I have never had a guest poster here and don’t plan to start (too much administrative overhead), but I was so taken with this sermon that I asked Sharon if I could post it, and she graciously said yes. I love it because it speaks not only to the preparation for ministry, and the ongoing work of ministry, but to all that people are and do. I would wish for each congregation to be a “place that calls us back unrelentingly to who we are, lays us bare, and demands of us that we use our gifts to bless the world in the spirit of love.” I would wish that our families be such places; that our friendships be such places; that we each have such places at the center of our lives. And I’m happy to hear that for one person at least, Starr King School for the Ministry has been one such place.

To read more by/about Sharon, check out her blog, Ministry in Steel-Toed Shoes.

“Training to Be a Jedi”
given by Sharon Wylie, May 17, 2011
at the final 2010-11 chapel service of Starr King School for the Ministry

I was invited to speak this afternoon about “seminary,” but I don’t really know much about “seminary” in any kind of all-encompassing way. What I know about, what I’m here to talk about, is THIS place, Starr King School for the Ministry, and how it prepares us for progressive religious leadership. I’m here to talk about this maddening, frustrating, confusing place that is Starr King. And I’m here to talk about how we are changed and transformed in our time here.

After three years of struggling to make sense of this institution and its role in my formation, when the invitation to preach arrived, it came to me in a flash that Starr King School for the Ministry IS like the Dagobah system of the Star Wars movies, the place Luke Skywalker goes to receive training to become a Jedi knight. It is a place that challenges, confounds, disappoints, amazes, and transforms.

For those of you familiar with the story, do you remember Luke’s arrival on Dagobah? The navigation systems of his aircraft don’t work at all, and scans register NO cities, NO technology, but MASSIVE life forms. The planet is foggy and thick with trees, swamp like. Dangling vines brush his face, and the ground beneath his feet is mud, sucking at him as he walks. This, the home of a Jedi master. It is so NOT what he expected, that he comments, “What are we doing here? It’s like something out of a dream. Maybe I’m going crazy.”

I had imagined that time at seminary would be like time spent at a sacred retreat, like a monastery (how I envisioned a monastery, having never been to one), with most of our days spent in quiet contemplation, with most of us attending here some kind of cream of the religious crop, devout, inspirational, peaceful. Now, I never saw MYSELF as cream of the religious crop, devout, inspirational, and peaceful, but I saw my acceptance to Starr King as a sign that I COULD be these things. Or that I could FOOL people into thinking I was these things. Acceptance into Starr King seemed to me to be an affirmation that I was worthy of spending three years in this sacred, quiet, contemplative sanctuary.

It was during orientation week that I noticed my fellow classmates didn’t seem to be—in my humble opinion—devout, inspirational, and peaceful, and it occurred to me cruelly that I might not be either. Certainly, we appeared to be TRYING to be these things, but the result felt more like play-acting than authenticity. Moreover, things here seemed to be—forgive me—a little less organized than I might have imagined, a little less sacred and a little more profane. There seemed to be a certain amount of preoccupation with the status of the kitchen and the dishes, and there was a lot of conversation about PINs and the proper way to format our emails. I felt more disoriented than oriented.

“What are we doing here? It’s like something out of a dream. Maybe I’m going crazy.”

No sooner does Luke arrive on Dagobah than a strange little (sort of a) man arrives and begins poking around Luke’s things. Dismissive and condescending, Luke refers to him as a “little fellow” and tries to shoo him away. He is Yoda, of course, nobody’s idea of a Jedi master.

We can consider this Luke’s first meeting with his faculty advisor, and like many of our advisors and faculty here, Yoda is soon peppering Luke with confusing advice. “You must unlearn what you have learned.” “You’re not afraid? You will be.” “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Actually, you know what, there is “TRY.” Thanks though. Good advice. Thanks.

Luke is soon running through the foggy forest with Yoda strapped to his back, wondering, I’m sure, what this has to do with becoming a Jedi, much in the same way, I’m sure, some of us wonder how often our congregants will want to know what’s in the by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Association or who was REALLY the first woman to be ordained in the United States.

Finally, Luke encounters his first significant formational experience in a cave that Yoda tells him he must enter. Each of us here will have our own experience that resonates, our own challenges to be met, but I want to suggest that for many of us here, any field experience could be equated to this time in the cave. It might be chaplaincy, it might be work with a local organization, it might be work in a congregation. Whatever it is that takes us outside whatever comfort zone we had cobbled together for ourselves here on Dagobah.

About to enter the cave, Luke asks “What’s in there?” hoping for some guidance, a little heads-up. Yoda—always helpful—tells him, “Only what you take with you.” Great, thanks. Good to know. Luke’s subsequent experience in the cave is confusing and disorienting. He doesn’t know what it means. Helpfully, Yoda later tells him to remember his “failure in the cave.”

I have to stop here and share that my chaplaincy was not a cave experience, but applying for parish internships was. I applied at and was rejected by four local congregations before talking and pushing my way into the internship I currently have, with a congregation that had no plans to have an intern this year. But my failure to obtain an internship through conventional methods was my most difficult time here at Starr King. Never on this journey had I felt LESS like the cream of the religious crop. Not devout, not inspirational, not peaceful, I felt that my unworthiness must be obvious, that I was worthy only of rejection.

“What are we doing here? It’s like something out of a dream. Maybe I’m going crazy.”

Luke’s time in the cave is followed by another failure. His aircraft sinks into the swamp, and using the powers of the Force, he is unable to raise it back out, observing that the ship is too big. Yoda, small little fellow that he is, steps in, and uses the Force to raise the ship himself. Astonished, Luke proclaims, “I don’t believe it.” Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.” Nice!

It is part of our time here, I think, to have to witness other people doing what we ourselves cannot, or believe we cannot. Every time I hear someone give a beautiful prayer off the top of their head, every time I hear someone share some kind of beautiful allegorical story from ancient times, every time I hear a passionate articulation of the beauty and power and mystery of the Divine, I could just spit. Why must we be confronted day in and day out with all we will never be?

“What are we doing here? It’s like something out of a dream. Maybe I’m going crazy.”

After this series of failures, Luke leaves Dagobah for a time. He thinks he is going to rescue his friends, but he doesn’t, they end up having to rescue him, but THEN he rescues them, remember? When Han was all frozen in the carbonite and they had to break into Jabba the Hut’s place. And what’s exciting for Luke during these adventures is that people THINK he’s a Jedi! Because he seems to have the skills and can do the Jedi mind trick and use the light saber.

I have to tell you, it’s like being in internship. People tell me all the time that I’m a minister already, that I’m going to be great. I’ve officiated weddings and memorial services. I preach. But as nice as it is to hear these compliments and to be able to do the work of the minister, it won’t be real for me until I actually pass the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and am ordained by a congregation. And despite all the compliments and good thoughts, I have no certainty that I’ll be a minister.

Luke must have felt the same way about everybody calling him a Jedi because the first chance he gets, he goes back to Dagobah to complete his training with Yoda. And Yoda tells him, “No more training do you require. Already know that which you need.” Luke is stunned. Aware of the threshold he is about to cross, he faces his future with the words, “Then I am a Jedi.” And Yoda tells him, “Not yet.”

Not yet! Son of a $#!!!

Getting a Master of Divinity degree has not made me a minister. It turns out that there’s only so much training one can undergo, and that training is both invaluable and insufficient. To be a Jedi, Luke must confront his creepy, evil father. To be religious leaders, we must confront our own demons, whatever they may be. The training we get here is both invaluable and insufficient. Our times of doubt and confusion, our failures, are undoubtedly our most formational experiences.

And that’s the frustration of this place. What is SOO galling is that the blunt, confusing, or even painful advice we have received from our Starr King Jedi masters is actually useful advice, actually right on. We DID have to unlearn what we had learned. We HAVE experienced that trying isn’t trying, it’s doing. We HAVE seen that all we encounter is what is inside of us, and it is OURSELVES that we are confronting over and over again. And THIS place, SOOOOO not what we imagined, with vines in our face and mud sucking at our feet, is nevertheless the home of the Jedi master, and it is our home too.

The weapon of the Jedi knight is her lightsaber, an elegant weapon of light for the guardians of peace and justice.

I may never give a beautiful prayer off the top of my head or share some kind of beautiful allegorical story from ancient times, but I have learned to let my own light shine, to treasure my own gifts, my own ministry. I’m plain speaking. I’m funny. I’m willing to share my pain in the hopes it lessens the pain of others. Maybe when you hear this sermon, you could just spit, because there’s something I’m doing now that you think you can’t do.

It doesn’t matter. We are guardians of peace and justice, and each of us has our own weapon, our own light, our own gifts. Starr King is not a place that makes us into something we’re not: devout, inspirational, peaceful. Starr King is the place that calls us back unrelentingly to who we are, lays us bare, and demands of us that we use our gifts to bless the world in the spirit of love.

“What are we doing here? It’s like something out of a dream. Maybe I’m going crazy.”


Response: May the Force be with you.

To all who have entered the cave and met with failure… May the Force be with you.
To all who have wrestled with doubt and confusion… May the Force be with you.
To all who have witnessed the gifts of others and felt unworthy… May the Force be with you.
To all who are about to leave this place of mystery and confusion.. May the Force be with you.
May each of us here know that we are never alone on the journey,
May each of us here accept that we already know what we need,
May each of us here…please join me:
Accept life’s gifts with grace and gratitude and use them to bless the world in the spirit of love.
May it be so. Amen, and blessed be.