(Delivered at UUSF on January 29th, 2017. Listen to the audio here.)
When the worship associates met to decide the speaking schedule, I at first tried to avoid January, which by now you should know has been about “hope.” That is, until I remembered that the theme for February is “love.”
You see, whether it’s due to living with recurring depression or being the child of Chinese immigrants traumatized by war (and those two things may be related), I find it difficult to express positive sentiments, and to believe them when expressed by others. In our house, we never talked about “love.” And while I’m not exactly pessimistic, I do tend to be suspicious when things seem too easy. The values our parents emphasized were things like duty, responsibility, and sacrifice. Words that sound a lot less positive than love and hope. In fact, they sound and often feel like a burden. But there is a connection. I knew my parents loved me, and what they hoped for their children, not by what they said but what they did.
So, I’d been fretting over what I can sincerely say about hope. Until it occurred to me that maybe I don't have to be “uplifting.” Maybe this could be for those of you who, like me, need a somewhat grittier view to take hope seriously. Then, I knew what to talk about... Star Wars.
You’ve had over six weeks now to see Star Wars Rogue One, so if I spoil the ending for you it’s your own fault. Or, you can plug your ears.
To refresh your memory, or if you happen to be one of the six people on this planet who’ve never seen the original Star Wars movie, it was entitled “A New Hope.” In it, Luke Skywalker eagerly joins the rebel alliance to fight the evil Empire, which has built a Death Star that can reduce entire planets to rubble, and the alliance must find a way to destroy it or else all hope is lost. Together with Princess Leia and others, our heroes deliver the schematics of the Death Star to rebel command, which determines that there is a one in a million chance to destroy the thing, which of course Luke succeeds in doing. There were casualties, to be sure, but most of them were secondary characters with whom the audience has no emotional attachment. Even as a kid, there was little doubt in my mind that our heroes would triumph despite the odds. Good vanquishes evil and they all lived happily ever after. (Well, not quite, but that’s for a different movie.)
Star Wars: A New Hope is one view of hope. I like it as much as the next person, as a fantasy that lifts our spirits, and that is important. But I don't take it seriously.
The events of the latest movie, Rogue One, occur right before A New Hope; ending just where the latter begins. When the new movie first came out, there were those who criticized it for betraying the spirit of Star Wars. Admittedly, it is not a kids fantasy film. This time the protagonist, Jyn Erso, at first wants nothing to do with the rebellion. It isn’t until she learns of the sacrifices that her father made to protect her and the alliance that she gets involved, setting out to retrieve the Death Star plans to redeem her father’s legacy. Jyn doesn’t go alone - she would not have gotten very far without help - and I won’t go into detail but I’d argue that almost every one of her companions - the humans with speaking roles at least - are motivated by a sense of duty or responsibility of various kinds. Of course they successfully acquire the plans as we knew they would, but Rogue One does not have a “Hollywood ending.” Characters that we’ve grown to care about do not live happily ever after. The last scene of the film is like a relay race, with rebels passing off the plans, one to another, as they fall, until finally a soldier hands it to Princess Leia. He asks her what is in the parcel he’s just given her, and Leia responds: "Hope."
I don’t mean to give the impression that I think hope can only be gained by martyrdom and suffering. No, I think that we’re supposed to live, and that every day that we live joyfully is an act of resistance against Empire. The reason why Rogue One’s version of hope resonates much more deeply with me is because it wasn’t just miraculously handed to us. We got to see all that went into creating hope, keeping it alive. If any one of the characters in Rogue One had said, “Forget it” there would have been no plans for the rebels to use in the next movie. There would have been no one-in-a-million chance for Luke to destroy the Death Star.
Rogue One reminds me of the sacrifices my parents and countless other parents have made, for a better life for their children. It reminds me of what Moses did for Joshua and the next generation of Israelites. Of what Rev King and others in the Civil Rights movement did for us. There was no guarantee of “success.” There was no guarantee that they’d even get to see the outcome of their efforts. But they did what they could so that the possibility for something better could still exist.
In reality, we don’t know whether we currently are in “Rogue One” or “A New Hope.” All we can do is what we can, so that hope, the possibility of something better, still exists.