Difference between revisions of "Sermon for May 24th, 2020"
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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 50 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 evenly matched with his opponent, and is certainly 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, which his teacher (Obiwan) had described as "an energy field created by all living things that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together." 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 (Darth Vader) to strike him down and kill him.
Luke Skywalker, 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, or "Bill Burroughs" as he preferred to be called. He was the pastor of this church for 13 years--making him the longest-serving pastor in our church's 138-years of existence. When Bill Burroughs arrived in El Paso to pastor this church, he was just 33 years old--for reference, that's 12 years younger than I am now, and about 30 years younger than the average age of Presbyterian pastors as a whole. He was a young guy.
By all accounts, Bill Burroughs was also 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 on the living room wall 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 years 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. His tragic 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 could have.
That brings me to our third and final story, this time of a man who lived about 1,000 years ago. By now, you've probably figured out 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, and Easter Sunday. But in light of the previous two stories, perhaps we should.
Just like Luke Skywalker, Jesus' disciples struggled to make sense of his teachings, bumbling and blundering every which way during his lifetime. They didn't get it. They needed a gentle push out of the nest. Like the disciples, and like the members of First Presbyterian Church during the time of Bill Burroughs, we sometimes get so caught up in worshiping our teachers that we forget we are called to actually live out their teachings. We are called to get up out of our comfortable pews (or sofas) and be doers--not spectators--of God's Word. Sometimes we, too, need a gentle push.
Ascension is Jesus' way of reminding us that we are now his hands, his feet, his voice, and his love in this world. And if, as he says in verse 47, the message of "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations," that's on us--not just the preachers, the teachers, the Jedi masters, but all of us.
There's a story about a man who is walking down a 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 much the little boy stretches for the doorbell, he can’t reach it; he just isn’t tall enough. So the man, being the helpful sort, walks up the sidewalk to the house, goes up the steps to the porch and says to the little boy, “Let me get that for you.” And he rings the doorbell.
The boy looks at him with a mischievous grin on his face and says, “Thanks mister! Now let’s run!”
People of First Presbyterian Church—let’s run! We can do this. You can do this. May the Force be with you. And may God's Spirit be with us all.