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.
Today’s sermon centers around three different stories of 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. Incidentally, in case any of you are wondering about the theological validity of using Star Wars references in a sermon, yesterday while I was sitting in Kinley’s coffee house writing this very sermon, writing about Star Wars, the theme to the Star Wars movies began playing on the coffee shop speakers. Twice, in the course of three hours. Clearly, I took this as an affirmative sign from God.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (or as my generation refers to it, the real “first” Star Wars movie) there is a scene where the young hero, Luke Skywalker, watches from across the hangar of the Death Star as his teacher and mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi is engaged in a lightsaber duel to the death with the evil Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Despite Obi-wan Kenobi’s advanced age, he appears to be evenly matched with his opponent, and is certainly holding his own in the fight.
Until he looks up and sees his pupil, Luke Skywalker, watching him from a distance. Luke had only been Obi-wan’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 (Obi-wan) 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 Obi-wan 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 unexpected: He smiles cryptically, and lowers his lightsaber, allowing his enemy (Darth Vader) to strike him down.
Luke Skywalker, witnessing the death of his teacher, cries out in surprise and grief, but there is nothing he can do. Obi-wan’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, however, know that this is not the end of Obi-wan Kenobi. Not quite. 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 Obi-wan’s death, Luke finally begins to internalize and live into the teachings of his master.
Obi-wan Kenobi is, of course, a fictional character, although I suspect he is one quite familiar to everyone here under the age of 50. My next story, my next character is not fictional at all, and I suspect that some of you here today over the age of 50 actually knew him. Some of you knew him well.
The Rev. George W. Burroughs, or “Bill Burroughs” as he preferred to be called, was the pastor of this church for 13 years—from 1953 until his untimely death in 1966. When Bill Burroughs arrived in El Paso to pastor this church, he was just 33 years old—younger than I am by six years! He had served as an assistant pastor in Washington D.C. to the famous Rev. Peter Marshall, chaplain to the United States Senate and subject of the Academy Award nominated film “A Man Called Peter.”
Bill Burroughs, by all accounts 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. More than that, he placed a lot of emphasis on discipleship and lay leadership — He taught 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 enraptured with Bill Burroughs the man—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 Bill Burroughs’ portrait (a famous portrait made by local artist Tom Lea!) hanging on the wall than a painting of Jesus himself.
And then something tragic happened. Just when First Presbyterian Church and its dynamic leader seemed poised on the brink of something big, Rev. Burroughs fell ill. In just a matter of months, at the young age of 47, he was gone. Aplastic Anemia cut short his life, his plans, his ministry, and many 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 ten years that followed were the largest growth years in the history of the church. In fact, contrary to popular belief, and despite a revolving door of pastoral leadership, our church membership actually reached its highest point ever in 1976—two years before the arrival of another well-loved pastor, Dr. Robert Young.
So what happened? I think Rev. Burroughs’ plan, his teachings, his emphasis on every member as a minister…worked. His tragic death compelled the members of First Presbyterian Church 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 1,000 years ago. By now, you’ve probably figured out I’m talking about Jesus Christ. Our scripture passage this morning tells of his final words to his disciples, his students, before his ascension into heaven. Today is Ascension Sunday. This final event in the earthly ministry of Jesus may seem minor to us in comparison with his birth, his crucifixion, or his resurrection. We don’t tend to 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. 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, and be doers, not spectators. Sometimes we, too, just don’t get it. We need a gentle push.
Ascension is Jesus’ way of reminding us that he is always here with us, but he is not physically here with us. If, as he says in verse 47, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” we must be his hands, his feet, his voice, and his love in this world.
I’m reminded of the story of the man who is walking down a street, and passes by a rather 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 quite reach it; he just isn’t quite 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 presses the button to ring the doorbell.
“Thanks mister!” says the kid. “Now let’s run!”
First Presbyterian Church—let’s run! We can do this. You can do this. May the Force be with you. May God’s Spirit be with us all.