April 18, 2016

Bedside Manners

Long ago, while the first chapters of church history were still being written, the witness and faith of a woman named Tabitha made a tremendous impact on the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
If we pause for just a second and consider this albeit brief description of Tabitha, we need not stretch our imaginations to see the place of honor she held in the hearts of her friends.

Remembered as one “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” undoubtedly, there were in the community persons inspired by her generosity, others who were touched by her kindness, and even more who could point to the positive difference she made in their lives. I think it’s fair to assume that the people loved, respected, and revered Tabitha. That’s why her death was such a crushing experience for her friends.

At that time [Tabitha] became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
When Tabitha died her church family came together for the funeral.

They prepared her body to be buried and came together to grieve their friend.

But they also sent word to the Apostle Peter “to come to them without delay.”

Given what happened next, we have to wonder what Tabitha’s friends expected Peter would do.

Did they expect him to perform a miracle? We don’t know.

Was Tabitha a close friend whose death Peter would need to grieve, too? We can’t say.

Was this congregation simply reaching out to their spiritual leader—like a family calling their pastor from the emergency room? The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What the Bible does tell us, however, is that Peter wasted no time in going to the grieving people.

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. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed.
And after praying, Peter did the strangest thing.

He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”

And then something stranger happened. She did.

[Tabitha] opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
In a wonderful sermon entitled “Lady Lazarus,” Barbara Brown Taylor points out that at least one biblical scholar has criticized the way Acts presents Tabitha’s story. This scholars says that Luke shouldn’t mention Tabitha’s good works, because that might trick us into believing that the miracle was a reward that she earned. This person is also critical of Peter’s actions. After all, he didn’t even say anything about Jesus.

“To avoid misunderstanding,” this scholar writes, “the miracle needs to be clothed in explicit theological meaning.”

Barbara Brown Taylor’s answer to this scholar’s criticism becomes the touchstone of our encounter with God’s word today.

She writes,

[Criticizing the story’s lack of explicit theology] strikes me as an odd statement in itself…As far as I can tell, that is less of a problem for most people than the fact that they are not able to reproduce this miracle no matter where they line up theologically. They too pray for people they love who are dying if not dead. They too call on the most powerful help they can think of, but their prayers do not work the way Peter’s did. Their [loved one’s] eyes stay closed…while they stain their tunics with their tears.
Barbara Brown Taylor invites us, then, to hold together the scripture that is before us and the pain of grief and loss that is within and all around our human experience. In essence, she invites us, as does Saint Luke, to go into the upstairs room with Peter and to discover there the power and wonder and hope of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is Good News at Tabitha’s bedside because her experience helps us understand the impact Christ’s resurrection has on life in the here and now—life that is simultaneously fragile and finite, yet verdant and overflowing with God’s amazing grace.

After his resurrection, the reality of death continued to confront Jesus’ disciples. Even after Easter, Christians still died, but they also came to believe the Risen Christ was God’s pledge and promise to them that nothing, not even death, could separate them from God’s love.

That’s what’s going on in today’s passage from Revelation in which one of the heavenly elders reveals the identity of the white robed multitude to Saint John.

These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…They will hunger no more, and thirst no more…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
These were people who had suffered and died because of their faith, yet even still, they had not lived and died in vain because God was still with them. God had not forsaken them.

In the midst of turmoil and hardships, grief and persecution, the faithful trusted Jesus to lead them beside still waters and restore their soul—now and forever.

They had faith that he was the Good Shepherd who would lead them through the valley of the shadow of death.

This is the faith Peter brought to his dead friend.

Now we need to be clear. Tabitha’s experience was not normal! Our ancestors did not believe that faith worked on the dead like Tylenol works on a headache. This is a story of a supernatural physical event that reveals a deeper spiritual reality, as all miracles do.

The reality is that the bonds of God’s love are greater than death’s sting.

In fact, Peter and all the saints believed that no created thing had the power to tear them away from God’s love.

“For I am convinced,” declared Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I think Paul’s defiant attitude is present in Tabitha’s story—encouraging the faithful to live in the light of love and life, not the fear of death’s darkness.

You see, even though the Church taught its members not to fear death, Christians always believed that this life was worth living to its fullness.

Life—flesh and blood, ups and downs, laughter and tears—life wasn’t something that the faithful thought they had to tolerate until they got to the good stuff with God when they died.

If that was the case, Tabitha would’ve been pretty ticked off when Peter woke her up.

But she wasn’t ticked off. She and her friends rejoiced the day that Peter came to town because they knew that every minute of every day was a gift from God.

They knew that joy and love in this life are worth savoring, and they knew that new life through Jesus Christ wasn’t limited to life after death with God in heaven.

Our ancestors didn’t fear death for they knew it wasn’t the end. They also didn’t seek death because they experienced life as God’s great gift to them.

We share this same faith with our ancestors.

There’s a beautiful prayer in the service we offer when a member of the church dies that underscores this point. Spoken in the midst of death, it is a prayer for the living.

[O God] Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you…
In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ.

This is why Tabitha’s story matters to us.

Because Tabitha got up, we can get up and get through whatever we face.

A difficult week at work or a fruitless job search, a dark night of despair or a season of grief—the Risen Christ has the final say in our lives, and he speaks love, mercy, grace, power, and truth.

Because those who came to mourn Tabitha became the first to rejoice with her, we find God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

Because their weeping turned to dancing, we have confidence that when we walk with God, we will never walk alone.

Because the crucifixion led to an empty tomb, we know that our story does not end in Good Friday’s darkness but carries on into the new light of Easter morning.

In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ because he is the Lord of life, holds the keys to death, and hears us when we pray.

May, then, the Good Shepherd, the King of Love, Death’s Conqueror, and Fear’s Fiercest Foe “help us to live as those who are prepared to die” so that “when our days here are accomplished” we may “die as those who go forth to live.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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