Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter (4.25.10)
Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, you who are both Shepherd and Lamb, both our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the book of Revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This fourth Sunday of Easter is loaded with special significances. It’s called Good Shepherd Sunday, Heritage Sunday, Earth Day Sunday, because of Earth Day last week, and now Faith in Action. The image of the good shepherd comes from Psalm 23 and from the praise of Christ the Lamb that we just heard read from Revelation. Heritage Sunday commemorates the creation of our church, The United Methodist Church, from the joining of The Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church on April 23, 1968. It also celebrates the courageous people whose witness we are continuing by being here this morning. The convergence of the two churches that formed our present church points to the kind of unity promised in the passage from Revelation: a multitude, from every nation and tribe.
The subject of Earth Day—the third possible name for this Sunday—and our relationship to creation will require a whole service in the near future. But today we must look at Faith in Action because we have been asked today by our District to declare our Faith through Action. That is certainly a continuing commitment of this congregation, even if we are not out on the streets at this moment. It is also the theme of our central story for this morning about Tabitha, a widow. What Acts really wants us to know is that she was a disciple. The word, in its feminine form, is used right away to describe her: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”
That is an exciting introduction, especially in a culture that devalued women unless they had wealth or wealthy connection. The early Christian community, on the other hand, was committed to mutual sharing and support. The community took responsibility for its widows. Tabitha is therefore neither invisible nor seen as useless. In fact, these first Christian communities were greatly empowered by the labor of such women. Tabitha is one of them. When Peter arrives, summoned in haste by two men—don’t you love it!—all the widows show him “the tunics and other clothing” that she had made. She is not a person they want to lose.
Peter brings her back to life. His raising her from the dead is an awesome and powerful action that is meant to remind us of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter and of his own resurrection. Peter’s action produces many converts. But the story is probably more about Tabitha and the kind of community that she is helping shape than about this action of Peter.
What church doesn’t have a Tabitha? I’m looking right at many of you—and there’s always room for more. You are those who demonstrate your wealth and power by compassion. I felt surrounded by Tabithas as I chatted with our Wednesday morning Crafts Group this week. Or as I spoke with Food Pantry people. Or as I prepare to meet with Church School teachers or the Vacation Bible School Planning Committee. The list goes on and on. And for the men here, I’m not forgetting Peter, a disciple of boundless energy.
There are several basic ideas embedded in this small but important story about a woman whose example was too important to let die. First: What is central to this new reign of Christ is God’s value system based on mutual compassion, not gender or membership in a particular family or social group. At the end of our reading, to underscore the point, we are told that Peter goes off to stay with a tanner, of all people! Tanners by definition would be unclean—Gentiles—since they carried the smells and blood of dead animals.
Second is the interconnection of faith and good works. Since Tabitha is a disciple, she must also have been a believer. But her life of faith isn’t being examined. What is stressed here is that faith and acts of service or charity or compassion go together. One may even be evidence of the other. The point is made in our Gospel reading from John today, when Jesus tells his adversaries: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”
Third is the glimpse into this early community that has developed beyond Jerusalem, on the coastline, in Joppa. I’d love to know more about this life of disciplined sharing. What other forms might their compassion have taken? What simple kindnesses were extended and what small cruelties or careless talk avoided? We know from many of the letters written by Paul that problems developed in the young churches, but the snapshot this morning from Acts gives us a healthy glimpse of a good woman who was loved, mourned, and wonderfully restored to life.
Loved and mourned. Note that she does not seem to have been ignored in her illness or her dying. This simple detail in the story is important for us today: No one should have to face disease or sorrow or death alone. Prayer partners and pastoral concern through cards, emails, calls, and visits are crucial for complementing medical diagnoses and treatments. They too are Faith in Action, our Prayer Life in Action. Our Joys and Concerns, lifted up before the community here on Sundays, are an essential beginning of that process. Coming to church as we do suggests that, to some degree at least, we wish a common life together. Living in community invites us to resist the intense protectiveness and habits of privacy and proud individualism that much in our culture fosters. When harm strikes, we pull into ourselves so no one will know that we or our bodies have failed us, so no one will know how vulnerable we really are.
Here is a quotation from The Sacred Journey by the Frederick Buechner:
To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from (p. 46).
What we are meant to remember from Tabitha’s story is a community that suddenly finds itself in distress and therefore vulnerable. And so together they weep, together they care for the deceased, and together they dare to hope that Peter will be able to help them. By doing these things, they are actually putting all of their spiritual strength and energy into life and service. The story that restores Tabitha to the community that is her family is a wonderful one for the Easter season.
But what happens to spiritual strength and energy when the healing does not come or does not come in the way we hope? When we have drawn up our own personal maps for a particular cure rather than for God’s plan for our healing? Our Easter readings recognize those many moments within the life of our community that continue to try us and test us. This is why the passage from Revelation is included this morning.
John of Patmos reminds us that the Lord who is always our Shepherd was also the helpless lamb that was slain and who first knew despair and pain. That too is the message of Easter. When John writes so powerfully in this chapter from Revelation of those “robed in white” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” he is most obviously describing those who have been martyred for their faith. But who is to say that those who have suffered horribly from cancer or Parkinson’s or discrimination or domestic violence will not also have their robes of pain and humiliation washed white through the redeeming love of Christ, either here or hereafter? John is celebrating Christ’s transforming, healing love that renews spiritual strength and energy. And so this morning’s text from Revelation can proclaim that the lamb who is our shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Let us pray: Dearest Lord, let us rejoice in the strength that we can find in our church community and that we can offer to it. Let us know that we each can be Tabithas, disciples blessed by God and dearly beloved, whatever our contribution. Let us also be humble enough and brave enough—either in our times of success or of sorrow—to let go of our own carefully drawn roadmaps for you. Rather may you work within us through the grace of those around us in this holy fellowship and through your own great love and mercy. Amen.