Christianity’s Debt to “Star Wars”
A Sermon by
The Reverend Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
December 20, 2015
I’ve always had someone I label my “best friend.”
In elementary school, it was Mary Elizabeth Fristinsky, who went on to become a Roman Catholic nun. I was a good Lutheran but we made it work.
Later, it was Pam Dahm. We built our lives on rock and roll –in its infancy–and figured out how to survive the humiliations of high school.
And for the past thirty years, it has been Jeanne, who can decorate a room and make it sing; who can direct an off-Broadway play and get a good review from the Times; who can draw flowers so beautiful they make you weep. Together Jeanne and I have figured out things that might have destroyed us individually, largely through pooling what we learned in years of individual therapy!
The poet David Whyte says, “The ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness, the privilege of being seen by someone and the equal privilege of seeing the essence of the other, to walk with them and believe in them on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
In today’s Gospel, Mary journeys to the hill country outside Bethlehem to visit her friend and cousin Elizabeth, one person she know would understand what she was going through. It is in the presence of Elizabeth that Mary has the courage to voice the Magnificat, clearly the earliest Advent hymn which is not what it is often interpreted to be.
The first part is Mary’s joy and praise of God and God’s action in her life:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
But it’s the second part about casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly that has caused it to be banned in several modern countries. In the 1930’s, it was banned in Mexico and in Spain, and during the British rule of India. In the 1980’s, Guatemala’s government decided that Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor were stirring them up, causing them to believe that change was possible, so they outlawed it. In 1983, the military leaders of Argentina outlawed any pubic display of Mary’s song when it was adopted as an anthem by the mothers whose children had disappeared during the blood-soaked days of what was called The Dirty War.
This is not a sweet, tender ballad sung by a dreamy teenager dressed in blue. It is political defiance. It is a cry for justice. (I can’t help but wonder what some presidential candidates would have to say about the Magnificat….)
Also we sometimes we forget that the Magnificat foreshadows all of the major teachings of Jesus. He learned a lot from his mother!
Of course, we can’t be friends with everyone we meet; many people remain acquaintances. Or relatives! But the way we regard other human beings has immense importance.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes about two different ways of engaging the world. One is to see other people as “IT’S,” as numbers, parts of a group with certain collective characteristics, but who have no direct relationship to us because of distance or choice.
A second way is to see the other as a “YOU,” that is when we enter some kind of relationship with them so as to see them as indiviuals and fellow humans. Because they were IT’S and not YOU’S, Hitler could execute thousands of Jews. It’s also why we perceive a thousand deaths as a statistic but a single death is a tragedy.
So we may perceive refugees from Syria as “it’s,” numbers, a group that collectively have physical and economic needs, speak a foreign language, and if they are Muslim, could be dangerous. Or we can encounter them in person or by reading their individual stories – and find fellow beings who are as complicated and human as we are. I-It, I-You.
Which brings us to “Star Wars.”
Just days ago the seventh episode of this iconic film series premiered to cheers and accolades. Brilliant filmmaking combines with formidable themes that people have wrestled with for thousands of years: Truth vs. Deception; Training vs. Talent; Luck vs. Destiny. I only saw the first episode some forty years ago, but I still appreciate its rendering of our existence as embodying more than just Planet Earth.
Unless we’re at a science-fiction movie, we are completely earth-centered. We don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Here I am, on this relatively tiny blue and green ball spinning in space around the sun, part of one galaxy out of 200 billion! Here I am, clinging through the force of glorious, God-given gravity to my little planet Earth.”
Instead we wake up and think, here I am and it’s four days until Christmas.
All major religions teach that there is at least one moment when the divine spirit of the universe broke into our physical, earthly realm in a major way.
In Buddhism, it is when Siddhartha Gautama became awakened to the truths of the universe and became the teacher known as the Buddha. God is not personal in Budhism, but is referred to referred to using terms such as “Cosmic Consciousness.”
In Hinduism, it is less singular: a collection of spiritual laws were discovered by different saints and sages at different points in history and Hindus can pick and choose which teachings and sub-deities brings them closest to the god Brahmin.
Three major religions (together called The People of the Book) teach that what we call the Old Testament of the Bible contains revelations of the one God: In Judaism this God (called Yahweh) is made known through these writings, more accurately called The Hebrew Scriptures. In Islam, God is revealed through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as interpreted and amended by the prophet Mohammed in the Quran.
Christianity teaches that God is revealed in both testaments of the Bible, but most fully through a person. We believe that God did not remain an “It,” a mysterious but remote being who inspires us through holy writings and prophets but remains ultimately inaccessible. He became a “You,” a person, who lived and died as one of us; who came into relationship with us, so that we, too are seen as you’s and not it’s.
The Roman Catholic writer Richard Rohr says that the first time that the Spirit of the Universe decided to show itself was 14 billion years ago when creation happened – probably with the big bang. Another time, he says, is when the Spirit of the Universe took human form in a person named Jesus and came to Planet earth to bring a message – that the Creator loves us, expects us to love each other, and physical death is not the end of our existence.
The question is why? Why would God do this?
One explanation is given by my favorite evangelical, the writer Philip Yancey, who talks about having a fresh water aquarium and how much work it was to maintain it, monitoring nitrate levels and adding antibiotics, filtering water, dropping in food three times a day. “You would think,“ he writes, “that my fish would be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one emotion only: fear. To my fish, I was a deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible, my acts of mercy they saw as cruelty, my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction. To change their perceptions, I began to see, would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and speak to them in a language they could understand. A human being becoming a fish is nothing compared to God becoming a baby and yet according to the Gospels that is what happened at Bethlehem.”
Soon we celebrate that time when God entered the world as a person, a baby, embodying a revelation of God, the Creator, the Cosmic Consciousness, Yahweh, or whatever other names we humans have given this Force. “Whoever has seen me,” Jesus said, “has seen the Father.” It was doubtlessly not the only time the holy has broken through, but it is our time. Jesus is the face of God turned in our direction.
God in Jesus enters not only into the pretty and precious parts of human experience that we celebrate this season. Jesus is in the loneliness, the grief, the anxiety and all of the intensified human emotions of Christmas. The writer Christian Wimans says, “Christ is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying, I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you…”
So in the spirit of “Star Wars,” let me close with the musings of Alice Meynell in her poem, “Christ in the Universe,” where she speculates what we might say to others about Jesus in ages to come and in galaxies far away:
- But in the eternities,
- Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
- A million alien Gospels, in what guise He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
- O, be prepared, my soul!
- To read the inconceivable, to scan
- The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
- When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.”
Mary could have stayed home, wrapped in anxiety and shame, avoiding possible judgment from her much-older cousin, but she went to visit Elizabeth. God in Jesus risks rejection and misinterpretation but visits Planet Earth anyway and never really leaves.
It is not a given that our species will survive, you know. The visits we make, the encounters we risk, are the basis for the transformations that can save us. They are where we find God.
May the Force — that we know as God revealed to us in Jesus – May the Force be with you.
References: Phillip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew.
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward.