A sermon based on Matthew 4:12-23.
Like many Gen Xers and quite a few Millenials, Star Wars is a defining cultural myth for me. You’ve heard me preach about it before. Even our youngest generation of children have been touched by Star Wars. While I was away on a youth retreat yesterday, my five year old son wanted nothing more than to make me Star Wars cookies for when I got home. There is a Star Wars attraction at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios that is hands down one of the most immersive storytelling experiences I have ever witnessed. Generations of people around the world are enculturated by this story.
It no doubt shaped some of my earliest notions of good and evil. It inspired me to dream big dreams and look to the stars. It awakened within me a bold imagination and helped me believe that anything is possible. If a whiny kid from Tatooine can save the universe, why can’t I?
Years later, when I became a student of religion, I learned that this was no accident. George Lucas didn’t just get lucky and create one of the most enduring and influential stories of modern times. No, it turns out that he very intentionally drew upon theories of mythology and ancient storytelling developed by the prolific mythologist and scholar of comparative religion Joseph Campbell.
Campbell is most famous for his theory of the monomyth, outlined his classic study The Hero With a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, ancient myths and hero stories from around the world often follow a similar pattern, what has been called “the hero’s journey.” Campbell summarizes it this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Among other stages, this journey involves the following: the call to adventure, a refusal of the call, supernatural aid, crossing of the first threshold, a series of trials and temptations, the completion of the quest, and a return back to the world from which the hero came armed with some kind of new knowledge or power for the betterment of all. Campbell and others have used this monomyth to understand the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, and the Buddha.
The tale of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and even the wider story of the rise and fall and ultimate redemption of Anakin Skywalker follow critical aspects of this basic pattern. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is another good example. Youth today have Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy. Numerous Disney stories follow this pattern as well, as do tales of the Lone Ranger and classic Western movies starring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.
It is possible, even, for us to read the story of Christ through the lens of the hero’s journey. Still at the beginning of our Christian year, we jumped right from Christmas to the story of Jesus’ baptism, followed by his trials and temptations in the wilderness. In many ways this sounds like the call to adventure of Campbell’s hero’s journey. We will walk with Jesus through a variety of other adventures and tribulations, culminating of course in his ultimate trial on the cross and his miraculous passage from death to life, bringing with him the hope of new life for all of humanity.
But here’s the thing about the gospel: Jesus isn’t the only hero. He calls a group of disciples to join him on his journey. They watch what he does, they learn from him. In the end, when he goes away, he entrusts his movement—his life’s work—to them. And through them and the role they play in this amazing story, he calls us too.
You see, the disciples aren’t just accessory characters written into the story to add some depth or comic relief. They are there because, try as we might, we can never really identify with Jesus and his unique connection with God. But we can see ourselves in the lives of his disciples, with all their simplicity, all their misunderstanding, all their failures. They are our entry into this story. Through them God invites us to not just be spectators, but be participants in the unfolding of this sacred story.
“Come, follow me,” says Jesus to these fishermen, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” He didn’t call them to become rabbis or priests or prophets. When he says that they will be fishers of people, I believe he is saying that they already possess all that they need to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. They don’t need a special education beyond their relationship with Jesus. They don’t need special knowledge or training beyond the recognition that they are loved as God’s own children. All that they need is inside of them, just waiting to be activated by God’s Spirit. All that we need is inside of us, waiting for God’s Spirit. All we need to do is open ourselves to it.
“Come, follow me,” says Jesus to these fishermen, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” What will Jesus show you to do, you doctors, you lawyers, you business leaders, you teachers, you artists, you homemakers, you cab drivers, you laborers of all kinds? How will God use your particular gifts and skills to change the world?
“Change your hearts and lives!” says Jesus. “Here comes to kingdom of heaven!”
The emergence of God’s kingdom isn’t a spectator sport. It isn’t something you pay pastors to do for you. This wild idea that Jesus lived and died for, we are all called to be a part of it.
I was with a group of our junior high students yesterday. They have been enjoying a wonderful winter retreat up on the shores of Lake Geneva. Last night I used Dr. Seuss’ story of the Lorax to make this same point to them. In the film version of the The Lorax, the world has been ruined by consumerism and greed. The natural beauty of creation has been replaced with an artificial simulacrum that keeps the people from seeing the reality of the broken world beneath the surface. Blinded by their idolatries, the people can’t see the world as it really is.
It’s up to a young boy named Ted to embark on his own hero’s journey. He crosses the threshold from the artificial world of Thneedville and discovers the truth behind the façade. He is ultimately chosen to receive the last remaining Truffala tree seed and with it nurture the rebirth of the world. This one child and this one seed are all that is needed to change the world. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” says Dr. Seuss.
Jesus put it this way: “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
Next week, when those young people hit you up for money or a can of food for the Souper Bowl of Caring, they are doing their part to bring about God’s kingdom. They are answering God’s call and using the gifts they have as sixth and seventh graders to make a difference in the world.
“Come, follow me,” says Jesus, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Whoever you are, whatever you do, whatever gifts and talents you have, no matter how small or insignificant you may think they are, God is calling you on the greatest adventure the world has ever known.