Responsive Call to Worship
A long time ago,
in a Galilee far, far away,
it is a period of Imperial power
and civil unrest.
In a place far removed
from the halls of power and influence—
far removed from the center of the universe,
there was born a new hope—
a story with which to face the Empire and its dominance—
the way its violence and greed and myopic self-centeredness
created an attitude—
an oppressive way of being
shaped by and manifest in
violence, greed and self-centeredness—
the ultimate weapon—
with enough death power to destroy an entire planet.
And yet there was this story lived and told—
with and through which to confront the darkness with light—
with an alternative way of being—
not summoning and using the powers of darkness
purportedly for good,
but redefining force not as independence
and power over others,
but as interdependence and power with others.
Denied and mocked by agents of evil
and protectors of the status quo,
the story moves us ever homeward,
the custodian of divine grace that that can save people
and restore freedom to creation ….
Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
These are the names of the sons of Israel
who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun,
and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.
The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy.
Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died,
and all his brothers, and that whole generation.
But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific;
they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong,
so that the land was filled with them.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people
are more numerous and more powerful than we.
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and,
in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us
and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them
to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities,
Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed,
the more they multiplied and spread,
so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks
on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service
in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour.
They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives,
one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women,
and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him;
but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God;
they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them,
but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives
and said to them, ‘Why have you done this,
and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh,
‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women;
for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’
So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied
and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God,
he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people,
‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile,
but you shall let every girl live.’
Witness of the Living Word, ii.
I don’t know what it’s like for you,
but I remember when the first Star Wars trilogy came out.
Long before we knew it was actually the second trilogy.
And yes, watching those old movies now,
watching my girls watch them now,
wanting them to love them,
I’m so aware of some cheesy acting
and special effects at which to laugh—now.
But then, ah, wasn’t it a magical experience
of story and sound and spectacle?
That first trilogy was also my first experience
with anxiously waiting for the next installment—
for the sequel—
not believing I had to wait,
and at the same time anticipating within the wait
anticipating sinking gratefully—
back into the story.
And it’s the genius of Star Wars
that that anticipation for me and for so many others
never went away.
And from the opening crawl,
the chills would come—the catch in the throat.
I’d settle into my seat,
let the music sweep over me—
defiant and triumphant at the same time,
and the story would unfold across the vast expanse of space,
told on that unimaginably immense scale
with a profound sense of cosmic significance,
and I’d think,
“This is what I want.
This feels right.”
And it’s not just the whole familiar beloved mythic story arc.
Though it certainly is that.
Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, writes:
“‘Star Wars’ and ‘Harry Potter’ are the two most successful
movie franchises on a per-film basis in history,
and they both hit a really similar sweet spot.
Tell me which story is a saga about a boy
whose parents are gone,
who seems at first ordinary
but is asked to learn a magical skill
and go on a great adventure;
makes close friends including a boy, a girl,
and an old, wise adviser; and becomes a hero
by killing a black-clad enemy
involved in the death of his father.
This story arc is Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero of a Thousand Faces.’
It’s fantasy, it’s drama, it’s aspiration, it’s relatability.
It’s a fairy tale for kids that adults can adore.
Lots of writers have tried to get this formula right,
and I think you just have to throw up your hands and say,
‘Look, George Lucas and J.K. Rowling got it perfect’.”
J.J. Abrams, director (and one of the screenwriters)
of the newest Star Wars installment
has been criticized for relying too much on Lucas’ story—
for retelling an old story instead of telling a new one.
As those who tell the old, old story,
we should be sensitive to that!
For we believe, do we not?—that if you get the right story,
it’s always a matter of retelling it—
retelling it in your language—
retelling it for your times.
There’s another story-telling technique,
for which I’m sure there’s a technical name
that I don’t know,
that strikes me as so very important.
And it’s all about telling a story
in the unfolding of which
another story unfolds too—
an earlier story—a completed story—
a story from the past,
that we nonetheless find out more and more about
as it unfolds within the present story unfolding.
And the more we understand of the past story,
the better we understand the present story.
And so Exodus begins—
that fundamental story of liberation—
of the liberating God—
the God who hears the cries of the people—
and responds to them,
Exodus begins with a reminder of earlier stories—
earlier stories we know and know well—
those stories of Jacob and Joseph,
but begins also, implying new stories we don’t know—
stories from that bitter time of hard service
and ruthless oppression.
Oh, we remember dire circumstances,
in the lives of Jacob and Joseph,
but in the end, things were good.
Now circumstances have changed again—
summed up in that statement:
“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
So then, in times of darkness and chaos reasserted,
unlikely heroes emerge—those two wonderful midwives,
Shiphrah and Puah, emerge—
to confront the ways of oppression and violence
with the non-violent way of God—
to confront the power of Pharaoh, not with power,
but with the fear of God and faith in the way of God—
to shine in the darkness,
and it is good.
And it’s just the brilliance of storytelling
that has Pharaoh twice issuing brutally callous orders
to kill all the baby Hebrew boys
and yet to spare the girls—
revealing both the arrogance of patriarchy
(the ways, norms, and assumptions of the world)—
and the exquisite irony of our Scriptures
in which it’s been women who have disobeyed Pharaoh—
confronted, challenged, and defeated Pharaoh!
And the more we understand what happened,
the more we can understand what’s happening.
This story-telling technique is even more effectively implemented
in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Luke Skywalker’s story unfolds,
and we learn that, and to some extent how,
Luke’s father’s story—what happened then—before
what happened to him—the choices he made—
a reassertion of darkness and chaos—
of violence and oppression—
that continue to shape the new story now unfolding.
And unlikely heroes emerge
to confront the ways of oppression and violence
not so much with non-violence—
violence is too much a cathartic need in our entertainment—
and the myth of redemptive violence,
and of course Star Wars is popular
because of the “magical” use of the force in fighting.
Of course it’s popular for the rebellion—
because of the battle scenes:
the X-wing fighters, the laser guns and light sabers.
But ultimately, even in this entertainment,
the ways of evil are confronted
with a grace—a love—that reaches out to an evil-doer,
without regard for the potential personal cost,
in the affirmation of redemption, not victory.
In the new Star Wars movie
the one breaking all the attendance and money-making records
(I confess, as part of my sermon research,
I went to see The Force Awakens! …
sometimes I love sermon research!
I’m thinking about doing a sermon on Jesus
sending the unclean spirits into the herd of pigs
called Jesus and the Best BBQ in the City.
Who wants in?!)—
in the new Star Wars movie,
there is a clip, that’s been shown
even from the earliest of previews,
in which Han Solo responds
to questions about earlier events, saying,
All of it.
The dark side.
So there’s the known story of the first trilogy,
and then, we come to find out, there’s that bitter time
of ruthless oppression—
stories we don’t know, but that are implied
from a time in which the ways of the Empire
(spoiler alert, but I’ve given you enough time,
don’t you think—to see the movie?)—
there are stories implied from a time in which the ways of the Empire,
dealt such a blow by the destruction of the Death Star,
have been reasserted in the First Order—
in the brutally calloused violence and oppression of the First Order.
And Han and Leia have separated.
Their son turned to the dark side.
Luke ran from failure to seclusion.
And yet again, unlikely heroes emerge,
yet again there is rebellion—
yet again, the “magical” use of the force in fighting—
yet again X-wing fighters,
screaming across the water in battle formation—
laser guns and light sabers.
And yet again, love is extended to an evil-doer.
Yet again, hope and trust confront fear and anger and violence
regardless of potential personal cost. Yet again, redemption, not victory.
And the more we understand what happened,
the more we can understand what’s happening.
But we’re finding out both at the same time.
The brilliance of the first trilogy,
undermined in my opinion in the second trilogy,
was not the power of sequential stories—
a big long, multi-generational story unfolding across time,
but of concurrent stories—
stories from different times unfolding together.
I thought The Force Awakens
reclaimed some of that effect.
And that’s kind of the thing with the second trilogy.
It explicitly went back to tell the earlier story.
But we already knew what we wanted to know
from the first trilogy, right?
The second trilogy fills in information we already had enough of.
And I didn’t hate those movies,
but they emphasized sequence and chronology:
this is what happened first—
not a concurrent: this is what’s happening,
and this is what happened,
and it’s all this story we’re into now.
And there’s nothing evaluative—
ranking one story as more important,
in this narrative strategy.
No, if anything, this technique
underscores the significance of all stories—
the ones in the past that lead to the ones now
which in turn will lead to those to come,
and thus to our stories too.
George Lucas seems to have told a story
that captures the imagination like few others.
Yet our stories unfold
in times of darkness and chaos reasserted—
in times of violence and oppression,
and ancient stories unfold within them.
It’s not an old, old story—
not just an old, old story.
And amidst the injustice, violence and oppression of our day,
there are humble people—
men and women of all backgrounds
who, in the name of God,
according to the will of God,
resist and confront violence and oppression—
the ways of greed and fear—
obeying a higher law—
risking living into their expectations of grace and love—
risking living into light in times of darkness.
And so amidst the darkness of our days—
the chaos of our times,
we make our choices—
mindful of another story—
of light in darkness—
of order in chaos—
less as descriptive of what was finished
as what was begun—
and the good work that was begun in us.
And we are left to wonder,
what if there is light still being called forth into darkness—
am I a part of that?
Is there still an ordering still going on amidst all the chaos,
and am I a part of that?
Is there blessing still being pronounced—
goodness, and am I part of that?
For the stories on which we’re raised
and the stories we choose to read and tell
not only shape our sense of reality,
they shape reality itself—with cosmic significance.
So do we tell stories of darkness
or of light in darkness?
Ours is the legacy of creation and liberation
community and interdependence—
redemption, not victory.
And we are part of a bigger story—
a story encompassing all creation—
worthy of an impressive accompanying soundtrack!
And so there is always the old, old story—
that is, in truth, so much of what’s going on
here and now.
But it’s not the story of an impersonal force
that some few sense
and most don’t,
but rather of the power of light—of good—
manifestations of the presence of God
with us all,
and it is that truth
ever creating the anticipation that never goes away.
You may have noticed,
most of the Christmas decorations have come down.
But the empty stable remains on the baptistry—
in Bethlehem, as it were.
The magi returned home
by another way—are now far beyond even Fellowship Hall.
The nomadic shepherds have moved their flocks
to fields farther from Bethlehem than the organ top.
Joseph and Mary and Jesus have left
either fleeing south to Egypt (according to Matthew),
or heading first to Jerusalem
and then on up north to Nazareth (according to Luke).
Even the donkey and the cow are out for the day.
Only the empty stable remains.
But the emptiness of this stable is full, isn’t it?
Full of the story we know.
And through the years, circumstances have changed.
It is now a new day.
These are our times,
and amidst too much darkness and chaos,
it is time again
for the story to be retold.
And it’s true—
all of it—
the darkness and the chaos—
violent and oppressive ways of being
and the light—
the alternative to such violent, oppressive ways of being.
All of it’s true.
The choices made
and the ones we make.
all so very real—
in the story told—
the story being told—
and stories yet to unfold.
But hear now this good news:
it’s so much less, may the divine be with you,
as it is may you always know God is with you—
working for the redeeming of all creation.
Thanks be to God.
Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
with a little lectio divina going on!
In the beginning (and all time is beginning
every day is a new beginning)
when God created the heavens and the earth,
(and God is still creating
creation is in process and God is ever a part of it)
the earth was a formless void
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
(the spirit of God is present in darkness and chaos
the spirit of God is moving—is active in darkness and chaos—
even our darkness and chaos)
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’;
(let there be something else;
let there be something different
let there be another way)
and there was light.
(there was something else—something different—
within darkness and chaos, there is another way)
And God saw that the light was good;
and God separated the light from the darkness.
(God is still separating the light from the darkness
still beginning creation—making distinctions)
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
(but all time is beginning
all time is the first day
today is the first day
a new beginning of creation—
of the way of the light in the darkness).