The Challenge of Thor and the Love of Christ

Homily, The Challenge of Thor and the Love of Christ
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

I am the God Thor,
I am the War God,
I am the Thunderer!
Here in my Northland,
My fastness and fortress,
Reign I forever!

Here amid icebergs
Rule I the nations;
This is my hammer,
Miölner the mighty;
Giants and sorcerers
Cannot withstand it!

These are the gauntlets
Wherewith I wield it, 
And hurl it afar off;
This is my girdle;
Whenever I brace it,
Strength is redoubled!

The light thou beholdest
Stream through the heavens, 
In flashes of crimson,
Is but my red beard
Blown by the night-wind,
Affrighting the nations!

Jove is my brother;
Mine eyes are the lightning;
The wheels of my chariot
Roll in the thunder,
The blows of my hammer
Ring in the earthquake!

Force rules the world still.
Has ruled it, shall rule it;
Meekness is weakness,
Strength is triumphant,
Over the whole earth
Still it is Thor’s-Day!

Thou are a God too,
O Galilean!
And thus single-handed 
Unto the combat,
Gauntlet or Gospel,
Here I defy thee!”

“The Challenge of Thor” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thus reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Challenge of Thor.”

As a Christian with Norse ancestry, I love this little collection of poems by Wadsworth. It’s called The Saga of King Olaf and it tells in verse form stories about the first encounters of the Norse people with the Christian faith and how Scandinavia slowly became Christian.

At the beginning of the 10th century, many folks across Sweden, Norway, and Denmark held around their neck an image of Mjölnir, the war hammer of the most popular of the Norse gods, Thor. By the end of the 12th century, the majority had switched them out for a cross. 

These days, despite a small revival of Norse paganism, there are very few who worship Thor, and yet I can’t help but feel in some way Thor still reigns.

The ways of Thor—the ways of war, power, strength, force, and fierce independence—continue to be the dominant forces of society. The ways of Thor are everywhere, and often even under the banner of Christianity.

And even within each one of us dwells a “Thor.” (I’m speaking metaphorically here, there is within each one of us a “Thor”.) That part of us obsessed with control. That part of us that demands a stiff upper lip. That part of us that has no patience for our own vulnerability. We can see a lot of Thor in ourselves, can’t we?

And so if we are listening carefully, the words of Christ in our gospel reading this morning can be for us quite a shock. He says Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the persecuted. Blessed are the peacemakers. While Thor’s voice thunders, “Might is right, meekness is weakness” Christ’s voice whispers, “Blessed are the meek.”

These are the opening words of Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, and if you want to know what it is Jesus believed and taught, this is where you’ll find it. It’s three chapters long and it will take us three weeks just to get through a portion of it. Last week we heard Jesus’ call to repent, or change, or reorient ourselves towards the kingdom of heaven; what we hear this week is what Christ calls us to reorient ourselves to. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the lowly. 

And while it sounds lovely with years of beautifully embroidering these words on things like little, lacy pillows, do we really believe the words of these beatitudes? Do we allow ourselves to mourn and feel grief? Do we show ourselves mercy when we fail? Do we foster a sense of inner poverty and openness that makes room for God’s presence? Do we believe God will bless us in our vulnerabilities? 

Or do we expect ourselves to be stronger than that? Do we fill ourselves solely with lofty ideals of self-sufficiency, invulnerability, control, and might? There is within each one of us a battle between Christ and Thor, isn’t there? Who will hold sway over our hearts?

But here’s the thing, in this battle, the “Thor” within us does not need to be killed or cast out. Those are the battle methods of Thor, himself. No, the “Thor” within us—that part of us that has no patience for vulnerability—needs to be seen and offered compassion, because the “Thor” within us is actually our wounded selves. The Thor within us wages war because war has been waged on him. The Thor within us demands strength because he’s afraid of being stepped on. The Thor within us chases power because he’s experienced powerlessness. Deep down the Thor within us is our own wounded selves. 

And seeing our woundedness, Christ does not war against it with the weapons of Thor. Christ looks upon our wounded self with love and compassion rather than condemnation and disdain. Christ looks upon our wounded self inviting us to sit with it and learn from it rather than demanding us to grow up and shake it off. Blessed are those who acknowledge their own woundedness for that’s where they will truly experience the love and grace of God. 

Where do you see the reign of Thor in your life? Where do you see impatience with your own vulnerability? Where do you demand from yourself might? Where do you cast out of yourself meekness? Listen to the words of Christ. Allow the words of the beatitudes to wash over you. Your wounded self is begging to experience the blessing of God. Who will hold sway over your heart, Christ or Thor?

In closing I share with you the words of Christ in response to Thor’s challenge at the end of Longfellow’s little collection of poems. May the Thor in you hear him clearly.

The challenge of battle!
It is accepted,
But not with the weapons
Of war that thou wieldest!

Cross against corselet,
Love against hatred,
Peace-cry for way cry!
Patience is powerful;
He that o’ercometh
Hath power o’er the nations!

Stronger than steel
Is the sword of the Spirit;
Swifter than arrows
The light of the truth is,
Greater than anger
Is love, and subdueth!

The dawn is not distant,
Nor is the night starless;
Love is eternal!
God is still God, and
His faith shall not fail us
Christ it eternal!”

“The Nun of Nidaros” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow