In my seminary coursework, I was fortunate to take the class "Preaching and Film", an elective course where we explored the connections between the sermon, the biblical text, and popular culture. While the idea of going to a movie theater is becoming less culturally familiar in the world of Netflix and other ways to stream video at home or from the convenience of any manner of tablets, handhelds, laptops, etc., the principles of the course are still quite sound. Film and other forms of popular culture strike resonance with what it means to be human. Not everything you encounter in popular culture is edifying, and Neil Postman's noted study still speaks well to the worry we may be "Amusing Ourselves to Death" along the way.
Growing up in a generation (Gen X) with less likely acquaintance with religion, I found the course helpful as more of my friends know, "May the Force be with you" far more than "The Lord be with you." Finding ways to share the Word in the midst of the many words and images driving our culture and in turn our values or worldview is quite the challenge. In my sermons, I turn to varying forms of pop culture, referencing films, television shows, graphic novels/comic books, and online content. I am judicious in the ways I reference material, hoping always to help the words illumine how the Word guides us forward.
For example, this past Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Syracuse, NY, I was invited to preach as part of my work with the church, providing assistance to their just starting process of pastoral transition. Long-time minister Dr. Scott Kavanagh will be retiring at the end of September, and the lay leadership and Dr. Kavanagh invited me to share in an upcoming worship service.
In preparing for the service, I recalled a great line from a 1990s science fiction show that would illumine what I wanted congregants to take away with them from the service. Churches go into a time of anxiety, uncertainty and sometimes disarray during pastoral transitions. Why not encourage them to keep ahold of hope in the midst of such times?
So here's a few excerpts from the sermon to show how text, congregational context and popular culture dovetailed into my sermon in Syracuse:
My wife and I enjoy reading and watching science fiction. Kerry introduced me to the 1990s television show Babylon 5, set in the far future on a space station where the many alien races gather and much intrigue plays out while “all alone in the night”. The show often deals with the spirituality of the various characters, seeing faith as part of the future, unlike other science fiction writers and television shows where spirituality or organized religion have little or no presence in the future.
One of the greater lines of B5 dialogue happens when two of the alien characters are in a difficult situation, and a word of encouragement is desperately needed. They share this sentence one to another, and they are able to get through the situation at hand.
Indeed, later on this line of dialogue would later appear in the end credits at the end of a season. It was a good word for the cast and crew to keep in mind as they wondered whether or not the production would receive a much-doubted additional season renewal. In front of the cameras and behind it, you could say the show found great strength from just two words. You could say this particular saying might even work its way into your own life after you’ve heard it today.
The quote: “Faith manages.”
Ever since hearing this line, I keep it close to heart and mind. The idea behind “Faith manages” is quite needed as we can convince ourselves to the point we cannot believe anything good can happen or ever did happen to us. Persons who keep the faith do not turn away from the promises of that faith when things become dire.
The preacher Fred Craddock claims prayer can happen even through grit teeth. And for anyone along life’s journey with its twists and turns, you know that type of prayer well! You know it…when the corporate pink slips go out, when the doctor starts to deliver the test results in a somber tone, when the night of cramming for finals didn’t seem to help much, when financial woes keep your future in doubt.
At times like this, you want to be curled up in a ball in the corner, rocking back and forth. When we are to the edge, over the precipice, and our internal wherewithal seems to have evaporated away, this is when you realize the need for help. For persons of faith (whatever that faith may be), that’s when your beliefs become your watchwords, your guide for times uncertain and paths unknown.
It’s where we realize all the singing and praising, praying and preaching on a Sunday morning matters greatly. We discover faith as the link between our beliefs and our lives, capable of providing strength, solace and a sense of a future. Things may not work out perfectly or tied up neatly with a bow, yet keeping faith at the forefront acknowledges that we do not buy into the idea that what’s coming our way is going to be the last word on our future. Faith will see us beyond our fears and anxieties, our forebodings and even our endings.
For Christians, “faith manages” is summed up in the word we use called “hope”. We use this word in our speaking of belief and in our growth as disciples because at the very core of Christianity is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By that remarkable story where life and death are reshaped by Easter’s great proclamation, we are able to stand in the gale force winds of change with confidence and live with assurance that whate’er befall, God is with us, each step of the faith. Hope grounds us when we think there’s no ground left to stand on. Hope gives us a sense of identity and vision when we fear we otherwise “got nothin’”.
[And at the end of the sermon, I shared these last words....]
We may not have much ability to choose the path ahead of us, yet we have the great hope and trust found in Christ Jesus to lead us forward. We could settle for curling up in the corner or running ahead on a heady mix of anxiety and stress. Some folks (churches and even clergy!) choose to go that direction. Some others just hunker down and try their best to hold onto what was and keep “what might be” at arm’s length.
It’s all about choices. Which choice sounds the better one?
Postscript: After worship, a young mom said her daughter had something to share with me. During the sermon, the daughter spent her time drawing and coloring. She picked up on the first part of my sermon and drew a picture of an alien saying "Faith manages." I was delighted to see how the sermon connected with the child. With her mom's permission, I include a photo of the young artist (and perhaps someday a preacher herself!).