Monday, November 19, 2018

What can we say May 12? Easter 4

  This week’s Gospel is (to me) the least fascinating of our texts. It’s Easter 4, but also Mother’s Day – so we can look closely at the life of a woman (Acts 9), or at what may have been your mother’s favorite text (Psalm 23), which may have been read at her funeral, maybe along with the Epistle, Revelation 7:9-17.

    First up: Acts 9:36-43 (which I preached on last go round) takes us to Joppa – the port where Jonah attempted to flee the Lord’s call, and the town where Peter had his vision (at Simon the Tanner’s home) of all the food on the sheet.

   Center stage for today is Dorcas, the Greek name for Tabitha (meaning “gazelle”). “She was always doing good and helping the poor.” Always! John Wesley wryly told us that the doctrine of the devil is to do good when you feel like it – a surefire formula for spiritual hollowness, and a vapid church.

   Suddenly this saintly, valuable woman died – so they summoned Peter, a known miracle worker, from Lydda, just 10 miles away. Notice this lovely detail: when he arrived, “they showed him the clothing she had made for them.” Artifacts of holiness. At her funeral, the poor came. A preaching question: will the poor or disenfranchised attend your funeral? Only if you’ve delivered aid instead of sending it (per Wesley again!).

    For my people to get the feel of things, I may speak of some knitters and carpenters and other craftspeople I’ve known who’d made amazing things, many of them for the poor. How do we use our creativity, our calling, our “therapy” for the good of the world? Doesn’t God’s love happen and become tangible when a team sews a prayer blanket or a men’s group hammers an accessibility ramp for a neighbor? Rosa Parks, like Dorcas, was a seamstress. Mary sewed Jesus’ clothing.

    Is there a male equivalent of seamstress? Seamster? How about Silas Marner, the miserly weaver, who discovered a little girl, Eppie, and as he cared for her, he was the blessed one, discovering sunshine, joy and life.

    Peter speaks to the dead, the lack of a pulse being no barrier to the hope of the gospel. “Tabitha, get up!” made me scramble to the Greek… and leaving me speculating if in Aramaic Peter would have said “Tabitha, kum,” a rhyming echo of what Jesus said to Jairus’s daughter, “Talitha kum” (Mark 5:41). What resonance!

    How to handle such a moment? I’ve never raised or really tried to raise the dead – although Jesus did commission the disciples to be Jesus in the world, to do works even greater than his (John 14:12). Yes, it’s a sign of the resurrection to come. I wonder if in preaching I can name my own sadness, frustration, sense of ineptitude and failure in that I have prayed but been so very impotent in the face of suffering and death. The people know.

    Last year I was in Kenya visiting the fabulous, effective, empowering ZOE ministry there. In a little rural community, the chaplain of a group of working orphans, Lena (only 19 years old), preached in Swahili about Dorcas. I couldn’t translate one word – but have rarely been so moved by a sermon. She began jauntily, stroking woven fabrics she’s hung along the wall. Then she fell down as if dead – and then she knelt and wept, audibly. I followed along as I supposed Peter to have arrived. He knelt, and she rose up from the floor – and there were shouts and laughter from the Kenyans listening, huge, tears of joy. If you’re an impoverished orphan in Kenya, news and the hope of a resurrected life, the possibility of a miracle, are so longed for, and even expected, that it’s real enough to elicit intense emotion. Americans slump in in their pews and yawn.  I want to explore this in my sermon, without scolding anybody. {By the way, this past Sunday I co-preached with Reegan Kaberia, regional director of ZOE - a fun experiment in how to proclaim and lift up great mission stuff!}

    Psalm 23 is so very preachable – partly because it’s so familiar, and yet it withholds it greatest surprises and secrets until we probe deeply. We think of Jesus the good shepherd as sweet and placid. But the first shepherd I saw the first time I went to Israel was wearing an Elvis t-shirt and golashes, wielding a switch, swatting the recalcitrant sheep and hollering expletives at them. The Lord is my shepherd.

    One of my choir members is very devoted to the word “through” in verse 4. We don’t walk down into the valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it. I’ll amen that. What’s more fascinating to me is that some clever person counted the Hebrew words in the Psalm, and discovered that the very middle word is ‘immi, really just “with.” Sam Wells, in his brilliant and hugely important A Nazareth Manifesto, has said “With is the most important theological word in the Bible.” Jesus’ nickname? “Emmanuel.” His parting words? “I am with you always.” God is with us. God doesn’t shelter us from things or fix every broken thing. God is with us. And therefore ministry isn’t fixing others. It’s being with them.

   What is this table “in the presence of my enemies”? Is it a taunt (which I explore in my sermon from last time around)? Or is it implied the enemy will be invited and welcomed – and therefore no longer an enemy but a friend? Think Luke 14, or Martin Luther King’s admonition that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

     Another time, I preached on Psalm 23, pairing it with John 10 – and explored the kooky but promising idea that the speaker of “the Lord is my shepherd” might not be the sheep, but the sheepdog. I love what Evelyn Underhill wrote about the sheepdog; such a lovely image of life and service with God: "You want to be one among the sheepdogs employed by the Good Shepherd.  Now have you ever watched a good sheepdog at his work?  He is not at all an emotional animal.  He just goes on with his job quite steadily, takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground, or his own comfort.  He seldom or never comes back to be stroked.  Yet his faithfulness, his intimate understanding with his master, is one of the loveliest things in the world.  Now and then he just looks at the shepherd.  When the time comes for rest they can generally be found together."

     We are having Holy Communion at our place on Mother’s Day, fitting for Psalm 23, and fitting as many will recall being at their mother’s table – and so we remember Jesus’ table and hers, and anticipate the feast of heaven to come. There will be no hunger in that day (our Epistle, Revelation 7:16) – not because the hankering of hunger will be removed, but because there will be plenty, always, and good company for all.

   {Just put out a blog on how Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer, is making me rethink preaching}

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