Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 21, 2023
Acts 1:6-11 “Don’t Look Up”
In 2021 a movie with an all-star cast including Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchet, and Meryl Streep came out and left quite an impression on those who watched it, including me. Called ‘Don’t Look Up’, it was about two scientists who discovered a large, Earth-destroying asteroid heading for our planet. The two scientists attempt to get the word out about this impending disaster. They go to the President, who was worried about her approval rating, and dismisses their warning. They go to the media, who realize this unhappy story is not good for ratings, and therefore downplay the seriousness. Soon, the country (this movie is told from the perspective of the United States) is divided. There are those who believe the scientists and try to convince others to believe them. And there are those, led by the President, who go to great lengths to avoid the truth. The scientists are slandered and those who believe them are accused of being hysterical.
Soon, though, the asteroid is visible in the sky to the naked eye. Unable to avoid the visible evidence that the scientists were correct, the President and her team launch a campaign called Don’t Look Up. It becomes the motto of the people convinced that the scientists were lying to them. There is a great scene in the movie of the President leading a rally in a huge, open sky arena. She is leading the people in a chant of Don’t Look Up. One of the rally participants, wearing Don’t Look Up merchandise for, whatever reason, does actually look up into the night sky. And there is the asteroid, huge and undeniable. He looks genuinely shocked.
I won’t give away all the details of the ending, but I will say that in the end the scientists were right. The movie was written to be satire about the unfolding disaster of climate change, though its release in 2021 also drew connections to the pandemic. At first as I watched it, I laughed out loud. It was ridiculous. But about halfway through the movie I stopped laughing. It was over-the-top satire in some ways, but in most ways, it was so very accurate about the way humanity avoids, often to our great peril, the evidence of things happening around us. We choose to look away at anything that makes us uncomfortable. And we can, at times, even convince ourselves that because we are choosing not to pay attention, it does not exist.
‘Don’t Look Up’ struck me in another way too, because the Church has often said the opposite, but with the same intent. Too often the Church and some of our more traditional doctrine, have tried to keep our attention heavenward. God is taught to be above us and therefore our attention must be focused on the heavens and not the world around us. For instance, we often point up when we refer to God. Take a football player, who points up in thanks to God after scoring a touchdown. Or the design of steeples on church buildings – the taller the steeple the closer to God. And it seems only appropriate that I point out the irony of the message of my sermon today alongside the title of the anthem the choir sang this morning. The anthem, which is beautiful and I am a fan, and my sermon were planned separately. It wasn’t until I was putting the bulletin together that I noticed the…conflicting message.
It makes complete sense though that the traditional Christian understanding of God is being up, above, and therefore apart. The Ascension story, the scripture we read this morning, tells us that story. In it we hear of Jesus ascending, going up to heaven to be with God. The writer of Acts, who was the same person as the writer of the Gospel of Luke, had to figure out a way to transition the story from the time of Jesus to the time of the Apostles. There had to be a conclusion to what happened to Jesus after the resurrection. And Jesus often said he was going to his Father, so this story is a way of describing that ‘going.’ But, the writer of Luke and Acts knew there was a problem. This mystical story had to be told, but the attention of the people had to be returned to the world and the work of the faithful. The story of the Ascension concludes with disciples, gazing up into the heavens after Jesus, having their attention returned to the world around them by two angels. They say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They bring the attention of the disciples back to the world around them. It is almost as if the writer of the story feared that the generations of the faithful to follow would be tempted to keep their attention heavenward at the expense of the world and its joys and needs around them.
Taken a step further, though, it is not just that as the faithful we must keep our attention on what is happening around us. But we also are not required to only look up and away in order to see God. I believe, and I believe that Jesus teaches us, that God exists in the midst of humanity. That is the entire point of the incarnation, of Christmas – of God becoming flesh and walking alongside humanity. If we are created in the image of God, which I believe we are, then to see God we need only to look around us at our neighbors and our strangers. Further, I believe that God exists within the very stuff of the Earth itself. I have told you the story before of visiting the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua. I was able to stand on the rim and lean over the edge. Just as I did so the wind shifted and for a couple of seconds I could see the glow of the lava below and feel the intense heat. In that moment I knew, without understanding how, I knew that I was peering into the heart of God. It was a moment of awe, fear mixed with wonder. In that moment I found God not by looking up, but by gazing into the very center of this Earth.
As people of the incarnation we believe that God does not exist as separate and other, above and away from humanity and creation. Rather, we believe that God so intimately loves all of God’s creation that God is found in the midst of this creation. God’s messengers in today’s scripture story reinforce that. As the disciples gazed upward, they brought their attention back down. Because it is amongst creation in which true service and devotion to God is done and found.
Following the example of Jesus, we remember that to serve God is to serve our neighbor. To love God is to love our neighbor. Caring for the land is caring for God. Praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven means that we work to create here on earth the heaven to which we all strive. To be Christian means to not spend our entire time gazing heavenward to find God, rather it means to look around to this earth which God has asked us to steward and the community which God has gifted us – and in doing so we will find God.
In the movie, Don’t Look Up was a chant meant to reinforce the human inclination to avoid confronting anything that would upset the status quo, no matter the dire consequences. But in the scripture lesson, the angel’s directive to not look up has the opposite intent. It is a reminder that in order to find God and to serve God our attention is best spent looking around at the world around us. That does not mean that we dismiss the expansiveness of God, and we must resist the temptation to limit God to only what we can fully understand. But it is a reminder that to serve God is not an abdication of our responsibility to serve one another and all of creation. They are one in the same. God is found in the familiar and God exists in the extraordinary. God is found above us, below us, around us, and within us all at once. When we peer into the cosmos we glimpse God in the same way as when we peer into the face of stranger. Our task as Christians is to hold all of these truths, as best we can, and to work for that which we pray for. That is how we hold together our identity as Christmas people and Easter people. People of the incarnation and people of the resurrection. People of the ordinary and people of the extraordinary. Amen.
Beloved God, you do not exist separate from us, but rather you exist within and alongside us. Your love for us and all of your beloved creation is so pure and true that you can never be separated from us. For this forever presence, we give you great thanks. And it is in gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, we confess there are times when we are tempted to avoid looking into the eyes of the hurt because it makes us uncomfortable. There are times when we pretend to not notice the ways the earth around us is begging us to pay attention and change our ways. God we confess this to you and welcome the grace which you freely offer. Give us the courage we need, infuse us with the hope you give, and inspire us to do what we can.
One of the ways we experience you most fully is in the act of prayer for ourselves and for this world and those we love. As we open our spirits to you, we turn over to you the prayers we carry within, trusting that you always hear and respond…
Great and glorious God, you are around us and within us, and because of this we are faithful to you. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us what it means to fully embody you in all that we do. And we now pray in the way he taught…Our Father…