Prequel-itis

Sermon for Sunday, January 17, 2016
Text: John 2:1-12
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia

If you were here at APC on Christmas Eve then you have already heard me recently talk about Star Wars and I do apologize to you for retreating on similar material, but it has to be done.

On Christmas Eve I shared that I had recently been re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy, episodes IV through VI — at the time, I was brushing up to prepare myself for the one that just came out. You may have heard of it. And I said on Christmas Eve that one of the problems you face when you decide to go back and watch the originals is that at this point there are multiple versions, there are special editions, and at times they make rather substantial changes to the story, so you kind of have to decide what story you want before you even begin.

But of course that’s not the only decision you have to make. Because the other decision you have to make when you are going back to watch Star Wars is whether you are going to pay any attention to the prequels, the trilogy of Star Wars movies that arrived in the late 90’s and early 2000s, episodes I-III, and, if you are going to watch them, then, in what order are you going to watch all six movies? Now, there’s a big “if” here. I mean, those three prequels: Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, on the whole, they’re not very good. History does not remember them well. But if you are going to include them in your Star Wars rematch, you have some options.

Option #1 is that you watch the movies in the order of the events depicted on screen. Let’s call this “narrative order,” though even that phrase is a bit suspect. Anyway. Option #1 is that you start with Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and you watch them straight through. If you watch the movies this way, you follow the story of the young Anakin Skywalker who grows up, turns evil, becomes Darth Vader, and then eventually gets his comeuppance. You will also have the somewhat jarring experience of watching three movies filled with the best CGI that 2002 had to offer and then falling backwards through time into the very campy and threadbare look of the original trilogy. But if you do it this way, if you start at the beginning of the so-called historical events of the Star Wars saga, you will be actually watching these movies the way that George Lucas wants you to watch them. He’s said as much. Start with Phantom Menace and then go through. (Though, honestly, as an editorial aside, if you have not watched Star Wars and you start with Phantom Menace there is no way that you would ever want to keep going).

That’s actually the problem. The problem is that even though the prequels in theory take place before the events of the original trilogy, they rely heavily on an audience that already knows where all of this is going. They rely on an audience invested in the story beats and the character developments because of where those stories and characters are going to go. Anakin Skywalker is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot of Phantom Menace; the only reason to have any kind of engagement with him is that we know who is going to grow up to be because we’ve already seen that original trilogy. Over and over again the prequels bank on the vast cultural weight of moments from the original trilogy — which, in the timeline of the Star Wars universe, hasn’t happened yet. Which means that to catch all those resonances you almost have to watch them backwards, you almost have to watch the original trilogy first and then fall back through time and watch those prequels. Let’s call this “release order.” It’s not what Lucas wants. But at least doing so allows us to have some stake in the early bits of the story. At least doing so allows Episode 1 to make any kind of sense.

Now, we have no reason to believe that the Gospel of John was released episodically. We are not this morning reading a section of John’s Gospel that was released some years after some other section of John’s Gospel. I want to be clear about that. But that the same time John’s Gospel is not in general written for people who have not already heard the basic story of Jesus Christ. This is the last Gospel to be written and distributed, which means the story’s already out there, and I want us to consider for the morning what it means to say that John’s Gospel assumes that we already know the major story beats yet to come. Knowing the Anakin grows up to be Vader completely changes what appreciation we might have for those Star Wars prequels; and, the same is true here. Even the famous prologue to John’s Gospel — in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, etc — it’s beautiful poetry, but it’s not a great way to start a story. It’s not a great way to suck in an audience. It only works because we already know where it’s going. It only works because we’re invested before we ever crack the spine. So, if you will for a minute, let’s consider this morning’s reading as a scene from the prequel section of the Gospel of John.

It’s chapter two. The scene is a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and then John tells us that the mother of Jesus was there. Now, John has no childhood or infancy narrative for Jesus, so this is the first mention of Jesus’s mother, though, she will appear again at the foot of the cross. The wedding runs out of wine, and Jesus’ mother says to him, “They have no wine,” and it’s not entirely clear what this is supposed to accomplish. Is she complaining about poor party stewardship? Is she just sharing information with other interested guests? Or does she know that Jesus has the ability to go and fix this wine shortage? It doesn’t sound like a request, but he sure treats it like one; he says “woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Which is minimally a really cheeky thing to say to your mother, and, beyond that, kind of opaque, especially if you don’t know where the story is going. But elsewhere in John’s Gospels, when Jesus refers to the coming of “his hour,” he’s talking, again, about crucifixion, about the hour of his death. And we know, and John would know, too, of the symbolic linkage between Jesus’s death, Jesus’s blood, and the eucharistic wine. Which means I think what we have here is a kind of strange reference to events yet to come: Jesus’s hour will come, at which point his blood will be poured out as new covenant which we remember with shared wine.

But you don’t get any of that unless you already know. Unless you already know the story, this scene is a mess. And consider this: John doesn’t even contain the instructions for communion that we find in Luke and in 1 Corinthians. Which means that the link that Jesus makes between wine and his crucifixion doesn’t just bank on his readers knowing the rest of John’s Gospel; it banks on them already being children of the broader Christian story. He’s writing for an early church that already has this story on its lips. He’s writing for an early church that already has these communion words carved into their hearts. This is “How to Write a Prequel 101” — you take something in which your audience is already deeply invested and you tell the story of its becoming, and you don’t have to convince them to care. They already care. All you have to do is remind them that the part they love is still yet to come. So in its own way, this story of the Wedding at Cana is a story about waiting. I mean, yes, it’s about abundance and grace and transformation and all those other things. But it’s also about waiting. “You’ve kept the good wine until now,” the steward says. “Just wait,” John says. “The good part is still coming. You know it. You already know what’s going to happen.”

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why prequels have become so popular. I mean, we have prequels everywhere: Batman prequels, Superman prequels, Lord of the Rings prequels. For most of my childhood the critique was that all Hollywood made anymore was sequels, like we couldn’t have an original idea anymore. But even sequels have kind of fallen by the wayside. These days all we do are prequels and reboots, stories about how we get to have the stories we already know. Stories where we already know what’s going to happen. I wonder if there is some comfort in this for all of us who shell out our cash at the multiplex: look, our own lives are a mess. Our own lives don’t always make sense. Our own lives have all of these rough edges and all of this uncertainty and anxiety — the world is a fearful place — and isn’t there something fundamentally comfortable about wrapping ourselves in these stories where we so obviously already know the outcome? Where we can leave those anxieties at the door? Where we already know what’s going to happen?

I do think this is the fundamental comfort of reading the front half of John’s Gospel, our text from today included. So much of his language, here and everywhere through this first 12 chapters, all of it presupposes the grace embedded in the story yet to come, the story of that Holy Week in Jerusalem, the story of Jesus’s final days, the story of his death on the cross, and, of course, the story of his empty tomb. It’s all wordplay and irony and foreshadowing — the stories are a mess — but of course our lives are a mess, too, but John invites us to understand our own messy lives through the lens of a story where we already know the outcome. John invites us to understand our own fears and worries through the lens of the promises of God yet to be fully realized. Your story doesn’t make sense, John says. *It doesn’t make sense. It has all these rough edges. It has broken dreams and forgotten wishes. It has broken bodies and beat-up spirits. It has all the pent-up violence of a fragile, unjust world. It has grief and heartache and death. *

Your story doesn’t make any sense. Our story doesn’t make any sense, all this suffering and death doesn’t make any sense, unless we read it through the lens of what was yet to come, Jesus Christ, whose own death tells us of a God who stands with all who suffer and all who grieve. Our story doesn’t make any sense, all these rough edges, all these broken dreams don’t make any sense, unlesswe read them through the lens of what has already been, Jesus Christ, whose own resurrection tells us of a God who will not stay forgotten, a God who will not be put down, a God who will not stay buried. Our story doesn’t make any sense, all the cracks in the world, all the violence and fragility, all the callousness of the age, our story doesn’t make any sense unless we read it through the lens of what has been from the beginning, what has been from the beginning, the center of the story, the Gospel of this story, the light come into the darkness, Jesus Christ, dead, risen, who will come again. This is the season of Epiphany, so let’s see the whole picture together: we keep the good wine until the end. That’s the promise. That’s the becoming. That’s where the story goes.

The only question is whether you will let this story take hold of you.

Han-Solo-Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens1

So let me circle back to where I began. Episode 7. The Force Awakens. Maybe you’ve seen it and maybe you haven’t. I won’t spoil anything of consequence. But finally, after a generation of prequels and reboots, finally, we have a sequel. The Force Awakens takes place a generation after the events of the original trilogy, and one of the more clever devices that the film employs is that, for the characters in The Force Awakens, the stories of the original Star Wars trilogy are almost as mythic as they are for us. What I mean is: we have one character who keeps a little doll of a rebel pilot by her bed, and sleeps in the carcass of one of the old vehicles from the original trilogy, dreaming about the stories she’s heard of that time long ago. We have another character who explicitly talks about growing up to be just like the hero he’s heard about from those legendary times. The characters in The Force Awakens are almost as good at Star Wars fandom as we are, but, almost as for us, those old stories don’t always feel true. They feel like myths. Fairy tales. Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader. They feel larger than life, characters in fables for a different age.

But then the movie gets going. And in one crucial scene — which shows up in the trailers, so, again, I spoil nothing — in one crucial scene, we have characters from those old stories showing up to testify. Han Solo walks back into the movie, and he meets up with this new generation who aren’t even sure whether he’s real, whether the stories they’ve heard are real, whether the myths they’ve heard have any basis in history. “There are stories about what happened,” they ask, skeptically, but Han is here to testify. “It’s true, all of it,” he says. “The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.” “It’s true, all of it.” And you can see the look on their faces. And you can see the difference it makes. And you can see the call that those stories have on their lives.

So here’s the thing.

It’s one thing to say that we live in a prequel life. That our story begins with God and ends with God, that we are saving the good wine for the end, that we’re just hanging out somewhere in the middle. It’s comforting. It should be comforting. It explains the mess, or at least it tries. But our lives are also a sequel. Our lives are also the story that follows. “There are stories about what happened,” we say, every Sunday, not always knowing exactly what to believe.

But what if it’s true? All of it?

Will you let this story take hold of you?

What if it’s true?

All of it?

Then, who will you become?

Amen.>