(This sermon was inspired partly by Gord, of Following Frodo fame, on this very blogring. Thanks also to Music Man for the suggestion about flirtatious.)
Will you pray with me? Holy One, God of Flame and Word and Creation, you are always present with us in grace and power. Grant us wisdom to hear you speaking to us, give us courage to respond, and strength to work for your realm among us. In all your names, amen.
“I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”
Anyone recognize that quote? Thirty years ago, a new cultural universe burst upon the world—I don’t think that’s too strong a description. Star Wars is a modern saga, today’s version of the Iliad or the King Arthur stories. It is a story of a spiritual quest, a journey in search of divinity and the self. Han Solo plays devil’s advocate at every turn—the doubter, the cynic, the anti-hero—not so oddly, he’s probably my favourite character, for that very reason—well, that and his flirtatious nature! He doesn’t take anything on faith—he knows what he knows, and he has to be shown differently--he wants proof. Han is the quintessential doubter, the questioner, the smart-aleck kid in the back of the class who asks the really good questions but in a way that sounds like sass. I always did like the wild ones….
In fact, I think it is possible to say that all the movies—all six of them—the entire story—is an extended answer to Han’s doubt. The Force, that mystical energy binding everything together, does indeed guide Han’s destiny—and Luke’s destiny and Leia’s destiny, and Chewbacca’s and Yoda’s and even R2D2’s. Is anyone not at least somewhat familiar with the storyline? I didn’t think so…
The story is an elaborate playing-out of the destiny laid out for Anikin, Luke, Obi Wan and the rest from the beginning. Clearly they could have made other choices, and in some cases have made unwise choices—but the Force is still present, the energy that infuses everything they do. It is what gives them power, what allows them to be who and what they are, whether for good or ill.
This sense of a mystical energy force is not a bad way to understand the Holy Spirit. The Force is throughout the universe. Obi Wan says, “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” That is a good description of the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among us—how it holds us all together, runs through and in all of us. We in the church would describe it as a power of love. But Yoda tells us that The Force has a dark side, and there is the difference between The Force and the Holy Spirit.
There is no evil, no dark side to the Holy Spirit, unlike The Force. Anikin Skywalker, of course, succumbs to the power and seduction of the dark side, and becomes Darth Vader. The Holy Spirit, however, is a creative force for good, only good. It, too, holds the galaxy, in fact the whole universe, together, but with the strength of love, of wholeness. The Holy Spirit is part of the Deity, part of God—and therefore is wholly—holy—good. A force of love that brings all things, all worlds, all people together. In the Scripture this morning, that’s what it means to have people speaking in all the different languages—and understood—all in different languages.
I have two experiences to offer here—some of you may have had similar ones. One is my conversations with my friends in the United Kingdom—[all of them]. UK usage of English is very different in some ways from ours in North America, as we all know—boot for car trunk, petrol rather than gas, or “move house” rather than “moving” for example. Perhaps my favourite is the term “rubbish;” meaning “trash, worthless, garbage.” A thing can be rubbish—an idea for a sermon or the transit system or petrol prices. It is somehow more expressive than simply “garbage.” We and our cousins in the UK, are, in the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s phrase, “One people divided by a common language.” And let’s not even get started on our supposedly English-speaking cousins in Australia….
But I have also experienced language as a means of bringing others closer as well. On my study trip to Poland, I found that many Poles speak at least a little German—as do I. So when my Polish failed (a frequent occurrence), often my German could fill the gap. I didn’t speak much Polish, they spoke no English—but we both spoke German. I spoke directly with a survivor of Auschwitz—was able to share his views, his sense of humour, his insight—because we both spoke German.
Language can divide but ultimately, language can unite—when there is the understanding, the hearing and listening and communication of a Pentecost. That use of language to unite is a symbol, a metaphor for the way the Holy Spirit brings all of us together in the church.
Finally, Han Solo talked about the “simple tricks” he thought were part of The Force. He saw unexplainable things, but attributed them to trickery and sleight of hand, a magician’s illusions rather than miracles. This is how the outsiders saw the Pentecost event as well—the babblings of people drunk on new wine, a trick—not something to be taken seriously. They didn’t understand the languages they heard, didn’t know what they were seeing. Just as Han dismissed what he didn’t understand as a trick, so did those people who were not a part of the early Christian church dismiss what they saw. Over time, however, Han understood more about The Force, and no longer dismissed its effects. In fact, he came in time to feel its presence himself. But at first, as for the non-Christians looking on, this seemed just so much babbling and crazy talk.
Now, all this may seem bit extreme to some of you—after all, this is a science fiction movie—or series of them—and how can we use them to make a point about God, about theology?
There is a real need to make sure that our language, our metaphors, our speech, is understandable and intelligible to everyone. Many of the images in the Bible made sense and were relevant to the first Christians, and indeed to most people for a long time. They lived on farms, or close enough to them to know those metaphors—they baked their own bread, wove cloth—they knew these processes and understood those metaphors. But how many of us really understand the work of a shepherd these days or a centurion? How many of us make bread without a machine? Or plant crops? We don’t have that connection to the parables and metaphors that the disciples and Jesus used. And so instead of telling stories that people don’t understand or misunderstand, it makes more sense, it seems to me, to use terms and stories and metaphors that they do understand. And Star Wars, as the example I used today, makes perfect sense. It is the hero-quest story, the mythology of our day—the Iliad, the Grendel, the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, for our age.
And so Han Solo stands in for all people who have doubted, who have looked at the religious people around them and said, “Well, maybe that works for you, but I think it’s so much rubbish.” He is indeed alone—Solo—because he does not understand the power, the binding energy of The Force. It is only once he does, that he accepts that the Force exists, that he is genuinely a part of the Rebel force and becomes partnered with a symbol of that Rebel force, Princess Leia. He is the one who says, “But I haven’t seen any miracles.” Who says, “But I haven’t felt united with anyone. That’s not true—there is no bond in the Force.”
But the Holy Spirit doesn’t give up. The Holy Spirit is resourceful and more than a bit wild. It is not a mistake that the two symbols, or expressions of the Holy Spirit are fire and wind—both of them often uncontrollable and wild, beneficial and dangerous. Or as the writer Mark Harris says, “The Spirit is somewhat cranky and given to its own thing.”
Part of that new thing, in fact, is the way we speak of the Holy Spirit. We use ever-changing, ever new, metaphors and yet each of them expresses the essence of the Holy Spirit—that wild, uncontrollable, universal force that binds us together into one. Think then, about this. What is the Holy Spirit? How does the Holy Spirit dance and sing and move in your life? What is your metaphor for the Holy Spirit and God’s presence with you, here and now?In all of God’s many names, amen.