April 21, 2013 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 21, 2013
John 10:22-30; Acts 9:36-43
It has been quite a week. Particularly unnerving, in a way so unique to terrorism, are the marathon bombings in Boston. And then there is the massive explosion in West, Texas. Those are added to the “regular” acts of nature or humanity that are the background to every week – deadly earthquakes in Iran and China, tornadoes and severe weather in the center of the U.S., bombings of innocent civilians in public places in far-off countries – bombings that are always lamentable, but that, for a matter of days, become more noticeable to us, because they just happened to us, too.
The printing schedule for our worship bulletins means that I must come up with a sermon title a full week in advance of every service (I do not write my sermons a week before each service – perish the thought!). Last week, in complete ignorance of upcoming events, I titled this message, “Life-Giving Acts,” and in retrospect, that was a kind of providence. After the week that we have had, “life-giving acts” isn’t just good or timely or relevant, it is truly our gospel response to terror, to calamity, to nature’s destruction, to love, to holiness, to challenge, to grace, to everything – life-giving acts.
We all choose, always, how to respond to destruction of any kind. We can pour our energies into naming what made others violent and distancing ourselves from it. We can consume ourselves with negativity for those we blame. We can make our lives smaller, more “secure,” by limiting our experiences and relationships. We can close our minds, hearts, spirits, lives. We can assure ourselves that we are entitled to prejudicial opinions. Or we can make our response to fear, anger, destitution, injustice, terror, loss, hard times, anything, be life-giving acts. We can be a Tabitha.
Our passage from the Book of Acts tells us that she was a widow. Her life clearly had not been easy – not just in the heartbreaking loss of her husband, but in the vulnerability that brought to her. The biblical concept of aid to “widows and orphans” is a repeated reminder to always share what you have with the most vulnerable people in your society – to the ancient Israelites (and to us), those with absolutely no safety net. And yet, look at what we learn about Tabitha. She was a follower of “the Way,” as the risen Christ’s first disciples called themselves. Even as a widow, she devoted herself to lifting up others who had even less. Our text says that the other widows, who wept and who so carefully tended to her body after her death, showed Peter the many tunics she had made for others. The tense of the original Greek text makes it clear that these widows themselves were wearing and showing clothing that Tabitha had made for them. As challenging as were her own circumstances, she devoted herself to life-giving acts for others. For her, life had gotten very hard, but apparently it only increased her compassion for those for whom life was hard. She didn’t get mad, she didn’t let her heart harden, she didn’t retreat, she didn’t get even – she let her own suffering grow her heart. Apparently she was a decent seamstress – that was one capability she had – so she did it. She stitched clothes for people who didn’t have any. She didn’t change the world; she didn’t revolutionize society. But she did – she changed some people’s world – those women couldn’t stop telling Peter about it. He had to send them out of the room while he raised her from the dead. And she did revolutionize society – she testified in her own small way to a different way to relate to people – a Christ-centered way to honor the dignity of everyone. She used a skill she had to lift up, to honor, to dignify, to meet a basic need. In any society in any time, that is revolutionary.
Thank God for the Tabithas of the world! We’ve all known some, haven’t we? They run many of our churches – women of deep faith with no desire for congratulations or even notice, who teach, cook, clean, empower, lead, knock themselves out so that life in abundance may come to their beloved community. There are many male Tabithas out there too, of course. In our passage from Acts, the female form of the Greek word for “disciple” is used for Tabitha – the only time in the New Testament. Apparently women’s leadership in the Church is biblical!
The most moving things to me in this past week of challenges have been those life-giving acts performed by so many. I can only speak for Christianity, but I imagine that every religious and secular tradition would lift them up as exemplary, the way forward. So many people rushed to the injured in the marathon bombings that others who wanted to be helpful couldn’t get close. We’ll never know how many lives were saved by the quick action of people doing whatever was in their capacity to do to help the injured, the stunned, the panicking. Life-giving acts! In West, Texas, the first responders outdid themselves in their commitment to the welfare of others, and we are learning that some of them paid for that with their lives, especially the volunteer fire fighters who went to the scene of the burning fertilizer factory. How many instances are we learning about of people who have been tirelessly digging through rubble, running people in wheelchairs to ambulances, and caring for neighbors whose houses have suffered varying degrees of damage? Life-giving acts!
In crisis, life-giving acts are relatively easy to point out. How about day-to-day life, the life we live, the life Tabitha lived? What is in our capacity to do, and who needs it? When I chose the title for this sermon, I thought I was going to be preaching on Peter, noting that he had the capacity to do life-giving acts by channeling the power of God and Christ to raise Tabitha from the dead. I was going to ask us all to consider what life-giving acts are in our power to do. It was the events of this last week that taught me that the bigger example for us today of life-giving acts is Tabitha – she is who we are, working no miracles except day-to-day love for her community; what a beautiful miracle that is in itself.
So, what are love-miracles you – we – can perform wherever we are? What can you do or give that someone needs? As we see from Tabitha, it need not be grandiose. Let us each pray about this in the days to come. Let us reflect on our opportunities in the holy smallness of our daily lives, but also on the larger scale – on the life-giving acts we can do in response to terror, or accident, or nature’s destruction. On this larger scale, I am hoping very much that our country will respond to the terrorism in Boston with life-giving acts – with compassion and understanding for Chechens in their decades of wars at home, for the Muslim community, for the immigrant community. Whatever the motivation of the marathon bombing suspects, the time is now for answering terror with life-giving acts. The time is always now. Tabithas of the world, mobilize! Like her, you may grieve and have much to worry about, yet expend yourselves in service to those who suffer around you. People get blown up around the world every day. What shall we do in response? How shall we live? To what will our deeds testify?
Let us hope, pray, and work that they might testify to the redeeming power and love of God and Christ in all things. Our story from the Book of Acts is meant to show the reader that, although Christ’s resurrection has been accomplished, God is still at work. Peter now raises the dead to new life, thanks to the vibrant, current intervention of God and Christ. Fear not, dear church in every age, says our text – God is still active! Our own actions, large and small, testify to this truth as well. We participate in miracles, in compassion, in the healing of the world, when we perform life-giving acts. In the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, we read that the followers of Christ are out to “turn the world upside down.” Yes, we are! We answer terror with compassion, death with life, violence with love, falsehood with truth, injustice with justice, cruelty with mercy. Life-giving acts!
Jesus Christ was raised from the dead because he was in God’s hands, not in the hands of Rome, not even in the hands of death. God’s hands. In our past resurrection universe, so are we. The powers of the world, even death itself, do not ultimately have us in their clutches. We abide in the palm of God’s loving hand. From that place, we may be confident in living with – and responding to – terror, calamity, devastation, heartbreak – with life-giving acts. Through our deeds and words, we testify to the opposite – to love, compassion, mercy, faith, and dignity. This week and those to come are our unfortunate, unasked for particular opportunity to live as Tabithas in the world. Let us rise in faith to do so. Amen.
Feasting on the Word , Year C, Vol. 2 ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor,
(Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2009), pp. 426-431, 444-449.