Sermon for January 3rd, 2016
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Faith & Film IV: Star Wars The Force Awakens
In a few minutes we'll jump right into the film, but first I'd like to take a few minutes to explain why we do this every year. Some of you may be asking what Star Wars, or any of the films we'll talk about this month, have to do with Church, the Bible, or Christianity. The answer, of course, is "everything."
The films that we flock to in droves each year, and pay billions of dollars to see, all tell fascinating stories—about places, relationships, cultures, history, or ideas. But if you read between the lines, they tell us even more about ourselves—the things that we as a people are interested in (remember, Hollywood tries really hard not to make movies no one wants to go see!); movies reflect the things we're afraid of; the things we believe in, and the the things we dream about.
When it comes to stories, this is nothing new. The Ancient world was known for its great Epic poetry. The Elizabethans were known for drama and theatre. The Victorians perfected the novel. And I am convinced that the 20th and 21st centuries will be known for the stories we tell in film.
As Christians, we are people who center our lives around a story—the ancient story of the Bible, the story of God's chosen people, and of Jesus of Nazareth.
Despite what some churches preach, it is not a fixed, constant, unchanging story, but rather one that has been interpreted and shaped and retold in every generation and culture, one that influences all the other stories we tell, and one that has in turn been influenced by the other stories we tell.
So in this sermon series, we will look at those places of influence and intersection between our Story (capital S) and our stories, as reflected in popular recent films from the past year—sometimes the intersections are intentional, sometimes they are coincidental, sometimes subliminal, but always they are instructional.
The Apostle Paul, in Romans 12, our Jedi Manual, urges us to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
I love this verse. It means that we are to be intelligent people, who don't check our brains in at the door to the movie theater OR the church—we think about things, we talk about things, (both worldly AND spiritual) so that together we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
- Film Clip #1: Opening Trailer
The seventh episode in the highly successful Star Wars movie franchise is entitled "The Force Awakens." The title is meant to imply that the Force (which we'll talk about more later) has somehow been asleep, or absent. The title reminds us that, chronologically, thirty long years have passed since the events of the last Star Wars Film (Episode VI) and this one. Enough time for the characters, events, prophecies, and beliefs of the earlier films to fade from memory and pass into legend. And so, as this movie begins, the happy endings of old have given way to hard times. New threats have emerged, requiring new heroes.
One of those new threats is a militaristic group called the First Order. They are the intergalactic bullies of this new generation, similar to and quite influenced by their predecessors, the Galactic Empire. The First Order shows up complete with stormtroopers, a fleet of star destroyers and tie fighters, and an even bigger, badder version of the Death Star. They are led by the secretive, reclusive Supreme Leader Snoke and his two henchmen, General Hux and Kylo Ren. Ren is a black-mask-wearing, red lightsaber-wielding throwback to the famous Star Wars villain of old, Darth Vader.
If the First Order has replaced the Empire as the bad guys, then the good guys have gotten an upgrade as well: The Rebellion has morphed into the "Resistance:" complete with brave X-wing fighter pilots, droids, smugglers and scavengers who dream of a free galaxy. All this should sound quite familiar to long-time fans of Star Wars.
But it should also sound familiar to us as armchair theologians, and amateur students of the Bible: That's because the lead-up and opening to this film is a lot like the long period of waiting between the Old and New Testaments: The old Babylonian Empire is gone, but the militaristic might of Rome has emerged as the new threat to the people of Israel. Some Israelites form pockets of resistance in the desert, to fight the Romans, and many people cling to the hope that God will soon awaken from his silence, and send a messiah, a new hero like Moses or David, to save them.
In the beginning of our film, the villain Kylo Ren slaughters a village of innocent families and children in his ruthless attempt to locate Luke Skywalker. In the beginning of the gospels, King Herod (who is the regional henchman of the Emperor Augustus) slaughters the children of Bethlehem in his ruthless attempt to find Jesus.
The very first image that anyone saw from this new Star Wars film came in the very first shot from the teaser/trailer that we watched earlier. It was simply an image of the desert sand. That's significant.
Like several previous Star Wars films, in The Force Awakens, we meet our heroes (and they meet each other) in the desert, in the wilderness.
On the desert planet of Jakku, we meet Rey, a young woman who appears to be an orphan waiting for her family to return. Events later in the film give the impression that Jakku is not her original home, but she was abandoned, or exiled there as a child. She is by trade a scavenger struggling to survive, and that label is applied to her throught the film in an insulting way. At one point, she even says of herself, "I'm just a scavenger." But I think her vocation is significant, too. Remember the job of a scavenger is to take old things and make them new, or use them in new and different ways.
This could be a metaphor for the entire film, or at the very least for its Director, JJ Abrams, who was tasked with being a scavenger in his own right—taking the old characters, the old stories and finding ways to make them new and useful again.
It's also our job as Christians to do the same with our own story: Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 13:52 that "every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household (that's kind of like a Jedi master) who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new." In other words, like Rey, we are all scavengers.
In that opening shot from the first trailer, the first face we see in the desert is Finn. Finn is a stormtrooper in the First Order who has come to Jakku with Kylo Ren in search of Luke Skywalker. In his first battle, Finn tries to help a wounded fellow storm-trooper. Before dying, the storm trooper reaches up and marks Finn's helmet with his blood. That's important.
Later, Finn disobeys Kylo Ren's order to kill the innocent villagers, and escapes from the First Order, only to meet and team up with Rey. The two leave Jakku together and form a strong bond of friendship that drives most of the film forward. I lost count of how many times Rey rescues Finn and then Finn rescues Rey.
- Film Clip #2: Rey and Finn in the Desert
In the Bible, the wilderness/desert is a place of exile, but also a place of formation. After escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years—this is where they become a people, where they receive the 10 commandments, and prepare for their quest into the promised land.
In the gospels, Jesus goes out into the wilderness before he begins his ministry. It is a time of preparation for him, and in the wilderness, he meets a kindred spirit: John the Baptist. Their friendship, their ministries, their stories, and even their disciples are intertwined and woven together throughout the gospels.
Ok, now back to Finn. Finn's "conversion" experience from the dark side to the light, where his forehead/helmet is marked with blood of his dying friend—this is a type of baptism. Water is the usual sign for baptism, but blood is also a powerful symbol in Christianity—it reminds us of the blood of Christ and his sacrifice of his life to redeem us. Blood was used in the story of passover to mark the doorways of the Israelites who were to be spared or saved from the angel of death. In this sense, Finn is symbolically spared, saved, marked and set apart by the blood of his friend.
In the Bible, when God calls someone to be a leader, they often get a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, etc. As a stormtrooper, Finn is known as FN2187. It's only after he has "answered the call" that another character gives him his new name, Finn.
Ephesians chapter 4:22-24 uses the metaphor of clothing—taking off your old life and clothing yourself with a new self, "created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." And so sure enough, after Finn has been marked by blood, converted, and given a new name...we find him wandering through the desert wilderness of Jakuu, taking off the pieces of his stormtrooper armor one by one and discarding them in the desert. In their place, he puts on the jacket of a resistance fighter, his new life and new assumed identity.
One of the things that I love most about the Star Wars films is that they don't shy away from from spiritual themes—the idea that good and evil are not just external forces, but internal ones that we all struggle with. Sometimes good guys lie and steal, although there are consequences for their actions. And sometimes bad guys show mercy and compassion, and can be redeemed.
When Finn is asked why he left First Order behind, he doesn't hesistate to say "because it was the right thing to do." But we also see the internal struggle that leads up to his decision.
Likewise, at one point in the film, the primary villain, Kylo Ren, kneels down as if in prayer, and says "Forgive me. I feel it again. The call to the light." You don't see that often: A bad guy confessing that he is tempted by good thoughts. Later in the film, Kylo Ren tells another character that he feels "torn apart," that he knows what he has to do, but doesn't know if he has the strength to do it.
In Star Wars, all characters—hero and villain alike—are human, fallible, vulnerable, and wrestle with their choices, with guilt, shame, but also with love, redemption, and sacrifice.
In particular, there is a powerful act of love and self-sacrifice that happens in this film—one that those of you who have seen it will remember, and one that I won't spoil for those who haven't. Suffice it to say that laying down one's life for another is at the very heart of the Christian story...and it is a theme found repeatedly throughout the Star Wars films, including this one.
At the spiritual core of this film (and all the Star Wars films) is a power that the characters refer to as "The Force." It is described by one character as an energy that "moves through and surrounds every living thing." This character tells Rey that "if you close your eyes, you will feel it. The light. It's always been there, it will guide you."
The idea of the Force, with the light side and the dark side, has its roots in Eastern Daoism, the yin and the yang, but there are many related concepts in Christianity. Jesus taught his disciples that after his departure, both guidance and power would come from the Holy Spirit, enabling them to perform miraculous feats.
Another similar concept is faith itself. Hebrews 11 defines faith this way: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Today, we live in a pretty hard-boiled world of science, facts, evidence, and proof. The number of atheists and agnostics in our country is growing rapidly, while the number of Christians and other people of faith is declining.
And yet, the mass popularity of Star Wars tells me that people still long for the kind of spirituality, guidance, and purpose that religion has always offered. Yes, I did say "religion" not just "spirituality." There's a trend in our culture for people to describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."
Given some of the collosal failures of organized religion in our time, I can understand that. (By the way, the Jedi religion in Star Wars is also not immune to collosal failures).
But if the Star Wars films teach us anything about organized religion, it's this: Those who are recognized as being "strong in the force" cannot truly realize their potential until they undergo the rigorous discipline of training in a religious community. Only those who have been trained can claim the title of Jedi.
Incidentally, in Chinese subtitled versions of Star Wars films, "Jedi council" is translated as "Presbyterian." There is a reason for this: The word Presbyterian comes from a Greek root that means "council of elders." Apparently Chinese translators thought that "Presbyterian" was the closest approximation in their language of what a Jedi council actually is: A group of people who have been spiritually trained, using their power and wisdom to do good in the world.
I think we should claim that. People of First Presbyterian Church, you are all Jedi, or Jedi in training. Take your spiritual training seriously, because good and evil are real forces—all around us in the world we live in, and also within our own minds and hearts.
No matter how spiritual you are, you cannot reach your full potential on your own. It takes a community, a council, commited discipline and wise mentoring to get there, to be a force for good in the world.
- Film Clip #3: Every Generation Has A Story
Han Solo is one of the characters who spans both the old films and this new one. He is a scoundrel, a smuggler, one of those characters whose choices often land him in hot water. At the end of the day, he's a pretty decent guy. But he is also a skeptic. Some might say he is quintessentially American. At one point in the film, when young Finn and Rey ask him about the Force, he tells them, "I [once] thought it was all a bunch of mumbo jumbo...a magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is, it's all true. The force and the Jedi,..all of it. It's all true.
You see, that's the thing about great stories. They don't become great—they don't touch the deepest parts of our souls and psyches—unless there is something about them that rings true. I believe that many of the things that ring true for fans of Star Wars are the same things that have rung true for Christians for thousands of years in our own epic story.
Like Finn, we are marked and chosen by the blood of Christ, by the sacrifice of his life for us. In our baptism we are called to a new life and a new identity. In our calling, we are gifted with supernatural abilities. In Romans 12, Paul calls them spiritual gifts: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Like the Jedi, we are given a code to live by, that helps us strive for the light. You can find that in Romans, too: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
And finally, we are compelled by God's love and God's spirit—which is all around us, in every person, place and thing—to use our abilities as a force for good in the world: To bless those who persecute us, to live in harmony with one another, to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Paul's final words in Romans 12 read like a Jedi mantra. In fact, they could be taken as a summary for every Star Wars film ever made. Ultimately, however, these words are intended for us; they are good words to live by, and I hope you make them a driving force in your own life:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.