Readings for the service are here, here, and here.
I’m going to start today, where my own moral compass began. Although I was formed at my mother’s and grandmother’s knees at Lutheran sermons and in Sunday school, my true morality play, writ large on the screen when I was a mere 5 years old, was Star Wars.
Good and Evil (with a side of liturgical greetings thrown in–who among the churched hasn’t been struck by an almost primal urge to respond “and also with you!” whenever a character on the screen says “May the force be with you.”). There it was, the hero’s journey, as old as time itself–writ in literal huge yellow letters, the crawl, and that opening chord of John Williams’ score that to this day will fill me with the gleeful anticipation of a five (almost six) year old girl whose biggest worry was that the movie would be too scary for her, and that her big brother would make fun of her on the way home.
The films are back in the news again this week–because one of their stars: Kelly-Marie Tran, has been bullied off of social media. Not because people don’t like her (or so they say) but because they don’t like her character: Rose Tico. I found Rose to be a breath of fresh air: earnest, a true believer in the cause, and ready to stun anybody for getting in the way of it. She was brave, but she had this golden idealism, too. She had a big heart. She was charming in real life, too–on red carpets, she was famous for bursting into happy tears when she saw a fan cosplaying her character. But now, her Instagram is gone, a victim of the dark side of so-called “fandom.” Judgey, mean, and hateful people who I can hardly believe saw and loved the same movies that I did.
And so, here we are in our readings–and we pick up right after the story of the first Christian martyr–Stephen. Stephen has just been stoned to death by a mob for proclaiming a message of love and hope. The next chapter picks up with Saul on a rampage, taking advantage of public mourning of Stephen to destroy churches and haul followers of The Way off to prison. Saul–who would later become Paul through a grand redemption story, but not yet. Not soon enough for Stephen, and not soon enough for the victims of persecution shown here.
It is so easy, especially in our days of internet anonymity, to tear down what we hate. I fall victim to this sin all the time. I judge. I get caught up in a self-righteous-death spiral of call-outs and shaming that is so easy to do on the internet.
There are groups in this world that do need to be spoken truth to. I believe it is our biblical calling towards justice to always point at those who hate their fellow children of God and contradict their twisting of the Scriptures. I will not hesitate nor apologize for calling into question those who are using the scriptures I love as a means to hate and persecute members of groups who happen to be differently made than them. But there is a line– we have to find the line between where righteous anger ends and self-righteous anger begins. When it is time to speak truth to power, and when it is time to realize that sometimes, what we say about others is really saying something about ourselves–about our desperate need to be correct, or feel superior, or to win some sort of argument that we actually started in the first place.
The nature of humility is that it’s a something we have to constantly wrestle with. As soon as we recognize that we are humble, we’ve already patted ourselves on the back for it–and committed the sin of pride. As much as we should strive to be humble, humility is elusive to us because we are flawed. It rolls and tumbles past our best attempts to grasp it in our hands. As mere humans, we have to treat humility like sand, constantly to be gathered, swept up, and tended carefully–lest the bluster of our egos scatter it again.
Spoiler alert: Saul will get a sign from God later in the story that the hate and self-righteous wrath he’s throwing around is wrong. Our signs are often smaller, though–and we need to spend time away from the noise to find them. Like Simon the magician, who realizes that his tricks are no match for real God-given power, we have to step back sometimes and take time to remember that there IS a power greater than ourselves, greater than the internet, greater than celebrity, and that ultimately, it’s God and not us that’s in control. Our charge is from God is simply the new commandment: “to love one another, as God has loved us.”
And it is hard.
Because the world is full of injustices and imbalances–and we should seek ways to right as many wrongs as we can. While we do that, though, we have to watch out for the trap of today’s version of “holier than thou” which is calling out without compassion, and of being too eager to attack what’s wrong instead of the loving trudge of amplifying what is good.
I’m going to close by quoting not scripture, but a line spoken by Rose Tico–in the climactic battle of “The Last Jedi,” Rose notices that Finn (her friend and fellow battle companion) is undertaking a suicide mission. In her own road-to-Damascus moment, she makes the decision to crash her ship into his, putting herself into danger but saving his life in the process.
A bit dazed by the impact, she then utters the line:
“This is how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”