Sermon: Looking Up

May 21, 2023

Acts 1:6-14
John 17:1-11

by Eric Anderson

I was a little sad when I realized this week that, because of our Sunday School recognition time, I wouldn’t be telling a story. I’m told that the young people and the people who’ve been young people quite a long time – you know, those young people – appreciate those stories. So I’m sorry that there’s no story today.

Once upon a time there was a young ‘apapane who was struggling with flying.

So, OK, I wasn’t sorry about there not being a story for very long.

This young ‘apapane’s problem was not, in fact, flying. He had mastered all the tricky business of holding his wings just so, and moving them down just so, and moving them back up just so, so that he moved forward through the air without diving or climbing or veering off to the left or slanting off to the right. Straight and level – it was so pretty to watch.

It was also, to some extent, the problem. Straight and level works just fine when you’re above the treetops or there’s short trees or bushes or grasses beneath you. When you’re in the trees, though, straight and level is a recipe for straight into a painful encounter with a tree branch.

He could turn just fine, and go up and down. Somewhere along the line, however, someone told him to fix his eyes right ahead, and not to look to either side. “Keep your eyes on where you’re going,” they said, and that’s what he did. It was kind of an accomplishment, actually, because an ‘apapane’s eyes are on the sides of the head, so they’re always looking all around. But he learned to focus, and he kept his focus, and it worked just fine until he whacked a wing on a cluster of leaves to one side, or smacked his feet against blossoms just below, or clocked his head against a tree branch that was just out of the tiny circle where he’d been looking.

He struggled with flying, and it was a painful struggle.

One evening as he was nursing a headache his grandmother asked him what he thought he was doing. “I’m keeping my eyes on what’s ahead of me,” he said.

“Then why do you keep flying into things?” she asked.

“Because they’re off to one side,” he said.

I will spare you the long lecture she gave him about the need to pay attention to more than what’s just ahead of you. Although maybe I shouldn’t – because you and I, we have to pay attention to more than just what’s right in front of us, too, don’t we? There’s the things that are coming from one side or the other. If we keep our eyes on our footsteps we’ll bonk our heads on what’s above. If we think only about what’s just in front of us, how can we ever be ready for what’s coming farther along?

The long lecture from his grandmother stung, I admit. But not as much as his head and his wings and his feet hurt from all those collisions. He learned to look ahead, and to the side, and up and down, and beyond.

In 2021 Netflix premiered the movie, Don’t Look Up, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, playing two astronomers who discovered a sizable comet heading for a collision with Earth. The two found that sometimes government officials believed them and sometimes discounted them. The reality of a comet heading for Earth became an article of belief or disbelief, an indicator of political affiliation. The U.S. President decided to deny that such a thing was happening, so her supporters rallied around the slogan “Don’t look up,” until the comet drew too close to be denied.

2021. 2021. I wonder what they might have been making reference to in… 2021. Political allegiance based on denials of reality?

Curiously, the political slogan of the movie, “Don’t look up,” is the advice given by angels to Jesus’ closest friends and associates as they watch him disappear into the clouds. Their reassurance only muddies it all. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Oh, good. Jesus is coming back, from the clouds. That’s great. But… isn’t that a good reason to stand here and look up until he does? It might be – but it would also be contrary to what Jesus had been trying to tell them during the time between his resurrection and this day of his ascension. It would have been contrary to what he’d been trying to teach them for three years. The passage today starts with them still stuck in their previous lines of thinking: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

But that’s the wrong question. As Jeremy L. Williams writes at Working Preacher, “The resurrected Jesus redirects the apostles from questions that were in God’s authority, in order to lead them to see their own power that would transform the world and bring them into direct confrontation with both Roman and Jerusalem officials. Their power to tell the truth would directly challenge those who preferred to advance a lie for their own agenda. Their power to set the record straight would complicate the narrative of an empire that proclaimed peace and security while wielding lethal violence especially against low status people. Jesus redirects them from getting overwhelmed by what was outside of their control, and he leads them to anticipate the power that would be in their control for turning Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the world into what it should be.”

“Their power to tell the truth would directly challenge those who preferred to advance a lie for their own agenda.” Goodness. Where have we heard people lie to further their own agendas before? Other than the plot of Don’t Look Up, of course.

Personally, I am in favor of looking up. The sky of this island is filled with beauty. On more than one occasion I have looked up, gasped, reached for my phone, taken a picture, and shared it with friends on the Internet with the words, “Look up.” On the other hand, staring at the ground will probably save you some stubbed toes. A few years ago I accidentally kicked a bed footboard and my toe reminded me of it for a week. Just about the time it was finally settling down, I did it again. Same footboard. Same toe. Ow.

I recommend looking down when your toes are anywhere near bed frames, rocks, steps, and other hard objects that would cause severe pain if struck sharply by your toe.

Looking down, however, is not a solution, either. It’s a good way to get lost, because what’s on either side gives you clues about where you are and, potentially, where you’re going. Last year I arrived in New York City and walked confidently two blocks in the wrong direction. It was looking side to side that told me I was lost.

Consider for a moment the lengthy lecture of the ‘apapane tutu, the one I didn’t share with you: look all about you, not just down, not just up, not just on the side you prefer.

The apostles had to look all about because Jesus had given them a job to do, and friends, it’s the job we share as Jesus’ followers in this day. We continue to be the essential witnesses to the love and grace and care and guidance of our God. We continue to be those who proclaim a truth that truth is a greater power than fear, that love is a greater truth than hate, that our compassion is God’s love expressed in the world.

You can look up to appreciate the beauty of the clouds. But you have to look forward, and side to side, and even behind you, to appreciate the people whom God has given you to love.

As Cheryl Lindsay writes at, “The love that Jesus hopes for his disciples, the first ones called as well as those to come, may seem aspirational but is essential for the reign of Christ to be fully realized in the world, because that reign is love, that reign is incarnation, and that reign is union.”

Why were they looking up? Because their eyes were following an ending, the ending of Jesus’ presence with them on Earth. Why did those two mysterious figures chide them about looking up? Because it wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning, and they needed to set about starting it.

For us, we’re looking about as long as we recognize the love of Christ within us that we can share with those around us. For us, we’re looking about as long as we recognize in others those whom Christ loves, and whom we love on Christ’s behalf.

By all means, look up. And down. To the right. And to the left. Look behind. Look ahead. Look far ahead: and in all those places see the face of Christ.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

The sermon as preached is always different from the text as prepared. It’s different today, too.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 21, 2023

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