May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Acts 9:36-43

The quilters gather every Thursday morning downstairs in Room 100.  If I stop in during their coffee break, I get to listen in on their conversation.  They’re never shy about giving their opinions about what we’re doing at church.  If I stop in while they’re working, they show me what they’re doing.  “Look at this fabric. Isn’t it cute?”  “She did all this stiching by hand.”  “This one will go to Lutheran World Relief.”  They send about 100 quilts a year to people around the world. I’ve always wanted one of the quilting ladies to be named Dorcas or Tabitha because they remind me of the scene that we hear this morning from the book of Acts, women gathered together with needle and thread, making the world a warmer place.

Tabitha, or Dorcas, as she was known in Greek, both mean “gazelle.” The only time the feminine form for the word disciple is used in the entire New Testament is used for Dorcas. She must have been a powerful and important leader in the early church.  Her authority came from her good works and her love of the poor.  She had died and her body had been prepared for burial.

When Peter arrives, there is a group of widows in the upper room who begin to show him the clothes that Dorcas had created for them.  You can almost hear them saying through their tears, “She made this for me one winter when I couldn’t sleep because I was so cold.”

“She made this for me so that I would always have a covering, even if I had to sleep in the street.”

The clothing of widows was more than just crafting beautiful things to fill up some extra time and practice a hobby.  This work was saving lives.  Widows, who probably had no sons, found themselves with no home, no community of care, and no secure future.  In their first-century patriarchal culture, the death of their husbands stripped them of their place in the society.

The tunics that Dorcas made became a mat for sleeping and a cover for shelter from the elements. These clothes gave life.  With needle and thread and the love of a grandmother, Dorcas brought these women from death into new life, providing them with a place for human community, a sign that in God’s economy all must be clothed and cared for in such a way that future life can be secure.

If Dorcas was, indeed, a widow herself, then the story is even more profound. Rather than be pushed to the margin, her love moved others to the center.  She practiced resurrection.  Her life clothed others with life.  She’s clearly filled with the Spirit of Jesus.  All along, she had been saying, “Rise child, get up,” offering her hand, her love and her needle as an act of justice and mercy.

Her own raising through Peter’s gentle words, “Rise, Tabitha,” is a wonderful metaphor for what Dorcas had been doing in her own life.

This vision of community in the book of Acts runs counter to the Roman Empire, which used intimidation and acts of violence to maintain control.  It divided communities and pitted the poor against each other in the arena, while the rich watched as their entertainment.  It sent armies to its borders and silenced or demeaned those who exposed its carefully constructed images of itself.  It organized itself around the power of men to dominate the world around them.

But right next to the empire’s furthest border, is Tabitha and Peter and a community being raised up to new kind of life, one marked by the life of Jesus:  welcome, love, justice, peace, community, equality. No matter what’s going on in the world, no matter where there is death and domination, God is raising up new life.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community died this week. Shocked by the despair and loneliness he found at a psychiatric hospital outside Paris, Vanier did not merely adopt the cause of the intellectually disabled; he decided to buy a dilapidated house and live with two people with severe intellectual disabilities. “Essentially, they wanted a friend,” Vanier said. “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”The Washington Post said that “the sum of the world’s welcoming kindness diminished appreciably.”

I might have said it differently.  The sum of the world’s welcoming kindness was raised up exponentially by taking the hand of those two housemates. Ten thousand people now live in homes with people with severe disabilities. The newspaper goes on to say, “L’Arche is not a traditional social program. Its commitment to the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities is lavish, extravagant. It rejects a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. And it certainly rejects a social Darwinism that views the vulnerable as worthless. By serving a group of human beings that others ignore or discount, Vanier made the case that no human being should be ignored or discounted.”[1]

In a world of death, the faithful see signs of resurrection.  The living Jesus is reaching for those with privilege to give away and to those dis-abled by the world around them, toward an army of menders and seamstresses; a community that is raised from the dead by its own God-given power to clothe and to practice resurrection.

We’re changing the hymn of the day for today.  We should probably sing our own Tim Strand’s hymn, “Rise up, O church.”  But we’ve scheduled to sing it next week.

For today’s hymn of the day, we’ll sing, “Lord Jesus, You Shall be My Song for the Journey.”  808. It was written for the L’Arche community and captures Vanier’s vision of a community that simply loves one another as friends and servants, hearing in the midst of struggle and fear the sounds of Jesus’ steps at our side.

Hymn 808

As we stand to sing, hear the words of Jesus, “Child, get up.”  For you have been raised into the family of Tabitha, into a community quilters, alongside Jean Vanier—and everyone whom Christ loves.

[1]https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jean-vanier-created-a-wildly-inefficient-model-of-compassion-we-can-learn-a-lot-from-it/2019/05/09/6c91cc92-7295-11e9-9f06-5fc2ee80027a_story.html?utm_term=.aaa2c29722c3