“The Impossible and the Difficult”

Philippians 4: 4-13; John 6:25-35

Jesus Christ does the impossible, so that we can do the difficult.

By this point, I’ve talked about it enough that we all probably know that today’s sermon was brought about by Nancy Covell, who won the raffle at last winter’s gifts and greens fair, by asking the question, “How can science fiction and fantasy improve our lives of faith?”

I had originally planned on having a different message for this particular sermon as opposed to the 9 AM children’s message, going into the shared questions that science fiction and fantasy and the Bible ask; questions about what it means to be human, the nature of evil, how we relate to the past, and who owns the future.

And those questions I might revisit later this year, possibly in the summer- it’s something I’d love to explore more fully, possibly over a sermon series.

But then I realized that the expanded version of today children’s message that I preached at the 9AM service was a gospel message that I couldn’t simply ignore, so this is my current answer, but not the only answer to your question, Nancy, that you posed to me to inspire this sermon:

Science Fiction and Fantasy can improve our lives of faith because when we see, hear, and experience stories of people doing what at first seems like the impossible, it reminds us that we can do the difficult.

The skills we gain in learning to read, hear, and experience these stories, be they in movie theaters, watching the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Black Panther, or through reading NK Jemison, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling, can also be applied to our stories in the Bible and our lives of faith.

To back up for a second, a quick note on what it means for us to experience these stories of struggle.

All of us, in our families somewhere, have some sort of story of struggle. Whether it’s an immigration story, of No Irish Need Apply signs, institutionalized slavery, or hunger and poverty.

These are the stories of the struggle of our parents, grandparents and ancestors, that get told when a job is lost, when money is tight, when things aren’t going right.  These stories ground us, help us to make sense of our own struggles.

We feel the weight of history, see ourselves in those stories. We know that as they endured, so can we.

But these are not the only stories that we have and integrate into our own lives.  Sometimes these stories come not from our families of origin, but are shared in a culture. These are stories like the struggle of the First Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims had, and these shared stories help us to integrate into existing communities, or sometimes to create new communities, places where we belong.

For any kid who was alone on the playground, science fiction and fantasy novels and other works offered a new world, a place where we belonged.  We knew that if Luke and Leia, Harry and Hermione or Frodo and Samwise could do impossible things, then we could do the hard things.

We knew this, because this message sometimes came from inside the stories themselves!  JRR Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings was a devout Roman Catholic, and writes this conversation between Frodo and Sam, two Hobbits- three-foot tall food loving domestic homebodies who are in way over their heads, facing down great evil and doing the impossible.

“But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

This particular passage is interesting because it works on two different levels, as part of the story, and as what we call “meta fictional”, that is, it tells us about how stories work.

Just as Sam and Frodo are inspired by the old stories, that tell of people enduring hardship and difficulty not because they are the chosen ones, for a bit of sport, or because they are especially gifted, but because that’s how life works, that is how their paths were laid, so too are we, the readers, inspired in the same way.

Learning to read stories in this way, to let stories inspire us, and remind us that we too can finish the race is one of the ways- certainly not the only way- but one of the ways- that we should read the stories of the bible.

We’ve talked about this before, but the Bible itself is a collection of books, written over about eight to nine hundred years, covering a variety of genres.

We know this; the psalms are poetry, Chronicles, Samuel, and Kings are history, Leviticus is a legal document, and the epistles are letters.

And although all of them are the words of God, just as we read poetry, history, legal documents, and letters differently in our secular lives

(or perhaps don’t read legal documents at all, but that’s a story for another day)

So too, do we read different books of the bible differently.

It’s not about making any of the words in the bible any more or less true, but making sure that we best understand the many layers of truth that are already in them.

Let’s take the story about Moses and the Exodus, and in particular, the episode about Manna from heaven as an example. 

In it, Moses is given what seems to be an impossible task; to lead huge group of people- a mixed multitude if there ever was one- from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.

We should remember too that Moses doesn’t really even want this job.  He has to be talked into it.  But he does it, because as Frodo says, sometimes we walk the trails that we’re on.

When we talk about Moses, we don’t really talk about the day to day administrative hassle that he must have endured, and instead remember the miracles- the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the ten commandments, the appearance of Manna- a bread like grain coming like dew in the morning when the people start going hungry.

But I don’t think those miracle moments were the hardest parts of Moses’ journey, and neither necessarily does Jesus.

It’s easy for us to think of these stories as all being about Moses doing the miraculous because he was so holy.

Jesus reminds us that this is not the case. Jesus reminds that it was not Moses who did the miraculous work of bread, but God. 

Instead of seeing Moses as a miracle worker who provided food from heaven from nothing, making us feel in awe of Moses, Jesus tells us that God is the one who does impossible things, and because of that, Moses is able to do the difficult work of leading the people of Israel.

Jesus does the impossible, so we can do the difficult.

If we are to draw strength from these stories, its not that these are miraculous stories about perfect people who did impossible things, and thus that we are to be in perfect awe of them.

The message that Jesus reminds us of is that in the old stories- the ones that really matter- and to the Jewish people, the story of Moses really matters- is that he was ordinary person who through perseverance and faith did extraordinarily difficult things.

I think this is part of what Paul is saying to us and to the church at Philippi.

Any difficult thing Paul is able to do, and the things he urges the church to do in the beginning of the letter are difficult, they are able to do through Jesus Christ, who strengthens him. 

This isn’t to say that hearing the stories about Jesus, be they stories of the last supper, the loaves crucifixion and resurrection, are the only way that He strengthens Paul, but I believe they are one means that God uses to strengthen us. 

And I don’t know about you, but I can take all the help I can get.


May the Force Be With You

“May the Force Be With You”

Scripture: Psalm 24, John 14:18-31

Sermon Written and Preached by Rev. Shane Montoya on January 21, 2018 at Edwards Church, Framingham

A small group huddles in the darkness. They know hope; but on nights like these, it seems distant.

An evil Empire, vast in power and might, especially in its destructive capabilities, seeks their complete annihilation. For this evil Empire, once a proud republic, desires nothing more than the domination of all in its path, and the members of this small group have a different political vision than what the center of power holds.

They know that domination is not the way forward, but cooperation. They seek a system where all are equal.

I am, of course, speaking of the Early Christian Church, and not Star Wars, but, yes, both our Christian story and Star Wars both feature Evil Empires, inspiring heroes and heroines, danger, temptation, and at least metaphorical death and resurrection.

We can even see an arc of Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection can even in the titles of the Original Trilogy of Star Wars movies, released back in the 1970s and 80s:

With A New Hope, referring to Jesus’s Birth, The Empire Strikes Back referring to Jesus crucifixion and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, and Return of the Jedi, well, I’m trying really hard not to refer to it right now as the Return of the Jesus.

This is partly because are similarities in how the Gospel story and Star Wars are structured: both make at least some use of the “Heroes’ Journey” format, in which a character performs deeds, becomes famous, falls afoul of some powerful political leader, and then metaphorically (or literally) descends into hell, only to return stronger.

But what’s been intriguing me lately, and this is a theme that I touched on briefly a couple of weeks ago during the Epiphany worship service, is that the Star Wars saga gives me great insights into the difference between consuming and participating in a story. I’ve come to realize that this is incredibly important to our lives of faith.

It’s taught me that Christianity is not, or well, should not, be something we consume, like listening to a pop song or reading a fun novel, but something we participate in. Our story is not one in which we should hear it or read it on Sunday mornings and then not have it be in our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our souls the other 6 days and 23 hours of the week.

It is a story we participate in, not one we consume; to hone that difference a little bit, let’s go back to our first scripture reading today. In our psalm reading, Psalm 24, Clair reminded us that while the Earth belongs to God, there are some places that are special.

There are mountaintops, both physical and metaphorical, where only the pure, the clean of heart, those who seem to hunger and thirst for God, can approach. They are exclusive places, places reserved for saints, for the prayer warriors, for those who seem to always know what to do to please God.

They are for Moses and Elijah, Peter and John, for the grand heroes of our Christian Story, who changed the world through their deeds. Certainly not the sort of place for someone like me, Full of self-doubt, full of doubt about whether or not I’m doing the right thing, if I’m reading enough Bible or spending enough time with God.

A place, it sometimes feels like, that is designed to make the rest of us feel a bit inadequate. Make us feel as though that story wasn’t written for people like us. A story that I can’t, we can’t, participate in. It forces me out of participation mode and back into consumption mode.

The old Star Wars movies are the same way. I didn’t live in a world with robots and laser pistols and Lightsabers. I wasn’t and would never be a Jedi Knight, like Luke Skywalker, a lovable and charming rogue like Han Solo, or even confident like Princess Leia.

So they were fantasies that existed over there. Sure, I could play the video games, read the books, and watch the movies, but I was always aware in the back of my head, and I don’t think I could have named it then, that the stories weren’t really for me to participate in. They were there for me to enjoy myself with.  A worthy goal, to some extent.

But its not the stuff of stories that help us make meaning out of the world. Those consuming stories are not the stories that define and shape how we live. Which is part of why the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi is so interesting.

I believe that The Last Jedi was an attempt to make Star Wars more like a participatory story. There are signs all through the movie about this: there’s a main character, Rose Tico, played by Asian American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who isn’t anything special.

She’s a maintenance worker, a mechanic. She’s bright, but not a genius. She’s not a skilled fighter or ace pilot. She’s kind of a normal person.She does step up and become brave when she needs to be, but that wasn’t because of any special ability, power or talent that made it easy for her to be brave, but because it was what she needed to do to save the people she loved.

And stepping up? Well, that’s something I can see myself doing.

Maybe not by traveling through space on a one-in-a-million chance space adventure, but maybe by advocating for people who need my voice.

Maybe by listening to someone who’s not doing so good, or making lasagna for someone who’s recovering from surgery; and when I can see myself in the story, And especially when folks who don’t see themselves in stories very often, especially women, and folks of color can see themselves in stories, and begin to participate in them.

It’s important.

It really does mean something.

So when stories in our Bible like our second scripture reading today, from the Gospel of John, tell us, point blank, that this whole Bible thing, this Jesus guy, this whole Christianity thing is participatory gig, I take note.

He reminds us, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Jesus Christ here is literally telling us that we are called to a participating faith, one in which we have a major part to play. Jesus is subverting the message of the psalm, that the mountaintop experience of God is only for the holy rollers, instead saying that it’s for everyone who tries to love God and their neighbors and has good days and not so good days and bad hair days besides.

For we do not have a religion that calls us to a life of passivity, a life of watching only heroes and stars do faith, over there, but a sometimes messy and often beautiful faith lived right here. This is because Jesus’ way- God’s way- is not based around worship of a distant God, existing solely in the realm of metaphor, who exists only in our beautiful choir pieces and piano solos, but in the sometimes awkward singing of our whole congregation in an unfamiliar song, and in a God who jams out with us while we’re singing a little bit louder than we should to Uptown Funk.

Because God wants all of us to be in Christ, not just the parts that society tells us that we should feel good about. God loves and wants our bodies that have gained a little bit more weight than we wanted to, that maybe we think aren’t that pretty anymore, simply because God wants to be around us, to be with us, to be in us.

God wants our addictions and annoying habits that we want to break, God wants our jealousies and petty rivalries, because God wants us to become the people that deep down inside, we know we can be.

Our God isn’t the God of the philosophers, unchanging and unfeeling, ontologically pure but emotionally distant. But a God continues to grieve with us, as Jesus mourned the death of Lazarus beside Martha and Mary.

That is the truth about our God.

Truth with a capital T is not something I talk about much when it comes to religious and theological discussions, but I will do so for this; our God calls us to a life of faith that is in active partnership with God, in our joys and struggles, and in our hopes, our dreams.

It’s not an easy thing to do; no one ever said it would be.

No heroes’ journey is ever easy.

So I send you with this ancient blessing, from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,

“May the Force be with you.”