"What Is This Love? Persistance."
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 12, 2019 -- Fourth Sunday in Eastertide
Acts 9:36-43; Mark 5:21-43
My younger brother Jon was a pretty special person. His name in Hebrew means gift. We laughed a lot together. In 1995, Jon spent three months hospitalized in a distant city, for the first six weeks in an induced coma while doctors struggled to rid him of a strep infection in his leg. During that time, I spent weekends with him in the ICU. I held his hand and talked and sang to him. Sometimes he would drift into consciousness and try to speak to me, despite the tube in his throat. I would tell him to wait; we would have time later. I prayed that we would have that time. After about four months of recovery, he died suddenly, alone. It was then that I sought the comfort of the church, after more than a decade of only occasional participation. I was not only comforted; I was also transformed.
Tabitha must have been a pretty special person. She is the only woman in the bible specifically named as a disciple. Her name in Greek or Aramaic means gazelle. Peter’s words, “Tabitha, get up.” closely parallel Jesus’ words in Mark when he brings the daughter of Jairus back to life, “Talitha, get up.” Talitha means little girl. We imagine Tabitha as a devoted young woman who has committed her life and her skills to forming a community by sewing clothing for widows. The widows surely loved her. I imagine they laughed a lot together. The widows themselves may not have been very old. A widow in the ancient world as today means a woman who has survived her husband and thus can no longer bear children, either because of her age, or because she cannot remarry. The widow is functionally barren, unproductive, and so for the widows, Tabitha is a daughter.
When Tabitha dies, her community is triply bereft: bereft of spouse, bereft of material support, bereft of daughter. They become as orphans, threatened with nakedness, and imprisoned in their marginalized status. Peter is called when hope is lost, to bring comfort to the grieving community.
It would be easy to see this story as an example of Peter’s piety and the power of prayer, and no doubt it is. But it is more than that. Luke/Acts was written fifty to one-hundred years after the events it depicts. The church had grown rapidly beyond the original Jewish context and beyond the original witnesses to Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Acts was likely written after Peter’s death, and thus it is written from a perspective of the loss of apostolic leadership, and concern about the passing on to a new generation of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. The death of a disciple such as Tabitha represents the loss of contact with the originating events of Christianity. The unique designation of Tabitha as “disciple” is not insignificant, and it invites us to consider another interpretation of the story.
Often in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the prophets, the covenant nation Israel is depicted as a woman – sometimes as a faithful bride, sometimes as an unfaithful spouse. In the New Testament, the church is a second Israel, a new Israel of God, and is described in feminine terms. Mary, the blessed maiden, is often understood to be the prototype of the church, the one who bears Christ into the world, and the one who is the mother of the faithful. It would not be inappropriate then to see Tabitha also as an analogy of the church. She is the one who binds together the broken and ministers to their needs. She is the faithful one, the worker of good, who nonetheless is mortal. She is the servant situated in service to the community of need. Thus, the story of Tabitha is also an expression of anxiety and concern, that despite her vitality and youth, despite the good work she is doing in forming community and serving the broken, that the gathering that was coming to be called Christian would perish. Somehow, we believe that because of her good work, Tabitha did not deserve to die. And we believe that because of the good work of the church, that it deserves to live.
This is a pretty special congregation. After almost three years with you, I remain astounded and grateful for your generosity, your warm spirit, and the good works you do in the community – the persistent love you offer our community – not unlike Tabitha’s love for the marginalized, disempowered, and unproductive of her community. I believe that many would gather to mourn the body of this church today if it were to pass away. I do not believe that’s going to happen. But the difference would be noticed by the widows, children, and strangers – the lost, the forgotten, the barren, the broken, the orphaned, and the abandoned of our world today.
Tabitha’s world was an anxious world – both for Tabitha and the widows. And the threat of her loss to them escalated the widows’ anxiety many-fold. We are anxious about our world and about our church. We are anxious that the reservoir of mutual care and concern in our culture has eroded. We are anxious that the vigor of our planet has been compromised. We are anxious that forces of suspicion, accusation, judgement, and exclusion have taken over what once was known as movement of warm hearts and joined hands. We experience a loss of vigorous leadership and material resources, and we are concerned about the passing on to a new generation of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. The death of a congregation such as ours would constitute the loss of contact with the originating events of Christianity – the power of love made flesh. We might worry that the glory of God may have abandoned the tabernacle of our spiritual life together. We are afraid that our denomination will sicken and die.
Like Tabitha, we – both our denomination and our congregation, have a history of good works, and we have good reason to rejoice in our history. But there is a shadow side as well. We are complicit in the creation of the widows' plight. Once Tabitha was returned to life, I wonder how her resurrection life would be different than before. Would she see something that still could be done, not only to clothe the widows, but to restore them to full, fertile lives? Would she see that there are ways to alleviate the conditions and attitudes that allowed them to be understood and understand themselves as victims in the first place?
We don’t know what happens next to Tabitha in her resurrection life – that story is not told in Acts. But we could imagine that just as Jesus’ persistent presence and power was intensified by the resurrection, so would be Tabitha’s. Jesus does not become less present, but more present. We who embody the church, who participate in the body and blood of Christ, also constitute the body politic and participate in the market forces that create hunger, homelessness, and hopelessness, and the harrowing of our planet. The resurrection intensification of clothing the naked or those who have been cast out of the body is to overcome the forces of sin and death that strip and cast out. Love as persistence presses beyond charity – seeking restorative justice. Back in Lydda with Peter and the widows, we can see clearly what Luke wants us to see: that the persistent presence of Christ and the saving power of the Holy Spirit continue close at hand, even when we do not experience God's presence and power directly.
Peter, the rock on whom Christ has built the church, is called when hope is lost, to bring comfort to the grieving community. What he brings is not only comfort, but surprisingly he brings new life. This story represents an important turning point in the early church. Peter, the foundation of the church, is called to bring comfort. The church herself is out of breath, prone, and lifeless. Peter calls her to the resurrection life through Word and Breath. This story includes the first time in Acts that many came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah outside of the areas visited by Jesus himself in the Gospels. And it is significant that it occurs near Joppa, the same city from which Jonah was sent to bring God’s word to the gentiles at Nineveh. Likewise, Tabitha was brought to new life not because she had earned it through her ministry to the widows, but because there was yet ministry to do addressing the systemic causes and attitudes that led the widows to be considered unproductive and worthless in the first place.
If Peter’s purpose had been simply to comfort the grieving, it was certainly in his power to do so. Instead, he said to Tabitha: Get up; you’ve got more work to do – deeper work, work that requires new life. Grace does not simply make us feel better. Grace calls us to be more in Christ than we are in ourselves. Clothing the widows is good work – feeding and showering the homeless, quilting the children and their families…. Transforming them from unproductive members of the community to fertile contributors is holy work. It is hard work. It is long and often feels barren and unproductive. It takes persistence. We have done much as the Tabitha church. Faced with death, there remains resurrection work for us. It is the persistent work of transformation into new life…. I don't know exactly how. Soon, we will enter a period of deep, persistent listening to each other, to the community around us, to God’s amazing creation, and for the still small voice of God itself – for God’s call to resurrection life. Having been comforted and transformed by the church in the face of death, it is our calling to comfort and transform the world. Death will certainly come, but I have faith – I trust – in resurrection life. This is the resurrection life that we know through the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.Christ is risen. Christ is risen in our persistent love.