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"On Changing Lives," by Andrew Warner, January 21, 2018

posted Jan 26, 2018, 1:57 PM by Andrew Warner

The most recent Star Wars film - “The Last Jedi” - marked a new understanding in how the force works.  Spoiler alert; if you haven’t yet seen this film: cover your ears.

A long time ago in that galaxy far, far away, the force operated as a divine energy, a balance of good and evil; a cosmic energy of life that gave mystical and magical powers to those who could wield it.  The Jedi learned to use the good side of the force; the Sith learned to use the evil side.  Jedi and Sith lived as yin-and-yang to each other.

The power of the force became clear in the earliest Star Wars movie, a New Hope.  At one point an Imperial Commander on the newly built Death Star boasts of the power of his station to resist any rebel attack.  He told Lord Vader, “This station is now the ultimate power in the universe.”  Darth Vader counter, “Don’t be too proud of this technological power you’ve constructed.  The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force.”  When the commander sneered, Darth Vader used the force to choke the commander from across the room.

This supreme power of the force - more powerful than any technology or gun - continued right through to the present film, where Luke used the force to broadcast his visage across the galaxy to do battle against his nephew.

While the power of the force remains unchallenged, the way that one learned to use the force radically changed.  In earlier movies, people had to learn how to master the force through long years of study and practice.  Luke traveled to Dagobah to apprentice with Master Yoda, learning seemingly pointless things on the way to becoming a Jedi Master.

But now, in this latest movie, ritual and tradition get dumped for instantaneous insights and hidden knowledge that only needs to be dramatically released.  Rey comes to a sacred Jedi island to learn from Luke, but where Yoda taught Jedi lore, Luke only talks about the pointlessness of ancient myths.  Meanwhile, Rey grabs a lightsaber to become a self-taught prodigy.  While Luke apprenticed, Rey had a eureka moment.

Yet the most telling moment of change came in a scene between Luke and Yoda.  Luke, in his anger at the Jedi tradition, planned to burn down a sacred tree containing ancient Jedi books.  When he stopped, an apparition of Yoda appeared, and with a wave of his wand destroyed the holy site.  To a shocked Luke, Yoda said, “Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.”

Stars Wars, while set in that galaxy far, far away, reflects the shifting attitudes in our own culture.  We value immediacy and instantaneous change over long sought and hard earned knowledge.  Just think: years ago Julia Child became famous for her book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”  But now we have the Food Network promoting “Speedy Gourmet: 30 Minute Meals.”  Or, in politics: people wonder why we elected someone with as little political experience as Donald Trump; but the truth is voters have picked the least experienced candidate in every presidential election for decades.  Just as Clinton had more experience than Trump, so to did McCain have more than Obama, Gore more than Bush, and the first Bush more than the first Clinton.

And so we not only watch the instantaneous emergence of a new master Jedi on Star Wars, but we expect in so many ways for immediacy to govern better than experience.  This shift in how we acquire knowledge matters and it affects how we understand change in our lives.  A focus on instantaneous knowledge sets up an expectation that change can be immediate.  And this comes in contrast to an older focus on knowledge as earned by effort and study: change that only comes with time.

In the United Church of Christ, we talk about “changing lives” as one of core commitment.  This Sunday I want us to think about what we mean by changing lives.  Does change come as a dramatic insight or from a lifetime of work?

This morning we heard stories from both testaments that speak to change happening immediately.  In our first story: Jonah appeared suddenly in Nineveh, announced God’s plan to destroy the city, everyone immediately converted, and God decided to be merciful.  Likewise in the Gospel: Jesus came along and four men dropped everything to follow him immediately.  And from these stories we might conclude discipleship comes as a “eureka” moment of self-discovery.

The model of instant change can be very powerful: the moment when you see yourself in an utterly new way.  The energy and power of such a eureka moment seems at play in the Jonah story.  Even when we read the whole Book of Jonah, nothing prepares the reader for the sudden and overwhelming reaction of the people of Nineveh.  Told they have 40 days before the end, they work to make everything right with God.

Donna Schaper, a United Church of Christ pastor at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, wrote about this instantaneous moment of conversion in Jonah.  Jonah’s message created a sense of urgency in the people; “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  People who are poor and vulnerable in our society experience a sense of urgency all the time.  Evicted: where will I sleep?  Hungry: what will I feed my kids?  Undocumented: will I be deported?

But most of us here today don’t live with the urgency of such questions.  As Schaper pointed out, “The well-off and comfortable do not know what urgency is!”  And, as a result, we may very well need moments that bring us up short, that make us realize our privilege, and make us know in the depth of our bones “this must change.”

Schaper shared her own prophetic moment, when someone’s words shook her.  As she explained: “Once, when I told a friend that I was feeling a bit burnt out, she caught me up short by responding, ‘You ain’t even been lit.’ That phrase brought me to my Nineveh.  It brought me to a place where I could say, ‘I have forty days to get this life and God thing together.’”

I can think of those kind of moments in my own life.  My commitment to work on issues of racial equity came in a flash like that.  Back in 2014, a twelve-year old boy named Tamir Rice played alone in a park with a new toy pistol.  Someone called the police.  They arrived and shot him dead before their car even stopped.  Watching that video, thinking of my own 12-year old son, changed me.  It impelled me to work on racial equity.

I could organize the story of my life around such eureka moments: the moment I came out, the moment I knew I couldn’t be Catholic, the moment I meet Jay, the moment we decided to have children.  Eureka moments serve as the punctuation in our life stories.

And yet, even as I can think of eureka moments that seemed to change my life, I know lots more happened in the background.  The story from Mark’s Gospel seems at first blush another eureka moment.  The story simmers with all its immediacy.  “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”  But this moment of instantaneous discipleship doesn’t end the story; the whole gospel unfolds after it.  Instead of just one powerful moment of insight, the disciples must go on a long, transformative journey in which they continue to fail and fall.

The dramatic insight of the disciples would take them a lifetime to implement.  Which reminds me of a story once told about John Wesley.  A woman came up after one of his revival sermons, to challenge him, saying, “Sir, I’ve heard you preach that sermon before!”  To which he responded, “Yes, but it's a good one.”  The disciples had one good insight and they spent a lifetime trying to live by it.

Jesus talked about something new, the Kingdom of God.  This only gets mentioned twice in the Old Testament, but now Jesus and his disciples can’t stop talking about it, a 100 times in the New Testament, one good idea they couldn’t stop repeating.

In Jesus’ telling, the Kingdom of God contrasted with the powers and principalities around him: corrupt Herod, colonizing Rome.  Where Herod and Rome based their claim to greatness on the cities they built, Jesus would make it on the basis of the community he pulled together.

But building a true community doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes repeated effort and action.  Malcolm Gladwell once wrote about people who do amazing things, Outliers.  In that book he noted that such people spent 10,000 hours learning their craft, repeating again and again until they really learned how to do something.  Those 10,000 hours may seem tedious, repetitive, and boring.  But change is built on it.  Think of the disciples: after their eureka moment meeting Jesus, they had to spend their 10,000 hours with him and his message before they got it.  Change didn’t come in an instant; instead they had to take that insight and figure out how to live it day after day.

The reinforcing role of both eureka moments and the tedium of repeatedly learning struck me in the story Christian Picciolini told of his conversion from white supremacy to embracing love.  Picciolini - a loner as a teenager - came under the sway of neo-nazi skinheads; when the leader and many adults were arrested for assault and battery, Picciolini found himself heading up a white supremacy group at the age of 16.  He engaged in cruel and hateful actions back in the 1980s and 1990s.

He described in a recent interview the way rage affected how he saw everyone.  At school, he picked fights just to feel tough.  One day he twice punched an African-American student.  The second time, he left school in handcuffs.  But not before tussling with the African-American security guard and using racial slurs in shouting at his African-American dean.

Later he said, “It was a moment where I started to recognize my own weaknesses because I had recognized that my fears had overcome me.  I didn’t know these people.  I had never had a meaningful interaction with them; but yet, I was ready to blame them for everything that was wrong in my life, especially how angry I was at my parents… And I took it out on two people that really tried to help me at that moment, and I didn’t recognize it.”  Now, looking back on his life, Picciolini sees that awful day as a eureka moment; in an instant he saw the debilitating power of fear that held him hostage.

As powerful as that moment was, it only began the process of getting his life back together.  Five year later, having left the neo-Nazi movement, Picciolini began putting his life back together again.  He found a job with IBM installing computer systems.  On his first job, IBM sent him back to his old high school to install a network.

The security guard didn’t recognize him; but Picciolini decided he needed to make amends.  As he explains, “When I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around and recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid.  And all I could think to say was, ‘I’m sorry.’  And after speaking for a while and finding enough words, he shook my hand, and he embraced me, and he made me promise that I would tell my story.”

Picciolini went on to do just that: telling his story of a movement from fear to love.  Eventually he founded a group called “Life After Hate” which helps others leaving the neo-Nazi movement, bringing people out from underneath the hate-filled storm of white supremacy.

His changed life depended on two things: both a eureka moment and a repeated commitment, lived every day.

This is a truth we need to remember: we need both moments of eureka and the long repetition that makes change take hold in our lives.  We can’t change lives without both.

Even the Last Jedi, for all that it celebrated instantaneousness transformation, gave a surprising but often missed nod to the importance of ritual, tradition, and time spent mastering a subject.  When Yoda told Luke that Rey possessed all the knowledge in the sacred books, it seemed as if he meant she possessed it in her heart.  But towards the end of the movie we see Rey open a drawer; tucked inside were all those boring old books.  Yoda had spoken one last riddle to Luke; Rey literally possessed the books.  And, we can imagine, her spontaneous insight into the force will be balanced by the hard-worked learning over time.

May we learn to embrace both the wisdom that comes like lightening, the eureka moments, and the knowledge that we can only learn slowly over time, repeating until we know it in the depths of our bones.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Davies, Dave, “A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In - And How He Got Out,” Fresh Air, Jan. 18, 2018.

  • Saiman, Chaim, “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious,” The New Republic, Dec. 27, 2017.

  • Schaper, Donna, “Jonah 3:1-5,10,” Feasting on the Word.