When The Leftovers first aired, I began writing an article about the show's implications on faith and spirituality. As I wrote, I realized that my thoughts kept edging further and further towards creating a sermon, mostly because I think the show is one of the most important commentaries on spirituality and living I've ever seen.
So when I was asked to give a sermon at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois – where I'm a parishioner and member of the Vestry – I knew I had to include The Leftovers. The drama means many things to many people; for me, it's a wake up call to realize that this – this life, this journey, this panoply of relationships lovely and painful – could be over any moment. So, how might we live today?
What you'll experience below, "Always Leftover," was presented, of course, in a Christian context. I think all sermons should, one way or another, illuminate the Gospel reading for any particular Sunday. In this case, the reading that day was Matthew 16:21-28 Though this was written for a Christian community, I hope readers of any faith tradition (or none at all, for that matter) will discover just how deeply this show has affected me – and how I hope it might affect everyone.
Listen here (originally published on SoundCloud):
Read here (originally published on Medium):
In HBO’s new drama The Leftovers, adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same title, 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes.
That’s about 140,000,000 people.
Poof. Gone. Departed. Lost.
There is no explanation, no note left behind. There is no voice from above declaring those left behind as damned. All the leftovers on earth are left with is each other, and the agony of constantly asking themselves, “Why?”
It’s an agony they are actively engaged in trying to forget.
The show’s premise calls to mind rapture theology, the 19th-century mode of religious thought developed by preacher John Nelson Darby. Based on esoteric readings of a few brief verses in the New Testament, Darby held that a period of tribulation will occur before the return of Jesus. This period will only come at the advent of the rapture – that is, the event in which the Hebrew God will mysteriously raise a select group to Heaven. Those left behind will face an intense seven years of trials, until the return of Jesus and his thousand-year reign on earth.
Rapture theology remains a popular theological view, especially in America, with many Christians looking toward books and films like Left Behind as probable versions for what lies ahead of humanity. According to a 2010 poll from Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Americans definitely or probably believe Jesus will return to earth by the year 2050. If we look to the popularity of Left Behind as an indicator, we find 63 million copies sold of a book that relies on the rapture as its centering plot, with seven volumes of the series hitting No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
The Leftovers, which I've watched diligently this first season (each episode at least twice), has left me feeling haunted and anxious – I can’t fathom losing so many people at one time.
But that’s the dramatic trick at play on the viewer here. What’s happening on screen isn't some event far off in the future.
We are experiencing the rapture every day. Every moment of our lives.
We are constantly in loss.
Every day, we might lose something dear to us: a loved one dies, a relationship ends, we are fired or laid off. A plane crashes. A war begins. Children are murdered.
We’re never delivered an immediate explanation, never given an answer that actually makes sense when we, understandably, ask “Why me?”
We are left bereft, questioning if we will ever feel normal again, whatever that means.
We’re never in control of what may happen to us on any given day, and it’s an amazing feat of the human psyche that we are somehow able to avoid thinking of this notion every waking moment of our lives.
In The Leftovers, we encounter a world where everyone is dealing with the same loss. This isn't apples and oranges – instead, everyone is dealing with the same raspberry God seems to be blowing at his creation. Encountering each other in this world, people are left seeing each other in new, vulnerable ways. Looking around, each person in the world sees the empty spaces once occupied by living souls.
The show isn't so much about the origin of the Sudden Departure, or even where the Departed went. Rather, it’s much more centered on the lives of those who are leftover.
And in the Gospel today (Matthew 16:21–28), I’m less concerned about Jesus leaving than I am about Peter.
Poor Peter. I might as well say, “Poor Matty,” for I would have had the same reaction had I been there.
This leader, this Jesus, this lover, this brother, this man, this savior, this hope, this everything: I've given everything over to him.
I need this to work out, because it’s my final hope. My final hope of salvation. My final hope that this isn't all some cruel joke, this life. That this is worth something. That I mean something. That I am loved. That I exist. That I’m not dreaming.
But Jesus lays Peter flat – “Get behind me, Satan.”
Such cruel words in such a tender moment.
And if you, like me, feel the sting when you hear Christ saying, “Get behind me, Satan,” you’re not alone.
Aren't you tired of being left behind?
Aren't you, too, tired of the struggle?
Why can’t everything work out – just once?
Why can’t this life be everything we ever dreamed it would be?
Why am I always leftover?
Christ tells us today, for the first time, what’s coming. The world as we know it is about to end, and we will be left over.
Put yourself there – that night. Sitting with the apostles.
It’s a dark night, I imagine. The apostles are tired, and they've been traveling for a while. It’s been an entirely new experience for them, these poor men of Palestine. They’ve given up the old ways of life – fishing, farming, laboring, tax collecting – to follow a man in what today might be considered a messianic cult.
They’ve seen miracles performed.
They’ve seen more of the lands around them than they ever had before.
This Jesus, this man from Nazareth, this amazing preacher, talks to them about God in wholly new ways. Makes them feel like they never have before. Gives them something they've rarely had before:
Hope for a better world. One of justice. Where the poor are lifted and the mighty rich brought down.
But on this night…
On this night, Jesus seems to snatch that hope away.
“I’m going to die,” he tells them.
“I’m going to be betrayed, captured, tortured, crucified, and murdered.
And once it’s done, I won’t be buried immediately.
Instead I’ll hang on the cross.
All of this will happen.
Because it must happen.”
“No,” Peter cries. “No no no no, no more. Lord, we need you.”
“Lord, I need you.
Lord, I can’t suffer any more.
Lord, I can’t lose anything else.”
I’m right there with Peter. He’s already feeling leftover
I don’t need to believe in rapture to know that every day we’re losing something. Every day we’re leftover.
Every day we’re left wondering: What’s next?
We live in a world where Jesus will be crucified. We live in a world where it already happened.
We live in a world where it continues to happen every. Single. Day.
He was crucified in Missouri, when Michael Brown lay bleeding to death in the street, in the hot sun for over four hours.
He was crucified in Palestine and Israel, as old men made decisions about the lives of women and children – and chose death each time.
He was crucified on the south side of Chicago when nine year-old Antonio Smith was shot, execution-style, in his own backyard just last week.
All around us, all over the world, Jesus has been crucified.
Where was I when they crucified my Lord?
Well, I was on a run.
Well, I was on the couch.
Well, I was eatin’ popcorn. Watchin’ a movie.
My friends… I’ve tried to find the sunshine in the Gospel today. I don’t think it’s there.
And you know… I think that’s OK.
Do I like what Jesus said? “Get behind me, Satan!”
No, not really. I wish instead he would have said “Sorry,” to each one of the apostles. Sorry you have to endure more. Sorry you have to lose again. Sorry this has to happen.
But he said what needed to be said.
While everyone is looking for Jesus… I say give the man some room. Follow his advice today, because the people around you are slipping away. Every day your world is a little closer to ending.
Take up your own cross. Weep with those who weep, as Paul reminds us. Answer your call, and in the midst of all this damn heartache and suffering, cry out
HERE I AM.
I’m not here today to preach to you about how your life might be better tomorrow. I’m here today to remind you there might not be a tomorrow.
And for this reason:
Hug those around you tighter.
Don’t try to hold on, like Peter.
Instead, know it has to happen. Deal with the pain that is ahead.
Persevere, and make the Kingdom of God happen now.
Before it’s too late… who knows what we might lose tomorrow.
This piece was delivered as a sermon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois, on Sunday, August 31, 2014. Read the lectionary readings.
Zaradich is an Episcopalian, marathoner who lives in Chicago and is on Twitter.