Superheros are pretty cool. Pretending to be them can be fun. I have some cute memories of my little brother, running around the house in his superman pajamas. The pajamas had the classic S and even a little cape that streamed out behind him as he pretended to fly.
There’s an allure to pretending you’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. There’s something in many of us that wishes we were more than we are. Imagine the confidence you’d gain, even if you have to hide that something more behind a disguise.
Superheroes are cartooned ideals. They provide a hopeful vision of the best of what we could be. They have strong morals and are good citizens. They surpass their ordinary selves, sometimes transforming into the extraordinary with a change of costume. They represent what we might want to be, but don’t have the power or ability to be. We know they cannot exist, yet we are inspired by them. We are engaged by what they represent. Our devotion is formed by their infallibility. They never, or rarely, let us down.
We crave superheroes. After we grow out of childish pretending, we find it still satisfying to allow others to be heroes. We want heroes, we want to put people up on a pedestal, and believe they are the ideal incarnate- that they will exceed our expectations and never let us down. When they do, we are crushed. We are angry. Sometimes our worldview or belief structure can collapse as our vision of our hero is shattered.
I think of Brett Farve, who dropped the hearts of many Wisconsinites into the turmoil of abandonment, disbelief at his infidelity, and anger over broken expectations. I don’t know if anything was learned from the experience, or if fans simply set up another hero in Aaron Rodgers to take his place.
In the church, we’re no less protected from the danger of setting up superheroes in our midst. When those heroes fail, there can be devastating consequences for our faith. This week, many people were deeply saddened to learn that one of our local bishops was in an accident that resulted in the death of a runner. I pray for comfort and strength for her family, even as I also am confused by disparate images of a deeply respected bishop and the consequences of his own brokenness.
Many of us expect church people, of all people, to be good people. Leaders are held to even higher ideals. In my own congregations, in our neighboring congregations, and in the news, we hear of respected leaders, both pastors and laity, doing things that are complete opposed to our image of them. Sin has led many leaders and heroes in faith to do terrible things that have hurt people and the church. Our heroes are brought down by addiction, abuse, theft, and disease. When this happens, there is grief, and there needs to be action to stop destructive behaviors. We are not called to be foolish in restoring them to roles that offer easy opportunity to stumble again.
There is a tangential effect that deeply saddens me. That is the loss of faith the image of these crushed heroes causes in those who have held them in esteem. I’ve watched churches fall apart, and people walk away from faith, because the ones they always thought had it all together, the people they expected to be doing this Godly life thing right, didn’t prove to be the heroes they thought them to be. And if these greats can’t get it right, how can any of the rest of us? Shattered images of heroes disappoint us.
But, consider the scripture. Many of the “heroes” of the Bible hardly deserve the title! Think of the two we meet in today’s readings: Peter and Paul. Peter is the one who denied Jesus, who said he’d never met him, and who rejected his role as a disciple, all at the very same time Jesus was being tried and sentenced to death. Paul is the one who has been killing and imprisoning anyone who believes in Jesus. Fully aware of what they have done to hurt him, Jesus goes to these two men. He restores Peter and he calls Paul. Jesus will use these two failures, these two villains, to be the major heroes of the faith, gathering the church and spreading the gospel throughout the nations.
God works in unexpected ways, entrusting unimpressive people with great tasks in the kingdom of God. Our brokenness, our sin, can become a part of our story, a part of our witness to the ways God continue to come to us with forgiveness and love, even when we are very far away. When we stop pretending that any of us can achieve the ideal, we can open ourselves to the miracles that God can work in and through us and our messy lives. God is bringing life and hope to the world through you, and through all the communities who gather in God’s name, even though none of us, none of them, are perfect.
It’s not easy to let go of our longing for a hero- for someone who will save us- for someone who has all the answers. There will be no one person in our church who can do that. But God will use all of us, together, in the midst of our struggles, to point to the one savior of the world: Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself does not fit the image of the divine superhero. This morning’s reading from Revelation offers a portrait of Jesus as the slaughtered little lamb. He is not portrayed as the triumphant, powerful lion messiah. In many ways, Jesus is the anti-hero, diminished in the ways we expect a hero to be large. Jesus left pure divinity to become enfleshed, to become human, the very limited nature we expect our heroes to be able to escape. Jesus met with the outcasts, touched the lepers, and welcomed the children, instead of surrounding himself with armies, living in comfort, and being honored by the powerful. Jesus died, conquered by the powers of the world. Jesus is the one who has been raised from the dead. In all this, we see the hero God has sent us. Jesus is the one who welcomed all, who abandons none, and who has destroyed the power of death forever. God alone is the one who will not disappoint you, whose promises will not fail.
We, who often look for heroes in our churches, need to prepare ourselves to be like Ananias. When Jesus called him to go to Paul and heal him, welcoming him into the Christian community and even into leadership, Ananias couldn’t believe it. He protested. Yet, in the end, he listened to Jesus, and trusted his plan for Paul. There are times when we need the same willingness to welcome into the community someone who is trying to establish a new way of life, and needs support and the trust of a community in their discipleship.
It’s more than just the possibility for failure that is the danger when you set up heroes in faith. It’s the temptation to step back yourself- to tell yourself you’re not good enough, you couldn’t possibly, it’s not your job to… The truth is, God wants to use you- you’re the disciple God intends to use to share the gospel, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and basically, as our mission statement says, – joyfully join in God’s work!
You are not heroes. I am not a hero. But we are all saints. Jesus Christ has made us holy, knowing we are still sinners. One of the blessings of our church is that we live in the weekly rhythm of confession. We allow ourselves space to admit our brokenness, and declare our sin, not only in silence before God, but aloud before each other. We have no illusions to superhero status. But we have faith in the promise of God: who declares each of you forgiven.
You don’t need to be something greater than you are to be important in the kingdom of God. Jesus has made you important. Jesus has made you a necessary and vital member in the community of saints. Through the Holy Spirit, you who are mere mortals have been given the gifts of God, so that you can join in God’s life-giving work in the world. God doesn’t need someone else: God needs you- so that in your own way, through your broken and beautiful life, the love God has for you can be reflected into love for another.
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