Hebrews 12:1-2/Luke 18:1-8
Daniel Radcliffe is only a couple years older than my daughters, so we had the joy of taking them to see all the “Harry Potter” movies. We watched those kids grow up on screen and perfect their wizarding magic, while our daughters tried to find their own magical, mystical gifts.
Without Harry Potter, I’m not sure I would have given much thought to magic, but, as a parent of two girls, I was very grateful to have Hermione Granger there to remind them that they could be just as good as the boys if they did their homework.
As I considered this sermon series, which focuses on discovering our superpowers and becoming superheroes, I began to ponder the philosophical and metaphysical differences between superpowers and magical powers.
Now, I know that even positing that question is going to send a couple of you down a rabbit hole from now until the benediction, so let me hasten to introduce today’s superhero mentor and the parable their life provides.
Steve Rogers is Captain America, but he wasn’t always a superhero … or maybe he was. His story begins at the onset of World War II. A young Steve Rogers is so stirred by his sense of justice and love of country that he tries to volunteer to go fight the Nazis. I’m not sure what reason the Army gave for rejecting him repeatedly, but the bottom line was he simply was too scrawny to be a soldier.
In one scene he is watching a newsreel about the war before a movie was about to begin. A jerk disrupts the patriotic moment, and Rogers tries to shut him up. It doesn’t go well. As the he is beating Rogers up, the bully says, “You just don't know when to give up, do ya?”
“I can do this all day” Rogers responds, and it becomes his mantra and a reoccurring theme in situations in which he gets knocked down but keeps getting back up.
Steve Rogers being rejected repeatedly by the Army led to his being willing to undergo a scientific experiment that gave him greatly heightened strength and speed. He didn’t have magical powers, but he became an enhanced human. They called him by his rank, “Captain America.”
As I was writing this sermon I kept wondering if it is heretical to think that Captain America is partially modeled after Jesus. You see, the Western church has created this very white, very exalted understanding of Jesus. That way he looks like us, but he is so exalted that we feel no responsibility to live like him.
When his first disciples tried that, Jesus kept referring to himself as the human one.
Early eastern orthodox teachers used to say that Jesus became all that we are so that we might become all that he is.
Like Captain America, Jesus was an enhanced human being. Not enhanced by a secret military serum or a virgin birth but enhanced by being fully humanely human. Perhaps Jesus was the only human to fully accept his identity as a child of God. Brennen Manning says that, because of this, Jesus was a “stranger to self-hatred.”
Thousands of people apparently found that to be a compelling identity. They followed Jesus, wanting to learn how he learned that superpower. His disciples asked him to teach them to pray. That isn’t a question you would ask of a god pretending to be a man; that is a question you ask of someone who has discovered the true power of their humanity.
Jesus answered them with a story about a woman whose persistence moved even a godless judge. Truthfully, I’ve always disliked this story because it seems that Jesus was making prayer a matter of badgering God into doing our will. Frankly, that has never worked well for me.
What I have come to realize, however, is that persistence, tenacity, or resilience is a superpower. Jesus said that if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. That seems like magic to me.
What I eventually came to understand is that faith is actually about faithfulness. I’ve seen many mountains moved by faithfulness. It isn’t magic, but many faithful women and men took their shovels, and, with God-enhanced strength, moved a mountain, one shovelful at a time.
Persistence, tenacity, and resilience make faith a superpower because, by persisting, we break through to our full humanity, which is what it means to be a God-beloved superhero.
Unfortunately, we don’t really want the power that comes from being persistently faithful; we want faith that works like magic instantly and easily. Just this week, one of my students said they wished they could preach like me. I told them just kept at it for 40 years.
Wouldn’t you love to play the piano as beautifully as Douglas? We want to wake up tomorrow and play the piano to the glory of God, but, if we have to practice for 40 years, well, maybe not. Most of us don’t have Douglas’s gift, but, if he had not persisted and practiced, he would not have his gift either. Steve Rogers got beaten, but he kept getting back up. He told the bully he could do it all day. In actuality, he couldn’t do it all day, until he could. That attitude led to a day when he could.
THAT is what made him Captain America, not the serum.
I don’t know what your superpower is, or how God has called you to change the world, but I do know that it won’t be easy, simple, or quick. There will be opposition and resistance, but that resistance may be the very thing you need to make you strong enough to soar.
The Bible calls us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” Notice that we can’t run someone else’s race; we must run our own, the one that is set before us. It is going to take perseverance, tenacity, and resilience to finish the course and keep the faith.
If my own race has taught me anything it is that all the sermons, self-help books, and therapy in the world won’t make you more resilient. They may encourage it, but, in the end, what is required is getting back up and trying again.
I don’t say that flippantly. For 22 years, I was pastor of the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer church in the world. We built a cathedral in Dallas, Texas, against all odds and facing tremendous resistance.
The Ku Klux Klan, Westboro Baptist Church, and Operation Rescue attacking us, combined with regular bomb threats and hate mail, only made us stronger and more determined. What could have defeated us, though, was self-doubt or letting our fears define our course of action.
We tried lots of things that simply didn’t work. No one had ever built an LGBTQ cathedral before. No one had ever grown a radically inclusive mega-church in the South before. There were no roadmaps nor role models, so our only way forward was to try, and to fail, and then rise to try again.
We soon discovered that failure isn’t fatal UNLESS you do not learn and do not try again. Without perseverance, without getting back up, failure defines you. The secret is making everything an experiment. If all of life is an experiment, then failures and mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. They are not a cause for shame.
Oh, believe me; I know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it is only a wave that knocks you down, but it also can be a tsunami. My grief over losing my best friend and soulmate three years ago knocked me to the ground, and it is taking all my strength to rise again.
On the day that Bill died, my life as I had known it ended. All my hopes, and dreams, and plans went with him. I’ll confess that, many days, I’m still simply putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I’m learning what faithfulness really is.
I’m still in the midst of it, so it would be arrogant and premature for me to draw too many conclusions. What I can say, however, is that I have two options: let my loss stop me from living or get back up and start a new experiment.
The writer of the book of Hebrew says something else about our race that we must not forget. The finish line of our race is not death. We must keep “looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”
The word finisher is a carpenter’s term. Perhaps the author is trying to remind us that life can be rough like sandpaper or cutting like a saw or a plane. Truthfully, every life knows pain, some more than others. Even superheroes get knocked around and sometimes knocked down.
That may be why the cross is at the center of our faith. Jesus wasn’t immune to life’s trials. God doesn’t send waves to knock us down; life provides plenty of those on its own. But those of us seeking to walk in the Way of Jesus have the promise that the Carpenter from Nazareth can use even the painful parts to make us stronger and more fully human.
Don’t ever think a setback, grief, or pain is the end of the story. Instead, look life in the eye and say, “With God’s help, I can do this all day.”