Sermon for May 24th, 2020
44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you— that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Jesus, Obiwan Kenobi & Rev. Bill Burroughs
Today's sermon centers around three different stories and three very different men: One who lived 2,000 years ago, one who lived 60 years ago, and one who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
We'll start with the last one. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is the classic opening line of all the Star Wars movies, and so the first story is one many of you are probably familiar with.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope there is a scene where the young hero, Luke Skywalker, watches from across the hangar of the Death Star as his teacher and mentor, Obiwan Kenobi is engaged in a lightsaber duel to the death with the evil Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Despite Obiwan Kenobi's advanced age, he appears to be holding his own in the fight.
But then he looks up and sees his pupil, Luke Skywalker, watching him from a distance. Luke had only been Obiwan's student for a short period of time. Luke had struggled with his lessons, struggled with learning the ways of the Jedi and struggled to understand and master the use of the Force. As a student, Luke just wasn't quite getting it.
And so, in that dramatic moment, where Obiwan looks up from the intensity of his combat to see his student watching him from a distance, the old Jedi master does something strange, something very unexpected: He smiles cryptically, and lowers his lightsaber, allowing his enemy to strike him down.
Luke, witnessing the death of his teacher, cries out in surprise and grief, but there is nothing he can do. Obiwan's body has vanished and Luke is dragged away by his friends as they escape from the Death Star.
Those of you who are familiar with the Star Wars movies know that this is not really the end of Obiwan Kenobi. Instead of a physical presence in Luke's life, he becomes a spiritual presence: Luke hears his voice in times of desperate need, reminding him to "use the force" and guiding him in a way that could never have been possible while he lived. With Obiwan's death, Luke finally begins to internalize and live into the teachings of his master.
Obiwan Kenobi is, of course, a fictional character. My next story, my next character is not fictional at all. In fact, 57 years ago, he stood right here where I'm standing, doing exactly what I'm doing today--preaching to the congregation of First Presbyterian Church.
Last week I talked about The Rev. George W. Burroughs: his role in the creation of this sanctuary and its stained glass windows. Bill Burroughs (as he preferred to be called) was the pastor of this church for 13 years--making him the longest-serving pastor in our church's history. When Bill Burroughs arrived in El Paso to pastor this church, he was just 33 years old--12 years younger than I am now, and about 30 years younger than the average Presbyterian pastor. He was a young guy.
But by all accounts, he was a tremendous preacher, a loving pastor, an energetic community leader and a man of vision, who led this church from its aging building on Yandell street to this location. His consistent and recurring message in his sermons, his writing and his teaching, was that every member was a minister, not just the pastor. Every member was responsible for the spiritual and physical growth of the church and the community.
And yet, people were so captivated with Bill Burroughs: They honestly believed that HE could accomplish anything, that HE would lead the church into its greatest period of growth, that HE was the reason for their success. One member from this time period told me that if you visited the home of a typical church member, you'd be more likely to find a painting of Bill Burroughs hanging in the living room than a painting of Jesus.
And then something tragic happened. Just when this sanctuary and the move to Murchison street were complete, just when this church and its dynamic leader seemed poised on the brink of something big, Rev. Burroughs fell ill. In a matter of months, at the age of 46, he was gone. Aplastic Anemia cut short his life, his plans, his ministry, and many people thought the church would never recover.
I say that his death cut short his plans, but that's not entirely true. There were a few rocky years after his death, but the decade that followed--despite a revolving door of pastoral leadership--saw the largest growth in the history of the church. By 1977, First Presbyterian Church had become the largest church in El Paso.
So what happened? I think Rev. Burroughs' plan, his teachings, his emphasis on every member as a minister...actually worked, in a way he never could have anticipated. His death compelled his followers to rise to the occasion, to become the embodiment of his teachings. The spirit of Bill Burroughs lived and permeated this church much longer, much more thoroughly than his physical presence ever did.
That brings me to our third and final story, this time of a man who lived about 1,000 years ago. You've probably guessed that I'm talking about Jesus Christ. Our scripture passage this morning tells of Jesus' final words to his disciples, his students, before he ascended into heaven. Today, in the Christian calendar, is Ascension Sunday. We don't typically make a big deal out of Ascension day like we do with Christmas, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday. But in light of the previous two stories, perhaps we should.
Luke Skywalker thought he needed Obiwan Kenobi to become a Jedi Master...until Darth Vader took his teacher away.
The people of First Presbyterian Church thought they needed a pastor to grow their church...until tragedy took their pastor away.
The disciples of Jesus thought they needed a Messiah to save the world...until that Messiah ascended into the heavens and said, "You are the ones who will carry this message into the world"
A lot of us today thought we needed a building to be a church, or a job to lead a purposeful life, or a physical presence to carry on a conversation with a friend...until Covid19 took many of those things away from us.
Ascension is Jesus' way of reminding us that regardless of our circumstances, our setbacks, or the changing world around us, we are now, more than ever his hands, his feet, his voice, and his love in the world. Not just the preachers, the teachers, or the Jedi masters, but all of us. And if we are faithful to answer that call, he will equip us in new and creative ways we never expected or imagined.
There's a story about a man who is walking down the street one day, and he passes by a large house. Outside the house is a little boy who is trying to reach the doorbell. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t reach it; he just isn’t tall enough. Being the helpful sort, the man decides to help the boy. So he walks up to the house and pushes the doorbell. Then he looks down at the boy and asks: “What now?” The boy looks up at him with a mischievous grin on his face and says, "Now we run like crazy!"
People of First Presbyterian Church--let’s run like crazy! May the Force be with you. And may God's Spirit be with us all.