Yesterday’s sermon from Acts 9:36-43
Last week, a deeply loved and inspiring woman named Rachel Held Evans died, at 37 years old, leaving behind a family, and a legacy of compassion and love for all, including and especially, those most neglected in our society. She was the author of several books, and her story of calling encouraged many women who are now ministers in discerning their own callings. Her message was love and her witness in the world was powerful. She will be missed.
That and the fact that our congregation has been through a whole lot together since the end of 2018 made this sermon a particularly difficult one to write, so we will journey together today, into the hope in this passage from Acts.
I will admit to you, I have a hard time with bible passages like this one, where mourning gives way to hope, and hope to resurrection, in sequence, with limited wait time. My preaching professor once asked me “what do you do with healing miracles in your preaching, when they don’t follow the pattern we experience today?”
Think about that for a bit. What do you do with healing stories in the scriptures when the general human experience tends toward making us wait for hope and resurrection, rather than experiencing a joyful resurrection immediately?
In their original context, the miracles of Jesus and later the miracles of the apostles, were signs pointing to the coming of the kingdom of God. Their purpose was to point weary hearts to a God who was still with them; directing tired souls toward a loving compassion always in their midst. Signs and miracles instilled hope, and hope, endurance in waiting for the return of Christ.
So maybe, in a time where miraculous healings aren’t something we hear about very often, we can look at these stories as invitations to seek a deeper understanding of what it means to be followers of the resurrected Christ; invitations to look for little resurrections in our daily lives as we cling to our hope of all things made new, as the words direct our weary hearts and tired souls toward a loving, compassionate God who is with us.
With that in mind, let’s accept the invitation to explore hope, to encounter the spirit of our resurrected Lord, again, in the life of Tabitha and in the ministry of Peter.
Though we aren’t told much about Tabitha, this woman of Joppa who has died, the story gives us clues to use as a magnifying glass as we peek into her life, starting with her name.
While she lives in a culture and society that actively devalue women, Tabitha is named in this story. Actually, we are given both of her names. Tabitha, her Hebrew name, and Dorcas, her Greek name. Tabitha, or Dorcas, is well known in her community: both her faith community and in the wider cultural community where she lives.
She is known for her compassion and ministry, so she probably has means to provide for herself and others. She is privileged among most in this time, and she understands that with her privilege comes a responsibility to care for others.
Tabitha is a woman of great compassion, particularly for widows, and has been instrumental in her community through caring for the widows among them. She is deeply loved, and is herself a beacon of love and care in her community.
Caring for the widows is her ministry and a tangible representation of this is the clothing she has made for them. On this day as a number of people are gathered in the upper room of Tabitha’s house, the tone is somber and sad. Tabitha has died.
A moving scene greets Peter who has been asked to “come without delay,” when he arrives. The widows from the faith community are preparing Tabitha’s body for burial, weeping as they work. When Peter arrives, they show him the tunics they are wearing, lovingly made by Tabitha and given to each one of them.
This humble and honoring parading of her handiwork – her legacy of compassion – is a touching tribute to this dearly loved woman, as they memorialize her to Peter who has come from a nearby town as if to say “she is our special friend and you need to know that she is special.”
Peter sends everyone out of the room and then tells Tabitha to get up, and Tabitha does. We are left to imagine the happy reunion that follows; certainly full of joy.
And though the miracle is performed in secret, it doesn’t stay a secret. Tabitha is presented to her community, and many who hear about this event come to believe, but not because they are shocked into belief by a miraculous healing. The belief comes to them because of the witness of a faithful community’s love and care for one of their beloved saints.
At Tabitha’s death, the community comes together to mourn for her and prepare her for burial. The widows’ witness to Tabitha’s good works speaks a greater truth to the broader community of deep love and acceptance, even for the lowliest among the community.
Good news abounds for the community of faith, as Tabitha is raised to continue to live and work among them, perhaps teaching them to be ministers one to another, as well; pointing new and seasoned believers to the fact that God is among them, always in the business of offering hope, resurrecting each heart to become like Tabitha’s: full of good works.
This is abundant good news for us, too. Tabitha didn’t live forever, as none of us will, but her spirit – the spirit of the risen Christ inside her, lived on through her and through the people she touched with her life. That spirit of the risen Christ lives on through us, and the people we touch with our lives.
Our church was called to a ministry like Tabitha’s: care for the most neglected, who were indeed often widows. We are now being called to discern new ways to continue our ministry; to keep the spirit of Tabitha alive – as we live fully in the resurrection of Christ, and in doing good works in our community.
We live in dark times. Our daily living is laced with division and hate. Loved ones die and it breaks our hearts, chronic illness corrodes our resolve. A world in which children are not safe wounds our hope. We toss and turn as questions, fears and hopes race through our minds in the dark of the night. Our existential questions and fears are an invitation to live in the resurrection. It is hard to cling to hope in the midst of so much darkness. How do we do it?
We look to the cross of Jesus Christ, to the empty tomb and to the faces of startled believers when he appeared to them as they were locked away – you got it – in fear.
When words of scripture heralding healing and miraculous restoration of life prick our hearts with the pain of loss or the pain of the present reality of darkness, we look to the risen Christ and following in his footsteps, we live into the resurrection by becoming more like him each day, growing in love and good works, faithfully living as a community who mourns together, prays and grows together, and celebrates together.
In times of grace and times of struggle, we tune our hearts to God’s praise as we look for little resurrections in our lives that instill hope: reminders of God’s presence in our lives through nature, through our faith community, in the love of friends and family. We look for abundance in a culture of lack through stories of goodness in humanity, through others’ faithful witness of the transforming power of Christ in their lives.
And, we draw on the example of Tabitha, and modern-day saints we have known or been inspired by. People in this church who are active in our ministry now, and those who helped to make it what it is and are no longer with us. People who raised us – like parents and grandparents. People who have shaped us, like friends, siblings, spouses, children, and mentors. And people who have touched our hearts with their prophetic witness and have left us far too soon, before their work was complete.
Take a moment to think of the saints in your life, your Tabithas who have shown you what it means to carry the resurrection in your heart, and share it with the world. How have they taught you to cling to hope? To share it with others? To let hope help you to grow in faith, with a beloved community of fellow believers?
Saints among us, like Tabitha, and Rachel Held Evans, and the people of Scott Boulevard who have passed, are gifts to us and to the world. They teach us how to live and to love like Jesus. And in learning to live like Jesus, we proclaim with our lives, the power of resurrection even in the darkest times. What makes this story accessible to us today, since the notion of a miraculous resuscitation is somewhat foreign to us, is the hope that is formed in community through the daily living out of our faith, together, until that day when our hope becomes complete.
Though our hope is not yet complete, we have much to celebrate today. Today, and all during the season of Easter, we celebrate afresh the good news of the resurrection, good news of hope. Good news that God has work to do with and in us, still, through the power of resurrection. Thanks be to God.