Acts 9:36-43 † Psalm 23 † Revelation 7:9-17 † John 10:22-30
I might just have been in a bad mood, but there were a couple of things about this Acts text that, on first read, kind of bothered me.
Tabitha, a devoted woman, loved for making clothes for the poor, gets ill and dies. They find Peter, he prays and she comes back to them.
It just seemed well, too neat; too easy.
Too easy for this woman to be called back into her assigned role – at home helping.
Too easy for the rest of the community to avoid their responsibility for some of the work.
Too easy to look for a supernatural answer to their problems.
Too easy to get a result, a restoration, when so many others, so many of us, have to struggle through loss, and have no option but to get used to new heartbreakingly difficult realities.
If I am honest, I just really struggle with these stories where people come back form the dead.
Now, that might be a little problematic for me to share during this Easter season. We are after all celebrating a pretty important story of one coming back from the dead. We can come back to my beef with the resurrection later, if you’re interested…..but first, let’s take a look at this Tabitha story?! Why are her community’s prayers answered in this very direct and relatively straightforward way?
Well, it has been argued that this story is actually important because it has some very significant parallels: some particular actions and a structure that is uncannily similar to some other stories in the tradition. Stories like Elijah and the Widow’s son; Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son; and Jesus and Jairus's daughter. These are all events and stories of people being raised from the dead and they served as signs that God was active, bringing life in unexpected places and tending to those who are normally excluded and even vilified.
For the new 1st century church that this Acts story was directed at, the telling of the Tabitha story would have served as an important link to these others events in their tradition and it would, as such, have served as a powerful sign that the authority that existed in their heritage and in Jesus is present with them still, present in real ways bringing new life, and restoring community to those who are excluded. The Tabitha story: her restoration, and through her, the restoration of the hopes of the poor was told so that the people would know and remember that it was the God of their tradition, the God of their ancestors, the God of Jesus that remained with them.
So with this very specific purpose of this text in mind, I was in place where I go back and look again at some of my initial irritations again:
First, why is this woman called back into her assigned role – at home helping? Well actually, she has a two story house and enough money to buy fabric. She is wealthy and, it could be argued, has the power to choose to show her devotion in acts of charity. She is, it says it right there, a disciple – a disciple: equal in title to the men and doing the work of God.
It confuses the issue for me to impose on this story concerns that are really born of a 21st century woman’s frame of reference. That would be to reduce this story to something its not.
At the same time, however, we can allow this story to speak from its context and ask some interesting and important questions of me, of us, that do translate to our time. Questions that the rest of scripture and our tradition tells us God cares about.
They are not the only ones, but some of the questions that we might allow this text about a strong person lost to a community that needs her that might be appropriate for us to think about on this Good Shepherd Sunday include: Why were you doing those good works? Were you doing too much? Did you assume it all depended on you? Are you raising up and empowering others who want to help take on the work, maybe even improve on it by adding their gifts? Will it take a crisis for there to be any conversation about boundaries and mentorship?
The works that I do in my Father’s name testifies to me; is what Jesus tells the people in this passage from Luke. Those with eyes to see will know me, know my goodness, by my works. And almost every week in this place we hear that just as God sent Jesus, so we are sent as the very body of Christ to do good works. To act. To help. That’s how people will know the God of love.
But sometimes we take this work on as if bringing the goodness of God into the world depends solely on us. It doesn’t. There is a goodness, gifts for the world, that we each carry and that the world needs. But we are not the only ones and these gifts that we offer will only grow and be sustained if we bring others in. If we look for those who want to join with us, who want to help. If we let their ideas and their support, improve and develop our own. This is true for the most personal offerings. It’s true as we find the support we need be able to have the time to do little things we love to do that bless the world - and its true for the big projects that we want to accomplish. And as we find others who have gifts that can help and who can improve and carry on our ideas we have a better chance of making this thing we are about into the shared sustained work its meant to be.
When we get too hung up on it all depending on us then people get hurt, gifts are quashed and those with wonderful ideas and passions about how to build on the goodness of the past, the goodness of others, will be shut out and frustrated and we all will suffer as a result.
A few years ago, I received a really significant gift – maybe one of the most significant I have received. I had done something idiotic. You probably find it hard to believe I know, but it actually happens quite a bit. Truth be told, I have this ongoing conversation with God around how someone like me, someone so well-meaning, someone who wants, really really so very wants badly wants, to be good, can so often just really mess-up. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for a number of years now. Perhaps you can relate.
Anyway, there I was again – I had said or done something that I thought I was being called to say or do – I don’t really remember what it was now that I come to thnk of it. But what I do remember was that I was struggling to apologize in a way I felt was sufficient to a friend whom I had hurt; I was struggling to somehow discharge the pain I felt. Like I say, I don’t remember what it was exactly that I did or said, but I will never forget what my friend said to me. They looked at me gently, kind of casually almost, and said: I know who you are.
Simple, straightforward, life-saving.
I know who you are.
They weren’t saying that what I did didn’t matter, they weren’t say they were not in pain, they were just saying what they said - I know who you are. I know that you are good and you care and that you are doing your very best. I know you are sorry. I know you’re wrestling, pretty unsuccessfully, to make it better. I know you will keep working on your stuff. I know you and I are loved by some gigantic divine love. I trust in that goodness and I know its going to be okay.
I know who you are.
This didn’t mean that what I had done didn’t matter. Absolutely not. But it was a gift, a grace, that allowed me to breath a little. It helped me then and it still helps me today to remember and to trust that the goodness I so desperately want already has me in its grasp, and will not let me go, even as I scramble under my own steam to make everything allright.
Which brings me back around to my beef with the resurrection. You see, I am really less interested in the emphaisis on the Easter morning miracle than I am in the love and the trust and the utter goodness that took that man to his grave; and the way this love and trust and utter goodness then propelled a movement of love and hope and service – a movement we are part of some 2000 years later. Jesus knew that the goodness he was a part of could not die. It was bigger than his human life. He was willing to do his part in standing up for this goodness - to give himself fully for its sake – knowing that it would be the end of his human life. And he knew and he trusted, that by the power of God this goodness would continue after him in these disciples that he had called out, these disciples that so often messed up and got it so very wrong. He knew that this goodness had a grasp of them too, and that it was time for them to take it on and to learn in their turn how to really trust it and how to shepherd and nurture this God-given goodness in others.
The resurrection lets us see God’s yes to Jesus’s action, to his trust and his sacrifice. We also have a chance to say yes as we trust that the same goodness that took Jesus to his grave has the power to hold us when we mess up and it has placed in us gifts that are not ours alone, that are part of a much bigger goodness, a goodness that we have a responsibility to shepherd. It’s a goodness that will see the light of day more fully as we work out how to let other join with us, and as we nurture, develop and give thanks for each other’s gifts. God, our mother, knows who we are and she has said, she will not forsake us and she would really like us, really kind of needs us, to look to our siblings for the help we need.
St. Andrew Sermons