The Sunday Sermon: Creativity & Faithfulness

7/24/2022
Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.

            Good morning, and a happy Comic-Con Sunday to you all! When I think of Comic-Con, I think of epic franchises, from those of Disney, to Adult Swim cartoons, Anime subcultures, gaming, and anything under the sun that offers people temporary escape or freedom of imagination. It is a veritable celebration of human creativity! As Christians, our franchise if you will, is based in Scripture. Scripture itself is a theological anthology of epic proportions, covering the birth of the universe, the whole of human drama, and then what we believe to be God’s ultimate response to it in the person of Jesus, carrying us through to a proposed vision for the end of all things. As the much beloved adult cartoon Rick and Morty once put it, the Bible is “every writer’s hell,” as everything is compared to or said to draw from it eventually.

            And sometimes, Scripture’s stories scare us, such as our reading from Hosea. For most of us the image of God as an abusive husband causing physical harm to the Israelites of Scripture as a wife is startling and harmful, especially for survivors of such spousal abuse. While I want to remind us that this isn’t meant to be read literally, it is still not a justification for the imagery. We must remember that this is written in a patriarchal culture, surrounded by other patriarchal cultures, and so the imagery would have been understood as normative for the time and place it was written. So, to help us move through that I want us to focus on the relationship between God and those who choose God more broadly.

            Any relationship can have breakage and harm, even when unintended. Think of your own friends and family and the various harms done within those. Abuse and harm need not be physical, as mental and emotional trauma can last far longer than any scar. But even Hosea offers a glimpse of hope for restoration, where the book ultimately lands if one can read through the rest. Hosea is, at the end of the day, all about finding hope amidst hopelessness. The author sees a world around him that is perverse beyond saving, and yet knows that a good person can, with God’s love, be restored to wholeness in relationship. The journey home or to wholeness is the best premise for any story, which is why people think more of Homer’s Odyssey rather than the Iliad. To be clear, I love both!

            Here’s where I’ll bring in the spirit of Comic-Con as an aid, when I think about any literature that seeks to find hope among the hopeless, my head goes straight to Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It is among the most maligned of the movies relating to the Skywalker saga, primarily by Men’s Right’s Activists, which is what makes it such a delightful lens by which to reframe Hosea in particular. Where Hosea and uses a man’s privileges to punish a promiscuous wife as a way toward redemption, The Last Jedi uses female heroines to help others through a journey towards reconciliation and hope. One male main character in particular, Finn, spends much of the movie trying to run from problems, his mind is set on escape, even from life itself later in the film.

            The Resistance, the ideological descendants of the Rebel Alliance, which has adopted Finn, are having a moment like the Alamo. They have nowhere else to run or hide, and their backs are against the wall as the First Order, the ideological descendants of the Empire, bear down on them to snuff out and declare absolute victory. Before the First Order is about to knock down the last barrier and demolish the remaining Resistance, Finn and others embark on a desperate last-minute attempt to stop them. It’s clear it isn’t going to work, but Finn is ready to die even if it won’t amount to anything, he might finally escape. Instead, Rose Tico, a character who’s been helping Finn see things differently the whole film, crashes into him and stops him from pointless self-sacrifice. After Finn gets out of his wrecked vehicle, he finds Rose, and in a bit of a huff asks her what she was thinking. She says she saved him, and then says one of the most profound things: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”

            What’s worth saving, from the beginning of time to its end, is creativity, something we can all love. Dean Penny’s letter to the congregation this week did an excellent job drawing out that very point, “The ability to be playful is a sign that we have highly evolved brains. It’s also a gift from God: the creativity and imagination of the Holy Spirit is a playful quality; the seemingly random beauty of the natural world suggests a Creator who plays with the possibilities of color, shape, and movement. How else can we explain the rainbow, the sunset, the blossom, or the stunning beauty of outer space that we are now seeing thanks to the Webb telescope?”[1]

            Scripture itself is a manifestation of human creativity, divine inspiration that allows us endless interpretation and conversation. At times it has qualities not dissimilar from the dark and thrilling world of Game of Thrones, or the hopeful future of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. For the former, we can look back at Hosea, for the latter we need go no further than the last few verses of this morning’s psalm:

“Mercy and truth have met together;

righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth,

and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

Creativity itself, if channeled for the betterment of our lives and those of our neighbors, is itself an act of faithfulness. Or, at a minimum, offers us a glimpse of a better world, which makes ideas the most powerful aspect of human creativity, and has power even over death itself.

            Jesus himself represents the act of creation, as he is born into this world in order to bring healing and wholeness in the face of cruel empires and cynical elites. Jesus’ life is itself the journey through pain and rejection of damaged relationships, towards restoration and reparation. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and like any journey, it begins with a single step. Jesus’ life and our experiences as people are quite a bit like a labyrinth, twisting and turning, even if we have a good idea of what the center and ends may look like, our perspective of it changes from step-to-step, creating a new understanding of what went before and what comes after. I can think of no better film that reflects this truth than Christopher Nolan’s criminally underrated film, TENET. As a quick primer on some of Nolan’s work, while I don’t believe Nolan is a pronounced Christian, his writing and directing often emphasize how the strongest human emotions can change the shape and fabric of reality, past, present, and future. Interstellar and TENET exemplify this most.

            TENET itself is based on an ancient Christian word puzzle known as the Sator square, made up of a 5×5 word palindrome, sator, arepo, tenet, opera, ratos. Nolan takes the puzzle and formulates a labyrinthine plot around it. As one critic wrote of the film: “The movie’s narrative structure, which moves both forward and backwards, is a puzzle box that hard-core Nolan fans will probably enjoy taking apart and putting back together, but it may be excessively inscrutable for a lot of viewers.”[2] I love complexity, so to me it is one of the finest films ever made and represents a journey to hope in a dark time. I love to rewatch it whenever I can find the time, as it is mind bending, and much like Scripture, I find something new in it every time I view it. If you ever ask Maura what I was doing the evening before, there’s a decent chance she’ll tell you that I watched TENET.

            I could preach a series of sermons on the film but suffice it to say that the fact that it relies heavily on a Christian mystic puzzle makes it even better to me. The earliest of these squares is found in the remains of Pompeii but appears in such places as Dura-Europos in Syria, Russian Orthodox manuscripts, and even in Roman Britain. The words themselves offer a jumble of potential meanings, but the surface of it is only the beginning. The most common theory of its meaning is that the earliest Christians used it as a secret code to know who was friendly or not. The puzzle itself is a bit of a labyrinth of meaning, and there are ways to rearrange the letters to spell out other things, but my favorite is the pattern that spells out PATERNOSTER, “our father,” the beginning of the Lord’s prayer.

            Which brings us to today’s gospel, where we find the apostles wondering what is the best way to pray, apparently not feeling terribly creative themselves that day. And most of us can recite the words that Jesus speaks without trouble. As a model for prayer, I focus on what’s asked for first: “you kingdom come,” that God’s reign come to fruition; “give us each day our daily bread,” and that we get what we need for today. I would argue that these are the very source of creativity that God intends for us, through Jesus’ example. That we live what we most earnestly desire to be the better world, and that we get what we need to sustain ourselves as we live the vision Christ gives us. Jesus then says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” We should not hesitate to ask God for the creativity to live into God’s reign here and now, and to ask for what we need to keep living that dream into reality, it is our only hope. In doing so, we may all live long and prosper.

Amen.


[1] https://stpaulcathedral.org/deans-letter-comic-con-sunday/

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/09/tenet-review-christopher-nolan/615955/

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