THE THINGS SHE MADE
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At our CBOQ Assembly this year, one of the smaller group sessions was called a Blanket Exercise. I went to this along with Pastor Abby and our summer guest John Dewitt. Blankets were spread out on the floor to approximate North America – or Turtle Island as it was known before the arrival of European settlers. Those who took part started off standing on the blankets, representing Indigenous people of the continent. We were led by a Cree woman who narrated the story of Indigenous people from the 15th century to the present. It went like this – a lot of us were given white cards and at one point early on the leader went around with a blanket representing small-pox ridden blankets that were distributed among the Indigenous population. She touched people on the arm with the blanket. Anyone who was touched or had a white card (I was both) had to take a seat in a circle around the blankets. You were dead at that point. The number of people standing on the blankets decreased dramatically. The story was told and shown.
The part that I want to share is what affected me the most. When it came time to retell the story of Indian Residential Schools, the people who were sent to them had to stand on a blanket. It was a child’s quilt, with ducks on it, quite close to where I was sitting. Seeing this object of comfort and warmth and whimsy which speaks of childhood brought the story of Residential Schools home to me in an entirely new way. We can hear the stats. We can read of individual stories. We can share the same space with someone sharing their story. The pathos of a story can take on a whole new meaning simply from the insertion of an object.
It made me think of the story of Randall Dooley. Randall was a young boy who died in 1998 at the age of seven. His death came as a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to nurture and care for him. I remember at the time being struck by a picture of him in superhero pajamas. I found this picture of him at Christmas. A young boy who just wanted to live like any young boy and find joy in Christmas presents and wear superhero pajamas. It gives the story a whole different level of meaning, doesn’t it?
This is what Luke does here at the end of Acts 9. Luke brings the story of the spread of the good news of Christ down to the personal. Back to the personal I should say because it’s always been about the personal. The sharing of the same space by two people. We’re talking through this long look at Acts about the work that Jesus began – about the work that Christ’s church is called to continue. For Jesus it was often about the face to face. The woman of Samaria at the well. Nicodemus coming to talk to Jesus under cover of darkness. It was the same for the apostles. We’ve heard about Peter and John and the man at a gate called Beautiful. We’ve heard about Phillip encountering the Minister of Finance/Treasury Secretary from Ethiopia on a wilderness road in the middle of the day and of all things he was reading from Isaiah. Who would have thought?” we asked.
There are some who might say that these stories are here in order to set up Peter’s meeting with Cornelius. They’re here to locate Peter geographically as he heads toward the west coast. Peter is going into increasingly Hellenized or Greekified territory. The hinge of the Book of Acts is where we are. The good news is about to be poured out for Gentiles in a whole new way. We are in between two very big events. The conversion of Saul! The road to Damascus. The “I saw the light” moment for Saul. We’ll be spending a lot of time with him over the coming weeks and months. Peter meeting a Roman centurion. Cornelius. A leader in the Italian regiment. We’ll get to that story too. The big turn of the good news to the Gentile world. Huge!
We like huge, don’t we? We like spectacle. Two million people at a victory parade! Preaching to hundreds, maybe even thousands. That has to be good right because big is good! Hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Wide influence.
There’s nothing wrong inherently with those things. Some are called to those things without a doubt. Some are called to city wide or state or province wide or national or even international influence. Luke reminds us in the middle of these two momentous events we as individuals are called to individuals. Peter – the Rock – is called here to a man who is helpless, bedridden for eight years, paralyzed. Peter is called to a room upstairs from which life is gone. We are called at times to comfort a child who is missing home or maybe missing their homeland which they have recently had to leave. We called at times to talk with a young person about the troubles they’re facing at home, to talk about Jesus and God’s love for them and the Holy Spirit’s presence within them as God enables us to reflect that love and reflect that presence by our presence. We’re called to go a place where there is a lot of helplessness and angst and questioning and build a place where a garden can grow or put down a new floor and show that we believe that we are called to help one another not in a transactional way or not because we want to get something out of it or out of people but because that’s how God has dealt with us and by the way young people at Horizons For Youth here are some Bibles so that you can read about God’s story.
The stories of Aeneas and Tabitha/Dorcas don’t get as much play as the conversion of Saul. We don’t know what Aeneas’ faith position was and you can speculate on that if you’re the type to speculate on such things. Here is the thing that is beyond speculation though. This man was in the grip of a situation from which he was unable to extricate himself. Peter came alongside his situation. This is what Jesus did writ large when we’re talking humanity and this is what Jesus did writ small when we consider his encounters with individuals. This is the work that Peter is continuing in his name. This is the work that Christ’s church – and by Christ’s church I mean us – is enabled by the Spirit and called by Christ to do. This restoration, this bringing to wholeness is not dependent on the faith of Aeneas but on the faith of the apostle who is taking Jesus’ words to heart – I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. Jesus makes whole. Jesus heals you. This is Peter’s message. Get up and make your bed (and this phrase “make your bed” also signifies “prepare a table”) The result is all of the residents of Lydda and Sharon (the coastal plain on which these events are happening) saw him and turned to the Lord. This was big and people were turning to God because of it. One commentator puts it like this – “Where there was helplessness, caughtness, and bondage, the word, the name, has created fresh possibility.”
Which was what was needed in nearby Joppa. Major port town at one time. The place Jonah sailed from. Jaffa today. Famous for its oranges. Beautiful town on the Mediterranean. Home of Tabitha. Dorcas in Greek. Gazelle. The same word used in the Song of Songs to describe the beloved. She was a disciple. The only use of the female form for disciple in the NT. No question at all as to her faith position. A disciple of Christ. A student of Christ. An imitator of Christ. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Devoted to good works and acts of charity. We always need to define the terms we’re using. Oftentimes a word can take on a negative connation. What do you think of when you hear the word charity? It’s often a negative thing isn’t it? Charity case. Defining people by their need. I’m not looking for any charity. Because we’re proud. Here’s the thing. The Greek word here that’s been translated charity in our Bibles means mercy.
Acts of mercy. This is what Tabitha did. She came alongside suffering. We don’t know if Tabitha was a widow herself – again it’s a matter of speculation. It’s plausible given her heart for widows. Her heart for those who have experienced the most stressful event that life has to offer. In 1967, two psychiatrists named Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe put together a list of life events that are most stressful. It’s called the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. They wanted to study causes of disease. Things on the list include incarceration, death of a family member, marriage (!), getting fired, retiring. Counting down the top three, they had 3) marital separation, 2) divorce, and 1) death of a spouse. Number one.
We talk a lot about widows and orphans in the Bible, how widows often faced lack of support. They also faced the most stressful situation that people can face. Into the middle of this strode Tabitha. Whether or not she was a widow herself, the social order was being upended. We’re not told if these widows took part in this clothing ministry themselves but there’s no reason to believe that wasn’t happening.
Led by Tabitha, who has died. Peter goes to the room where they have lain her. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics. That one thing that gets us. That object that brings out the sorrow of the scene to us – whether it’s a blanket, a set of pajamas or the clothes that the widows are showing Peter. Look at this tunic that she made for me! Look at this scarf that she made. For the widows it’s not just a matter of grieving the death of their friend, but the uncertain future that they now face.
God steps into the situation. Peter 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up.
Just the way he held out his hand to the man at the Beautiful Gate. We don’t do this on our own after all. Take my hand.
Death does not have the last word. In the Kingdom of God death does not have the last word. As someone has said “In this new community widows will not be left to perish. The name of Jesus Christ bears the same life-and-death-giving power as the creator of the whole universe. He’s the one standing at the right hand of God in the vision of Stephen. All the boundaries of life, the highest heavens, the breath of life obey his command. Yet the story says that this name belongs to widows and others who have no hope or power except this name.”
The church needn’t rue the loss of what the world considers power. Economic power. Political power. Our hope, our power is the one who showed that the world would be saved by self-giving love.
Which is something these widows knew about. The lifeblood of the church. At that same CBOQ Assembly the speaker concluded his concluding address like this. He said “Do you want to know the key to church ministry?” Praying grandmas. If you’re my age praying mothers. If you’re older than me praying sisters or you are one. The mothers and grandmothers of the family of God. I see you making blankets for babies. Not just our babies either. I see you putting together care packs at Christmas and making sure that people are getting cards to let them know you’re thinking about them. Praying for them. I know you have a group of women like that at Southeast Pastor Joe. Supporting. Encouraging. Praying. Not all unsung heroes are unsung. Let us sing their praises (which they wouldn’t even like because that’s how humble they are) and recognize what God does in and through them. We pray that God might do the same in and through all of us, following their example and their example – Christ Jesus. God grant that this might be true as we continue to follow him together.