The Ball is Now in Our Court – May 14, 2017

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A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Life-sustainer. Amen.

Chaim Potok was a deeply religious Jew, rabbi and prolific author of novels. He once gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University on vocational life entitled, “The ball is now in your court.” He told his audience about a conversation he had with his mother as he was preparing to leave for college. “Chaim,” she said, “I know you want to be a writer, but I have a better idea. Why don’t you become a brain surgeon instead. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying and you’ll make a lot of money.” “Mama,” Chaim replied, “I don’t want to keep people from dying. I want to show them how to live.”

We’ve just heard several weeks worth of stories about Jesus appearing to his friends after his resurrection. We have been celebrating the exciting fact that Jesus is alive, walking through locked doors, eating with his followers, traveling on the road to Emmaus. So if you are feeling a little disoriented by the content of today’s Gospel, that’s no surprise.

It takes us back in time to the night of his last supper and his farewell discourse to his closest friends. He is preparing them for the new beginning that is about to emerge and the challenges and possibilities and amazing opportunities that await them when they set out on God’s mission to gather all people and teach them about God’s enormous love for them and the way of life that Jesus has taught us to imitate.

This Gospel is a favorite pick for funerals. You can probably see why with its reference to many dwelling places that Jesus promises he is preparing for us. It is not, however, everyone’s favorite and for a lot of people it is very troubling. So before we unpack what I think is the truth to take away with us today, let me address the elephant in the room. Jesus tells us that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” That shouldn’t rattle us too much. Jesus shows us a way of life that values inclusion rather than exclusion, reconciliation rather than discord, mercy rather than heartlessness, peace rather than war, sharing our wealth rather than hording it, liberation of the oppressed and marginalized rather than abuse of power and disregard for human dignity. And he speaks to these life-saving tenets of authentic Christianity with authority and sometimes disturbing truth.

Then comes the rub. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is Jesus telling us here that Christianity is the only way to know God and for God to know us? Is he saying that the faithful Jew or Buddhist or Hindu has no chance of enjoying eternal happiness in those many dwelling places? What about atheists who live really good lives and make a difference in the world? This statement of Jesus has disturbed many and has been the basis for some Christian denominations asserting that they are the one, true faith and the only way to salvation.

Is this verse a translation from the Greek gone amok? Did the author of this passage put his own slant on what Jesus actually said? I don’t know. I do know something about Jesus and how he welcomed everyone without distinction or prejudice and I do know that he is telling us that he is the face of God for us, the closest we can come to knowing God in this life. The way of Jesus is the path to truth, goodness, beauty, love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. I think what Jesus is talking about is “access” to God, not because Jesus is the only way to know God but because it’s the way for us who espouse to be Christians.

Poet W.H. Auden imagined this access in his poem: “Jesus is the way. Follow him in the land of unlikeliness. You will see rare reality and have unique adventures. He is the truth. Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety – you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the life. Love him in the world of the flesh and in the end you shall dance for joy.”

My money is on the truth that anyone who lives the kind of life that Jesus asks us to emulate will know God and be known by God. And one disturbing truth is that many non-Christians are more Christ-like than many Christians. In the end, the final test of our belief is not what we profess with our lips but how we treat each other.

There is some really good stuff in this passage. Jesus says something that I think is astonishing and remarkable: “You are going to do greater things than I have done.” Greater things than even Jesus has done? Wow! Jesus is telling them and those who follow them through history to expect a power surge of God’s Spirit that would transform them and the world. And let’s not forget what we heard in the second reading today where we are called “living stones to be “built into a spiritual house.” Peter tells us that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” That’s an amazing description of what we are called to be as a community. And remember that we have a faith ancestry; we are not without a rich history.

Our own story as the church is a very real and living thing, a wonderful and tangible connection through the ages, through so many years and centuries—from that small band of ill-prepared anglers and tax collectors and schlemiels who sat in that room and heard Jesus tell them that they would do greater things than Jesus had done— to you and me with all our imperfections and human failings. Still we are the church— a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, empowered to do even greater works than Jesus did.

Yes, Jesus raised the dead but I have seen people in this community raise themselves from the heart break of a dying relationship or loss of employment or the death of some dream in their life and embark on a new life. Jesus gave sight to the blind. I have seen you open the eyes of someone who walked in the darkness of despair by giving them hope where they could not find it themselves.  Jesus cast out demons. I have seen you fight for justice and bring goodness to situations where evil was attempting to overcome it. Jesus fed the five thousand. I have seen you feed one another, both here and in the world, by your generosity and acts of selflessness. Jesus changed water into wine. I have seen worship here transformed by a commitment to excellence into a spirited celebration where we all drink the new wine of God’s presence with us. Like Thomas, sometimes we do not know where we are going and sometimes we may feel lost but we continue to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

A wise leader once said that we humans in community are glorious but far from perfect, rather like porcupines in a winter storm. We huddle together to keep warm until we start poking each other. Hard work, like anything worth doing, takes both thick skin and deep commitment. Anything worth doing is hard work. Growing up is hard work. So is finding and staying with someone to love, or finding your calling and making something of it.

So is deciding change is necessary — and living through change with beliefs and relationships intact may be hardest of all. All of those things, and more, are part of church life. The real business of being the church is transformation: growing and changing and loving in response to something bigger and deeper than we can ask for or imagine.
The conversation Jesus had with his followers that night wasn’t so much about what to anticipate after his death or theirs. Jesus didn’t want them to keep people from dying. He wanted them to show them how to live. And that’s what he expects of us. The ball is now in our court.

Categories: Easter, Sermons