April 21, 2013
Manassas Church of the Brethren
6 Now 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.
Storyteller Donald Davis tells a story about his father, one of seven brothers, all who died relatively early in life, all of heart attacks. Donald’s father was the only remaining brother, the only one who not yet succumbed to heart problems. One day, when Donald was only 28 himself, he got a call from his cousin, Kay, telling him that his father, Joe Davis, had died – of a heart attack. Shocked, Donald began making all the necessary preparations – telling his wife and children, packing bags and readying the family for the trip to his hometown. And he started grieving – remembering all the unasked questions, the stories he’d never get to hear, the fatherly advice he wouldn’t get. “Oh, I wish I’d asked him this,” he thought, or “Why didn’t I ever get him to tell me about that?”
When they were all finally ready, Don felt anxious, hurried: “If I had left as soon as I got the call, we would have been there by now!” he thought. Realizing that his family must be wondering where he and his kids were, he called his father’s house to let them know he was on his way.
The phone rang, and someone picked up.
“This is Joe Davis,” Donald’s father said.
Stunned, all Donald could get out was “BUT, you’re supposed to be DEAD!”
It turns out that another man by the name of Joe Davis had died of a heart attack, and a family member – also by the name of Kay, Donald’s cousin, had requested the operator call “Donald Davis.” But the operator, unknowingly, got the wrong Don Davis.
Now, Donald Davis travels the country telling stories, many of them about his father. But he opens his shows with this confession: all the stories he tells today are ones he learned AFTER that scary day when he was 28 and thought his father had died.
Stories like this - stories of death, grief, resurrection and second chances are stories that almost can’t fail to get our attention. We’ve all brushed up against death, we’ve all experienced grief, and there are surely very few of us who don’t wish for a second chance, a do-over, just one more day, one more opportunity. Grief and loss are hallmarks of human experience. They’re universal. And they hurt.
Our passage for today hits us right in that soft spot. A beloved friend and disciple, Tabitha, has fallen ill and died. It’s clear from the way that Luke writes about her that Tabitha was one of the good ones – she’s a woman identified as a disciple, a rare thing in itself. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity, and while we’re not exactly sure what those might have been, we do know that her good works touched the lives of many friends. At her bedside, a crowd has gathered to mourn her passing. The crowd, it seems, is comprised of widows who have been recipients of Tabitha’s kindness. In their weeping and wailing and grieving, they are waving the clothes that Tabitha had woven for them. Her good works must have been something like clothing the naked, caring for the widows, sharing God’s abundance with those in need.
Tabitha was one of the good ones. And her friends, gathered around her body, just couldn’t believe that she was gone. They weren’t sure what to do, but they knew that Peter was in the area, and they sent messengers to him. “Peter! Come quick! Tabitha fell ill, and died! Hurry!”
Something in that conversation strikes me as odd. Peter’s visit to Tabitha’s home seems, at first, like any pastoral visit. Peter was a leader, a teacher, and a healer. Of course they would send for him in their time of grief – sitting with grieving families, praying over the deceased, offering comfort and presence in times of great upheaval…it’s what pastors do. It makes sense that the gathered friends would call their pastor to join them.
But still, something is strange, here. If Tabitha, their friend and fellow disciple, has already died, why do the messengers run after Peter with such urgency? This is not like the other stories, stories where a centurion’s daughter is sick, or where Jesus’ friend Lazarus is in the process of dying…Tabitha has already died. She is gone. Her friends are grieving. And yet, something compels these disciples to run fast for Peter, and to insist that he come home with them immediately. What is it that’s so urgent? Why do they think Peter’s haste will make any difference, now?
One of my favorite ways to read scripture is with our Jr. Highs here at Manassas. The Jr. Highs are one DRAMATIC group, and they will jump at any chance to flex their acting muscles. On Wednesday night, we acted out this passage during Jr. High RAP. Olivia was Tabitha, and she got to practice her dramatic fainting and impeccable death scene. Anna and Paige were the quintessential weeping widows, wailing in grief. Nick and Travis were stellar messengers, running from the deathbed to find Peter in Joppa. And Tristen played Peter with great passion, praying and pronouncing Tabitha risen from the dead with the gravitas of a true apostle.
After we acted out the scene, complete with wailing and screaming, running and praying, death and resurrection, I asked the Jr. Highs what they made of the story. We’ve already celebrated Jesus being resurrected, I said, so why are we still reading stories about people coming back from the dead? What does it mean that this random woman (who, though she was a good, devoted disciple, loved by many and mourned by all, has never been mentioned in scripture before this point) ALSO gets resurrected? What do we make of that? I asked.
And these guys, being the exegetical experts that they are, reminded me: The point of the story is that resurrection is for lots of people.
Hear that? Resurrection is for lots of people.
It turns out that the story of resurrection doesn’t end at Easter. It turns out, when we keep reading, when we keep paying attention, that Easter is only the beginning. Resurrection doesn’t stop with Jesus. All those lilies and tulips, those white cloths draped on the cross, the triumphal songs and shouts of joy that we used to celebrate just a few weeks ago…it turns out, those celebrations are not just for Jesus. Those celebrations are signs of an entirely new way of living in the world, a way of living that refuses to see death as the final word, that refuses to give up or resign to the world’s patterns of brokenness.
Resurrection is for lots of people.
I think that’s why the disciples were in such a hurry to get to Peter. I think they had, somehow, realized that Jesus’ resurrection was only the beginning. If death no longer has the final say, then even in grief and death we can hold out hope. Even though their friend Tabitha had already died, their hope was so large and so compelling that even death couldn’t stop them from doing all that they could to heal her.
And the result of their persistent faith – their love and grieving and running to find Peter – the result was another resurrection. Because they had seen it happen, because they believed it to be possible, because they had been convinced and compelled by the power of God to triumph even over death, they acted in ways that opened up a space for resurrection to take place.
How often do we act as if resurrection is a possibility? Not just in situations of physical death, but in times of all kinds of pain and loss. What would it look like to enter into a time or a season of loss with the certainty that even this pain, even this grief, will not be the end of the story? I think it looks a lot different than the status quo, a lot less anxious and fearful than what we experience on the news and in the culture and on the street in America today. Expecting resurrection changes how we do everything, how we think about anything.
The poet Wendell Berry has a poem called Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front. It’s a poem about how he hopes to live, how living life with the assumption of resurrection changes how we ought to behave. It goes like this:
Resurrection is for lots of people. But what does it look like to practice resurrection?
What would it look like to walk through persistent illness expecting resurrection?
What would it mean to weather the loss of relationship – divorce or betrayal, distance or change – believing that beyond the loss lies some kind of relational resurrection?
How would we act if we encountered change with the compelling hope that our story leads us through loss toward new life?
Who would we send for, if we believed every situation was redeemable? Who would we run after to ask for help? What would our prayers be?
Practicing resurrection seems a little overwhelming. If resurrection is for lots of people, then it is also for lots of situations. And there are plenty of situations in need of resurrection. We’ve seen more than our fair share of them this week alone: bombings in Boston, explosions in Texas, grieving our own friends here at home. We need resurrection. To practice it seems both necessary and just a little impossible.
But once again, our Jr. Highs have some advice for us. They reminded us that resurrection is for lots of people. And when they said that Wednesday night, my next question for them was “Yeah, but HOW does that happen? How do we get to experience resurrection?”
And Tristen, who had played Peter in our drama, who had knelt down by the body of poor, dead Tabitha, said a prayer and then commanded her to get up, to live again, to convince her friends of the power of new life, answered.
How does resurrection happen, Tristen?
“One prayer at a time.”
Sometimes, in weeks like this one, where the world can feel full of tragedy and fear, life feels overwhelming. It can seem like violence and death are ruling the day – or at least the airwaves. But this is the story of the gospel: resurrection happens. Resurrection is possible. Resurrection is for lots of people.
And here’s the thing about resurrection: it doesn’t circumvent death and grief. It doesn’t jump over them, or erase them, or make them magically disappear. This gospel of resurrection is not a miraculous, last-minute deathbed recovery. It is not, like Donald Davis’ story, a case of mistaken identity. This gospel of resurrection leads us straight through pain, death and grief. There is no way around it. Tabitha actually died. Jesus was actually crucified.
Joy comes in the morning, the psalmist tells us. Resurrection happens, next. And it is that hope that gives us strength to walk through valleys, to grieve together, to share in one another’s pain, knowing all the while that we live in a world where death has been defeated, where resurrection comes next, where we are all always being transformed.
So. When it feels overwhelming, when the losses pile up, what do we do? We hold out hope. We work for the kingdom. And we pray – one prayer at a time. One person, one situation, one moment, one prayer at a time. Because we know this: death is not the end of the story. Even Easter isn’t the end of the story. Resurrection is for lots of people. Resurrection is for us, and for our world. One prayer at a time.