April 25, 2010
Today, the four readings that are in the lectionary are historical glimpses into the continual formation of the early Christian community and the encouragement and reassurance that they needed. This was needed as it came during a time of transition and uncertainity.
One of the glimpses that we get to see is Peter’s transformation.
Peter's transformation, which began with Jesus' resurrection, continues, and it symbolizes the transformation of the entire early Christian community. Here, his prayer and faith bring new life to Tabitha, such that "many came to believe in the Lord" (Acts 9:42). Peter's faith and the work of the Holy Spirit give him and all the disciples the "authority" to continue Jesus' work—no small feat, considering that they are without Jesus' leadership and under increasing pressure from the state and Jewish community.
Now, let us go back now to that room full of widows mourning the death of an early pillar of the church: even a short passage like this one has important and revealing details. Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need. By the way, many churches have or had a Dorcas Guild ministry and this is where the ministry springs from: Tabitha or Dorcas.
Tabitha, nevertheless, in her own quiet, servant ministry, is a powerful woman. The death of people like her "really makes a difference, because their life made such a difference." I am sure there are many individuals who have made a difference in the life of community that you are thinking of now. Tabitha has indeed had such an impact on the community around her that they can't bear to let her go. Even though they wash her body, they still send for Peter when they hear that he's nearby. What sort of faith was moving around in their midst? What do you think they were thinking?
Today, we are more aware than ever that no one should face disease alone. Prayer partners and spiritual advocates can support us, complementing medical treatment. Communities are powerful healing partners in helping us overcome illness and brokenness." Now, Peter is not as important in this text as that community of widows and saints who "yearned for a hopeful outcome for Dorcas….lovingly cared for Dorcas's body….brought all the tunics and clothing she had made for the widows, tangible symbols of her compassion….shed communal tears….waited prayerfully outside." These early Christians' lives were affected and even transformed by the compassion and service of Tabitha, and they in turn offered prayers, presence, and tears, but they also took action for the sake of the one who could do nothing, at this point, for herself.
And so we come to that powerful and yet quiet moment when Peter empties the room of all those mourners, and approaches the bedside of this good and holy woman. Peter kneels, and he prays. You can almost hear the quiet, because Luke doesn't put words in Peter's mouth, long-winded prayers or persuasive pleading to God on behalf of Tabitha. No, Luke uses the simplest of words when Peter speaks directly to the dead woman: "Tabitha, get up." We wonder what went through Peter's mind, what was in his heart, what memory and what hope gave him the audacious confidence that he could say two words, and then count on God, right then and there, to do something so astonishing. In this Easter season, perhaps we don't really have to wonder long, and Peter's confidence is testimony to the power of God in his life, the things he has seen and experienced, and the effect all of it has had in his life. It also speaks of the power of the resurrection in the life of the church, and in our lives today.
So what does this story mean to us, if we don't have an apostle traveling around, bringing dead people back to life? Maybe the story "challenges our assumption that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments--or, more to the point, that our predicaments are not fixable at all." Joseph Harvard says that we live in a "Humpty Dumpty" world in which we have been told that things can not be put back together again, but the book of Acts tells a different story, about people who "were empowered to 'turn the world upside down' (17:6)."
The description of the early Christians makes us want to be church in the same way: "They were unafraid to wade into each other's lives in transforming ways." The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon a community honing all of its spiritual strength and resources passionately upon life and wholeness. I am not sure about you, but seeing the church community rally around one another is exciting to see.
Of course, there's a call in this text for us. Francis of Assisi is credited for saying: Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words" and with that we need to lift up our power of witness, especially when our witness is in our actions rather than our words. We can talk and talk and talk, but our "acts of mercy" will say what really needs to be said. What are the actions of Zion saying to our community? The radiance of our faith will speak volumes, and lead others to want to know more about what has truly worked wonders in our lives. But that doesn't have to mean that our words don't have power, too.
And so, hearing the witness of others, we can each of us learn and be strengthened and sometimes, even rise up when life presses in and trouble has us down. Like Paul getting back up on his feet on that dusty road to Damascus and beginning a whole new life and ministry, like Dorcas/Tabitha rising again to her ministries of compassion and generosity, we are invited to begin again and to taste the sweetness of new life lived "in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit."
Death is difficult and the passage that we have in the lectionary for this week in Revelations can give us a glimpse of happiness:
Remember the words in revelations that we read ?
the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more... for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. - Revelation 7:15-17
Revelation 7 holds forth the image of a throng gathered around the throne of this Lamb. As I read the passage, I picture faces of people I know. May we take comfort in the promise it offers for our journey.
However, we must still deal with this paradox of pain and comfort while on this earth.
Thus, the comfort of the Holy Spirit leads us to Psalms and Revelation. These passages reinforce the need for a steadfast faith, one that is not kept hidden, but lived—even and especially through the darkest valleys. If only we have the courage to trust, we are assured that our God will faithfully lead us to "springs of life-giving waters" and "wipe away every tear" (Revelation 7:17). It is only when we are uncertain, and therefore must rely on faith, that the Spirit can act at all. We must live our lives in ways that allow God to move, create, and act, and to guide us on right paths. We, like the disciples, must act with courage, and trust that the Spirit will fill in the blanks.
In John, we see people demanding Jesus to tell them plainly. Like those who demanded that Jesus "tell us plainly" (John 10:24) if he is the Messiah, we may find ourselves paralyzed with fear and uncertainty, waiting for the definitive sign of our discipleship before we act. John, however, assures us we are already known, called, and chosen by God. If Jesus' words and life are truly good news for us, all we need—like the disciples—is the courage to act, trusting that the Spirit will do the rest.
Many times when people are looking at fear and comfort; they turn to one of our passage that we read today and that would be Psalms 23.
Along with the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm is perhaps the best known passage in all of scripture, and with good reason: This simple yet eloquent poem paints a picture of a central understanding of our faith. Though evil surrounds us, we needn't fear, because the good shepherd guides and protects us.
Sometimes, there is a point of confusion for a child on Psalms 23. In my recitations, they run the lines of the first verse of the psalm together: "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want." Then, they always wondered why they shouldn't want this shepherd, especially since he was supposed to be taking such good care of them.
On the path of my faith journey, I sometimes remember this about their early confusion and smile. Indeed, there have been days when this Jesus has been a shepherd I would rather not follow; if I were truthful. I know his voice; but sometimes his call feels like much more than I ever bargained for.
Why is this at times ??
It is impossible to follow this shepherd without walking into pain: one's own as well as that of the world. It is impossible to follow without understanding the cross and the commandment to pour ourselves out for enemy and friend.
Our journey would be a lonely journey if Jesus had not walked ahead. In Hebrews, we learn that we have a high-priest who can sympathize with us. It is a great paradox of our faith: Jesus is the shepherd-but also the Lamb that was slain. He is a guide who knows how to lead because he has been down this road before. And he still offers that intimate comfort that so touched us as children.
But, comfort is difficult because tragedies and sorrows are all around us and I think that we all share certain questions.
- Why did this happen?
- How could this happen?
- Should anyone be blamed?
- Should someone be punished?
Often these questions lead us to seek a kind of rational explanation – so that the irrational can be folded into our sense of order in the universe. Often these questions send us on a search for someone to blame – a person, a group, the devil, even God.
Brian McClaren has said that he finds our understandable need for an explanation – often including the need to name someone to blame – springs not just from our rational minds, but also from our hearts, from levels we are barely conscious of.
We feel grief at the loss, pain for our neighbors who suffer and confusion at the irrationality, and anger at the injustice of it all. We hope that the pressure can be released and the rage relieved by finding an outlet in explaining … or in naming, blaming, and shaming someone for being at fault.
But maybe we make a mistake in believing that explaining and blaming will help us escape our pain. Pain in times like this, I believe, is not simply something to be escaped, resolved, fixed.
Instead, it is something to be suffered, something that must, in a sense, crash over us like a wave or knock us down like a fever, shake us so that we truly feel our feelings and name them; so that we can speak of them and share them and feel an exchange with others of sympathy, empathy, common grief, and common sorrow.
In our world today, I have empathy for the tragedies still occurring in Darfur and the wide spread death-killer Maleria in Africa. Which by the way, today is World Malaria Day.
This kind of sorrow doesn’t make us bitter; it makes us better. It doesn’t make us smug at having an explanation; it makes us humble as we understand our shared vulnerability. It doesn’t make us put up walls of blame; it tears down walls as we feel our common humanity. In so doing, it teaches us wisdom – wisdom that, in the scriptures, is often associated with pain and struggle. It softens us, makes us more sensitive to the pain that others suffer but we often ignore. It forms compassion in us.
We often are tempted to run from this softening process, which is understandable. But as we all share in this experience of tragedy, as we walk through the un-rushable process of feeling and then healing, may we allow the spirit of God to form us into more gracious, compassionate, and wise people. Doing so will raise other questions:
- How can I help?
- Who around me needs to talk?
- What question can I ask that will allow my neighbors to share their pain, their fear, their anger, their sorrow? How can we open ourselves to the healing presence of God so we can walk together through “the valley of the shadow of death” – so that, even in great sadness, we “fear no evil?” (Psalm 23)
Zion, we have a wonderful opportunity to touch the lives of many people in our community. We have the foundation laid down to do it. Are we willing to heed the call? Will we truly bring healing to those whom are suffering? Are we really willing to help, love and serve with those around us. We can do it by keeping our eyes on the mission that we have set out: BE DISCIPLES & MAKE DISCIPLES.
We are able to do this by following the four words of Jesus when asked to break down the faith: LOVE GOD, LOVE OTHERS. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus; let us – let the Spirit move within us.