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The Long Defeat (Sermon Sept. 27th)

In 2016, the ongoing (seemingly endless) Star Wars franchise put out, in my opinion, their most beautiful movie installment yet: Rogue One. Beautiful because of the real and deep themes that lay interwoven in its story. It is a marker of great stories that the events within them need not be factual but point toward something true. Great stories never allow for escapism; they pull us into their world only to send us forth with new eyes for the world we inhabit.

The world of Star Wars is a never-ending battle between the forces of the empire and the rebellion. In Rogue One, the rebels learn that the empire has forged a new mass destruction weapon: the death star. This mechanized planet possesses enough energy to destroy an entire world. The rebels witness its devastating power after a low-powered shot reigns down on the Holy City of Jedha. Rebel forces watch from a nearby moon as the low-powered blast annihilates the planet in which the city resided.

The rebel forces, dismayed and disheartened, learn of a weakness. There is a design flaw that the chief engineer purposely designed into the death star. The protagonists plead with rebel authorities to infiltrate an empire stronghold to retrieve the death star's schematics. Attaining these plans would mean rebel forces have a fighting chance against this new devastating weapon. Rebel authorities decide that the risk was too significant and the existence of such plans too uncertain. The protagonists are told to stand down. Rebel authorities considered this part of the battle to be lost. Ultimately, they would have to find some other way to contend with this new incredible power.

Against all the odds, against the possibility of victory, a high likelihood of death, a ragtag team of rebels decide to infiltrate the empire stronghold anyway.

At this juncture, I believe the story seeks to comment on and embrace a fundamental question about humanity: Why, amid the inevitable reality of defeat and disappointment, do we rise to fight? There is something similar at stake in our reading today.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."

Very rarely do we speak about the context in which these words were uttered. In the span of about eight chapters (10-18), Jesus becomes increasingly clear about who he is and what he aims to do. In chapter 10, we read The Good Shepherd parable in which Jesus says plainly, I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. AND I lay down my life down for the sheep… No one takes it (Jesus’ life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…

Jesus is not only laying out who he is; he is outlining elements of his departure. It's in this context in which we arrive at Chapter 14. Jesus is literally comforting his disciples. I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus says. Still, it's reasonable to understand the disciple's apprehension about this departure. The disciples have understood that Jesus is returning to his Father. But this return will be through death.

Why should these followers place their faith and trust in a person whose road, inevitably, ends in destruction? Jesus asks them to join him on his way, but the way is pain; it is a disappointment; his path leads to death. “The way of Jesus is a loving and total gift of himself unto death. This must become the way of his followers.”

As a parallel to the Star Wars saga, why do we rise to fight amid the inevitable reality of defeat and disappointment? Why should we join Jesus on the way?

We may examine the Christian response in a phrase, the long defeat. J.R.R. Tolkien coined this phrase, and he explains what he means.

Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory. (Letters, 255)

The Christian response rests on two fundamental assumptions. First, we will fail, at least by worldly standards. No matter how well we have set ourselves up for success, no matter how well we have conditioned the inputs, all our systems, prescriptions, and policies have been created by us. Humankind did not make humans; therefore, human systems cannot ultimately perfect humans. The logical question follows: Who can?!

This question leads us to the second basic assumption: Victory is the Lord's. Final victory is with one person exclusively, God.

The long defeat is Tolkien's way of saying that our efforts to remake the world will inevitably fail, but they are not in vain. This assumption does not mean that God's efforts to remake us will end in the same way. It's quite the opposite. Jesus is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, THE LIFE. To be with Christ is to be one with the Father. To know Christ is to know the Father. Jesus goes on to say, believe in me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. The works of Jesus are where this oneness with the Father is to be seen. As Jesus tells Philip after Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, I have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?... The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

Heal the sick! Care for the most vulnerable! Feed the hungry! Have patience like Jesus had patience with those closest to him. Show mercy! Display kindness! Forgive those who have trespassed against you as our Heavenly Father has forgiven you! Love God! Love your neighbor! Greater love has no one than this: to lay down your life for your friends. The way of Christ is characterized by self-sacrifice and love.

Why, amid the inevitable reality of defeat and disappointment, do we rise to fight? Why should we join Jesus on the way?

We rise, we fight, we join Jesus on the way because there are things in life more important than winning; there are things in life worth fighting for.

Jesus’ way exists within, above, and all around us. It's never reduced to your political parties' platform. It's not dependent on your denominational stripes. It often stretches past your notions of comfort and convenience. Yet, it pierces the dark.

When we look around our world today, it is easy to be discouraged. COVID-19 rages on. Treatments and vaccines have been slow to develop. The number of people struggling with depression is skyrocketing. Family units are being pushed to their breaking point. The political landscape is littered with lies, half-truths, and manipulation. There seems to be an overwhelming push to paint the other as the enemy! A push to see your enemies as not human! Weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable and extreme. It is easy, even understandable, that we find it tempting to throw our hands in the air in exasperation, yelling out, “NOTHING MATTERS ANYWAY.”

My friends, nothing can be further from the truth. For the way of the Christian has always meant that we confront the present failures. The way of the Christian is that we face the world we've been given. The way of the Christian is that we imitate Christ within and amid any circumstance in which we find ourselves. Where are the poor among you, Church? What cries for help have you heard? What cries for help are you hearing? Where are there opportunities for mercy in your life?

The way is marked with disappointment and failure, but that is our road. The Christian, who may know nothing else, knows that victory is the Lord's, and the way has been shown to us by and through the person and works of Jesus Christ!

At the conclusion of Rogue One, we slowly see our heroes pass away, one by one. Each makes their stand, following the gifts that they'd been given. In the final scene, we witness the two main protagonists engulfed in the death star's fiery weapon. It would have seemed that all hope was lost. But there was a sleight of hand. The schematics of the death star were recovered. Instead of personally carrying them away, which would have certainly meant the capture of both the heroes and the plans, our heroes transmitted them electronically. The rebel force fought long enough and hard enough for a small ship carrying the plans to escape the clutches of the empire. At that moment, a new hope was born. The story continues.

Church, this present darkness will not endure. Instead of deriding your neighbor for their differences of opinion, perhaps ask them how you may care better for them. Instead of joining in on divisive commentary based on your political allegiance, perhaps, first, focus on your devotion to Christ. Though all may seem lost or uncertain, God is not idle. I urge you, follow the way of Jesus. Jesus calls you. Jesus invites you. Our sacred story awaits you. Godspeed.

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