power & responsibility

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

This one sentence, spoken by Uncle Ben to a newly bitten Peter Parker in the first Spider-Man film from 2002, helped launch the modern Superhero film genre that recently culminated in Avengers: Endgame and the most recent Spider-Man film just released this weekend, Far From Home. This line, “with great power comes great responsibility,” fully encapsulates the expectation that we have put on our heroes (super or not), and has since been repeated, remarked upon, lampooned and reworked throughout pop culture references that ask, is this really what we expect? Do we expect others to save us, to be the hero?

In the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which released late last fall, this question is asked of a new Spider-Man, Miles Morales, a half-black half-Puerto Rican thirteen year-old from Brooklyn. At the end of the film Miles declares: “I never thought I’d be able to do any of this stuff. But I can. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask. If you didn’t know that before, I hope you do now. Cuz I’m Spider-Man. And I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot.” This is both a reference to the multiverse versions of Spider-Man that appear throughout the film and come together with Miles in the film’s climax, but also the acceptance of his new identity as a superhero. Miles realizes that this burden of power is only as good as the person behind the mask while understanding that this does not mean that it is only on him (that is, the person behind the mask) for the answer, but rather a true superhero relies on those around him, the community with which they are a part, to take on the challenges of evil, to stand up for justice and truth, to declare to the world that together we can rise up and defeat those that would tear us apart.

Clearly I can’t help but see many of the themes that we wrestle and struggle with as Christians reflected in our pop culture. One thing that makes films like Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse so influential and powerful are that we see ourselves reflected in the story, we connect to the experiences and challenges being presented, we connect to the humanity of the superhero, knowing that it is in their humanity that they earn that badge of hero versus villain (for that often seems to be the main difference, at least for the more earth-bound villains, one’s own understanding of one’s humanity and what it means in connection with community).

One of the great challenges of Christianity is connecting with, understanding, and using the great power that comes with our faith and belief in a way that further builds up the creation and our community, that connects with the humanity we share with one another, while knowing that we also have something bigger to share with the world. We must ask the question: what is the power of our faith and belief? What is the reality of our call in following Christ, in accepting the great commission just as the seventy accept their commission to go out and bring the kingdom near? How do we share our Good News in both an authentic and responsible way?

As believers we are called to bring the Good News out into the world, to share this Good News with everyone we meet. We evangelize this Good News, sharing it in each community, letting them know that the kingdom of God has come near. And, with this Good News we perform the work of Christ. We offer healing. We offer the healing of absolution for sins as we encourage a turning back to God, to repent, to seek forgiveness. We offer healing from the presence of evil in our lives, for in the name of Christ, even the demons submit to us.

This is a great power with which we must consider the deep implications of our actions and understand the responsibility we have in exercising this power. Christ himself warns of reveling in the power that comes from our faith. Just because the demons submit, it is not a cause of celebration. What we should be joyful about is that our names are written in heaven. The submission by the demons in many ways is a byproduct or cool parlor trick that we can utilize in healing (often very necessary and foundational healing) and sharing the Good News, but the important piece of what we do is in the bringing near of the kingdom of God.

Many, many people however have been hurt by the Church universal by those who have abused this power of faith and belief, who have misunderstood what the focus should truly be on, by those that have withheld this power due to self-imposed boundaries to access, by those who have proclaimed this power in word and done the opposite in action. In our own experience of taking on this power in sharing the Good News, we must be aware of the damage that many have experienced through its use. We must be aware that the purpose and true power of what we are offering have been twisted and corrupted by others, creating distrust, anxiety, fear about what our true motives are as we bring this Good News forth.

I think this is part of the reason why Episcopalians have been so wary to own this power in our faith and belief, to truly take on the mantle of the seventy and evangelize the presence of the kingdom of God drawn near. We are wary because so many have been made weary through the actions of others. We are wary because we were (perhaps still are) the weary that have found a home in a place that was authentic about faith, that allowed space for you to come and be. But, we cannot simply be a rest stop for people on the journey of faith. We cannot draw others into this place of authentic wrestling with faith, into this place of acceptance for all, into this place of encouragement and community that celebrates the reality of our humanity while also knowing the challenges that it presents as we think of our life through the lens of our faith, we cannot draw others in if we are too wary to let others know we exist.

If we are like the seventy, sent by Christ to GO!, then how do we experience that reality and expectation of our faith while understanding the reality of what this power truly entails? How can we share our reality of faith and belief? How do we bring the kingdom near?

As the end credits roll on Into the Spider-Verse, the song “Elevate” by DJ Khalil plays with the following chorus: “Gotta go hard, I ain’t got time to waste, I gotta go high, I gotta elevate, They wanna fight, I’m just gon’ let ’em hate, I gotta go high, I gotta elevate.” And that really is what we are called to do, elevate. If we can elevate our sharing of the Good News, if we can honor the pain and frustration that others may have experienced in the past, if we can elevate and embrace the power that resides in our faith and belief, power enough that even the demons submit to us, then we can move past that wariness that we hold onto that keeps us from living fully into our faith in expression beyond these walls. If we commit to “going hard,” knowing that we “ain’t got time to waste,” we can embrace the responsibility that comes with being a follower of Christ, and bring the kingdom of God near.

When we are called to be like the seventy and bring the kingdom of God into every village, to share in community with those who would welcome us, to share the Good News even with those who cannot welcome us at this time for whatever reason, we are called to take on a mantle of power, and with that power, responsibility in how we live into our faith and share that faith with those around us. It is in our shared humanity that we can connect with the true source of our power that is found in community with others who are sharing in this work with us. It is in our learning and growing and accepting of what it truly means to follow Christ, that we can not just change a community, but we can change souls. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to let others know that the Good News is for them too, even if they have experienced otherwise. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to go out into the world, spreading the love of Christ through all that we do and with all who we meet.

Amen.

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