“Now, in Asheville, there was a disciple named Paul. He was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time, he became ill and died.”
How interesting that this is the story that appears in the scheduled reading for today, two days after the celebration of life service for our Paul Gillespie. Paul and Tabitha seem to have played similar roles in the lives of their faith communities, the role of spiritual mentor. While the women grieving for Tabitha weep and display “tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them,” through our tears we tell stories about Paul, we talk about the ways he challenged us to live our faith with integrity, we talk about the times he gave us constructive feedback then told us he loved us.
Yes, today’s lesson from Acts speaks precisely to where our community is just two weeks after losing Paul–sitting here together, grieving.
If you didn’t know Paul, you certainly have known someone–in a faith community, in your family–who exemplified what it means to be a follower of Jesus, someone who lived their faith with absolute integrity and challenged you to do the same. Tabitha was that kind of person. As was Paul. All of us have in our memories people who mentored us in faith…people who died before we were ready for them to go…people we have trouble imagining living without…
…so, now I’m starting to wonder if this really is the best Scripture text for us today. Like Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, the women’s grief at Tabitha’s house is interrupted by her coming back to life. Like Mary and Martha, Tabitha’s grieving friends don’t have to imagine living without Tabitha. Peter raises her and gives her back to her community, just like Lazarus was restored to his community.
But that’s not going to happen for us with Paul. It’s not going to happen with any of our loved ones who’ve died. It’s great for Mary and Martha and all those people grieving for Tabitha. Their loved ones were resurrected. Yay, for them.
But what does resurrection mean for those of us whose loved ones don’t come back to life? What does resurrection mean for those of us whose grief is not interrupted? What does resurrection mean when death is so present?
What does resurrection mean when our country, our culture, our people seem so mired in death? I know. You’re probably thinking, “Here she goes again with all that death business.” But if you’re alive today, you can’t help but face the fact of death. Death is all around us. You can’t turn on your computer without seeing some representation of a funeral procession.
–One million species driven to the brink of extinction by profligate consumption by people and governments in the developed world.
–The school shooting in Colorado. I actually missed that when it happened…so common have mass shootings become that it’s hard–even for the conscientious among us–to attend to every one. Why isn’t our government doing something about gun control? New Zealand did it within days of the mosque shootings.
–Healthcare. How many of you know someone who, lacking insurance, didn’t go to the doctor and ended up getting very sick–or perhaps even died?
–At a rally this week, when the president asked what should happen to people who cross the border seeking asylum, someone in the crowd actually shouted, “Shoot them!”
I know in this season of resurrection I keep talking about death…but death is all around us. If there is to be any hope in the world, if we are to live out our calling as followers of Jesus to announce and live that hope in the world, we have to take pain and suffering in the real world seriously. That’s what Jesus did in his brief ministry on Earth. It’s what our faith calls us to do, too. We cannot flinch in the face of violence, incivility, and death in our world. For way too long, that’s exactly what the Christian church has done. The church has been offering sweet platitudes to a world starving for real hope. Is it no wonder the church has become irrelevant to so many?
I confess that I, too, am desperate for, starving for hope. Aren’t you? Aren’t we all? Isn’t the whole world starving for hope?
In a book titled, The Power to Speak, theologian Rebecca Chopp sums up the church’s work as “denouncing sin and announcing grace.” That feels right. Naming the sin around us…
…oops. Guess I’d better define what I mean by sin. Too many of us too many times have been on the receiving end of inaccurate definitions of sin, right?
One year, our church in Georgia was peopling a booth at Pride. I was stunned to hear one of our members describe our church by saying that, “At our church, we don’t talk about sin.”
I didn’t say anything at the time, but the sermon title for the following Sunday was, “Sin.” The next week’s sermon title? “Sin. The Sequel.”
Here’s my completely accurate definition of sin. Sin is anything that prevents one of God’s beloved children from becoming who they are created to be. Certainly, there are things we do to prevent ourselves from becoming who we are created to be. That’s personal sin.
The more I look at what’s going on in the world, though, I see sin much more systemically …sins like racism…classism…heterosexism… sexism…ageism…and obscene consumption practices…
Those are the sins, especially, the church is called to name and, yes, as Rebecca Chopp suggests, to denounce. I think it’s safe to say that, as a church of protesters, we like denouncing sin. If there’s a march for justice, sign us up! If we need to stick it to the man, sign us up! Denouncing sin…Oh, yes. We’re good at that.
But announcing grace? Proclaiming hope? That’s harder, isn’t it? Especially when so much is broken in our world, when so many are sick, when so many are dying.
On the face of it, the story of Tabitha’s resurrection is annoying for those of us whose loved ones aren’t coming back to life. A second reading, though, reveals a process that might help us as we seek to announce grace to world that’s hungry for it. Back to the story…
So 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 Tabitha had made while she was with them.
The first thing Peter did was to listen to those who were grieving. He didn’t say anything to them, he simply listened while they wept and showed him all the things their friend had made.
We, too, must listen to those who grieve the dying in our world…the dying of species… those who are grieving for students murdered in school shootings…those grieving the loss of loved ones to inadequate health coverage…those grieving the loss of civility in our world…
Then Peter put all of them outside, knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’
As a next step, Peter turns from the grieving to the one who has died. To use Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, Peter gets “proximate” to suffering and death.
It’s when Peter gets proximate to death, when he kneels down and prays, when he invites her to come back to life, that Tabitha experiences resurrection.
How might we invite the dying and dead back to life in our world, which is so mired in death? Might it mean going to a site of ecological devastation, kneeling down and praying, then taking action that would invite that dead and lifeless place to come back to life?
Might it mean visiting a school and listening to stories from teachers and administrators about what the constant threat of violence is doing to our children? What would an invitation to resurrection in the face of gun violence look like? Might it look like what happened in New Zealand?
Might inviting others to resurrection mean sitting with the loved ones of those who have died from inadequate healthcare coverage and listening to their grief? Or sitting with those who are suffering the effects of inadequate healthcare coverage and listening to them? What kinds of actions on our part would invite those who are suffering to resurrection?
How might we invite to resurrection those who have squandered their own dignity by diminishing the dignity of others? What actions might we take that would invite them back into their full humanity?
The words of my friend and colleague at a recent gathering in Atlanta continue to ring in my mind and heart: “The church doesn’t even believe in resurrection! If the church believed in resurrection, it could do some good in the world!”
Y’all. Here’s what I’m trying to say. We don’t have the luxury of trying to decide whether or not we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus…or Lazarus…or Tabitha. The world needs us—us here in this room—the world needs us right now to denounce the sin we see…the world needs us to be present to and listen to those who suffer…the world needs us to kneel down and to pray with those whose lives are slipping away… the world needs us to announce grace…the starving world needs us to set the table and serve up a heaping helping of hope! The hurting, dying world needs us to believe in resurrection…even when it’s not popular…even when it doesn’t feel rational…even when death feels so much more real… The world needs us to believe in resurrection.
So, what say we give it try?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019