The Measure of a Hero

Here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, on the movie Big Hero 6 in conjunction with the 5th chapter of Revelation as the Scripture for the day. Of course, I have chosen not to deal with the violence that permeates the rest of Revelation – I will have to save that for another day. But, I think the slaughtered lamb text pairs very nicely with the message the movie is trying to get across – who are our heroes? What truly makes someone heroic? The text and sermon follows:

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

So, what comes to mind when you hear the word, “hero”? Perhaps some of us would immediately think of those heroes made famous in mid-20th century comic books and recently popularized in a wealth of motion-picture films – Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Hulk. Others, however, might picture a civil servant such as a fireman or a policeman, or perhaps someone who is serving or has served in the military. Still others will see a victim of domestic abuse who was able to flee her situation, despite not having anywhere to go or a penny to her name; a teenaged boy, bullied for being different, who refused to deny who he was even in the face of emotional and physical violence; a single parent, struggling to get by working two jobs while still managing to make it to their child’s piano recital – still others will see these and say, “that is a hero.” Regardless of what comes to our minds, the fact remains that “hero” can be a contentious word. The word “hero” is supposed to be reserved for someone who deserves it. Someone honorable, brave, someone, perhaps, who defends those who can’t defend themselves, someone who rescues us in our time of need. We tend to try not to use the word “hero” lightly, because we know that to label someone a hero essentially glorifies them, raises them to a status almost other than human. And if we are going to do that, we certainly need to be careful about whom we choose. So what is it that makes someone heroic?

Well, today there are actually two “texts”, if you didn’t know. The text from Revelation, which we just read, and also the movie Big Hero 6, as we’re in the midst of our Reel Religion sermon series. So, if you haven’t seen the movie, allow me to give you a little context:

Hiro, a young teenaged boy living in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, is a technological prodigy. His favorite pastime is building robots and entering them into robot battles to win a little extra cash. Hiro lives with his Aunt Cass and his brother Tadashi. At the encouragement of his brother, he enters a technology expo at the renowned San Fransokyo Institute of Technology in order to win a spot in the next year’s class at the school. Although Hiro wows everyone with his microbot technology and wins the spot, tragedy strikes after the event when a fire breaks out in the building, and Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, rushes in to save his mentor, Professor Callaghan. Neither make it out.

The rest of the movie essentially revolves around Hiro’s ability to cope with his brother’s death. His brother leaves behind Baymax, a medical robot that he invented, and this slightly naïve robot is committed to “curing” Hiro of his grief. As the movie progresses, Hiro and Baymax discover that the fire wasn’t an accident, and that someone stole Hiro’s microbot technology. Hiro makes it clear to Baymax that the best way to cure him is to find his brother’s murderer and exact sweet revenge. Together with Tadashi’s four lab partners that Hiro met on his tour of the school, they set out to uncover the truth and gain justice for Tadashi.

The movie is called Big Hero 6 because Hiro uses his technological prowess to give himself, Baymax, and their four friends upgrades to their natural abilities so they can go after the unknown “supervillain” with the microbots. It is, in effect, a superhero movie. However, it is more than just your ordinary superhero movie. Hidden beneath the flashy suits and the exciting action sequences is a message about what it means to be a real hero, and perhaps a challenge to our traditional notions of good and evil. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because we just read it in our Scripture text a few minutes ago.

Revelation is a fun book. We think it was written sometime around 90 CE, by a man named John of Patmos (not the same John that supposedly wrote the Gospel of John or any of the three epistles that bear his name). And contrary to popular belief, Revelation is actually not a straight-up prediction of the end of the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, it has definitely been read that way by a lot of distinguished Christian theologians throughout the centuries, and even my New Testament professor has said that it is one of the ways to approach reading Revelation. However, I think she would agree with me that it is probably not the best way to read it. And, in case you were wondering, there are at least four other ways to read this text: 1) As early Christian resistance to the Roman Empire; 2) As a description of the experience of oppression and a codification of hope for liberation; 3) As a symbolic narrative that condemns current practices of excess and violence; and 4) As a liturgical text, which gives us a sense of heavenly liturgy in contrast to earthly violence (Thanks to my New Testament Professor, Dr. Katherine Shaner, for these). I personally prefer to read it as a critique of Empire – not just the Roman Empire, but any Empire in general that should act in a similar manner. A close reading of the text clearly shows John’s (and other Christians’) frustrations with Rome and their hopes and/or expectations of divine judgment upon it. So, why have I bothered to say all this (apart from the fact that I just really like sharing new information about the Bible)? Well, I think it is crucial to know that John is critiquing practically everything that Rome stands for in order to truly understand what he’s saying in this passage.

By all respects, Rome was a civilized nation. It was not a government that murdered its citizens in the streets, despite what you may have heard. People were given a fair trial before being sentenced to prison or execution. Intellectualism was allowed to flourish, as were many different religions (so long as you continued to demonstrate your allegiance to Rome by worshipping its national symbol – the Emperor). In fact, Rome saw itself as the great civilizer, the moral enforcer, the vehicle for bringing all other peoples and nations into the first century, if you will. Quite often, the Emperor was referred to as soter – savior. In addition to this savior complex, Rome prided itself on its strength, particularly its military strength. If you took a stroll down Main Street in ancient Rome, you would have seen statues, monuments, and reliefs on all sides depicting the conquest of certain “barbarian” peoples, and the strength of Rome. Indeed, the entire Roman social structure was based on strength and power. Your place in society determined your power, and those on top had the most. And does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Wealth, glory, honor, power, might – all of these were highly valued in ancient Roman society.

Which is precisely why these adjectives appear as a description for Jesus in our passage today; not because Christians are trying to make Jesus more appealing to the Romans; not because they are trying to say, “actually, our Jesus, whom you crucified, is really a strong Jesus, a powerful Jesus, a Jesus who is mightier than the greatest Roman soldier, and he will come with flame and sword and smight you all!”; but, in fact, because in the Christ event God has redefined what all of those words mean. God has taken the traditional concepts of honor and power and strength and glory and turned them completely on their heads, and it doesn’t get any clearer than when the elder says to John, “See, the Lion of Judah has conquered! Only he can open the scroll!” and John turns, expecting to see a mighty lion, and instead sees a teeny, tiny, slaughtered lamb. This is the new picture of strength – frail, broken, bleeding out, diminutive, and yet victorious. Jesus doesn’t counter violence with violence. If you read the Gospel accounts of his arrest, there is a moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter takes out his sword and, in an attempt to defend Jesus from the soldiers, he cuts off the ear of Malchus, the slave of the high priest. Jesus rebukes Peter, and heals Malchus. Jesus counters violence with healing.

This is a lesson not easily learned. Not by Peter, not by Christians even after thousands of years, and only grudgingly by Hiro, our protagonist in the movie. In his quest to find his brother’s murderer, he discovers that it was in fact Professor Callaghan who stole his microbot technology, and used it to survive the fire. Enraged, he removes Baymax’s healing chip, leaving only the combat chip he designed for the robot, and orders him to kill Callaghan. Callaghan narrowly escapes, and Hiro dejectedly returns home to work on Baymax. Let’s take a look.

It’s easy to desire revenge. It’s easy to want to just play good vs. evil, and go after the bad guy without considering that the bad guy is also a human being. Just after this scene, Hiro’s four friends return with the news that they discovered a video clip, which shows the multi-millionaire Alistair Krei testing a new teleportation technology. Professor Callaghan was the main consultant on the project, and his daughter, Abigail, was the test subject. Of course, something goes wrong during the test, and Abigail is lost between the portals, seemingly gone forever, and Callaghan, emotionally distraught and overcome with grief, blames Krei – perhaps justifiably – for her loss.

So, too, with all of the “wicked” and the “sinful” listed throughout Scripture. So, too, with all of those upon whom John’s Revelation wishes violence. They are all human beings, and if Genesis 1:27 is to be believed, they all bear the image of God. We must reckon with the fact that violence permeates our Scripture, perhaps most viciously in the book of Revelation – that cannot be discounted. But for the moment, here in chapter 5, we see the lifting up of one who refused to perpetrate violence against anyone, even in the face of death. We see power and strength and honor and glory ascribed to one who loved so deeply and so fully, he healed those who were trying to kill him. This is what the elder means when he says he has conquered, overcome, triumphed, won. It was not a human body or bodies that Jesus conquered when he died on that cross. It was the powers and principalities that say that a human body is worth less if it ___________. Sins. Commits adultery. Lies. Murders. Exists on the other side – that is, not on our side. Jesus shows us that the war between good and evil isn’t an external one. It’s not good guys vs. bad guys. It’s human beings vs. human beings. And while there are and should be consequences for our actions, Jesus’ death solidifies the reality that our actions do not detract from who we really are: bearers of the image of God, all of us.

All people, even “supervillains”, need a hero. At the end of the movie, Callaghan attempts to use a newly-constructed teleportation portal to rip Alistair Krei’s new building to shreds and send it into the great beyond, just as Krei irresponsibly sent Callaghan daughter, Abigail. As Hiro and his friends attempt to stop Callaghan by blasting the microbots into the portal, Baymax detects a faint whisper of human life. He and Hiro fly into the portal to find Abigail still alive in her pod. Let’s watch what happens next.

So, what is the measure of a hero? It can’t simply be someone who fights “bad guys”, because, let’s face it, there aren’t really any “bad guys”, are there? Just flawed human beings who sometimes do bad things, often with the best intentions. For us, as Christians, Jesus has irrevocably changed the definition of a hero, of what it means to be strong, brave, and powerful. Our hero is not someone who fights and kills “bad” people. Our hero is someone who is so committed to love, unconditional love, a love that covers all boundaries, all people, all flaws and transgressions, that he or she is willing to do anything and everything that that love requires, even, if necessary, to die for it. Wouldn’t it be something, then, if we all aspired to be heroic? Amen.