“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” set box office records, as expected. The popularity invited lots of parodies. And one of my favorite comes on Twitter, the parody account of Luke Skywalker. It’s under the twitter handle @VeryLonelyLuke.
Daily tweets give insight into Luke during his missing years on the water planet. He’s very lonely indeed. As when he tweeted, “I miss the days when everyone on the Dark Side was trying to kill me. At least back then I knew they cared.”
@VeryLonelyLuke keeps up with our current events. Here on Earth a gang of white men took over a federal facility. They quickly sent out a request for food. Poor planning. In a galaxy far, far away, Luke faced a similar problem, tweeting, “Hey @Charmin, can you hook me up? I came to this planet 20 years ago, and I only brought one roll. Kind of a crisis here.”
But mostly it’s existential. As @VeryLonelyLuke tweeted, “Well, look at that. I have 100,000 followers. And 0 friends.”
The parody of Luke made me laugh, but his tweets give voice to an increasingly common experience: many of us are very lonely. Today and again in two weeks, I want to think theologically about loneliness. Asking first about the connection of loneliness and justice and then loneliness and community. We’ll find both to be two-sides of the same coin.
Jesus and Luke have more in common than a fondness for beards and robes. In particular, the way the gospel tells the story of Jesus’ baptism can be read as a lesson about loneliness.
The baptism took place at the River of Jordan, where John was preaching about God’s judgment, the people’s sin, and the need for fundamental change. We got a sense of John as a preacher when we heard Kathy read from the gospel, “[God’s] winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Questions come to my mind when I hear John. First, if Jesus was already God’s anointed then why did he need to be baptized? And second, why did he get baptized from John when their approaches to faith seems so different, one ready to cast out the chaff and the other gathering in the outcast?
Part of the answer may lie in the genealogy. We don’t normally read this portion of the gospel; really we tend to gloss over all the begat lists wherever they come in the Bible. And even this week we shortened considerably the list of fathers connecting Jesus to Adam. What caught my attention was the aside right at the beginning of the list: “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (or so it was thought) of Joseph.”
Or so it was thought. I’m sure Jesus went through life with some version of this whispered behind him. The village gossips would tell a story, “Joseph’s son, or so they say…” until everyone kind of knew the story of his suspicious birth.
These kind of rumors persisted. Shortly after his baptism, Jesus returned to his hometown and was asked to read scripture. He read well. And, the gospel tells us, people said to one another, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” You can hear in that phrase either the pride of town in a young man grown or the gossip that never died, “Is this Joseph’s son? Really?”
It’s awful to be rumored about; but surely that happened to Jesus. So he came to the river that day, aware of all the things said about him. And then, in the moment of baptism, it was as if the heavens opened, as if God’s spirit descended on him, and as if the thunder spoke, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Did everyone hear it? Did anyone hear it? Maybe just Jesus knew it; but that assurance told him: you are never alone for I am with you always.
Something similar happened in the life of Kenyan photographer Boniface Mwangi. Mwangi became concerned about the way corruption warped life in Kenya. As he once said, “Kenya is a country where you are guilty until proven rich.” After one election - do you remember it, about eight years ago - the results were contested; violence erupted and over a 1,000 people died. But then the two competing politicians reached a gentleman’s agreement.
Mwangi said, “I was very disturbed because I saw the violence firsthand. I saw the killings. I saw the displacement. I met women who had been raped and it disturbed me, but the country never spoke about it. We pretended. We all became smart cowards. We decided to stay out of trouble and not talk about it.”
Mwangi could no longer pretend. He organized some friends to join him in protesting a speech of the president. But when the day of the planned protest came, only Mwangi showed up. He felt very much alone. Still: he stood up to heckle the Kenyan president during his televised address. The action got him arrested and beaten.
Alone in the concrete cell, the bloodied Mwangi decided to start a street exhibition of his photographs of the election violence, to show his fellow citizens what happened. The photograph exhibit drew attention and others committed to change. Mwangi noted, “Where I used to stand up alone seven years ago, now I belong to a community of many people who stand up with me. I am no longer alone when I stand up to speak about these things. I belong to a group of young people who are passionate about the country, who want to bring about change, and they're no longer afraid.”
Boniface Mwangi’s story inspires me because of his courage. But I also treasure his insight about himself. Mwangi reflected, “There are two most powerful days in your life: the day you're born and the day you discover why. That day standing up in that stadium shouting at the President I discovered why I was truly born, that I would no longer be silent in the face of injustice.”
Baptism was the day Jesus discovered why he was born. He realized for himself, “I am not alone,” and he began working to make sure each person knew they were not alone too. You can hear Jesus saying it through almost every story. At his baptism: he made sure he was baptized along with all the other people, saying with his body, “I am with you.” And throughout all the miracles: no matter how alone someone was made to feel because of their illness or situation, Jesus reached out, touching broken bodies, diseased flesh, saying, “You are my brother.” At a well in Samaria, he met a woman shunned by the rest of her village. When even his own disciples disapprovingly asked, “Who are you speaking with?” Jesus said clearly, “I am with my sister.” At every meal, Jesus welcomed in those without a place to go. And even at the last, as he faced his death, he turned to the man dying next him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even then, even at that low moment, he made clear: you are not alone.
Boniface Mwangi said there are two important days - the day we’re born and the day we discover why. Baptism was the day Jesus discovered why he was born: to say to all, “You are not alone.” And as Jesus’ disciples, I think it’s the reason we born too, to find a way to say to other people in our lives, “You are not alone.”
Whenever we baptize a person here, we promise as a congregation to provide our love, support, and care. What would our lives look like if we took this promise to heart? What would change if a baptismal spirituality led us to love, support, and care for others until they knew they were not alone?
Such a question haunted Marjorie Suchocki. She served in the jury that found a man guilty. The evidence seemed clear; she didn’t doubt it. But afterwards she began to think about the case differently, seeing her own relationship to all the people involved in the case, and to see she had some connection to the man’s crime. Until she came to say:
“The sorry world of the crack house...had seemed so distant from my world… But in truth, that ‘other’ world was only a few miles from my home. Where did that world start, and where did it stop? ‘My’ world was geographically close, but had I ever intentionally done anything at all to touch the lives in that ‘other’ world? Was I only involved to judge its inhabitants? Or was there not a sense in which I was a participant in that world as well as mine, even if that participation were as an absentee neighbor?”
Suchocki made a baptismal insight about her connection to people she’d not previously considered part of her neighborhood. And she began to wonder what her life would look like if she said, “You are not alone; I am with you.”
The closing words of her reflection stick with me; her confession of being an absentee neighbor. I live in Whitefish Bay. Is that what I am to people in the City of Milwaukee - an absentee neighbor?
The Baptism of Jesus was more than the day Jesus discovered why he was born. It's also the day when we discover why were were born too. To be faithful neighbors to one another, to make sure Boniface Mwangi doesn’t stand alone in Kenya, and to make sure Tamir Rice’s family isn’t alone either, and to say to all in need of assurance and community, “You are not alone.”
I grew up on the Star Wars franchise And I’ve raised my sons on it too. I’ve seen the latest installment more than once. But @VeryLonelyLuke made it plain what a different spiritual path Jesus leads me on. Jesus doesn’t lead us to lonely lives but into the depths of community, into the arms of one another, so that we know and say to each other, “You are not alone.”
Alleluia and Amen.