Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Looking Up is Not a Good Idea

Acts 1:4-11
Easter 7
May 28, 2017
William G. Carter

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

I don’t know about you, but if I saw a man fly up into the sky, I would stand there and watch him too.

It’s not the sort of thing that you see every day. Back when I was a little kid, I remember seeing the movie “Thunderball.” James Bond needs to escape from a chateau. So he straps on a rocket pack and flies up and out, where his car is parked and a pretty girl was waiting. A rocket pack - that was cool.

Just imagine Jesus, lifting up, disappearing into the clouds. I think I’d stand there and watch. Wouldn’t you?

Just imagine the spectacle of the occasion! Like the church in Tennessee that noticed the crowds had dropped after Easter. So they announced that they would re-enact the ascension of Jesus. They put out press releases, invited all the neighbors, brought in television cameras. On the appointed day, they brought in a crane, put a vest on their pastor, and yanked him into the air. Everybody looked up! It was an impressive occasion, one I hope is never repeated..

But I’m intrigued by the retort of the two men in white robes: “People of Galilee, why are you standing there, looking up towards heaven? It’s an unusual line, so unusual that it’s neglected by the Bible commentators. They don’t say anything about it.

Symbolically, we can understand what else is going on. Jesus has risen from the dead. Now he is returning to his Father. Where’s his Father? Up there, somewhere. Isn’t that what we think about heaven? It’s taller than us, bigger than our understanding, just out of sight. We can understand the symbolism of Christ being lifted up, even if none of the cosmonauts saw him when they flew into outer space.

It’s not just a spatial matter. It’s a description of authority: Christ rules over the kingdom of God. He watches over us. He reigns over all the nations and their crazy leaders. That’s very good news. And the Psalms talk that way. Like Psalm 47, a coronation psalm: “The Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (47:2).” It does say “over.” Then the psalm says, “God has gone up with a shout (Psalm 47:5).” We all know what “up” means.

And as Jesus goes up, it gives an extra emphasis to his final words. He’s not singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.” No, his final words are a promise: “The Spirit will come and give you power to be my witnesses.”

And as he departs, two men in white robes are suddenly present, just as they were on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:4). They are standing with their feet firmly on the ground. And they say, “Why are you looking up?”

I’ve been giving some thought to that this week. As I’ve reflected on it, there are at least three reasons why looking up is not always a good idea.

Here’s the first: if you’re looking up, you might be tempted to think that what’s up there is better than what’s down here. If this world has problems, maybe you want to get off of it. There’s no overpopulation on Mars, and if you could go to Mars, you wouldn’t have to deal with the problems down here.

Now, I know that sounds fantastic, even a little bit crazy, but there are a lot of people who think Christian faith is about going to Mars. That faith should be an escape from all the troubles and travails here on earth. There are some people who even think that someday the trumpet will blow and all the true believers will float up into the sky. They believe they will get to escape, and leave behind all the poor shmoes who aren’t as enlightened as they are.

Biblically speaking, that’s nonsense. It’s contrary to everything that Jesus says and does. He speaks truth, he heals the sick, he feeds the hungry – because this life matters, because these people matter, because this world was created by his Word and it matters. According to the Gospels, he says, “The kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17:21).” It’s not up there, but down here, in our midst, waiting to be found. And there’s no escaping the hard work of being a servant to others in the name of Jesus.  

Besides, down here on the ground is where the action is. The heavenly witnesses in white can tell us that. We don’t get to escape by going up. Rather, God is coming down here in Jesus Christ. He came down once, and the witnesses say one day he will come down again. So there’s no escaping this planet while there is Christian work to be done.

There’s a small cemetery over on Lily Lake Road in Dalton. One day I was over there for a graveside service. After finishing the prayer and giving the blessing, my friend Bud, the funeral director, said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” We walked a little bit, and then he pointed to a blue headstone shaped to look like the Starship Enterprise. Apparently the deceased was a Trekkie. According to Bud, his final words were, “Beam me up Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”

I guess you can live that way, but it’s not really living. It’s escaping.

Here’s the second problem with looking up: it entices you to believe that the only power in the universe is trickle-down power.

Now certainly, God is greater than we are. There is nobody here who is qualified to create a solar system, nobody here with the power to create a new species. Those abilities are above our pay grade. We pray, in no small part, because we wish to be in communion with the Holy God who can do all things.

But here’s the problem. That Holy God has often been represented by a kind of vertical theology. God is way up there, and we are way down here. God is holy and beyond our comprehension, and we are thoughtless worms who don’t know very much at all.

Diana Butler Bass describes this as an “elevator theology.” God hands down words of instruction to the clergy, who hand down the heavenly wisdom to the rest of us. The clergy, she says, are professional elevator operators. They go to professional elevator operator school, they learn the right terminology, they learn how to splash baptismal water and dispense bread and wine as gifts that have descended from the elevator. And if people follow their instructions, they could ride the elevator up to heaven when they die.[1]

Her research as a church historian suggests that this vision is outdated. We have different understandings of science, technology, and politics that are not top-down. Communication doesn’t only come down through news authorities; a single tweet will ricochet sideways (even if you don’t know what a tweet is). She says people are increasingly seeing God as part of the web or ecosystem humans inhabit rather than as part of a vertical structure. That is, God is not in some faraway place but much closer to us.

I think she’s right about that. The future of religious communities will not come from reaching toward the heavens, but recovering the mystical reality at the heart of our faith. What’s this mystical reality? It’s looking for the work of God among us. It’s the prayerful perceiving of God in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our struggles, even in the middle of our pain. It’s what the adults on mission trips or kids at Camp Lackawanna call “the God moments.”

It’s making a move from thinking God is detached and indifferent (high and lofty), or worse, thinking God is always ready to spring a trap on us and say “gotcha” (holy and angry), to asking, “God, what are you doing right here? What do you wish to do in my life?” It’s a different set of questions, not seeking top-down answers, but welcoming God’s holy presence.

And that leads me to the third problem with always looking up: if you’re always looking up, you miss what’s going on all around us.

This week, in the aftermath of that terrorist attack at the Manchester concert in England, somebody remembered some wisdom from, of all people, Mister Rogers. You might know that Fred Rogers was not only had an Emmy award-winning show for children. He was a Presbyterian minister, and a rather remarkable human being.

So here’s what he said. "When something terrible happened, a tragedy like an earthquake or a hurricane or something really awful, I would wonder where God was. Where is God? My mother used to say, "Look for the helpers.  There will always be helpers, even if they are on the sidelines. That's where God is.”

Fred said, “To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing there are still so many caring people in this world. If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.[2]

And if you’re only looking up at the sky, shaking your fist, and saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing something?” you are probably missing what God is already doing.

So we don’t look up to escape. And we don’t look up in the hope that God might dribble down a little grace if we’re good enough. We look around here, and pay attention, asking to see afresh that Christ is alive and working among us, around us, and through us.

And when we see him, or when we perceive where he is and what he is doing, we will have something to say to the world. We will be his witnesses. You and I – we’ll have something to say.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See her recent book, Grounded: Finding God in the World. Or watch her at

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Is Easter Still Real?

Acts 2:42-47
Easter 4
May 7, 2017
William G. Carter

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved

Easter was a few weeks ago. A good case can be made that it was a lot longer ago than that. The further we get away from the empty tomb, the more the hallelujahs begin to fade. We can keep singing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but we all know it didn’t happen today; the resurrection happened a long time ago. The glad shouts, the astonished wonder, the primal fear turned to reverence – all of it can fade as time rolls along.

It reminds me of a conversation between a little girl and her mother. A week or so ago, they were driving around town and passed a church on a busy street corner. The church had put up banners to advertise and attract visitors for the Holy Week worship services, and nobody had taken them down yet. The little girl said to her mother, “Is Easter still going on?”

Luke, the Gospel writer, says, “Yes, it is.” In his second book, the book of Acts, he gives two pieces of evidence. We heard the first last week: the proclamation of the Gospel, the ongoing message that even though the world crucified the Son of God, he has been raised up from the dead. That sin, as with every other, has been forgiven and taken away. God is stronger than the powers of destruction. God’s love is stronger than death. The church keeps proclaiming this for all people, and so Easter is still going on.

And the second piece of evidence comes in the brief paragraph that we heard a minute ago: the forming of a community of Christians. The summary sounds familiar: they gathered for teaching and fellowship, they broke bread around the table and offered up prayers, they shared their lives with one another and ate a lot of food (that detail is repeated, probably for good reason). Easter is still going on, as Christian people come together and stay together.

In fact, the attraction was so strong that they literally did share everything that they had. There were no private possessions, for all things were considered group resources. It was the opposite of the consumerist individualism that all of us know so well. In our day, every home has its own lawn mower, its own microwave, with a television in every room. Imagine people sharing everything in common!

A few years ago, I was in western Pennsylvania. As we drove north from Pittsburgh on I-79, we saw the exit for Zelienople and I said, “Let’s turn off here.” You take a left at the bottom of the ramp, and a right about a half mile down, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Harmony, Pennsylvania.

There’s not much left in Harmony, but there is enough to let you know it was real. Harmony was one of the original planned communities. Lead by a man named George Rapp, Harmony was intended as a community just as it sounded, a place where Christ was proclaimed as Risen Lord and everybody got along. They got along so well that “they sold all their possessions and distributed the proceeds as any had need.” Just like the book of Acts!

It’s one of the curious chapters of American church history. Harmony was a utopian community, where daily life was intended to draw from the life of the earliest Christians. There were community meals, community Bible studies, community farm work, and nothing held back from the life of the whole group. That community flourished and grew to about eight hundred people. It became so profitable that they sold the town to the Mennonites for an enormous profit, and then moved to western Indiana where there was more elbow room. Again they stayed there ten more years in a town called New Harmony, sold off the town for an even larger profit, and then moved back to western Pennsylvania to create a town called Economy.

The whole enterprise continued until 1905, about a hundred years after its beginning. During that time, the community produced high quality cotton and wool, ran mills for grain and lumber, maintained a significant brewery and a productive winery, built a library and ran a large community orchestra. But alas, some of them fell under the spell of a rival preacher and that splintered the group. Some of the younger members of the group also took issue with the expectations for celibacy, an expectation that had the unfortunate effect of keeping the population small and elderly.[1]

Is it possible for Christians to live together in perfect harmony? I guess it can work for a while. Think of it as a rehearsal for the kingdom of God, where people shall come from east and west, north and south, and break bread with glad and generous hearts at the same table. Let this begin with the Christians and spill out into the world.

Some would say this is unnatural, that it’s every person for themselves and survival of the fittest. But those are not Gospel values. “Survival of the fittest” is a biological observation of natural selection, not ever a Christian social policy. Jesus healed those who were sick, whoever they were, regardless of their pre-existing conditions. He fed the multitudes without knowing everybody’s name. And when he put together a movement, a Gospel movement, he called together twelve very diverse disciples to form a community. The assumption, I believe, is that these very different people have to keep working out what it means to flourish together.

And that’s why the earliest Christian scriptures single out two sins that can destroy human community. One is greed, excessive greed, the kind of greed that says, “I’m going to benefit at everybody else’s expense.” Did you know that, in the New Testament, greed makes all the lists of those sins that put people on the highway to hell?[2] And given the shortness of our lives, greed is really a form of foolishness. In the words of a country music song, “I Ain’t Never Seen No Hearse Pulling No U-Haul.”  

The other community-busting sin is indifference. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in need, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[3] Indifference. Indifference looks at a widow and says, “She’s not my mom.” Indifference looks at a struggling child and says, “He’s not my kid.” Indifference looks at a man who has just lost his job and says, “We will pray for the best.”

Greed and indifference – those are the ways of a world that put Christ on the cross. But Jesus is risen from the dead! He is among those who continue the Word and work that he has started. He offers an alternative to selfishness that infects us all. It is possible to have a new kind of life, and it is a life together.

Look how Easter continues. Here are people who gather to keep hearing the Word of Christ, and then they care for one another. They look out for one another. They help one another. They share what God has given them with anybody who has needs. And they do all this in ways that give others dignity, not to merely give the hand-out, but to actually lift people up. They give life, in the name of the One who is alive.

So when we come to this Table today, we gather at the invitation of Christ who is alive. We come hungry, but we know that the food and the justice we gain at this Table are not for us alone. We come because the promises of green pastures and still waters are a promise for all. We come, because thanks to Jesus, the Risen Lord Jesus, we continue to learn that life lived together with an ever-expanding circle of Christian friends is eternally better than the folly of going alone.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] An account of the “Harmony Society" is here:
[2] See, for instance, 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
[3] Matthew 25:31-46.