Sermon by Rev. Tim Woodard
Acts 9:36-43, April 17th, 2016
I believe that everyone here has heard the ancient and poetic words of the Genesis creation story. “In the beginning when God created the earth:” /Genesis 1:1/ it all started. And through the process of evolution all manner of living things came into being. “Then God said, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” /Genesis 1:26/ and life was given and bestowed upon humankind. The creation story was written in order that, we and others like us, would begin to think about life being a gift, a gift from our Creator God. Like any piece of poetry, the Genesis accounting gives us the rhythm and rhyme of how the early religious leaders of the tribes of Israel viewed life and how a Supreme Being was involved in the beginning of humankind as we know it. The accounting is as mystical and mystifying as the resurrection story we read this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. If we allow our hearts to hear the spirit of these accountings we will be truly enriched; for life really is a gift!
As a young lad I was ignorant of how things happen in nature and I surely did not question the things older people told me. In my naiveté I was able to fully embrace the simple joys of life, love, laughter and the pursuit of happiness. As I grew and developed ‘rational reasoning skills’ my curiosity caused me to explore things a bit more deeply. I discovered many things and, as my father’s parents, my grandparents, had a small farm I learned from the animals that life was fragile and new life was given in a very mystical way. It would take the accumulation of a lot of knowledge, and years, to understand the process at any deeper level. Now as an educated and experienced adult, I still see new life as a gift, far beyond my full comprehension. I have also come to understand that where there is life there is also death. Thankfully, from the simple theology of my mother’s father, Grandfather Dixon, the Pastor, I learned about the love of God, ‘the good news’ through the accountings of the man Jesus, from Nazareth.
As we push forward from these early learnings we can begin to listen to other teachers and pastors who have struggled with these life and death mysteries. One such man: William Loader, offers this analogy for our consideration. “The good news is about bringing life where there is death, love where there is hate, healing where there is brokenness.” You see, it is not essential for us to debate or fully comprehend all the details of these complex subjects, in order to glean and scrape together, the essence and essentials of creation in order to embrace our faith. That’s right, I am not a historian or an expert on evolution, nor am I qualified to debate the medical aspects of life and death. Yet, as a Pastor and a follower of the love of God, as laid out for us in Holy Scripture, I am qualified to discuss faith and belief with you at some depth. I also believe that through the accounting we read from the Book of Acts this morning that: “Peter clearly declares, by raising up a dead body through the name of Christ, that he preaches the glad tidings of life.” /From the Geneva Notes/ I believe this is a truth we can lift from this writing without debate.
Many times we Christians, get caught up in the details and although they are important, if we go too deep and stay there too long, we run the risk of spoiling the fruit, the heart of a message. For surely, the Acts of the Apostles was written, by its author, to help us gather and absorb the essence of the ministry that Peter and Paul and the other Apostles where about. Like the Genesis story we need to step back and look to the heart of our lesson to see what the writer is trying to say to us. With these in mind let us take a second look. James Boyce an instructor of the New Testament tells us in his writings that “…the details of this story (from the Acts of the Apostles) will find immediate recognition in the experience of those who grieve at the death of a loved one. As such, it provides… the opportunity in the midst of the season of Easter, in the context of worship, to witness to the promise and the power of the resurrection of our Lord to enter into the real places of daily life, to address even those darkest times of human grief and loss.” This is the most effective way to discuss scripture, from a context of devotion and worship, thereby giving us the opportunity to grasp the intent of its writing.
36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. /Acts 9: 36-27/ Knowing the Apostle Peter was in the region they sent word to him and he came. It is important to note that we are told that Tabitha was a disciple, thus a follower of Jesus. This means that Peter would have been considered perhaps her pastor, at the very least the others felt he could bring comfort to those who were now mourning her death. This response puts us in touch with the aspects of grief and loss we experience when someone we love is lost to us in death. As a pastor I have often been called at such times, and now and then, I am summoned just before someone passes to the next life. During such moments, which I find as an honor to experience, I try to acknowledge the pending loss; as together, I, and the gathered family and friends, we seek to connect with the person and celebrate their life. You see, a loved one never fully dies when we lift up, with love, the fullness of their life; cherishing them and allowing their spirit to join with our own and that of God’s.
There are many moments in our journeys when we are given opportunities, to acknowledge a life thereby giving that person a fuller life through our love. Surely, this is something that many can attest and witness to. In our lesson we hear about widows: “39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the ‘widows’ stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” /Acts 9:39/ Here we get a glance into the ministry that Tabitha was about; widows, you see, were poor and were not held in high esteem – within the communities they lived. Clearly, Tabitha had been reaching out with compassion and Christian love, in its truest form! Peter had come to Tabitha’s side striving and determined to lift up the life giving ministry of this faithful disciple. How often have you and I had the opportunity to offer our ‘life giving’ ministry to another?
Pastor Daniel B. Clendenin, earned his Ph.D. at Drew University and later taught at Stanford University, he wrote in one of his books how easy it is to overlook those that are held in poor regard by societies. “I’ve found it humbling to ask, ‘What ‘outcasts’ do I sanctimoniously spurn as impure, unclean, dirty, contaminated, and far from God?’ The mentally ill, people with multiple marriages, wealthy executives, welfare recipients, conservative politicians, or maybe just anyone different from me?” /Daniel B. Clendenin/ If, or hopefully when, we look at our own biases with a critical eye, we may find ourselves feeling a bit humbled as well. Sometimes it is easier to look the other way, than to stop and consider the needs of someone we don’t see eye to eye with, or someone who is down on their luck or society has pushed aside. With a bit of effort and purposeful change, we too can still give new life to a failed relationship, thereby breathing new life into the realm of another – outside our current circle of friends and community.
Life giving work can be seen, if, we open our eyes and look. Just this week I saw two perfectly fine examples of this here – just outside these sanctuary walls. One was of an individual on her knees working in the flower bed in front of the church. She was giving the plants there a new opportunity to live: live without weeds or fungus choking off their source of nourishment. The other woman was also bent over busily picking green beans from the garden that she has cared for over time. I took home some of those beans and so did others, as-well-as a goodly portion going to the Daily Bread where some hunger folks surely enjoyed them this week. Giving life comes in many packages and a variety of ways. Can you think of a few ways you might bring life to someone? I feel certain that if you gave it some effort you could; the opportunities for each of us to do so are numerous.
Have you ever watched a child’s eyes light up when given a piece of candy? You can see the same reaction when you give a bag of fresh green beans to a hungry man or women. When the opportunity presents itself who among us shall pick up the hoe and shovel and keep the ministry of our garden going forward? Who is willing to keep the weeds away from the flowers and shrubs that beautify our church grounds, when another is no longer able to do so? Who shall we call when new life is needed in the ever changing cycles of this our church?
When Peter was alone with Tabitha, it is said he prayed. Prayer, once again prayer is at the center of this life giving story. In the gospels how often did we hear about Jesus offering up a prayer? Jesus prayer for guidance on the night of his betrayal and arrest; “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsem’ane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.” … And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed …” /Matthew 26:36-46/ Jesus prayed a priestly prayer to his Heavenly Father, on our behalf and that of his disciples. /John 17:1-26/ Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying: “Our Father who art in heaven… /Matthew 6: 5-15/ Surely, when you struggle to reach out and offer the gift of your hand, the hand of life to another, lift up your voice in word or thought and ask God to assist you in the effort you make. It shall make a difference; from prayer shall arise newness of life.
New life, this is the gem, the nugget, the very treasure that has been written down for us to consider today. Peter was able, in some way, to offer new life to Tabitha and to the ministry she had endeavored to ‘lift up’ with her work with the widows in that local community. If we gather nothing else from this accounting, let us at least harvest this simple outcome.
Our lesson this morning is taken from the “Acts of the Apostles,” chapter nine, verses 36 thru 43. Let us allow our hearts as-well-as our minds be opened to hear this ancient accounting of the Apostle Peter.
36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Let us now allow the ‘Spirt of the Living God’ be with us as we explore a deeper understanding of this miraculous accounting.