Searching for the Signal

A Sermon for Sunday June 23, I Samuel 3:1-13 and 15-18; Mark 5:21 and 24b-34

Last Sunday on Father’s Day, my mother-in-law Anne gave me a card with a depiction of the popular Star Wars movie characters CP30 and R2D2 on the cover having an intense discussion while aboard the starship Millennium Falcon. The card reads: “In a galaxy far, far away, two droids are discussing their most dangerous and difficult mission ever… raising kids. Happy Father’s Day to a Stellar Dad.” On the inside of the card is another picture of C3P0 and R2D2, accompanied by a recorded mash-up of their dialogue from the epic film series, which amusingly depicts how a conversation on parenting might occur between the two droids:

C3P0:              “How did we get into this mess?”

R2D2:                (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:              “‘Exciting’ is hardly the word I would choose.

R2D2:                 (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0               “We seem to be made to suffer, it’s our lot in life.

R2D2:               (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0               “I’ve got to rest before I fall apart

R2D2:               (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:    “Surrender is a perfectly acceptable alternative in extreme circumstances!”

R2D2:      (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:       “We’re doomed!”

R2D2:        (series of beeps and whistles)

The first film in the franchise to be released, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), was shown in Anderson Auditorium one evening during the Montreat High School Youth Conference, an annual summer event that occurs at the Montreat Conference Center near Black Mountain, NC.

Often the planning team leaders show a fun family-friendly film that relates to the particular theme of the conference…like the 2008-themed “Throw Open the Doors,” when the planning team showed the Disney-Pixar sensation Monster’s Inc., the story of two silly well-meaning monsters that try to return a toddler back to her home via her bedroom door. But to show Star Wars, a 34-year-old film that spawned a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, seemed like an odd choice to show this year for a conference whose theme is “Searching for the Signal.”  What does a movie about droids, spaceships, light-sabre duels and a guy named Luke Skywalker have anything to do with “signals?”

I’ll admit that even for a huge Star Wars fan like myself, the connection wasn’t immediate clear…until I started contemplating the film. For those who have never seen Star Wars, which was conceived by George Lucas, or who haven’t seen the original movie in a long time, I highly recommend a viewing. The film, like many in the science fiction genre, contains tremendous insights on what it means for us to be “Searching for the Signal.”

Before we glean wisdom from Star Wars, as well as the blockbuster science fiction/adventure movies of Steven Spielberg, let’s first delve into the concept of a “signal.” On the first full day of the conference, keynote speaker, Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, explained that the signal among all the many signals (signs, sounds, voices) in our lives is Jesus.  He said, “Jesus is the signal because God becomes a human being. Incarnation. In flesh… God does the most unique thing in the history of the universe.”

Following this statement, nearly 700 youth and adults delved into a Bible study on the nativity story, Jesus’ birth account in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  And in both accounts we discovered characters that are searching for the signal that is Jesus…folks who are looking toward the skies for a sign of the divine love that has come to humbly dwell on earth—

 the wise men from the East who follow an evening star that leads them to Jesus’ home in Bethlehem and…

the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, who after seeing a chorus of angels praise God in the night sky, go to the manger where Jesus has been born.

Throughout history, human beings have made numerous attempts to search and follow the signal that is Jesus. Over and over again, we strive to hear how we are being called to speak God’s truth with grace; to be messengers for God’s peace and justice; to be God’s instruments for healing and reconciliation; and to be embodiments of God’s unconditional and steadfast love.

We discover day in and day out how we are called to live our lives in sync with God’s signal. But sometimes we receive mixed signals in the world around us—

 signals that distract from God’s signal or God’s voice.

Like the young Samuel who mistakes God’s voice for his teacher Eli or the hemorrhaging woman who routinely hears the voices of society telling her she is unclean and unworthy, we too hone in on various voices or signals that compete for God’s attention—

signals of wealth, fame, power, selfishness, individualism, greed, jealousy, anger, hate, revenge, and violence–signals that keep us focused solely on ourselves and our needs

signals that twist and deform and dehumanize God’s own creation…the world, other human beings and ourselves.

The daily challenge is to discern God’s signal from all the others—to tease out God’s calling or God’s choosing of us to be shining lights of love, hope and wonder in the world.  Rodger Nishioka told us at the conference that we can best tune in to God’s signal through spiritual disciplines, also known as the practices of discipleship like fasting, praying, confronting systems of injustice verbally and non-violently, reaching out to the “least of these,” and proclaiming the truth of God’s loving and just kingdom for all people. These disciplines, these practices of discipleship, are not easy, Rodger reminded us, “They take work.” They take hard work.

These disciplines will attract some wayward glances, harsh criticisms, obstinate views and, sometimes, violence.  The disciplines are not words and actions that easily come from within.  Remember that Samuel was barely 12-years-old when God speaks to him and asks the boy to deliver a difficult message to Eli the priest. Samuel is afraid to talk to Eli because he doesn’t want to upset or anger the man who has been like a father and mentored him in the ways of God. But God chooses the boy (likely because of his direct and sincere honesty) to speak the truth in love. And as hard as it will be to talk to his mentor, Samuel finds the strength to say: Eli, God says you can no longer be a priest in the temple because your sons have done many evil things in God’s sight, and you have not held them accountable or disciplined them.  

And then there’s the hemorrhaging woman who truly has the deck stacked against her: she suffers from a cruel and painful disease that was not made any better by the poking and prodding of doctors.  She is poor from having spent her money on medical bills. She is an outcast because of her gender and her illness. But God chooses her (likely because of her perseverance and courage) to hear about the ministry of Jesus in the nearby towns of Galilee. And as hard as it will be for her to be in public, the hemorrhaging woman, who has endured for 12 years, finds the strength to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

Samuel and the hemorrhaging woman aren’t the only ones who work hard to respond to God’s call. History is abundant with stories of people who affected great change because of the hard work of discipleship—of responding to God’s choosing—despite the difficulty of the task or resistance from others:

Alice Paul, an activist whose work for women’s voting rights resulted in the passage of the 19th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., prominent activists and leaders in the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

Caesar Chavez, a labor leader and civil rights activist who co-created The National Farm Workers Association and who led successful efforts in the 1950s and 60s to change laws that denied fair wages and rights to farmers.

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, activists who led peaceful campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and ushered in democracy and genuine reconciliation between blacks and whites in the 1980s and 1990s.

A half-million citizens of Czechoslovakia whose non-violent revolution in Prague’s Wencelas Square in 1989 led to the overthrow of a centuries long communist regime in the country.

Scores of Egyptian protestors (many youth and young adults with social networking skills) whose acts of civil disobedience in January also saw the overthrow of an oppressive government that had existed for decades.

Thousands of people, including mainline Protestants, whose advocacy for civil rights in recent days, weeks and month is leading to more fair, loving and equal treatment of gays and lesbians.

The 50-something children of PHPC’s Vacation Bible School who will literally make the earth a greener place because of the lessons they learned last week about caring for God’s creation.

Over 6,000 youth and adults who by the end of this summer will have heard God’s signal to make great change in their communities and world for people who are suffering.

The High School Youth Mission Team of 18 youth and 10 adults who embark this coming Thursday on a week-long trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to work with PCUSA missionaries and Heifer International to help Hondurans and their communities build a better life.

The PHPC congregation and church leaders whose efforts to partner with the organization World Relief has resulted in the sponsorship of and friendship with an incredible family from Burma.

The Lan family, Ngun Lan (Lan-eh), Sui Thluai (Swee), Gin-tay (Christina), Van Siang Bik (Alex), who fled Christian persecution in their home country of Burma, lived for many years in a refugee camp in Malaysia and are adjusting to the culture shock of life in America and Duluth, Georgia…brave and courageous people who are listening intently to God’s call and signal for them in a strange new land.

So what does all of this (you’re probably wondering) have to do with that other strange land and world known as Star Wars which I mentioned earlier? What does “Searching for the Signal” have to do with that film or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) E.T. (1982) and the latest, a collaboration with J.J. Abrams, Super 8 (2011)?

Well, each one of these films, and many more, focus on one story (although told in many different and fascinating ways):  The main character(s) look to the skies for a signal that there is something more powerful than them in the universe… a something that enables them to be more compassionate and humane toward another…

In Star Wars, the farm boy Luke Skywalker becomes aware of a “force” that signals to him that he is meant to help bring peace and reconciliation to the galaxy. Luke fulfills this task, over the course of three films, by freeing his father Anakin from the dark side of the “force” which is personified as the terrifying Darth Vader. Luke’s compassion leads him to eventually see the face of his father behind the menacing mask.

                                                                 In Close Encounters, blue-collar employee Roy Neary is called to investigate a power outage when his truck stalls and he is bathed in light from two spaceships from above. After this close encounter, strange visions and five musical notes, a thematic signal throughout the film, keep running through Roy’s mind, ultimately leading him into the wilderness where government scientists are communicating, via the same musical tones, with space aliens on a humongous mother ship. Roy and the scientists demonstrate great respect toward the aliens by authentically offering friendship and a desire to learn more about their culture.

In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a lonely middle school boy named Elliott makes contact with an extraterrestrial, fondly dubbed as E.T. who is accidentally left stranded on Earth. Elliott becomes friends with the creature and helps E.T. create a device that will contact his mother ship or in the words of the extraterrestrial: “E.T. phoneeee homeeeee.” Elliott, in an attempt to reunite E.T. with his family without getting caught by his mom or the government, learns about his own self-worth and the important role he plays in his family. Similar to the hemorrhaging woman, Elliott—who suffers from loneliness as a result of his parent’s ugly divorce—literally reaches out to a more powerful being than he to be healed with love.

And finally, in Super 8 (which takes much of its inspiration from Close Encounters and E.T.) 13-year-old Joe Lamb, a quiet daydreamer, is making a zombie film with his buddies when a catastrophic train wreck occurs, releasing top-secret cargo—a supernatural creature that has been held in government captivity and mistreated for decades. Joe—who lost his mother in a mill accident months prior to this event and who has a strained relationship with his bitter father Deputy Jackson Lamb—eventually learns the meaning of compassion and redemption as he (and his father) confront the strange being who has been stealing energy sources and kidnapping townsfolk for much of the movie. As one film reviewer noted: “Director J.J. Abrams uses a Spielberg-ian element of an alien visitor to intercede for Joe and Deputy Lamb. The father and son don’t fix their own problems. They don’t save themselves. It takes something supernatural and miraculous to rescue and redeem them. When speaking of this spiritual experience, a renewed Joe boldly proclaims, ‘I believe,’ reiterating the importance of faith in a higher power or being.”

Our hearts and imaginations are often captivated by these types of stories (found in the movies, the Bible, history books and daily life) because they themselves are signals that lead us to the signal that is Jesus—incredible signs that point us toward the signal that is God-in-the-flesh.  “Searching for the Signal” is ultimately about coming into human contact with a mysterious, supernatural, powerful, compassionate and merciful God who at the same time chooses us, flawed human beings, to be signals of that same love for one another.

So whether you leave a lucrative career to work at a non-profit that gives aide to the poor or whether you volunteer at the Duluth Co-Op or provide a meal for the men at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries or serve as a church school teacher for third graders or go on a mission trip to Haiti or teach English to a refugee family…you are searching for and following God’s signal.

May we all continue to search and find God’s signal, may we receive it and may we all pass it on.



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