television mini-series adaptation of Dune as soon as it came out in the early 2000s. So it's probably safe to say that film was guaranteed to eventually show up in our film series all the way back in 2018 when it was first announced. I'm thrilled that it's not just a good adaptation--it's a great one. Dune has been nominated for 10 academy awards this year, including best picture. So...on to the synopsis.

Dune is set in a distant future where humankind has spread out among the stars. In some ways, humans have advanced greatly, and in other ways, they seem to have reverted to a universe resembling the dark ages of medieval Europe.

The story centers on two powerful families: House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides on the ocean planet of Caladan, and House Harkonnen, led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen on the desert planet of Arrakis, also known as Dune. The Galactic Emperor (who is not seen in the film) is threatened by the rising power of House Atreides, so he commands the Atreides and the Harkonnens to switch planets. This seems at first like a gift to the Atreides, since their new planet has a monopoly on the mining and production of Spice, which is used for interstellar travel. Think of oil in the middle east and you get the idea. However, it's not a gift--it's a trap, setting up a showdown between House Atreides and House Harkonnen. The emperor quietly supports the Harkonnens and lends them troops from his imperial army. Again, if you remember the Iran Contra affair in the 1980s, or the Vietnam war, or the Cold war, or the Gulf get the idea.

In a surprise attack, the Harkonnens invade Arrakis, capturing (and eventually killing) Duke Leto and almost completely eradicating House Atreides. Almost. Duke Leto's son, Paul, and his mother, Lady Jessica, escape into the desert, where they must survive harsh conditions, attacks from giant sandworms, and evade their pursuers. Eventually, Paul and his mother come into contact with the indigenous people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen. When one of the Fremen threatens his mother, Paul is compelled to fight his opponent in a ritual dual to the death. He is victorious, and the Fremen take him in as one of their own, ending the film and setting up the film's sequel, which corresponds to the second half of the novel, and is planned for release in 2023.

Fear is the Mind Killer

If you watched the movie or read the book, you probably realize just how much I left out in that summary. Like the fact that Paul Atreides' mother, the Lady Jessica, belongs to a mystical order of warrior-priestess-nuns called the Bene Gesserit. Incidentally, in Hebrew B'nai Jeshurun (sounds similar, doesn't it?) is a poetic phrase that appears several times in the Bible, and means "children of Israel."

In Dune, the Bene Gesserit are a secretive religious order with special abilities, which they use to guide humanity towards enlightenment. For centuries, they have also engaged in a selective breeding program to produce the Kwisatz Haderach--a Messiah figure with the ability to bridge space and time. At the beginning of the film, the Bene Gesserit suspect that Jessica's son, Paul Atreides, may be the Kwisatz Haderach. But first, the Reverend Mother (similar to a Mother Superior) must test Paul to see if he can overcome his fear, his animal instincts. In the clip that follows, pay attention to the mantra spoken by Paul's mother as she faces her own fear of losing her son.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." This mantra appears several times in the film and in the novel; the unique ability of human beings to face and overcome fear is a constant theme in Dune.

It's also a constant theme in the Christian Bible: From Genesis to Revelation, the words "Do not be afraid" appear frequently, spoken at the beginning of every angelic appearance, by God to his chosen leaders, and many times by Jesus himself, including in today's scripture passage from Matthew, where he tells us we are not to fear the things that can kill our bodies; only the things that threaten our souls. In Dune, fear is something you overcome to prove your humanity. But in the Bible, it's the opposite: Your humanity, your infinite value and worth to the God who created you in his image--is precisely what enables you to conquer any fear, and be assured of your eternal place in God's creation.

Kwisatz Haderach

I mentioned earlier that the Bene Geserit suspect that Paul is their long awaited Messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach. But they aren't the only ones. In the following clip, the native Fremen people of Arrakis, upon first seeing Paul Atreides, begin to call out a peculiar chant over and over again, which is mother explains to him.

As you can see, Paul is at best a reluctant messiah. So was Jesus, who rebuked his own mother, Mary, before performing his first miracle (water into wine), famously saying to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

In Dune, Lady Jessica tells her son that the crowds are chanting "Lisan al Gaib" which she says means "voice from the outerworld." Actually, "Lisan al Gaib" is Arabic, and in the context of Islam, it means "voice of the prophet." Besides Christianity, Frank Herbert mixes up a lot of Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist tradition into his story -- basically the major world religions centering around the concept of a messiah who comes to enlighten or save humanity.

The very name "Kwizatz Haderach" is borrowed from Hebrew, where it is pronounced קפיצת הדרך (Kefitzat Haderech) and literally means to "jump forward in the road." It comes from Genesis 24:42, where Abraham's servant travels to a distant city to find a wife for his son Isaac. In the verse, the servant says that he arrived "today" from Abraham--something that ancient Jewish scholars noted would have been impossible in such a short time. They saw this as a miracle--he somehow "jumped forward" in the road to shorten the path. Other Kefitzat Haderechs in the Bible include Jacob, the prophet Elijah, and Abishai, the sister of King David.

But the ultimate Kefitzat Haderech is perhaps Jesus Christ, who through the sacrifice of his life, bridged the impossible distance between God and humankind--not just shortening, but making possible a path for us to follow, one that connects us immediately and permanently to the Creator of the Universe.

Into the Wilderness

A young man comes of age in a desert, sand-covered world, oppressed by an evil emperor. He learns the ways of an ancient religion that unleashes miraculous powers within him, which he wields to save his people, fulfilling ancient prophecies.

That's actually the plot of Star Wars (you know, Luke Skywalker on Tatooine?). Yes, it's also the plot of Dune, which as I said before, was a big influence on George Lucas.

But long before that, it was the plot of the greatest story ever told--the gospels and the story of Jesus (the number one bestselling book of all time). And even before was the plot of the Book of Exodus, and the story of Moses, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and the oppression of the Pharoah, through the wilderness and into the promised land.

As a child, Jesus fled with his parents into the desert to escape from King Herod. As a young adult, he went for 40 days and nights into the wilderness in order to fast, pray, prepare for his ministry and overcome temptation at the hands of the devil.

In Dune, at the end of the film (which, you'll remember is just a prelude to the real story yet to come) Paul Atreides finally comes to terms with his calling and his purpose to fulfill his father's mission. Our final clip captures that moment:

Clearly, there's something important, something biblical--even universal--about going into the desert, into the wilderness, in order to hear the voice of God, to face your inner demons, and find your sacred calling.

We're lucky to live a stone's throw away from the beautiful Chihuahuan desert, but I'm not necessarily talking about a literal desert or wilderness here. There are wilderness times in every life: Sometimes we go of our own accord, like Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Times of silence and reflection, to reconnect with our Creator and disconnect form the anxiety and frenzied pace of the world. But sometimes we are driven into those wilderness times, like Mary and Joseph, like Moses, or like Paul Atreides and his mother. These are times of tragedy and despair, when our world has been turned upside down.

But however you get to the wilderness, the point is this: We need those times to grow, to face our fears, to redefine ourselves, and to listen for the voice of God--the God who always goes with us, never leaving us or forsaking us; the God who transforms us, who turns our sorrows into rejoicing, who leads us and propels us through the wilderness, because ultimately the wilderness path IS the road to the promised land. Truly, every desert is a new beginning.