Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Fourth Sunday of Easter.
The harbor town of Joppa, which means “beauty” in Hebrew, was aptly named for it offered a breathtaking view of the deep blue coastal waters of the Mediterranean Sea during the day and the most glorious orange and pink hued sunsets at dusk. Joppa (or Jaffa, the southern part of Tel Aviv, as it is known today) was a prime port of the nation of Judea and afforded easy access to Jerusalem, 35 miles southeast.
The materials for the building of the first and second temples of Israel were brought through Joppa, and the town provided passageway for pilgrims coming to and from Jerusalem and a place for people to seek refuge. Folks in Joppa, those many centuries ago, relished telling a comical story about this scaredy-cat named Jonah who decided he would run away from God by stowing away on a boat leaving from Joppa, only to be thrown overboard by the crew and swallowed up by a whale!
Joppa was always bustling with activity: dockworkers loading and unloading cargo; merchants selling the finest goods; rabbis teaching the Torah to their students on the sandy shoreline; children running around playing in the streets; farmers laboring on a patch of land next to their home while their wives milked the goats and baked bread.
It’s here in Joppa that a disciple of Jesus, a woman named Tabitha, lived. Tabitha dedicated her life to serving others in her community. She would bring something cool to drink to the dockworkers as the late morning sun began taking its toll on their necks and backs. She would help some of the boys memorize their verses from the Torah in the evenings. She bandaged the skinned knees of the kids who took a tumble during their play. She kept other women company while they did chores around the house and would share her food with the families of farmers who were having difficulty growing crops. On occasions, she would tend to those who got sick and nurse them back to health.
Tabitha’s greatest passion, and what she was known widely for in Joppa, was her work as a seamstress. Whenever new shipments of textiles arrived, Tabitha would be the first in line to purchase the materials. Her skills were unmatched and the clothes she made were exquisite. She poured herself into every stitch so that poor widows and others in need would have something to wear.
But then late one afternoon, Tabitha unexpectedly became ill and after a few days, she died. The widows, whom Tabitha had helped, took great care to wash her body, clean her hair and put on fresh clothes before laying her down in her bedroom. Afterwards, they send for the apostle Peter who is staying in the nearby town of Lydda. The widows knew Peter was one of the original 12 disciples who ministered alongside Jesus and they wanted his pastoral presence as they grieved the loss of Tabitha—a faithful disciple who impacted so many with her kindness and compassion.
When Peter arrived a few hours later, the widows began weeping as they told him about Tabitha’s death and how much she meant to them. They gestured at their clothes, tearfully explaining that if it weren’t for Tabitha and her love, they would have nothing. And after Peter ushers them out of the room, the women remained in the hallway crying and telling stories about their friend Tabitha. 
This story is a familiar one isn’t it?
Everyone here knows or has known a Tabitha—a person who was a source of kindness, compassion, strength, courage and love that gave whatever they could of their time and gifts to the church and the community.
Many of us are grateful for the Tabitha who took us under their wing and showed us how to do things with grace and humility; who gave an encouraging word and celebrated our accomplishments; who modeled selflessness by serving those on the margins of society; who consoled us when we were sad; who picked up off the ground, and dusted us off when we were hurt or wallowing in our failures.
We’ve all been blessed by the life and legacy of a Tabitha who devoted themselves to loving others, particularly the poor, the lonely and the outcast. And we have also grieved their death and wondered who will continue their ministry.
We’ve grieved even as recently as last week when the world learned the news that two Tabitha-like figures—devoted saints to Christ’s work in the world, both writers and activists and powerful voices in the Church Universal—had died: Rachel Held Evans on Saturday, May 4 and Jean Vanier on Tuesday, May 7.
Jean Vanier, who succumbed to thyroid cancer at the age of 90, was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded L’Arche (The Ark) in 1964—an international federation of communities across 37 countries for people with intellectual disabilities and caregivers. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also assists the disabled, their families and friends in more than 80 countries.
An author of 30 books on religion, disability, normality, success, and tolerance, Vanier lived as a member of the original L’Arche community in France, until his death.
Vanier was living in France in the early 60s when he made his first visit to an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Moved by their pleas for help and newly aware of the plights of thousands of people institutionalized with down syndrome and other conditions, Vanier invited two of the male residents to live with him, and soon L’Arche was formed. The guiding philosophy of L’Arche is Vanier’s belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon their families.
Vanier often emphasized the value that weakness, brokenness and vulnerability has in creating authentic communities. In his book Becoming Human, he wrote:
Weakness can open up our hearts to compassion: the place where we are concerned for the growth and well-being of the weak. …If we deny our weakness and the reality of death, if we want to be powerful and strong always, we deny a part of our being, we live an illusion.To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other. Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging.
Similarly, Rachel Held Evans, who died at the age of 37 after a sudden illness was also a champion for belonging and inclusion in the Church; an advocate for those who were rejected by Christian communities. The author of four books, a regular blogger and Twitter user, mother of two small children, and a wife, Rachel believed Jesus made room for everyone at the table. She once tweeted: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church today will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the Spirit works. The future’s in the margins.” As two of her best friends wrote in an essay for The Washington Post:
Rachel was “for” an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside. She recognized the real geometry of God. She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another and to the church. And in a world that covets power, cash and influence, she lavishly gave away all three. She centered the marginalized, quietly offering expertise, introductions, endorsements, speaking invitations, money and more.
Her far-reaching influence was evident in the wake of her death as more than 100 articles have been written about her in the last eight days. More notable, however, has been the outpouring of grief on social media via the hashtag #becauseofRHE where numerous people have shared gratitude to Rachel using the refrain of:
“Because of RHE, I am a female pastor in a church,”
“Because of RHE, I found a church that openly accepted me for being gay,”
“Because of RHE, privilege was set aside and space was created so my voice as a person of color could be heard,”
A familiar theme in many tributes was that Rachel privately encouraged writers and journalists in their work, notably when they were being attacked by judgmental and hateful readers. Rachel believed fervently that Christians were called to be in relationship with those who had been hurt and that the Church should be a place for healing and comfort. In Searching For Sunday, Rachel wrote:
There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to show the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome. …The thing about healing as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route. … The truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.
The first take-away of this ancient story from Acts is that Tabitha’s return to life is less about what Peter does and more about what God has done and is doing. Peter’s actions, while remarkable, are merely a quick fix, considering that Tabitha ultimately died again. The significance of her resurrection is that it symbolizes God’s power that conquers death and frees us from its fearful grip. It’s a sign, says one scholar, that, “The God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world, bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those in despair and life where death seems to reign.”
The second lesson is that the church, the community of faith, is to be involved in the “slow and difficult work of healing” that is “messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching and never-ending.” The widows put all of their energy into preparing their beloved friend’s body for burial—conceivably crying, wailing and cursing the heavens throughout the process. And they don’t wipe away their tears and hold in their emotions when Peter visits. They loudly weep and share stories and show off the garments made by Tabitha’s hands.
It’s in the vulnerability of community that we encounter the presence of God’s grace. We grieve the losses of people who have impacted our life and we bear witness to their legacy so that hope and reconciliation may be known in the midst of pain.
The person dies. The work lives on.We help keep it alive by sharing it with the world. And the work continues to impact people’s lives for the better, even after we are long gone from this earth.
We manifest resurrection and affirm the truth that while death comes for each and every one of us, God in Christ claims us in life eternal. One day, after much time has passed, we find creativity and renewal; we find comfort and healing again—for ourselves and one another.
We eventually wake up from the grief, we rise from the mess, we dust ourselves off and we carry on.
An attempt at doing some midrash: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/midrash-101/
These are summarized from the scores of tweets paying tribute to Rachel Held Evans because she made the Church a safe and inclusive place for so many who had been hurt by churches, pastors and congregations.
Feasting On The Word, Year C, Volume 2. Rev. Joseph Harvard.
Many thanks to author Diana Butler Bass who wrote those words in a Tweet on Saturday evening, indirectly helping me convey the concept I had written about earlier in the day sound less convoluting and more to the point.