Sermons

"Faithfulness, Life, and Death": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

"Faithfulness, Life, and Death": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

May 12, 2019

Passage:Acts 9:36-43

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Easter

Category: Discipleship, Faithfulness, Resurrection

Keywords: discipleship, faithfulness, hope, resurrection, women

Summary:

The Acts of Apostles present an image of Tabitha--a faithful disciple from Joppa--who dies. The community is so distraught they send for Peter. He is able to bring the power of God to resurrect Tabitha. As faithful Christians, how do we read this story? What hope do we look for from this account? This sermon addresses these issues.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Over the past few weeks, someone who has been in the news and on the hearts of many of us here in the Episcopal Church is the author Rachel Held Evans.

Her story and her witness is one that has captured the imagination of many in the church, because it is the story of many who have found their way to these pews.

Rachel Held Evans has been described as a “Wandering Evangelical” or even an “ex-Evangelical.”[1]

She grew up in a conservative Christian home. She attended an Evangelical Christian college.  She married her college sweetheart.

But Rachel started to have questions about the religious certainty that was ever present in her church and in her life. She had doubts, but was not allowed to express them. She craved a faith that left room for doubt.

She started to blog about her thoughts and ideas.

She questioned a Christianity and reading of the Bible that insisted that only men could have leadership roles in the Church and in ministry.

She questioned a Christianity and a reading of the Bible that condemned her LGBTQ+ friends.

Rachel’s following on her social media grew to more than 150 thousand people. She published her ideas in books.

In 2014, Rachel joined the Episcopal Church. This was an important step in her journey…

At the time Rachel said: “I felt drawn to the Episcopal church because it offered some practices I felt were missing in my evangelical experience, like space for silence and reflection, a focus on Christ’s presence at the communion table as the climax and center of every worship service, opportunities for women in leadership, and the inclusion of LGBT people.”[2]

Rachel is a true disciple. She reached out to people who have been burned by church… to people turned away or rejected… to people who never knew that Jesus is about love and grace…

Rachel has been able to reach all of them through her blog and books and conferences.

But the reason Rachel has been in the news and on our hearts these past few weeks specifically is because of her tragic death on May 4th.

At only thirty-seven years old, Rachel became ill with brain seizures, went into the hospital, and after a few weeks where doctors tried everything possible, she died.

Rachel left a loving husband and two children under the age of four desperately seeking any outcome other than this tragedy.

And that’s natural. That’s how we all are in the face of or sadness and grief. We want it to be different. “Anything other than this, please God!”

We actually encounter a story like this from today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles.

We meet another extraordinary woman. We hear that in the town of Joppa there lived a female disciple named Tabitha. We are told that in Greek, that’s translated as “Dorcas.”

Tabitha is “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

But to put it into perspective about how this woman really lived her life, perhaps a better translation of her action is this: Tabitha spent all her time seeing to the “necessities of the poor, which she herself provided.”[3]

In other words, Tabitha not only looked after the poor, she did so out of her own possessions.

Tabitha was a disciple of Jesus who truly understood the Way of Jesus.

She knew what discipleship really meant.

She had heard Jesus’ teachings about “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” and she took it to heart.

Tabitha truly gave of herself.

She was the epitome of sacrificial love.

That’s the key. Tabitha was the central Christian disciple in Joppa because she loved others as Christ loved us.

And I want us to pause for a second and think about how truly amazing this was in the first century Roman-occupied world.

Women had very few rights.

It was a patriarchal culture, where women were expected to raise the children in a hospitable home. In the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire, like Joppa, there were even more specific limitations for women. 

Men were not even supposed to greet women in public… and some prominent writers of the era, like Philo, said that women should not even leave the home except to go to the synagogue.

Women were expected to be under the protection and authority of their husbands or fathers or brothers.

And they could only inherit property in modest circumstances.[4]

And even with all these restrictions on gender roles in the time and culture. We have the example of Tabitha.

Jesus didn’t play by any of these rules.

Jesus talked to women in the street. Jesus invited women to be disciples. Jesus loves all and invites us all to love each other.

And Tabitha rises to the occasion despite these obstacles in her way.

So much so, she becomes beloved in her community. She makes a difference in her community.

Tabitha is central to the spread of Christianity—to the spread of the way of discipleship and love in the midst of the cruel and demeaning world. 

And then we hear that Tabitha becomes ill and dies.

It’s sudden. It’s shocking. It’s unexpected.

Clearly all the disciples in Joppa are distressed by this turn of events. It can’t be. Not Tabitha! She’s too central to our lives!

The disciples gather and, after having taken Tabitha’s body to an upper room in a house, they hear that the apostle Peter is in the nearby town of Lydda.

“Lydda is only about ten miles inland from Joppa!” They say to one another. “Let’s send a couple of people to get Peter to see if anything can be done about poor Tabitha!”

So, Peter comes to Joppa. Tabitha experiences a resurrection. The power of God comes into that upper room in ways that we cannot begin to explain, understand, or even fully imagine.

….

So, let’s take our focus back to Rachel Held Evans… and to all our other wonderful, beloved disciples… our loved ones… our family members… who we love and who have died.

We crave this type of inexplicable “power of God” resurrection for them too, don’t we?

Of course we do.

But here’s the thing to remember. Tabitha’s resurrected body was still mortal. Even though it’s not recorded in the Book of Acts, Tabitha ultimately died again. Years later after this story, Tabitha grew ill… grew old… or… she fell or something similar. Her mortal body died.

Her community who loved her even more, because she was such a faithful disciple, mourned.

But her death was not the end.

God created us out of love for the purpose of love in God—for all time. That’s why even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Rachel’s very last blog post before she went into a coma was on Ash Wednesday. She wrote: “Whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called ‘none,’ you know this truth deep in your bones: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.’”

“Death is a part of life,” she concluded. “My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.”[5]

None of us are alone because of the sacrificial love of God in Jesus. And we know this because of the faithfulness of disciples like Tabitha and Rachel.

May we seek to be like them in our daily walks.

Amen.  

 

[1] Info about Rachel Held Evans from  Elizabeth Dias and Sam Roberts, “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37” May 4, 2019, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/rachel-held-evans.html

[2] Quoted in “Rachel Held Evans on celebrating sacraments,” March 10, 2015, Episcopal Café, https://www.episcopalcafe.com/rachel-held-evans-on-celebrating-sacraments/

[3] See Mitzi Smith, “Commentary on Acts 9:36-43,” Working Preacher, available at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2814

[4] From “Jesus’ Extraordinary Treatment of Women,” Franciscan Media, available at https://www.franciscanmedia.org/jesus-extraordinary-treatment-of-women/

[5] See https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/lent-for-the-lamenting