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Sunday, July 1, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you. . . .
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. . . .
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul
the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
St. Teresa of Avila
As we continue this series on the book of Acts—which we are calling “A Spirit Revolution”—we arrive at two stories in the ninth chapter that receive scant attention in the lectionary preaching cycle: a story of healing and a story of new life. There may be many reasons why these stories and the entire book of Acts tend to be second string in the preaching cycle, but one of the reasons may be what we encounter in our reading for today—the stories are simply unbelievable. Healing and raising someone from the dead seems to be the purview of Jesus. We might be able to believe this because Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is one with God, and Jesus advanced a gospel of impossible possibilities. But now, in the book of Acts, Jesus is gone and hearing the story of a fisherman-turned-disciple who has the power to heal and to even overcome death by the power of the resurrected Christ may be too much for our twenty-first-century assumptions. Of course, the twenty-first-century Christian understands that miracles can happen—there are times when the mystery of the body and the course of healing baffle even the most astute medical personnel—but a disciple of Jesus healing Aeneas in the name of Jesus? That may be hard to believe. Even more challenging is the report that Aeneas took up his mat and walked out of his home in front of all the residents in Lydda and Sharon. His healing was a pivotal point for the entire community. Is it a hard story to believe? Perhaps. But it may just be the unbelievability of the story that takes us into the territory of faith.
If we think that Peter healing a paralytic is tough to believe, the second story is an even harder pill to swallow—one that may have worked for those in the first century but is quite out of keeping with our post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview. Did Peter really raise someone from the dead and, even more, did Luke (the writer of Acts) name this woman as a disciple? A woman disciple? Tabitha—whose Greek name is Dorcas—is the only woman in the Bible who is named as a disciple. (As a matter of fact, if you take a look in your Greek New Testament you will see that the word for “disciple” is in the feminine form.) Luke ascribes a resume to Dorcas: she is the embodiment of good works and acts of charity. This is enough, my friends, to bring her to the fore as a disciple. Her focus is on the widow community, who were absolutely at the margins of social power and authority. She heads up the welfare program for these women, they rely on her work, and when she dies her work dies with her.
There is a huge crisis in the community—the most vulnerable have no one. They send for Peter with a vague message: “Please come to us without delay.” When he arrives in the upper room he sees the women weeping, showing him the tunics and other garments Dorcas made for them. She has given them the cloak of salvation, a garment of protection from all that harms and hurts. He sends everyone out. He then turns to the body and simply says, “Tabitha, rise.” In the new community of faith, in the revolutionary spirit community, no one or nothing stays in the prescribed place!
Peter's words to her are “Rise up!” And the words echo down through history. You who have experienced apartheid: “Rise up!” You who are paralyzed by sexism or homophobia: “Rise up!” Whole communities that are sent away because of their citizen status: “Rise up!” You who are weary and heavy laden: “Rise up!”
And what happened next? Death does not have the final say. Tabitha's eyes open and she sits up. There is a power on the loose that breaks even the bondage of death. Peter’s bold word, through the power of Christ, restores the widows and this marginalized community that lives at the beck and call of powers beyond their control is pushed into the flow of history. Jesus’ name transforms the very structures of death and life. Yet it is clear that stories like this one—that receive scant attention—are the exact place where the eyes of faith rest. And these stories of untold lives, these little stories about people whose names we can barely pronounce are stories about social systems of paralysis and death rendered null and void. These stories are centered on the words: “Arise!” “Rise up!” And nothing— I mean nothing—is ever the same again.
In our time, there are many stories that are untold or brushed aside. In the spirit of Aeneas and Dorcas—our forbearers in faith—I’d like to highlight four.
Eleanor Roosevelt. Could there be a more influential person who carries into modern times the “Dorcas gene” of random acts of kindness and fervent acts of justice? Her husband was known for his political brilliance and forleading our nation through some of its most challenging times: the Great Depression and World War II. Franklin Roosevelt was a controversial figure, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s activities on behalf of women, poor people, and those at the margins gave her a place in our nation’s history. During her twelve years as first lady, the unprecedented breadth of Eleanor’s activities and her advocacy for liberal causes made her an even more controversial figure than her husband. She launched White House press conferences for women correspondents and women were involved with wire services as correspondents if news broke. In response to her husband’s infirmity, she embarked on extensive tours, reporting to him on conditions and programs in the country and around the world. This extensive role made her the butt of some criticism and “Eleanor jokes,” but many people responded warmly to her compassionate interest in their welfare. Beginning in 1936, she wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column entitled “My Day.” She showed particular interest in child welfare housing reform and equal rights for women and racial minorities. Though a famous person in her own right, we see her story in a new light as we consider her a twenty-first-century Dorcas!
The second story is less well-known; Anne Lamott tells it in her book, Bird by Bird. “An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia . . . he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die.” The parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, so he could be a blood donor. If he gave a pint of his blood she would likely live. So he thought overnight about whether he would give his blood or not, and the next day he told his parents he would do it. The family went the hospital and “when he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister, both were hooked up to the IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence as the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, ‘How soon until I start to die?’” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 205-206). This is the ultimate giving spirit—such innocent trust, and such love for his sister! It is a remarkable moment.
How often do the world’s Dorcases—the ones who give beyond comprehension, in quiet engagement—step forward in trust that their lives are here to make a difference—in this case, in a matter of life and death?
The third story is about a doctor in Boston whose vocation is focused on some of the most forgotten and marginal people—that is, the homeless community. I heard Dr. James J. O’Connell speak at Morning Prayers at Harvard a few years ago. His brief but profound story of serving the homeless population as a doctor moved me deeply. He admitted that he wondered if he might have been more successful as an oncologist, his earliest focus as a medical student. But as a person of faith—and one who recognized the enormous possibilities in working with people whose lives are at the mercy of systems that often overlook them—he said “Yes” to a mentor's invitation to work with a new health care initiative for the homeless in Boston. Much like the world we inhabit here in Chicago, the issues of those without homes in Boston are similar. Abuse, neglect, poverty, mental and physical illness all lead people to despair. Having a caring and competent medical staff who know their limits, and also their contribution, is remarkable.
In Dr. O’Connell’s words,
Caring for homeless people has been my full-time job for more than fifteen years. I suspect that the joy I find in my job bespeaks a deep character flaw . . . Irish are a people whose sense of impending tragedy and guilt has remained constant throughout the centuries despite brief moments of unmitigated joy . . . I prefer joy. But a number of unanticipated blessings have protected me through the years: First, medicine fascinates me . . . the burden of disease is compelling, the need is great and the clinical challenges truly exhilarating. (James J. O’Connell, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, pp. 88–89)
He goes on to say that a second blessing is that the art of medicine, along with the science of it, is important especially in bringing “the best medicine to those who are living in persistent poverty on the margins of society.” A third blessing he articulates is learning to do no harm. “A paralyzing sense of anger and discouragement is commonplace for our doctors” and even the best efforts can be undercut by lack of safe, affordable housing and the hopelessness of a cycle of homelessness for the population he serves. But when Dr. O’Connell spoke about his own observation that by caring for marginal communities as a doctor he ran the risk of becoming marginalized within the medical profession himself, and the personal stakes became very high. It was then that he spoke about a conversation he had with the Harvard Medical School Dean of Students his first day there. “Dr. Daniel Federman encouraged me to learn well, but he said follow [my] heart” (O’Connell, pp. 88–89). Indeed, in the steps of Dorcas, Dr. O’Connell’s heart brims with love and his hands hold the most scared and most wounded among us. He offers a garment of gladness and a cloak of healing.
Finally, the fourth story is an untold and unwritten story. It is your story. It is our common story here at Fourth Presbyterian Church. It is a story of how God came among us in Jesus Christ and found us in our lostness or in our foundness and awakened our lives with vibrant hope, even in the midst of fear and floundering. Yes, this fourth story is founded in Christ, with eyes fixed on the future.
These stories—and the entire gospel narrative—are about God’s disruptive and subversive power for the first-century church and for our church in the twenty-first. They take the fixed assumptions of who has power and who is at the margins, the assumptions about life and death, and reorder them. New Testament scholar Will Willimon says
People are told that there is a divinely established chain of being, a fixed order in which we are to find our place and stay. Tabitha Dorcas is to stay home and let men devise an affordable welfare system. Peter is to stay with his fishing nets and leave theology to the scholars, and Aeneas should obey the doctor’s order and stay in bed. . . . But the Word comes to these people in the presence of these who, like Peter, come out among them and stand beside them. These miraculous events are subversive of the present order, for they announce a new age, an age where reality is not based on rigid logic or cause-effect circumstances but upon God’s promise. . . . The church comes out and speaks the evangelical and prophetic ‘Rise!’ and nothing is ever quite the same. (William Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, pp. 85–86)
The challenge of this is that ushering in a new age—a counter-narrative to the well-crafted one—means radical trust in God. These stories ask us to consider our own assumptions about the role of the church in our lives and in the life of Chicago as it navigates the principalities and powers of this world. The early church—the revolutionary, Spirit-led church that is launched in Acts and lives today—is one based in a world where God—who has been faithful before in history—will be faithful again. The Church continuously stands in the gap between heaven and earth; moves to the margins with her prophetic word for our time; and comes to the center with the alms and balm for our world. If Eleanor Roosevelt, the young blood donor brother, and Dr. O’Connell stand in the prophetic line of the early disciple Tabitha, their stories and challenge arise from recognizing that true life comes from life-bearing service to those on the margins. Our calling is work that is risky—dangerous, really—in its life-bearing reality but, at its core, it is the most trustworthy work a human community can embody. This story is nothing less than our very destiny as the Christian community—this is our story to tell! Thanks and glory be to God. Amen.