Easter 4C; Acts 9:36-43
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
We are roughly halfway through the Easter season. This is the season of celebrating Christ's victory over death. This is the season of experiencing the presence of the risen Christ amongst us. This is the season of the empty tomb, of disciples who doubt, of disciples who are comforted and assured, of remembering the new commandment to love each other, and of watching Jesus ascend to the heavens. This is the season of alleluias and new beginnings. Almost all of this is reflected in the passage from Acts.
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity, sewing tunics and other clothing which she either sold to raise necessary funds or gave away to those in need. While those specific actions aren't stated in the passage, Tabitha's good works and acts of charity certainly lead themselves to doing just that.
As with most bible passages there is more than one way to read/interpret the text/story. One way is to read it as a news story from the early Church, as a no-frills just the facts report. Tabitha of Joppa, a disciple of Christ and purveyor of fine clothing, died in her home last Friday. She was later raised to life by Peter, one of the original apostles. It's another ho-hum miracle story we are so accustomed to.
But if we look past the rather orderly account of this event, we find that this story is an Easter story.
Like Jesus, Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Like Jesus, Tabitha died and her body was prepared for burial. Like Jesus, those who knew her wept and mourned. Like Jesus, she is raised to life (an important distinction is that she was raised to life, she was not resurrected).
Tabitha has a victory of sorts over death. Her family, friends, and other disciples will experience the presence of Tabitha's risen presence. Those who mourned are comforted. Those who knew her and know of this story can shout, “Alleluia!” As I mentioned, even though Tabitha was raised and not resurrected, I wonder if this event stirred up a new beginning of sorts. I'm reminded of the Proper Preface to Communion in the Burial Rite where it says, “for your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” How was Tabitha's life changed after this event?
Easter is all about Jesus defeating death and leading us to new life. By his death he destroyed death. Easter reminds us that Christ made all things new. But to get to Easter we must go through Good Friday. To get to new life, we must die. This story from Acts is an Easter story in that Tabitha died to an old life and was raised to new life. Not new in the resurrected sense, but new in that she died, was raised, and things are now new and different.
This is a story not only about Tabitha, but also about the Church.
We have come through a two-year pandemic. Both literally and figuratively part of us has died. Whether that is a ministry that ended due to COVID concerns or whether it is a feeling that we don't know where to go from here, there is no doubt that part of us died.
Like the widows wept over Tabitha, we may also weep over what we have lost. That is an okay thing to do. We weep over what was lost any number of times – a lost job, the death of a friend or family member, a divorce. But this is an Easter story. In that story is new life. In that story there is hope. It's this new life and hope which Tabitha awakens to. It's that new life and hope which the Church looks forward to.
This parish states that we are here to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage, with Worship being our primary focus.
Worship takes primacy because the whole point of the Christian community is to worship the Lord and give him our thanks and praise. Worship in the Episcopal church has a lot of moving parts. We aren't going to change that, but what might be new is how you are involved. As we come into a new way of being, how might you offer your gifts as we gather to worship?
Welcome is another area where newness abounds. We are, and have been, well past the time when we could rely on the name Saint John's to attract people. We need to be forthright with evangelism and comfortable in telling our stories to people. What is it about this place that sustained you through the pandemic and how do you see Saint John's active in the world around us? We need to be comfortable with our stories so that we can welcome people to join us. We also need to broaden our vision by welcoming those who are not like us. We need to be willing to welcome crying babies and messy adults.
Who are we Serving? We had that figured out BC (Before COVID). But things have changed. Can we figure out how to serve people in a safe way? Community Cafe was good, but do we need to figure out a new way of bringing meals to people? Or maybe we can be more active in helping Shelter residents apply for jobs or learn basic life skills. As of right now, the Saint John's Family Shelter is the only family shelter in Hagerstown, and as of right now it is full, and this past weekend we had to turn away a wife, husband, and their four children because, quite literally, there is no room in the inn. Should we partner with the Shelter and look for a second building or find ways to support affordable housing?
In a world that is living with COVID as a permanent endemic presence, how can we Encourage people? Through education about the Christian faith, being a community where all people are loved, offering meaningful worship, how can we encourage people in our current environment?
These are a lot of open-ended questions, and we don't need answers today. But like an artist staring at a new, blank canvass, or a homeowner moving into their new, empty house, we have a lot of openness, a lot of newness, a lot of life before us. It's tempting to go back to the way it was, but that's not possible. What is possible is new life and how we expand our vision to embrace it.
New life can bring doubts: see Thomas and the other nameless and doubting disciples. New life can bring fear: see Mark's account of the women at the tomb who ran away in fear saying nothing to anyone. New life can drive us to look for comfort in old habits: See Peter and the other disciples who chose to go fishing last week. New life can also bring excitement, energy, and opportunity.
I don't know what Tabitha did differently after being raised and experiencing new life, but I'm willing to bet it was an opportunity not to be wasted. Like Tabitha we are on the cusp of being raised. Like Tabitha we have a new, blank canvass to re-imagine how we will be the Church and live into our call. Like Tabitha, we have an opportunity to explore how we might do things differently.
We are living an Easter story. How will you choose to participate?