I know that we’ve established that I am a nerd; and part of my nerdery is that I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the sprawling collection of interconnected movies and television shows that trace the adventures of Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Spidermen, Black Panther, and others.
One of the best movies in that cinematic universe is the first Captain America movie. And one of the reasons that it’s one of the best is that it establishes—in no uncertain terms—the Marvel theory of superheroes.
It’s 1942, and Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who is absolutely intent on joining the army and heading to Europe to fight. He wants to join so badly that he goes from enlistment center to enlistment center, taking every opportunity that he can, and hoping that one of them will let him join. But he’s small and underweight. He has asthma. He’s had scarlet fever and rheumatic fever. He has frequent colds and high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Among other things.
Every single time he tries to enlist, they take the stamp and mark his form 4F. He is not going to war.
He tries one more time. He lies on his forms. And Dr. Abraham Erskine—who happens to be heading up a project to use a serum to create a super soldier—notices him. He knows that Steve has tried to enlist several times. He knows that Steve has lied on his forms. And he asks him, “So, do you want to kill Nazis?”
And Steve answers him, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.”
This Sunday, we’re continuing our summer sermon series about Being the Church. You know the drill by now. This summer, we’re going through that list of things that are on the banner in front of our church.
Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
And this week, we’re on the fifth thing on the list. We’re about halfway through it. Be the church; fight for the powerless.
And our reading today is from Isaiah… who does not like bullies.
You see, the prophet looks around and sees the people… who are keeping up appearances. They go to the temple. They keep the appointed festivals. They fast.
But the prophet also looks around and sees the people… who are not keeping the spirit of the law. They serve their own interests. They oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight.
And the prophet says:
You’re missing the point. If you want to fast… if you want to be holy… if you want to keep your covenant with God…
Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and your homes with the homeless and your clothes with the naked. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
Then your light will break forth. Then your vindicator will go before you. Then your ruins will be rebuilt and you will be repairers of the breach.
Fight for the powerless. Then you will be holy.
Back in the movie, Steve Rogers is among the recruits. One of these people will be made into a super soldier. And Steve is the scrawniest and weakest of the lot.
Dr. Erskine likes Steve, of course. He is looking for qualities beyond the physical.
Colonel Phillips does not like Steve. He would much rather select Gilmore Hodge. Hodge has passed every test. He’s big. He’s fast. He obeys orders. He’s literally played by an actor named Lex Shrapnel. But Dr. Erskine knows that Hodge is a bully.
And Col. Phillips takes a grenade, and pulls the pin, and throws it into a group of soldiers. And while everyone else scatters, Steve jumps on the grenade and tells everyone else to stay away. And he discovers that it’s a dummy grenade. And everyone knows that Steve Rogers is the right choice to become Captain America.
Later, when Dr. Erskine is talking to Steve, Steve asks why he was chosen. And Dr. Erskine tells him:
A strong man, who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength… and knows compassion. If you’re going to do this, you must stay who you are: not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
It’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s theory of superheroes. Being a superhero isn’t about having power. Villains have power. Nazis have power. Being a superhero is about how we use power. Villains use power to force the world to bend to their will. Heroes use power to protect the powerless.
So Steve Rogers gets to be Captain America. And fight the Nazis. And end up in suspended animation for sixty-six years. And be revived in the modern day. And join the Avengers and keep fighting bullies.
And I don’t want to say that Marvel stole their idea of a hero from the Bible, but…
One of the consistent challenges for religious people in the Bible is that we want power and privilege and prestige… and we go to the temple and keep the appointed festivals and we fast… and we keep up appearances and wonder why God isn’t giving us everything that we ask for… we wonder why God isn’t making us holy.
And the prophet sees that, and says, “Fight for the powerless. Then you will be holy.”
We’ve established that I am a nerd; and part of my nerdery is that I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I like superheroes. They’re a nice fantasy and they make good movies.
The problem with superheroes is that—more often than not—they face simple choices. Here’s the villain. Here’s the world in distress. Defeat the villain. Save the world. It’s hard work, but the objectives are clear.
When Captain America is fighting the army of evil robots bent on destroying the world… he can save the world. He doesn’t need to worry about nuance and uncertainty. And he doesn’t need to know any of the people he’s saving.
He doesn’t need to know their personalities or politics. He doesn’t need to know their sins or their crimes. He doesn’t need to know their messiness and particularities. The people who he is saving are (usually) incidental players; he can save them and move on.
But the truth is that the people in our world who are powerless are not members of a faceless crowd. The people in our world who are powerless… are people. And people… are messy. We have personalities and politics. We have sins and crimes. It’s not always easy to save us and it’s not always easy to want to save us.
And here’s the thing:
We are not called to loose the bonds of injustice that bind the people who we like. Or to undo the thongs of the yokes that are around the necks of the people who we agree with. Or to let the oppressed go free after they have proven themselves.
We are not called to share our food with the hungry who have taken a financial management class, or our homes with the homeless who have beaten their addiction, or our clothes with the naked who have served their time. We are not called to satisfy the needs of the afflicted who have satisfied us and made restitution for their sins.
We are called to fight for the powerless in all of their particularity. Even if they sold loose cigarettes, or shoplifted from a convenience store, or tore down the wrong statue. No matter who they are no matter where they are on life’s journey.
Last week, I preached about being the church by rejecting racism. After the Facebook watch party, someone told me that it was a good sermon, and then asked me, “But what can we do? What concrete things can I, sitting here, do?”
And I had to admit the truth: I don’t know. (Though, if you want to hear some ideas, listen to the podcast this week.) Being the church is a big thing. And I can’t just tell you how to do it; part of being the church is figuring out what being the church looks like, here and now, together.
But I know that part of it is this: using the power that we have to stand up to the bullies and work for the people who don’t have power; listening to and amplifying the voices of the people who don’t have power; maybe even giving some of our power that we have to the people who have none.
And, I know, that can be hard to do.
Steve Rogers tried to join the Army in 1942. But…
In 1933, American newspapers started running stories about what the Nazis were doing to our Jewish friends and neighbors. And Americans argued against getting involved in other countries’ affairs or letting refugees into the United States.
And even once the war started, in 1939, only forty-two percent of Americans supported sending troops even if it looked like Germany was going to defeat Britain and France.
And in 1940, when Germany began invading Western Europe, only seven percent supported sending troops. And later that year, when France fell to Germany, only thirty-five percent of Americans supported helping England if that risked having to eventually send troops.
It wasn’t until a military draft was instated that a majority of Americans even supported helping the Allies from a distance if that meant risking going to war. And it wasn’t until we ourselves were attacked in 1941 that we entered the war.
We knew what was happening. But Jewish people weren’t popular and those of us who weren’t Jewish had troubles of our own. We only started fighting for the powerless when we felt powerless.
And I don’t know how a fictional character like Captain America felt about things. And I’m not about to glorify war. But I know that standing aside is not good enough.
We are called to stand up to the bullies—we are called to fight for the powerless—even when it’s not the popular thing to do… especially when it’s not the popular thing to do.
And, I know, that’s hard to do. But there are people who are powerless right now. There are people who are crying out for help right now. And as long as we have an ounce of power, it is our responsibility to use that power on their behalf. And that is a big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled thing. But thank God I know some people who can do big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people who can be leaders in doing big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some folks who can be the church.
Thank God I know some folks who are ready to get holy.