A Hero’s Journey
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
The church year begins with the season of Advent, as we prepare to receive Christ anew into our lives and into the world. Last week we ushered in a new year, and recommitted ourselves to following the star to illumine and navigate our way. Soon we will settle into “ordinary time” until Lent leads us to the cross and empty grave. But before that, we celebrate once more, the baptism of Jesus. All the gospels include an account of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by John (the Baptizer!). Each records it as a… “watershed” event, one which makes explicit Jesus’ identity and mission. Listen for God’s Word in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in the third chapter, beginning with the thirteenth verse [3:13-17].
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
For Jesus, baptism was the first step of a hero’s journey, one that would break the power of evil and death, raise us to new life, and reconcile heaven and earth. A single step which he chose over the initial protestation of John, to mark his acceptance of a call, a sign and seal of God’s presence in his life. This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.
I am one who believes Jesus did not see the whole arc of his life from the beginning. Each step clarified his mission. His willingness to go beyond the borders of his home and religion expanded his understanding of God’s redemptive purposes. He learned from interactions with others. He was tempted early and often to use his gifts and identity for selfish reasons. Yet with courage and resolve, Jesus resisted and kept moving forward toward his destiny. His ministry and teaching brought him into severe conflict with the reigning civil and religious authorities. He continued to love and shatter the darkness of evil with light, until it rose up in fear and executed him. Yet even in death, Jesus continued to forgive, to meet hatred with unarmed truth and unconditional love. And, unimaginably, the dark side discovered it could not destroy him. He lived again. His followers were filled with new hope and spiritual power to live as he lived, love as he loved. I am with you always, he promised.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? If might if you happen to be a fan of Star Wars. Inspired by Central member James Eklund’s recent adult education classes on the saga—which prompted watching the movies again and seeing the latest installment, Rogue One—I propose to consider baptism in light of the hero’s journey. When I asked James if I could reference some of the points he made in the class, he readily acquiesced and then went on to suggest that Star Wars is itself a kind of “midrash”—-or commentary— on the Biblical text, helping us delve into its mysteries and meaning for us today. His class definitely sparked my imagination, but let me hasten to say that any errors or misinterpretations are mine alone. Don’t blame James!
So here goes: Star Wars helps us remember that the journey to which God calls us is not an easy walk in the park on a sunny day. It is one with purpose. It requires great commitment. A Jedi knight is not born, but grows into this calling through instruction and practice. Baptism launches us on the hero’s journey, with a particular identity and purpose requiring the very best in us.
No matter where we wander, baptism functions as a kind of spiritual magnet, pointing us to our true north. We may choose routes that take us away from that path, we may adopt new identities and claim different loyalties, but underneath it all, we are who we are. Beloved children of God. When Luke Skywalker is first made aware of his call to become a Jedi knight and fight against the evil empire, he is a simple farm boy on a remote planet. He protests: Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do here. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it. . . . It’s all such a long way from here. His baptism
comes by fire but raises him to a life he couldn’t have imagined. . . . more difficult and dangerous, but larger and more fulfilling. When we first meet Han Solo, he’s little more than a mercenary, an intergalactic version of a bounty hunter, bent on making a fortune with little regard for principles, and loyalty only to the highest bidder. Yet he too becomes drawn to the Force and offers himself and his skills (as well as his Millennium Falcon spaceship!) to the cause. Once a cynic, an older Han who has traveled a long way on this journey explicitly affirms his faith: The Dark Side, the Jedi, they’re real. It’s true—–all of it.
I am most fascinated by the transformation of Darth Vader, fearsome in his signature black helmet and cape, crushing enemies with a look and breathing terror wherever he goes. He seems the very embodiment of evil. Yet even he is not beyond redemption. Luke has personal faith in Vader’s true self. I feel the good in you, he says even before we can see any evidence of it. When his surprising identity is revealed in The Empire Strikes Back, you begin to understand the events and influences that turned him toward the Dark Side, and the power of love and forgiveness to win him back.
Baptism doesn’t shield and insulate us from danger. Instead, it identifies us as part of a particular people. It calls us to follow One of our own who took the thousand-mile journey with such courage and beauty and grace that we think His is the way to go. That light, that essential goodness exists in all of us, and the choice is always available to us, whether to affirm or deny it. The flaws and imperfections of all the characters help us see that life is far more complex and nuanced than the simple binary of good or evil. Within the worst of us is a spark of the Divine. Even the best of us fail to live in the light all the time. Redemption is always possible through love. And love takes daily dedication, a conscious choice, and sometimes sacrifice.
Which leads us to another important truth about this journey. Don’t go alone. This is not a solitary pilgrimage, but a journey in the company of others. Over and over again in Star Wars tales, friendship is demonstrated as one of the highest values, and certainly the only way to accomplish the mission to which they’ve been called. Each of the heroes falters at times, acts out of fear rather than purpose, and makes mistakes. In many ways each is an ordinary person. Together —in the power of the Force—-they do extraordinary things, beyond the capability and will of any individual. Their friendship provides sustaining support in every hardship, threat, and loss. (Not a bad description of “church”)
Friends, our lives are a journey with a purpose. We have a destiny to fulfill. It takes instruction and mentoring from wise ones (like Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi). There are aspects of the journey that are exceedingly difficult and even dangerous and we can make it only with companions both human and Divine. There are demonic forces to confront, in our hearts no less than in the world.
And in Star Wars, death is not regarded as the end. Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda all appear afterwards to provide guidance and encouragement after they die. The force of life and light is not destroyed in death, but endures. Even the titles of the films speak of awakening, return, and a new hope.
At the heart of the journey is remembrance. We remember who we are. We remember Whose we are. The One who created us, who claims us as beloved children, is the very one who promises, I will be with you, even to the close of the age, even to the end of the journey. Friends, may we choose to live in this time and galaxy following the One who created us in love, who saved us for love, and who leads us to love, ever closer to our journey’s destination, God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
CHARGE AND BENEDICTION
From Yoda: Always in motion the future is. Difficult it is to live in the light. [whip out light saber] Never alone. Never without hope. Use the Force in you for good. For all. [. . . . and may the love of God. . . . . ]