Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 18, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 7:55-60  +  Ps. 31:1-5,15-16  +  1 Peter 2:2-10  +  John 14:1-14

This past week turned out nothing like I’d thought it would.

I was supposed to be out-of-town through Thursday, but when a death in the family made it impossible for the keynote presenter to be present at the retreat I’ve been planning for the last 18 months, we had to postpone the event and I ended up coming home from Minnesota almost a week early. Looking on the bright side, I relished the idea of a few days in the office with no meetings or appointments on my calendar so that I could get caught up on projects that have been on hold since before Holy Week.

Lathrop Homes, Hoyne Ave. south of Diversey Ave.

Lathrop Homes, Hoyne Ave. south of Diversey Ave.

Instead, I returned to a set of requests for assistance with housing concerns here in the neighborhood. I spent most of Wednesday with residents from Lathrop Homes and staff from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association at a Chicago Housing Authority committee meeting. After years of conversations and negotiations between community leaders and CHA planners struggling to find a common vision for affordable public housing in our community, we were surprised to see that the agenda for this meeting included preliminary approval of a 3.4 million dollar project that would replace two existing buildings at Lathrop Homes with new construction, and quality affordable housing with full-price, market rate units. This work was being called “Phase One” of the Lathrop Plan, which was particularly difficult for Lathrop residents and neighborhood activists to understand, since they have been working for years to come to agreement on a Master Plan for Lathrop Homes that still does not exist.  How the city could move forward with Phase One of a plan that had yet to be approved defied any sense of good faith negotiation or fair process that we could imagine.

By the time our caravan of cars arrived at the CHA office downtown and we’d signed in with the Board secretary to speak at the meeting, there were about twenty of us representing the neighborhood in the room. We sat together on the right, looking like the kind of crowd you might find at the grocery store — dressed for comfort (except for me in my black clerical with stiff white tab collar), chatting throughout the proceedings and translating for those whose Spanish was stronger than their English. Across the aisle sat a regiment of impassive men, silent in their suits and ties and briefcases. It was not hard to guess whose interests were being represented across the room’s geography.

At the appointed moment during the CHA’s real estate development committee meeting, we were offered a chance to comment on the proposal. As person after person rose to address the commissioners, some with quiet confidence, others with trembling hands or voices, testimony was offered about the need for quality, affordable housing in our quickly gentrifying neighborhood. I remember thinking, as I waited for my turn, that this is why it is important that we practice giving our testimony in church, at home, among friends — so that when it is called for in public, in moments filled with tension and crisis, we have words to lean on.

Icon of St. Stephen

Icon of St. Stephan

Our neighbors and their words were still ringing in my ears as I opened the scriptures to prepare for this morning’s worship. There, beginning in Acts, we join a story already in progress about the church’s first martyr, Stephen, a deacon who’d been called to step into the early church’s ethnic politics to make sure all were being treated equally and shown the kind of service that marked Christ’s ministry among them.

If you’re trying to remember who Stephen was, don’t be too hard on yourself.  He wasn’t one of the twelve apostles, he was one of the seven deacons ordained and appointed by the apostles to care for the poor and the widows in the early church.  He makes his first appearance in the sixth chapter of Acts, and in the seventh he is killed. But in between his arrival and his exit, we get the portrait of a saint who understood the cost of discipleship and who stood up for the weak and the foreigners, and against the bigoted passions of the crowds.

The first clue that Stephen was caught up in conflicts about diversity come from the very reason for his call.  The early church was having difficulty managing the diversity inside itself.  The Hellenists, or the members who came from outside Jerusalem in the predominantly Greek-speaking surrounding countries, were complaining that the Hebrew widows in the congregation were getting preferential treatment.  The apostles didn’t want to concern themselves with this. You might remember their response, “it is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…” (Acts 6:2b), so they appoint seven deacons.  Stephen is introduced at this point as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” and the scriptures say that “full of grace and power” he “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

Almost immediately, Stephen gets into a conflict with “some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called).”  The Freedmen, which is a translation of the Greek “Libertinos,” were former slaves who’d become Roman citizens and had some power and influence in the public sphere in relation to the Jewish faith.  Digging a little deeper, it appears that there were different neighborhoods in Jerusalem for people who spoke different languages – one neighborhood for the Jews who spoke Aramaic, another for the Hellenistic Jews, or the ones who spoke Greek.  The Libertinos, the Freedmen, had some influence among the Greek-speaking Jews.  They’d set up a local chapter of their own religious movement, and weren’t so happy that the early followers of Jesus were finding some success sharing their good news in the same neighborhood.  It’s a religious conflict.

The Freedmen challenge Stephen in public, trying to debate him into silence, but Stephen – called not as an apostle to preach, but as a deacon to serve – delivers such a powerful sermon that his opponents are silenced.  Pride wounded, they begin a slander campaign against Stephen, saying that he has blasphemed against Moses and God, that he has been defaming “this holy place” (referring we suppose to Jerusalem) and the law (meaning the religious law of Israel), and that he has made public claims that Jesus will destroy the community and change the customs of Moses.

The smear tactics work.  Stephan is taken to the Sanhedrin and put on trial.  After delivering a powerful testimony to the saving power of God at work throughout history, and now in Christ, we arrive at the verses read this morning.  Stephen sees that the bullies are coming for him, but having spoken the truth, Stephen has a vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  This seems to be an allusion to the heavenly court, where Stephen’s testimony has been received by God with favor, in contrast to the earthly court, which has sentenced him to death.

From there, Stephen is taken outside the city and stoned to death, which was the legal practice for those found guilty of the crimes he’d been charged with.  Present for this execution is one Saul, who will later have a vision of his own in which Christ appears and asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  But where Stephen’s earthly sentence is death by stoning, Saul’s heavenly judgment is mercy and forgiveness – because that is the God we serve, one of love and healing, justice and forgiveness.

Which is why it’s so ironic then, that the experience many people have when they first encounter Christians is one of fear and anxiety.  Passages like the one in our gospel reading for this morning, in which Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” have been stripped of their context and turned into stones, hurled at non-Christians, or even at Christians who believe differently from one another.  Words that were offered among friends as signs of reassurance, that God is always going before us to prepare a place for us, whatever lies ahead, have been twisted into threats and used not only to worry people about the state of their own faith, but to attack others for theirs.

In fact, before Jesus declares that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” he begins by saying,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)

The Milshire Hotel

The Milshire Hotel

I’ve always read this passage spiritually, as reassurance offered by Jesus to his disciples as he prepares them for his departure. This week however, I couldn’t help but hear them with the ears of the people living at the Milshire Hotel, an SRO just blocks away from here on Milwaukee Ave. where the residents are in the final three days of their 30-day eviction notice, since the hotel is in the process of being bought and redeveloped, like so many other apartment buildings in our neighborhood these days.  As of Friday morning, when I went with a tenant and an advocate hoping to speak with the building owner, there are still dozens of residents who have no idea where they’ll live next. Many who live at the Milshire live with chronic health conditions, active addictions, persistent mental health concerns or developmental disabilities. What does it mean to tell them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled … In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

What does it mean to say that there are many dwelling places in God’s house? Where is this house, in heaven? Where is heaven? Does it exist only as a hoped for reality following death?  And, if so, then why does Jesus follow his comments about preparing a place in God’s house with these words,

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

So, what are we asking for? What great work is being asked of us?

As we tidied up in the kitchen during yesterday’s spring cleaning, I was sharing some of these stories with Noel. Despite the dire urgency of the unexpected requests that kept coming in this week, the thing I couldn’t help but notice was that people in our neighborhood who need help are turning to us. I hope you understand how significant that is. It means that after decades of service, service not so different from that offered by Stephen the deacon who was called to make sure that everyone in the community had enough to eat, people in this neighborhood — the ones who come in the mornings for groceries, or in the evening for meals, or in the night for support as they heal from their addictions, or on Saturdays to connect with each other with a broom in one hand and a sandwich in the other, or on Sunday mornings to draw strength and encouragement for the week ahead — people in this neighborhood have seen your work, have taken it to heart, have decided that you really mean it. That is why they trust you enough to turn to you now and ask for your testimony.

First Peter names Jesus, the one who rolled the stone away from the grave so that all who lived in fear of death might find new hope and new life the “cornerstone” of a new home.

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

That’s how people outside this building apparently perceive us – as living stones, stacked one upon another to build safe places, not as dying stones hurled at our neighbors and crushing the life out of one another. Thanks be to God for that! The same God who looks out at this neighborhood, filled with lifelong residents and recent arrivals, the poor and the well-off, English-speaking and Spanish-speaking, defined by our differences, by the lines that separate us, and declares,

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:10)

That is the kind of church I want to belong to, and the kind of world I want to live in.  One in which each of us sees ourselves as living stones, creating safe spaces for all God’s children to live and learn, work and play.  Houses of worship and banquet halls of plenty, where all are welcome and there is always enough.  Houses of mercy.

Please God, let it be so.  Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 19, 2013: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  Romans 8:14-17  +  John 14:8-17,25-27

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School's baccalaureate service.

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s baccalaureate service.

A little over a week ago, Kerry and I were in Nashville, Tennessee to see my eldest god-daughter, Katie Russell, graduate from seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  You can imagine that for a preacher and pastor like myself, there’s a special pride in watching your godchild graduate from seminary.

The night before the actual graduation, at the baccalaureate service, I got the added pleasure of hearing Katie give her testimony before her colleagues and her faculty.  She was one of a handful of students invited to do so at this closing worship service for a cohort of newly minted pastors who were preparing to be sent out into the world.

As she opened her remarks she used a phrase that was repeated over and over during the weekend.  Referring to her soon-to-be alma mater she said, “here at the School of the Prophets we learned…” School of the Prophets, I soon learned, wasn’t just a compliment being paid by a student to her teachers, or a preacherly turn of phrase, it is part of that school’s self-concept.  Just as so many schools have Latin mottos (the University of Chicago’s is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched;”  Harvard’s is more simply veritas, or “truth”), the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University names itself in its foundational documents dating back to the 1870s a Schola Prophetarum, a school of prophets.

It’s a name the school takes seriously.  Its mission statement names as one of the school’s primary goals that they will “prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice” who will be “forceful representatives of the faith and effective agents in working for a more just and human society that will help to alleviate the ills besetting individuals and groups.”  The graduation program had a full-page description of the Divinity School’s commitments that explicitly state its opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

Still, there was something jarring about hearing a group of people refer to themselves so boldly as the “School of the Prophets.”  Maybe its my midwestern upbringing, but it just felt like bragging.  How could they be so bold?  Who died and named them prophets?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus did.

Growing up I thought a prophet was like a fortune-teller, a kind of biblical palm reader who could see the future.  It probably wasn’t until seminary that I myself was asked to really thoroughly read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old” Testament.  The prophets of the bible sometimes spoke of future things, but just as often spoke to the present moment.  What made them prophets wasn’t that they told the future, but that they told the truth.  God’s truth.

Jesus — the one who lived, and died, and is rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit — says to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17,25-26)

And, indeed, Jesus is a man of his word.  Throughout these fifty days since Easter morning we have been hearing the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  We’ve been recalling to ourselves the legacy of a church born in the moment when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those first followers of Jesus, huddled together for safety in the face of a scary world, but filled with power and purpose and sent out for the sake of restoration of God’s good creation.

God’s Holy Spirit fills the church, just as Jesus said it would, and when it does, Peter, their first preacher, remembers the words of another prophet, Joel, who said,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17a-b)

In that moment of the church’s birth, Peter acts as a prophet, telling God’s truth that the last days are here.  The new heaven and the new earth are breaking into the ones we have known for too long.  Salvation is for here and now.  It has already begun, and we who are flesh, we who are sons and daughters and heirs with Christ to the fortunes of God’s love are called to act, like the apostles.

Looking back at the Vanderbilt graduation, I can see that I was mistaken.  Or, I wasn’t hearing that phrase, “school of the prophets,” correctly.  My midwestern aversion to pretense was bristling against the notion that these people were calling themselves prophets, when all they were really claiming to be was a school.  Because, you see, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have all been made prophets.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to speak God’s truth to a world burdened by lies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to dream incredible dreams and given eyes to see a vision of a future reality breaking into the present moment, a vision that makes these “the last days.”

As prophets, all of us, we need schools and churches and so many other places where we can learn about the legacy of which we are inheritors.  We need Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, seminarians and people to lead the adult education hour.  We need parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents who will teach us and shape us as we grow into our prophetic callings.  We need community organizers and event planners to call us to action and to put us to use.  We need faithful servants who fill grocery bags and glean the leftover food waiting in fields both near and far.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

This is our school of the prophets, one of many God has built in the world, made of living stones.  We are its faculty and we are its students.  As we move out of the season of Easter and into the long summer of “ordinary time,” we’ll actually be reading the stories of the Hebrew prophetsElijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  We’ll remember how God’s people have been called to tell God’s truth to every age, as we live into our own prophetic calling to act.

This call, the call to action, is daunting to be sure, but we are kept in the promise that we will be filled with the power and the presence of the one who has made us prophets: Jesus, God’s Beloved, rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we commence upon this journey, some of us joining this congregation today, others saying goodbye, all of us being sent for a greater purpose, I want to offer you these words — often attributed to Oscar Romero, but believe to have been written by the Roman Catholic bishop Kenneth Untener of Detroit:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 21, 2013: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts:   Acts 9:36-43  +  Psalm 23  +  Revelation 7:9-17  +  John 10:22-30

Apostles act.

That’s what the stories keep showing us, over and over, throughout the season of Easter.  Apostles, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, acting in the powerful name of Jesus, are saying and doing what Jesus, during his earthly ministry, said and did.  The risen Christ is rising up, ascending into all of creation, through the actions of those who know and love the Lord.

So, in some ways, the book of Acts is predictable.  What Jesus has already done in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers now do in the Acts of the Apostles.  Jesus called the disciples away from their nets; the Apostles call together a community in which everyone shares all that they have.  Jesus cleanses a leper and heals a paralyzed man; Peter heals a crippled beggar and a paralyzed man.  Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities; the apostles are thrown into prison.  Jesus is brought before the Council, before Pilate and Herod and made to testify to his actions; Stephen is called before the Council to account for the acts of the apostles.  Both are put to death, but the community around them continues to grow and grow and grow.

Then comes this story of the raising of Tabitha from the dead, and we are met with elements both predictable and unexpected.  Once again we have a story in which the apostles are empowered to act as Jesus did.  So, as Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain; as he raised Jairus’ daughter by taking her hand and calling to her, “Child, get up;” now Peter is called to raise a woman in Joppa.

Those are the familiar elements of this story.  But there are some odd features to this story as well.  First of all, we are told the woman’s name.  She isn’t “the widow’s son,” or “Jairus’ daughter,” or “the woman with an issue of blood.”  She is Tabitha in the Aramiac, and Dorcas in the Greek.  She was a woman who was notable enough that she was known by name, not only among the believers, but in the among the Gentiles as well.

So, we might think, she must have really been somebody.  Perhaps a wealthy woman, or the wife of someone powerful.  But that isn’t what we’re told.  This woman, Tabitha, isn’t defined by scripture as anyone’s daughter, or wife, or sister, or mother.  She doesn’t matter because of the man she is related to.  Instead, she is described as someone who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36).  Like all who follow Jesus, she is now known for her acts.

This is odd, and perhaps even troubling for Lutherans, who are constitutionally averse to any whiff of works righteousness.  We are trained to immediately discount any notion that our actions have any relationship to God’s saving power, which comes to us by grace through faith.  So, to all you dyed in the wool Lutherans out there, I simply say, “wait and see.”  These acts are important, Tabitha’s good works and charity, and the fact that they are described here makes this healing miracle different from most others, where very little is said about the person being raised.

Once Tabitha had died, scripture says “they” washed her and laid her out in an upper room.  Then the disciples, who are in Joppa, call for Peter, who is in Lydda where he has just healed a paralyzed man named Aeneas.  But our English language obscures an important feature of the story.  If you read the text in English, it says that the “disciples” called for Peter.  If you read it in Greek, you see immediately that the noun for “disciples” has been rendered in the feminine form, indicating that the disciples who called for Peter were a community of women.

That may not seem terribly unusual to you, here, today.  We’re finally, perhaps, a generation or two removed from debates in the church about the role of women.  This congregation has had women serve as ushers, lectors, Council members (even chairs), and pastors.  There is no role in this community that is not open to women and men alike.

But that has not always been the case here.  If you don’t already know the stories, you should ask one of the bold women among us who were here back in the day when the ushers and Council members and pastors were all men.  They remember those stories, because they were here for them.  And some of you have come to this congregation from communities where women still are not allowed to preach or to lead on the same terms as men.  Some of you have told me that one of the reasons you’ve chosen to raise your children here at St. Luke’s is so that your daughters as well as your sons hear from the earliest age that there are no barriers to the forms of service they can offer to God and to God’s people on account of who they are, or who they become.

Those are the kind of women who surround Tabitha’s bed, women the scriptures explicitly call “disciples.”  What’s more, these women, these disciples, call for Peter with what I think we have to call an attitude of expectation.  Unlike the widow at Nain, who wandered into Jesus path with her dead son; unlike Jairus, who called for Jesus while his daughter was still alive; these women see Tabitha dead, they wash her body, they lay her out in the upper room, then they call for Peter, because they already know that God is at work in this apostle acting powerfully to bring life and healing to people and places left for dead.  They have an expectation of resurrection.

I actually think that expectation is the beginning of this miracle.  Had these women, these disciples, been of the mind that the world was limited to what they’d always seen and known, then they would not have called for Peter.  They would have cried sorrowful tears and anointed Tabitha for burial and seen her to the grave.  They would have preached a nice homily about what a devoted and generous woman she was, and then buried her in the ground.  But that is not what the women gathered around Tabitha do.  Instead, believing that God had been set loose when the stone had been rolled back from the cave; believing that Jesus had delivered on his promises, and that there was indeed an Advocate blowing wildly through the world and acting on their behalf, they call for Peter with an expectation of resurrection.

Without this expectation, there would have been no miracle.  Without the apparently crazy conviction that the world as it is is not the world as it will be, nothing new can happen, no new life can begin.

Sisters and brothers, don’t we need to hear this message today?  After this week?

Think back to all that has happened since the last time we gathered.  In Boston.  In Waco.  In Washington.  Bombs, and explosions, and guns.  Acts of terrorism.  Human disasters.  Failed leadership.

Aren’t you tempted to give up?  Doesn’t it seem like things are only getting worse?  Like the world as it is is the world as it will always be?  Doesn’t it make you want to put your head down and wait for it all to be over?

The miracle of new life begins when the disciples act with an expectation of resurrection.  They call on Peter, who calls on Jesus.  We don’t hear it in this story, but in the one that immediately precedes it.  Peter gets a paralytic man back on his feet calling out to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!”  It is so like the words Jesus used when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, whom he said was only sleeping, “Child, get up!”  Before the name of Jesus, the powers of this world — sexism, violence, even the laws that govern life and death — are powerless.

I needed to hear that this week.  I suspect you did as well.

So, expecting a resurrection, the women disciples in Joppa call for Peter.  Once he arrives we are told “the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39)

Again, the English here hides something from us.  The verb we translate as “showing” tunics and other clothing indicates that the widows are actually wearing the garments that they are showing Peter.  They are dressed in Tabitha’s good works.  They are robed in her righteousness.

There’s an interesting progression of descriptors of these women that I wonder about.  First there is a woman, a female disciple, named Tabitha.  Then there are the disciples, who are women, who call for Peter.  Now there are widows standing next to the body.  First a woman, with a name, who is the occasion for a miracle.  Then women, named disciples, who expect resurrection in their lives.  Then widows, draped with dignity, gathered around a woman they clearly love.

poverty has a woman's faceWidows, whom scripture tells us again and again were among the least powerful and most vulnerable people in the society of Jesus’ time because they had no man, no household, to care for them, gather in the upper room.  Widows, the least powerful and most vulnerable, know the power of the risen Lord and call for Peter to heal their friend, Tabitha.  The way the story is told, it’s almost impossible to tell: were the widows also the female disciples?  Was Tabitha one of them?  If so, where did she get the goods to craft the clothing that the other widows wore?

Remember, all the believers were living in community, sharing all that they owned and distributing it as each had need.  In that kind of community, in a community of radical sharing, it might be harder to tell who was a woman of means and who was a widow, since all were being cared for, and loved, and highly regarded.

I suspect the miracle started that far back.  Long before Tabitha died.  Even before she started stitching together the clothes those widows wore as their testimony to the power of the Lord of Life.  I think the miracle started when women and men, rich and poor, found a new way of living together that made sure everyone was fed, everyone was clothed, everyone was cared for.

For a woman, a widow, a paralyzed man, that kind of community would be a miracle in and of itself — and I don’t just mean then, I mean now.  When I think about the community of shared goods that marks the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of the rummage sale and the potlucks and spaghetti suppers.  I can’t help but think about the women here, really, who take the remnants and cast-offs of other people’s lives and turn them into resources for those who are making do with less in these difficult economic times.

Like Tabitha, these women have names.  They are Betty, Pat, Judi, Dorothea, Dea, Kay and Hope.  There is always hope.  And these women know what it means to stand gathered around something abandoned, something left for dead, with the expectation of resurrection.  Their lives are a witness.

In the end, Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity aren’t forms of works righteousness, they are signs of the reign of God come near.  She does not earn God’s healing power as a reward for all that she has done anymore than the son of the widow at Nain, or the daughter of Jairus.  God heals Tabitha because God heals.  And Tabitha performed works of charity because, called by the Holy Spirit into community, these works were the sign of the new life that slipped out of the grave along with Jesus as a testimony of hope that the world as it is is changing.  People are being fed and clothed, with food and with dignity.

It’s been a long, hard week.  It has felt like the kind of nightmare from which you seem to wake up, only to find yourself in the next layer of the dreaming.  But Jesus comes to us under many names — Peter, Tabitha, Betty, Hope — and shakes us from our slumber.  Get up and make your bed.  The sun is rising.

Amen.

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