Engaging the Raising of Tabitha at Joppa

Oak Bay United Church

April 17, 2016

Acts 9:36–43New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 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. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.  

So Pope Francis is at it again. After visiting the Moria detention centre in Greece, where almost 3,000 people fleeing Syria and Iraq are being held in appalling conditions, he takes 12 people, three families, home from the camp to the Vatican.
I wonder what his media people really think. Are they “Yes! This is what the church should be about!” or do they mutter, “You take us so close to the line. We’re going to be on the phone for days dealing with this “non-political” act.”

When Gaye read me the news ticker from CBC she said, “I wonder how he keeps his head and his heart on straight. He works in the Vatican, one of the most bureaucratized places on earth! If ever there was a place organized against change …”

How to keep the head and the heart centered on the right things and yet not shut down the world around - almost the Christian question isn’t it? How do we keep the main thing the main thing and yet remain open to what may be happening, God may be doing, around us, in us and through us?

I suspect the Pope has things to do, wouldn’t you? I doubt if he spends the day watching soccer on the tele or playing on his i-Pad. Those of you who have worked in bureaucracies know the craziness that life can be. Those of you who have families know the craziness that life can be.Those of you who are retired know the craziness that life can be.

One of the books I’m currently reading is The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller, Jay Papasan. Keller advocates what he calls the Focusing question: what is the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary? You can apply it in every area of your life but even broken down like that it is not a easy question to answer because it drives at the same thing - keep the core strong and healthy while remaining engaged with life.

The story about Tabitha in the book of Acts rings similar bells: attention to the core while attending to movement of God in surprising places. If you are a visual person, imagine this story being told to a circle of people. They/we are being urged to attend to the centre of their life and then turn so the circle faces outward. Perhaps that is indeed the rhythm of a deep and abundant life.

In … and .. out: the rhythm of a deep and abundant life.

That’s the headline; now the details of the story.

The story begins by drawing the attention outwards with these three words. “Now in Joppa…”

During our latest trip to the Holy Land I became aware how deeply, over the years, I have fallen into the habit of abstraction when I read the Bible. I have grown accustomed to skipping the place names, primarily because I did not know where they were or appreciate the meaning attached to them.

As a result I have often shrunk the story.

II. So when I heard the story told this morning I was on alert.

“Now in Joppa …”

When you get off the plane in Tel Aviv you get on the bus and it winds its way through the outskirts, turning up a hill once overflowing with the musical sound of Arabic as people spilled out from the high end Arab apartments and businesses that once lined the street.

The bus stops and you get out and look out over one of the oldest functioning harbours in the world. (Joppa, sometimes known as Jaffa, first appears in a list of captured cities in the 15th century BC. 500 years before Solomon!)

In Biblical times it was the port to which Jonah fled on his way to Tarshish. Here they unloaded the giant cedars from Phoenicia which were then transported to Jerusalem for Solomon’s Temple.

In our time, the journey from Joppa to Jerusalem is perhaps 45 minutes, maybe 30, depending upon traffic. But in the time of the story of Peter and Tabitha it was on the edge of life for the early Christians. It was Not Jerusalem, it was not Bethlehem, it was NOT the Galilee where Jesus was known to roam, both before and after the Easter resurrection.

Joppa is a place on the edge in the story of the early disciples.

Yet there was a fledgling Christian community in Joppa;they were in crisis.

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…”

Tabitha, a leader “devoted to good works and acts of charity” died.

Now this was major not just because a good woman died but, inferring from the cluster of widows around her, it is probable that she supported many of those widows through her art and business. Her loss would have profound impact upon the young community.

Peter was summoned.

Then something unusual happens.

 when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 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.”  

Remind you of anyone? The scene would have felt awfully familiar to the disciples - loaves and fishes, woman healed after catching at his clothing, lepers.

Familiar yes but all those things happened “back there!,” towards what was being defined as the new centre. But here?

The focus of this part of the story is not upon the how of the rising but upon the echo of the Jesus experience. And the deeper question it raises: Could that same life-giving and catastrophe redeeming power we experienced back there be present “here?” Even here?

The story raises some questions for me: Do I/do we have places that we think lie beyond the life-giving, transforming power of God?

When I was travelling the country talking with church leaders I used to challenge them: “You talk about God saving the world; do you think that the church is somehow different, beyond redemption. God can save the world but not the church.” In part my challenge echoed my own question.

Perhaps you have your own areas that you think are No Go zones for God? Perhaps you have places where you shrink the story into which we are called to live?

The original audience for this story though was not individuals but loose gathering of folks trying to be Jesus followers. Our challenges resembled theirs - were there places that the life giving, life restoring, life transforming power seen in Jesus could reasonably be expected not to appear?

When you get off the bus now in Joppa you are outside St. Peter’s Church. The church was named after Peter, not only because of Tabitha or Simon but because of a vision (recorded in the next story after this in Acts) he received of a large sheet filled with animals being lowered from heaven, signaling to him that the early Jesus followers should venture into “unclean,” Gentile territory.

God is on the loose in unlikely places, so …

This is not a new word to us here at Oak Bay United.

We have many Tabithas within the congregation. The Thrift Store and our recent agreement with Threshold I think signals our willingness to let God out of the container.

Our huge investment in partnering with helping refugees find new life speaks to the fact that, many days, we get that God is present outside this box and calls us to partnership in work for God’s world. As a congregation, we might wonder if that is the limit of our creativity, engagement and partnership but, in theory, we’ve heard this before.

But wait What about that “centre” thing? What about that part about a woman being raised from the dead, about new life coming in the midst of grief.

In our family we have some experience with new life arising out of … situations that do not seem hopeful.

Perhaps the latest involves our son. I have mentioned before to you that for twenty some years drugs of various sorts have been sucking his life and destroying his relationships. Recently though there has been a rising from that condition.

As part of his recovery our son decided to head back to the Kawacatoose reserve of his mother in Saskatchewan. He had a sense that he needed to discover blood relatives, to hear any stories that might help him make some sense of who he was, that would root him. Not that he doesn’t love us but other things are at play.

He has a number of stories from his time there but the bottom line was: “I felt like I fit there.” The focus of his life will be on the coast though he plans to return regularly.

It is not just the place. He has entered into the centre of the Native American Church’s ceremonial life (which is a combination of traditional Cree practice and Christianity.) Something in the stories, the ceremonies, the tipi and the sweat connect with him, heal him and help arrange the pieces of his life in a more life-giving way.

In our conversations I have been somewhat humbled by the rigour imposed upon his return to the core and his participation in the Ceremonial community.

They - and he - have a deep sense that issues of life and death are involved, that not only he but the community as a whole need serious attention to the teachings and the healing if they are going to be able to engage the outside world in a way that does not consume or destroy them.

His testimony has forced me to think again about my own attention to the core. So I find myself asking a paraphrase of the earlier question: what is the ONE Thing I can do this week that would deepen my relationship with God, my relationship with Gaye, would strengthen my family, such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?

I think a part of me expected by the time I reached this age I would no longer have to engage such queries; yet I find that the question is as alive during this transition as it was during my twenties. The focus and answers are different but the movement, the “in and out” of that rhythm remains.

I think, deep down, below the discussions about use of space, and money the question of our core and the depth with which we engage it is a question we wrestle with as a congregation.

The experience with my son makes me wonder whether we have a clear enough path of development for people who wonder What does it mean to be Christian in today’s world? This is not a criticism of the Board or paid staff. We live in a complex world. We need to be equipped. Are we intentional enough about instruction, about providing enough varied opportunities for conversations with the issues with which we struggle. I don’t know. Maybe we are; I naturally tend to drift to the edge but in our time it will be a matter of life and death.

People ask what I’m going to do when I retire. And even if I try and reframe the question to “I’m not retiring I’m in transition” it comes back the same. I can cite the activities - read, write, speak, coach. But all those are really excuses to drill deeper into the things that matter - my faith, my relationship with Gaye and the people I love, my awareness of this world so that I might engage it more effectively with greater joy.

I don’t know where you are but, as a Christian, I recognize the rhythm, the movement.

I worry about getting too busy. But I’m probably not as busy as the Pope.