Left Behind

Scripture: Acts 1:6-14
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
May 28, 2017

There is a true story about a 33 year old truck driver, Larry Walters, who made national news.  Larry had a habit of spending his weekends in his Los Angeles backyard, drinking…Pepsi…and eating peanut butter sandwiches.  He would sit in his favorite aw chair staring at the houses around him; it was not a very exciting life.

One day, out of boredom, Larry Walters, bought some balloons and a tank of helium.  He thought that it would be fun to tie balloons to his lawn chair, filling them with helium, and floating up for an aerial view of the neighborhood.  He figured that he probably wouldn’t get any higher than 100 feet.  I’m not sure how many six packs of Pepsi he had consumed when he came to that idea, but he decided it was worth a try.

So, Larry Walters of Los Angeles went out and bought 45 big weather balloons, a huge tank of helium and some rope.  First, he secured his lawn chair to the ground, and then he filled the balloons with helium.  One by one he tied them to his lawn chair.  Before lift off he went in the house and got another six pack of …Pepsi and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches.  Then he went out and sat in his lawn chair.  He had instructed his neighbors to cut the ropes securing the chair when he was ready.  “Let’s go!” he yelled and the ropes were cut.

But he didn’t get 100 feet.  He went up 11,000 feet.  Shot straight up in the air. And the six pack of Pepsi?  It was useless since he was using both hands to hang on to the chair for dear life.

He shot straight up into the landing pattern at L.A. Airport.  The pilot of an approaching Continental DC 10 reported that he had just passed a man in a lawn chair, and the control tower told him to report in immediately upon landing.  They thought the pilot may have been drinking a little too much…Pepsi.

Eventually they sent up helicopters to rescue Larry Walters.  They closed the airport and diverted all landings and takeoffs at LAX while they played tag with this guy in his lawn chair at 11,000 feet.  When they finally got him down, he was surrounded by TV crews, the police, fire and rescue squads, and plenty of curious people.  It was a major event.

“Were you scared?” asked one of the reporters.

“No, not really,” said Larry.

“Are you going to do it again?” asked another reporter.

“No,” said Larry.

“What in the world make you do it the first time?”

Larry Walters thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, you just can’t sit there.” And you know, Larry Walters is right.  We can’t just sit there.

Likewise, in our scripture passage this morning, Jesus ascends into the skies, and the disciples stand there, with their mouths hanging open, watching him.  The angels ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  In other words, don’t just stand there (or as Larry Walters says, don’t just sit there) –  there is work to do.

I will be honest with you – the lectionary passage for this morning is not of mine.  In fact, I’ve never preached on this passage in my 20 years plus of ministry.  What does a progressive Christian minister in the 21st century say?   In the first century, it was believed that we lived in a three – tiered universe.  Heaven, earth, and hell.  The belief was that Jesus ascended into heaven.  But in the 21st century, we are fully aware that the universe is much more vast than a simple three – tiered universe.  Our entire solar system is on the periphery of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of billions – yes, billions – of other galaxies in the universe.  As the late Carl Sagan, one of the world’s most esteemed and well known astrophysicists, once said, “If Jesus literally ascended into the sky at the time of the ascension, and even if he traveled at the speed of light (approximately 186,000 miles per second), he has not yet escaped our galaxy.”  If Jesus traveled the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take more than 100,000 years to go from one end of our galaxy to the other.  In my 21st century mind, I cannot comprehend a Jesus whose feet were getting ever smaller as he rose away into the sky past the moon, maybe waving at Mars and Saturn.

Yet, this scripture passage is an important one for many.  The two most prominent Biblical scenes painted in the Middle Ages were the virgin birth and the ascension of Jesus.  Why these two scenes?  They frame the limits of Jesus’ earthly life – his arrival in the world and his departure.

Throughout history, Christians have continued to look into the sky – awaiting Jesus’ return, his Second Coming. The Apostle Paul was certain that Jesus was coming back in his time; church leaders in every generation have been certain that Jesus was coming back in their time.  Most recently, Harold Camping (remember that name), declared that the Second Coming was going to happen on May 21, 2011.  Followers of Harold Camping quit their jobs, took their children out of school, cashed in their retirement, used their life savings to put up over 2000 billboards around the country declaring that May 21 was Judgment Day.  Maybe some of you read the best selling fiction series “Left Behind”.  It tells the story of the end times in which true Christians will be taken up, instantly ascended into heaven, leaving the world shattered and chaotic.  Jerry Falwell said of the Left Behind series, “It’s greater than any other book, outside of the Bible!”

Some people believe that the Bible gives a clear timeline of the future, and they speculate with great enthusiasm about what that timeline is.  Yet, we haven’t gotten that timeline right yet.  So, I would like to propose that maybe, just maybe the Kingdom of God will not come as many have envisioned as some divisive, judgmental, fatalistic, exclusionary end of the world event.  Rather the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God is happening in our very midst here and now, not just someday in the future, but here and now.  Jesus says the Kingdom of God is at hand; it is among us and it is within us.  Perhaps, we are the Second Coming.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.  After all, Jesus says, “You will do greater things than me.”

The angels ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?”   In other words, do not worry about Jesus’ return, his Second Coming – instead focus on the message of Jesus’ first coming:  love one another. The message is clear, if we want to see Christ, it is no use to look up into the skies, but rather we called to look into the eyes of each other.  

The Kingdom of God will come through peace and compassion.  The Kingdom of God will come through love and care of one another.  The Kin(g)dom of God will come when we reach out to those who feel left behind.

This week I want to encourage you to reach out in love to one who may feel left behind –

  • A homeless person
  • Someone in our church family who is hurting, ill or grieving
  • An elderly neighbor who is lonely
  • A member of the LGBTQ community who feels ostracized by family and / or friends
  • A Muslim or person of color who has experienced prejudice and discrimination in our own country, the place they call “home”.
  • The kid at lunch who sits all by himself in the corner
  • A military person suffering from PTSD

I imagine that you already have that person or those persons pictured in your mind.  For there are many who are struggling to find their place in this world. May we try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ first coming so that no one is left behind.