Sermon April 17, 2016
The scripture from Acts makes me wonder who has touched your life? Whose life has made an imprint on you and changed you in some way? In the Broadway musical Wicked, Elphaba and Glinda are unlikely best friends who begin as enemies because they are as different as two people can possibly be. Somehow as their lives become intertwined (against their will), they discover compassion for each other and grow a deep friendship. There comes a time when their paths diverge and they know they may never see each other again and so they sing to one another a song of thanksgiving called “For Good”:
“It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime.
So, let me say before we part:
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine
By being my friend.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you...
I have been changed for good.”
(For Good, from the Broadway Musical Wicked)
I’ve been thinking about those who have changed my life for good. There are so many. One who continues to profoundly impact me even though she died many years ago is my grandmother. Her name was Mary Elizabeth. She loved the color purple so much that she drove a purple car. She read the newspaper from cover to cover to stay in touch with the world from several perspectives including her beloved Dallas Cowboys. She did not have children of her own. She married my grandfather when his children were mostly grown and she invested much of her childbearing years in her work. She served on a church staff and loved being a part of this institution that meant so much to her. She needed someone to mentor and she chose me. I embraced everything she offered me: honest conversation, learning to care for those in trouble, laughter and joy in the creatures that share this planet, writing thank you notes, and fierce anger at injustice. She loved me enough to tell me the truth even when it was painful for us both. She gave generously to improve the quality of life of many people who crossed her path. I am so grateful to have had her in my life.
The story of Tabitha is the ultimate story of gratitude. Tabitha is an important figure in the early church. She is a widow who is clearly very generous. She is a seamstress. She is the ONLY woman in the New Testament to be called a disciple.
The context here is important. Saul has just been converted in a powerful story and become a follower of Jesus. Aeneas is raised from the dead after being bedridden for eight years. Then Tabitha dies. Reading the story, you can hear everyone say, “No, not Tabitha! We need her!” Peter is several miles away, but the disciples send for him. He arrives several hours later and finds Tabitha prepared for burial and the room full of grieving women. The women show Peter the clothes that Tabitha has made for them. Peter sends them out of the room and raises her from the dead. We know the story of Jesus being raised, but what is this about a little known woman being raised from the dead? Tabitha is in every church I have ever known. Her name may be different, but she is someone who is quietly serving and generously giving everything she has and gently touching the lives of everyone around her. Her community is so grateful for her life and ministry that they call for Peter after her death. We don’t know if they expected him to bring her to life again, but we know they loved her deeply.
In text study, we talked about the ways people live on after they have died. Tabitha is raised from the dead. Others live on in unique ways. My grandmother surprised me by showing up in a place I would not have expected her. About a year after her death, I was at a weeklong workshop. Every day, the leader would lead a guided meditation and begin by asking us to invite Christ to join us. I had graduated from seminary a few years prior and when the leader told us to invite Christ, I would begin an internal theological debate and about what Jesus actually looked like and miss the whole meditation.
On the last day, I heard the leader invite the Christ to join us in the upper room. I knew where this was going and started to check out, but then I looked up and saw my grandmother. She was not sick and frail as she had been in her last days. She was dancing and laughing and waving a purple scarf. She was celebrating my upcoming ordination. As she prepared to leave, she lovingly placed the scarf over my shoulders. She was passing the mantle on to me. Her life and ministry lives on in me.
The story of Tabitha is a powerful story of the impact of one life on a community. Then it becomes a powerful story of the impact of a community on one person. Acts shows us the power of the early church. Followers of Jesus had seen what he could do and they found themselves doing miracles too. The word spread and others joined this movement. They wanted to be part of the transformation that was taking place before their very eyes. I think we forget that we are capable of miracles. God can do powerful things through us if we are open. We have amazing power to bring healing and hope to the world around us. Do we have any idea what God can do through us?
Oprah talks about living your best life. Maybe she is onto something. Mary Oliver asks what we will do with our one “wild and precious life.” Tabitha reminds us that what we do and how we treat people matters. This afternoon I am doing a memorial service for a community member named David Fike. This is what his family said about him: “He is remembered and will continue to be known for his loving nature, gentle manner, his observant care, and adventurous spirit. Ultimately, his full life is remembered for the glory and solid foundation he provided for so many.”
Death is not the last word. There are powerful ways to live on following death. It begins with our lives here and now. How will we be remembered? What will the impact of our lives be? We can live in a way that makes the risen Christ visible to others. Miracles happen when we allow God to work through us. That is why we exist…to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We are here to reflect God’s love to each person. We are the body of Christ. God can do wondrous works through us.
Terry Tempest Williams ends her book An Unspoken Hunger with the words “Anticipate Resurrection”. In this Easter season, we are reminded that God will not be limited by our ideas about life and death. God is doing great things in the world and calls us to be an Easter People who make room for the resurrection in our midst every day.