God be with you—Sermon preached by Jennifer Hudson
Each time I hear the phrase “May the force be with you” when watching any of the Star Wars films, it is often followed with an itch to reply, “And also with you”! Substitute the word “force” with “Lord” and it feels like I’m in church.
As much as I enjoy the Star Wars films, I am not as fanatical as some others might be. I do not attend conventions or engage in cosplay (which is to say, dressing up as one of the characters). But I am known to sit down and watch any of the films when they appear on television. I still love the Ewoks. But I will admit that anyone who knows me well, knows that I am close to obsessed with the character Grogu, also known colloquially and affectionately as “Baby Yoda,” from the franchise’s series The Mandalorian, which can be streamed on Disney +. When I say close to obsessed, I mean: I have a cookie jar, a pancake mold, a nightlight—and those are all just in my kitchen. Let’s not talk about the cuddly pillow-like doll, or my slippers, or my bottle of hand sanitizer, or the background on my iPhone!
All kidding aside, it is fascinating to me how many film critics and scholars have written essays or commentaries on evidence of Christian themes in Star Wars. I won’t bore you with a lecture on all of that. Film interpretation is purely subjective. There are many lenses through which one may view Star Wars. Where some see Christian themes, for instance, others see Taoist or Buddhist. I am not one to question the spiritual beliefs of the franchise’s creator because the truth is any story borrows from a collective subconscious into which many spiritual teachings have been embedded. However, I would like to revisit the phrase “May the force be with you,” most often uttered as a farewell between characters before a mission, as it strongly echoes the celebrant’s greeting to the congregation “The Lord be with you” on any given Sunday in church. It implies something supernatural is present within each person, ready to be tapped into when the need arises.
Whether we realize it or not, we do the same thing each time we offer the word “goodbye” to someone. The term is really an abbreviated form of the phrase “God be with ye,” originating sometime in the 1570s. People did not have devices such as those we have today which make instantaneous communication across distances possible. They often didn’t know when they would see a person again and speak next. Therefore, they offered the phrase “God be with ye” to ask God to be with them until their paths crossed again, even to ensure that their paths crossed again. It was a type of prayer and address rolled into one.
Whether we say “God be with you,” “The Lord be with you,” or “The force be with you,” each of these phrases speaks to a truth which Ascension Day teaches us: that God is very present among us, even when the opposite appears to be true.
Imagine how the disciples must feel when Jesus tells them the power of the Holy Spirit will descend upon them, before blessing them and then ascending into heaven. Talk about a goodbye! In the account from Luke, we are told that the disciples worshipped him joyfully and stuck to the Temple in Jerusalem, waiting to receive the Spirit. But the account from Acts tells us something a bit different: that the disciples stand up looking into the sky, watching Jesus ascend, their gazes lingering up there even after the heavens have collected him. Two men in robes, most likely angels, ask them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
I wonder if the disciples feel the way many of us do when facing a major life change: What next? Think back to the times we might have relocated, or ended a relationship, or changed jobs or faith communities, or lost a loved one. In our grief and anxiety, we might have tended to spend time dwelling on or clinging to the past. We might have questioned: how do I move on from this huge loss? Did I make the right move or do the right thing? What do I do now? How will I move forward?
Jesus died, rose, spent the next forty days visiting the disciples on different occasions (sometimes unrecognized at first), and then was yanked from them again by a cloud. I can’t help but think the disciples must feel a bit jerked around on a roller coaster ride of grief, solace, and grief again in response. I wonder if they might feel now as though God is abandoning them, much in the same way we might feel this way when encountering a change that either brings heartache and loss or more questions than answers.
But the truth of the Ascension, of Jesus’ “God be with ye,” is that he is always with us, even when we think he is not. He has not ascended into heaven to abandon us. On the contrary, he becomes more present than ever before. It is a new way of being present, and it has already been revealed during his visits to the disciples after his resurrection: he is everywhere at all times, including in everyone. He sends the Holy Spirit, so that we become his eyes and ears and hands and voice at work in the world. Jesus asks us to continue his mission: to heal the sick and feed the hungry, to work for justice and peace, to forgive as God forgives us, to walk in love. And it is not only Jesus who is with us. All aspects of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are one and immanent and with us, and we are each in God and, therefore, one body. Though the force of the Star Wars universe is an energy field that is created by all life and unites everything, it is our God who creates, redeems, sustains, and unites us all. And God loves us so much to always remain with us and guide us, and to bring the earthly and heavenly domains together in Christ.
There are ten days (seven for us, really) until Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. What do we do in that liminal, in-between space? What do we do when we encounter any phase in our lives that has us questioning: What next? The disciples pray. We might do the same and, thereby, tap into the force, the Spirit of God within us. We might look deep within ourselves and see God present in what’s broken and hurting and try to heal. The Spirit will do the rest and help us move forward if we remain open to her. She may whisper to us from the still, small voice within or through the people, places or experiences we encounter along our journeys.
God be with you. Because the truth is that God always is with you.