Sermon at Midnight Mass, 24th December 2015
Rev’d Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster
Having seen a certain film recently, I’m having to concentrate very hard so I don’t slip up and accidentally say in the middle of a service, “The Force be with you” instead of the more customary – “The Lord be with you!”
To say that there is a religious element to Star Wars is a bit of an understatement: you can be ordained as a Jedi knight for just 8.99 USD via the internet, and according to the census figures of 2001, (census is an important part of the Christmas story, remember – it was why Joseph and his family went to Bethlehem in the first place!) in England and Wales, there are over 390,000 people who gave their religion as Jedi, – a larger number than Sikhs and Buddhists! This is despite the fact that it is an entirely fictional religion, with as much credibility as Hobbits, Hippogriffs, Hutts, or Headless Monks. (Full marks if you can tell me where all of those mythical creatures come from in this spontaneous Christmas quiz!) Of course, the Jedi religious for the census was seen by many as a protest against the question on religious affiliation being asked, and also a protest against organised religion, and as such, received “votes” from about 0.8 of the population. But certainly the numbers of people who have seen, or shortly will see “Star Wars – The Force Awakens” are tremendous. There will be those who won’t see it – as a matter of principle – but the film-makers aimed high, and has achieved its target of global dominance of the film industry at its peak season.
And of course, many would seek to piggy-back on its success. A well-known church in Berlin even had a Star-Wars themed service a few weeks ago, with congregations coming dressed as characters from the film. The service looked at the traditional themes of light and darkness which you will find throughout SW TFA with mentions of “the dark side” as opposed to the light-sabre bearing Jedi – the goodies in the film (I’m not planning on giving away any secrets or spoilers, in case you were worried, by the way!) But when George Lucas created the Star Wars Universe in a galaxy far, far away – back in 1977, he ensured that it was as believable as possible, and for that to happen he needed to have elements which people could identify with. And, knowing that many people have a need for mystery, for an expression of a spirituality which goes beyond what we can see and touch, he sought to create a universe with a new duality of good and evil. That universe also has a mysterious power at its heart – “The Force” which may simply reflect our own subliminal desire to control the will of others of course, but a supernatural power as a force for good – that is familiar to anyone who has ever read, or heard of the Gospel stories of Jesus. And every truly epic story has to have a true hero on whom the hopes of that universe can be placed. He could be called Harry, or Frodo, or even The Doctor – but all our hopes are pinned on him. We know that – eventually, he will come through!
And people are flocking to see this, and are loving it! I loved it, too!
I was fortunate enough to see it on the first day it was released in the UK, and went with my godson, who also equally enjoyed it. The following day, I had to preach at the Ripley School end of term service, and could hardly avoid mentioning it. Knowing that many would not yet have seen it gave an extra buzz, though I was careful not to let out any spoilers (In the USA someone has already been charged with attempted murder after shooting someone who let out the big surprise twist of the film!) But I so wanted to tell people the story! It’s like a big evangelical drive – you have seen or heard something wonderful, and you just have to share it with others!
Yes, Star Wars is a wonderful tale, brilliantly (and expensively) told. And it is addictive. People will see the many sequels that are planned, and they will buy the merchandise, and it will become a passion for many. But – and it is a big but… It is FICTION! And it is not even set in our own galaxy, their universe is far, far away, as we should all know! But we willingly suspend our disbelief to an extraordinary level and are happy to enter into the world of Skywalker and Solo, doing battle with Sith, Stormtroopers, and Supreme Leader Snoke.
The story we tell in churches and homes throughout this Christmas season is no less dramatic in depicting the epic battle between good and evil, and it has the advantage in making the connection to us because it is a part of our own history. The fact that it is so well known, so familiar, should never diminish its power.
We tell the story in so many ways, from the child-friendly way in which we told the story to the children who came to our Nativity and Christingle service today. And there is huge value in that, letting children know the story of how Jesus was born will, I hope remain with them throughout their lives. But the story of our faith is not simply a tale told for children, and we do our adult-selves a great disservice if we don’t progress from the cutesy children’s telling of the nativity to a mature understanding of the man Jesus, his temptations and his agony.
God, the Creator of all things intervened in our own history to repair the damage caused by so much evil that had come from the human race which he had created, and which had gone so far away from his loving design. It is a story of murder and violence from the very start with the fratricidal murder of good, honest, hard-working Abel by his brother Cain. Neither do we include in our Children’s Nativity the incident of the massacre of the innocents by the order of King Herod – and rightly so.
But we cannot – however much we would like to – stick with the children’s tale of the Baby Jesus – we have, at some stage, to graduate to the much tougher stories of the life, death and resurrection – the whole story of Christ’s journey from crib to cross, and his ascension to his kingly throne in heaven.
Our willingness to embrace any number of fictional stories containing violence and encounter with true evil, from Sauron to Voldemort, right up to Kylo Ren – and to become totally involved in their world shows that it is possible to engage in a complicated story, be it fictional, or as in the case of the Christian story, one that is true, having as much historical evidence and corroboration as any of the great historical events of the last two thousand years.
And our involvement in the Christian story, the story of Christ – is not that of a passive observer, for the story of Christ changes our lives completely. When we become Christians through our baptism, our conscious decision to be faithful followers of Christ Jesus – a lot is expected of us. Yes, we own the story, it becomes a part of us, and we become a part of the living story of God’s work in the world today.
It is an ongoing story – and the events of the past year show that it is a story of tragedy and defeat, in so many ways and in so many different places. If we look back to the little town of Bethlehem today, we see the Separation Wall, a vicious scar through a divided land. Homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, olive groves which have taken many generations to mature, and which provided a livelihood for whole communities have been wantonly destroyed in an attempt to break the will of an entire people. The whole country has become a battlefield. In other historically Christian areas of the Middle East, families and communities which have been Christian for almost two thousand years, are now being persecuted in a way that compares with the worst genocides in the history of our planet. It is predicted that any Christian presence in Our Lord’s Holy Land may entirely disappear in just a few years, after two millennia of faithful co-existence with other religious in the land of Christ’s birth.
And their story is our story too – for they are our sisters and brothers, our mothers and father, our children, who are suffering. And while we may be powerless to stop the persecution of Christians thousands of miles away, what we can do here is to continue to tell the story of Christmas – the whole story!
We can do what we are doing this evening and celebrate the presence of Jesus in the world, we can show the difference our faith makes in our lives.
We cannot stop the violence in Syria and other countries of the Middle East, but we can welcome into our communities those who have fled that violence to find a new home in a place of safety:
We cannot stop the eradication of the Christian faith in parts of the world where people of violence have so distorted their image of God that they imagine that killing people is in accordance with God’s will. That has never been the case and it never will be. But we can ensure that we hold on to our Christian faith and pass it on, so that it is not overwhelmed or forced out of the world which God created, and loved so much that he sent his Son to save it.
We cannot heal all the wrongs that we see throughout the world today – but we can do something in our own communities to bring healing and wholeness to our communities by our supporting for those in need, by working for those who cannot help themselves, and by speaking out on behalf of all those who do not have a voice where it needs to be heard.
And above all, we can celebrate the birth of Christ, the Prince of Peace, by giving him the worship, honour, and glory due to his name. And as we celebrate the presence of Christ among us in the world this Christmas, surrounded by those we love, let us remember all those for whom this is a difficult time of year, and do what we can to let our love and joy in this wonderful overflow to others who are less fortunate than ourselves – that the love which was the message of Christ to the world, is made known, is made real, is made present in our world today in our celebrations and in our giving and receiving this Christmas tide and always.