United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“The Work Ahead”

May 21st, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        We are winding down the season of Easter.  Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the Sunday when the church lifts up the gift of the Holy Spirit, God continuing to be with us in the here and now.  A reminder to wear red (or another fire color) next Sunday.  During the 50 days following the first Easter, Jesus has been appearing to the disciples, in the garden, in a locked room, on the road, even at a campfire on the beach.  But, as we hear in our Acts reading, now Jesus has ascended, gone up into the sky.

        That must have been something!  Were there phalanxes of angel escorts?  Was there thunder and lighting?  Was it slow motion, or all in the blink of an eye?  We don’t know.  But the image that always sticks in my mind is none of that.  It is the disciples standing with their heads tilted back, mouths wide open, staring into the now empty sky.  I can imagine that they were having all sorts of thoughts.  Like:  “I can’t believe this is happening;” “Is this what it was like when Elijah was swept up by the whirlwind?” “Is Jesus going to come back?  When?” “What do we do now?”

        I think this is an apt picture of how life is.  We can know something big is happening.  We can be excited, honored, to be witness to it.  But it can also be stunning—in both senses of the word.  It is unbelievable, and it stops us in our tracks.  What do we do now?  There is no playbook to handle such situations.  It is daunting to try.  So, we often just stand there, as the disciples did, hoping that we will be given guidance from above.

        And in our Acts story, guidance comes in the form of two men, in white robes, standing by the disciples.  Now the white robes suggests that they are angels, messengers from God.  But they aren’t in the air, they aren’t sporting wings.  No, they are firmly planted on the ground.

      And that is underlined by what they say to the disciples—“Why are up looking up there?  That’s God’s realm, and that’s now Jesus’ realm.  Bring your gaze back down here.  This is where the work ahead lies.”

        The work ahead that Jesus had mentioned just before he ascended is “witnessing in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Work that is both local and world-wide.  Work that is for each and every person.  Work that is tied to “up there” but can’t stop to wait for Jesus to return, can’t stop to revel in the latest God moment, can rest for a second, but then needs to move on.

        As I thought about the work ahead, for us as individuals, for us as UPC, for us as the Christian church, for us as inhabitants of this beautiful earth, I thought this was good advice.  Don’t get side-lined by the spectacular.  Don’t get paralyzed by the enormity of the task.  Don’t get down on yourself.  We each have a part to play.  Some of us, a very few of us, will do things, say things, that will be remembered in the annuals of history.  But most of us, will play our small parts in our own circles, never aware of what the ripples of our actions might have started in someone else’s world.

        As I thought about the work ahead, I thought about a movie I recently saw, called “Air” about the revolutionary partnership of the then basketball rookie, Michael Jordan, and Nike.  In this tale, we meet Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, a little known, middle-aged, paunchy, sports marketing guy working for the small shoe company called Nike.  Sonny spends his time scouting basketball talent at high school games, and his one claim to fame is that he had co-founded the first national high school basketball All-star game, the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in 1965.

        But Sonny sees Jordan on TV playing in his first year at the University of North Carolina and knows this is a once in a lifetime talent.  He wants Jordan to sign with Nike.  There were just a few problems.  Number One—Adidas and Converse, the two big sport shoemakers at that time, also want to sign Jordan.

     And Number Two, Jordan has said he hated Nike sneakers.  The work ahead looked long, and impossible, for Sonny.  But Sonny was willing to go all out—to risk his own job, to risk maybe even the whole basketball division at Nike, to go after this young man who he predicted would be a basketball player like no other.

        He did things that were unconventional—like going to see the family instead of working through Jordan’s agent.  He did things that were unheard of—like suggesting they make a shoe and a whole line of athletic clothing based on Jordan, and they call it Air Jordan.  He was even willing, although very reluctantly, to go along with Jordan’s mother (played by Viola Davis) who insisted that Michael be given not just a signing bonus but a percentage of every sale connected to the Jordan line.  As she argues, “the shoe is just a shoe …until my son steps into it.”

        The rest is history.  Michael Jordan did eventually sign with Nike.  Air Jordan became the shoe to wear.  And the Jordan line at Nike still provides more money than we can imagine both for Nike and for Michael Jordan.  What is so wonderful about this film is that it doesn’t focus on Michael—we don’t even really see the face of the actor playing him.  It focuses on Sonny, and the other “little” people at Nike.  It focuses on Deloris Jordan who, in championing her son, changed the way athletes were compensated.  It focuses on people like us, people who don’t always know how to do the work we are called to do.  People who take one step at a time, looking not at the sky, but at the ground in front.  And yet, people who don’t forget to dream dreams, no matter how unlikely they seem.

        And that’s what we need to keep doing.  Holding onto dreams.  But refusing to be stuck looking up in the sky, wondering when those dreams are going to fall down, fully formed, into our laps.  Life is about the work ahead.  Even life in the church is about the work ahead.  And what is the dream?  Well, we could look to Jesus in his conversation with the disciples from the gospel of John that we read this morning.
       He says, Holy Father, protect [these disciples] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

        “So that they may be one”—that’s certainly a dream we have here at UPC—finding ways to partner with others in our quest for a better world.  “One” doesn’t mean all of West Orange will see eye to eye on everything or anything.  “One” doesn’t mean being a single religious community.  “One” certainly doesn’t mean melting each other into an amorphous blob, leaving no room for individuality, for specific gifts and talents, for the changing kaleidoscope of who we are. 

        No, part of the dream we have is that this be a place where we make space for listening to each other, this be a place where we respect and celebrate difference and diversity, this be a place where we recognize all the baby steps we can make together, this be a place where we are not sticking our heads in the sand, nor immobile gazing into the heavenly realms, but where we can talk about the work ahead, and then take some steps in that general direction.

        We don’t have to have all the answers.  The first disciples sure didn’t.  We can count on a few things.  We have the stories of God and God’s people as a template.  We have the community gathered here and around the world as partners.  We have the talents God has given us.  And we have the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, love with a capital L, who is always with us, always breathing life into our weariness, always surprising us with glimpses of glory, with glimpses of grace, with glimpses of the world that could be.  That is the work ahead. 

        May God bless us in our journey.     Alleluia, Amen.