Monday, July 10, 2017

You Must Choose

Here is my sermon from Sunday. It was based on Genesis 4:1-9 and the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Today we continue in our series on the Gospel in Star Wars by looking at the Empire Strikes Back. Released in 1980, it is widely considered the best of the Star Wars films, although it is not my personal favorite. After the rebel alliance had destroyed the death star at the battle of Yavin at the end of the first film, the empire strikes back, as the title says, and seeks out to find and destroy the rebels who are now hiding from the empire. After their base on the ice planet of Hoth is attacked, they retreat again, with Luke Skywalker going to the Dagobah system to receive instruction from Yoda, the last remaining Jedi Master, and put in a different order, his words are, therefore making him sound super smart. Meanwhile, Han, Chewie and Leia are being pursued by the evil Darth Vader when the hyperdrive on their ship won’t work and so they retreat to the cloud city of Bespin, controlled by an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrisian. Calrisian betrays them to Vader who uses them as a trap to get Luke to come to their rescue, where he and Vader engage in a lightsaber battle, with Luke losing his hand, and where Vader reveals, and I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone any longer, that Luke’s father was not killed by Vader as he had been told, but that Vader himself is his father, and along the way Luke learns somethings about the force and himself that turn out to be important as well, and we are going to use this is a way to discuss the issue of predestination versus free will and our relationship with sin and the dark side.

Now the Star Wars movies play both sides of the card when it comes to whether things are predestined or not. In the later prequels, when Qui Gon Jinn meets the young Anakin Skywalker for the first time, Anakin makes a remark about how fortunate that they had to land where they did to get their ship repaired, and Jinn says “Our meeting was not a coincidence. Nothing happens by accident.” And then of course there is both Vader and the Emperor, known by his Sith name as Darth Sidious, who tell Luke that it is his destiny that he join the dark side and rule the galaxy. Of course, that doesn’t happen, putting a question about whether everything is in fact destiny, and then there is what Yoda has to say. Now I think we could do an entire sermon series on the wisdom of Yoda, who really does have some of the best lines, like Size matters not, do or do not, there is no try, and better yet, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering, but about destinies, Yoda says that the future is impossible to see, or as he says in the Empire Strikes Back, always in motion the future is. That means we can’t predict the future because there are too many variables, too many choices that people can make, to be able to determine the future outcomes. So, which do we believe?

One of the great arguments that has taken place, and continues to take place, within the Protestant tradition surrounds this question, are we predestined to things, in particular to salvation or damnation, or are we given free-will and so our fate, here and now and in the life to come, is dependent upon the choices that we make. One of the protestant reformers, John Calvin, argued that God’s decision about our fate had already been made, that our eternal judgment was already made before we were even born, and that in addition, Jesus only died for these chosen elect, so that there is what is known as limited atonement. In addition, it was argued that because God made this decision that God’s grace was irresistible, that is you could not deny God’s grace, it was given to you whether you wanted it or not, and finally that there was perseverance of the saints, or what it commonly referred to as once saved, always saved. Nothing you did or did not do could change your eventual fate. Originally Calvin argued that predestination only applied to those going to heaven, to the elect, but later it got applied, sort of as the natural outcome, that it also meant that some people were also predetermined for damnation, and this was then called double-predestination. I do not have the time to try and give a more thorough background and explanation of Calvinist doctrine this morning and I’m not even going to try, but I want to make that caveat for those who might be closet Calvinists that that is not my intention.

As the points of Calvinism were being debated, a theologian by the name of Jacob Arminius, who was a Calvinist, set out to make a scriptural argument in support of Calvinism and predestination in particular, and found that he couldn’t, and formulated a new theology, which is now known as Arminianism. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, was an Arminian in theology, although the thoughts are also sometimes now referred to as being Wesleyan since they are found and promulgated within the Wesleyan tradition. Wesley said of predestination that “it destroys all of God’s attributes at once: it overturns both his justice, mercy and truth: yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel and more unjust.” (Free Grace, VII.2) Wesley argued that while there might appear to be scriptural justification for the idea, those passages were taken out of context and not compared with the image of God found in the entirety of scripture. Out of this understanding of God came Wesley’s formulation of prevenient grace, that is the grace that goes before us, that is always there and that is extended to everyone. That Christ died not just for the elect, but that Christ died for all so there is universal atonement. In addition, as Arminians, we believe that God’s grace is resistable, that is we have to choose to accept and believe and act on Christ’s saving action. God’s grace is extended to us, but we have to welcome it into our lives, but once you have accepted it, you can reject it again later, that is no perseverance of the saints. Every day is a new journey in our faith, somedays being good and somedays being bad, but it’s a choice that we get to make.

The best analogy I came up with this week about the difference is a medical one. When Linda was giving birth to Samantha, Sam’s head got twisted and was stuck against Linda’s pelvis and she wasn’t moving, and so the doctor said they were going to have to do an emergency C-section to get her out. Linda didn’t want to have surgery and so asked for more time for Samantha to possibly move and for Linda to make a decision about what she wanted to do. The doctor said okay, but then they all shifted in to gear to prep her for surgery, including giving me a set of scrubs so I could be in the operating room. Linda never really had any choice in what was going to happen. The decision was being made for her by the doctor and she was going to have to do what the doctor said. That’s sort of the Calvinist position. Someone else making decisions for us, with the mere appearance that we are deciding ourselves. Now, the opposite of that is my doctor has told me I need to lose weight, exercise and change my diet. He told me the negative consequences that will happen if I don’t, and the positive results if I do, but he can’t force me to do anything. He certainly wants me to do things, but I have the ability to do the right things or the wrong things. It’s like being a parent, you want your children to do the right things, but you have to allow them to make mistakes and choose their own path. That is the Arminian position. God wants us to do the right thing, but we get to choose the path, we have free will to follow God or not to follow God. To do the right thing or to do the wrong thing.  And it is this idea that leads us into the film clip from Star Wars for today. Luke is on Dagobah training with Yoda, and he has to go into what is known as the dark-side cave, or cave of evil. Take a look….

I think one of the things that it’s easy to do is to make judgments about others, such as seeing them as evil, without truly understanding how they go that way, or seeing the same thing in ourselves.  As the Star Wars movies expanded, we got to see how a young Anakin become Darth Vader and it gave us some understanding, and perhaps even some sympathy for the decisions that were made, for good and for ill, that led him to that place in his life, and perhaps as we think about redemption next week also opens new possibilities and understandings. But what Luke begins to see in this scene is that he too can make exactly the same decisions. That what separates him from Darth Vader is simply the decisions that he makes, and it’s not the major decisions, it’s all the little ones that lead up to it. Yoda tells Luke that he will not need any weapons, but what does he do? He straps on his lightsaber. Does that then influence what happens in the cave? Possibly, what would have happened if he had not had the weapon with him? We don’t know, but I think we get a hint at the end of Return of the Jedi, which we get to next week. But Luke, and us, have to recognize what resides inside of all of us.

Cain had to recognize the same thing. I think the story of Cain and Abel is one of the most important archetypal stories for understanding who we are. Surprisingly, this story does not appear in the lectionary, which are the recommended scripture readings for each Sunday of the year, which means if you went to a strictly lectionary church you would never hear this story, but that misses something hugely important because it is the first time that we hear about sin. Now we often hear about original sin, which deals with Adam and Eve, but that thought does not come about until Augustine brings it up in the late 4th century, and then, in my opinion, has more to do with Augustine’s own hang-ups then it does with scripture. But there is nothing in scripture that says anything about sin with Adam and Eve, instead it starts here.

After Cain become jealous that Abel’s offering is accepted and his is not, although we are not told why this is the case, God comes to Cain and says to him “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” That sounds a lot like Yoda’s comments to Luke about the dark side.

But in that comment, I think we can also hear God saying the same thing to us, that sin is lurking at our door, and we must learn to master it. That life is a series of choices, and while we think only about the big things, the big sins, the big decisions, it’s the series of little choices that set up those things to start. There are a thousand little yeses that we say long before we get to the big yes that may get us in trouble. And God, as the parent, is trying to guide us in the right direction, helping us to make the right decision, warning us about what’s there, but the decision is up to us, and that decision starts with even recognizing that it’s a possibility. To see that all of us have in us the possibility and potentiality to do good or to do evil. To be saints or to be simmers. Sin is lurking for all of us, and all of us have the capacity to be monsters, to follow the light side or to move to the dark side. What separates Luke from Vader is not some inherit character flaw, or the way that things had to be, but simply the choice to follow a different path. That is the realization that Luke has to come to in order to understand the insidious nature of the dark side, that he might even turn to it, in order to try and overcome the it, and it’s the same thing that we have to overcome as well.

Even though I earlier bad-mouthed Augustine, he did say about his own sinful nature, “My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.” Understanding that first step, that we are sinners, that all of us fall short of the glory of God, that all of us live lives of brokenness, is what sets us on the path with God, on the path of righteousness, on the path to the light side. Because unless we understand ourselves as sinners then not only don’t we understand the sin lurking at the door, but we also don’t understand the need for grace. Because whether we are Calvinist, Arminian, or something else in our theology, what we know is that salvation comes from God through Christ. That it is not dependent upon us, that we can’t earn it, but that we need it, especially when we understand ourselves as having free will because it is then that we understand how we overcome the sin that is lurking, that we turn to God for assistance and guidance, we turn to God for love and forgiveness, we turn to God for strength and understanding. We turn to God for salvation.

Paul says in the passage from Romans “Those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.” And who is it that God foreknew? Everyone, the saved and the lost, he called for us to be conformed to the image of Christ in all that we do, not because God is forcing us to do that, because we can see in our lives, let alone in the world, that that is not happening, but that that is the way God wants us to go. Sin is lurking at the door God says, it’s desire is for you, but you must master it. Cain was not predestined to either kill or not kill his brother, it was his choice, it was the choice about who he was going to allow to rule his life, sin or God. And it is a choice. Life is full of choices and the outcome is not predestined. We get to choose, we have to choose, what path we will follow. Jesus says to take up his yoke. A yoke is put on an animal so that it will follow the lead of the person in charge. Sin also wants us to take up that yoke, and so we have to choose. Are we going to follow the ways of the world, the wages of sin and death, the path that leads to the dark side, the path that is easy and wide, or are we going to follow the path of God, to follow God’s commands, to live lives worthy of the calling into which we have been called, lives of love and peace and forgiveness, the path that is narrow and difficult but leads to eternal life. For the choice is ours. God’s grace and love are extended to us, and God is ready to receive us home, but we have to be willing to make the choice to follow that path. The choice is ours. Sin is lurking at the door, and we must learn to master it. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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