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Overcoming Loss

San Williams

April 21, 2013
Acts 9:36-43

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 The fourth Sunday in Easter is always called Good Shepherd Sunday. That’s why the choir chose the selections they did for the Introit and anthem.  That same shepherding theme is also sounded in our hymns this morning as well as in other parts of the liturgy.  Why then did I pick this episode in Acts for our scripture?  The more obvious choice would be the Gospel lesson in John, which speaks of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?    Well, to be honest, I found this intriguing episode in Acts to be irresistible.  It’s a poignant story about a remarkable woman whose death sent shock waves of grief through the congregation she served. Luke shows us how God’s shepherding love can lead a congregation through death to new life.  Like the cup in the 23rd Psalm, this story in Acts overflows with God’s goodness and mercy.

Start with Luke’s introduction:  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.”  That name will ring a bell for some of you since here at UPC one of our women’s circles is called the Dorcas Circle.  Others of you may only know Dorcas as the widow that Peter raised from the dead.  But we may not have paid sufficient attention to what a remarkable woman she was.  Luke specifically identified her as a disciple.  In fact, this is the only place in the New Testament where the feminine form for the word disciple is used.   We’re told she was devoted to good works and charity.  Her ministry, at least in part, consisted in making clothing for widows and others who were impoverished. 

 The making of clothes to give to others, may not strike us as particularly impressive.  In our era of mass production clothing is easy enough to come by.  Most of our closets are so full that we periodically take sack loads of them to Good Will. For the most part our relationship with clothing is easy come easy go.  But in the ancient world, the making of clothes was a slow, laborious undertaking for the women of that day.  In the first century town of Joppa, for example, many people might only have one or two garments.  So the clothing and tunics Tabitha made demonstrate her extraordinary devotion, generosity and love.

 Further, the fact that she was known by two names, one in Greek and the other Aramaic, suggests  that she was bi-cultural.  Her circle of friends was wide and diverse.  She was as comfortable among the poor Aramaic speaking people of Joppa as she was with those who identified with the Greco-Roman world.  She was as likely to be found in the soup kitchen as in the council of church leaders.  Luke leaves the reader with the clear impression that Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, was a saintly pillar of that congregation, a leader who was widely admired and revered.  In today’s parlance, we’d call Tabitha a force of nature.

But then she became ill and died. Luke doesn’t try to soften the depth of loss and grief felt by the congregation upon her death.  Notice the respectful way they washed her body and laid her in a room upstairs.  Such a brief, yet vivid gesture underscores the love, the care and the grief the congregation suffered at the loss of one of their most valued members.

Since Peter was in a nearby town, the disciples sent two of their member requesting that Peter come to them without delay.  Perhaps they hoped Peter would raise Tabitha back to life, but maybe they were just so distraught that they were reaching out for support, counsel and comfort.  After all, their congregation had suffered an irreparable loss, and they were reeling with grief.  All the widows, Luke says, were weeping as they held out the clothing she had made for them–these reminders of her creative ministry among them.  This episode in Acts is only seven verses, but it is truly one of the most poignant stories of loss and sorrow in all of scripture.

And it’s a story that touches our own experience.  I recall a lecture at the seminary several years ago.  Though I can’t recall the name of the speaker, I remember that during her remarks she alluded to her father’s recent death.  She mentioned that he had always been the shining star in her life.  When he died, she said, it was as if the sun went out of my sky.  Sooner or later everyone falls under the shadow of death, and sometimes that shadow is so dark that we react as did the congregation at Joppa. We ask what now?  How can we go on?

There’s a plaque on the wall of our arcade next to the Fellowship Hall.  The plaque is in memory of Rev. Lawrence Wharton, who was pastor of this congregation from 1922 to 1937.  While serving the congregation he suddenly had a heart attack and died at the age of forty five. The plaque in his memory describes him as “a beloved pastor, faithful and fearless, magnanimous, a lover of his fellowmen, an inspiration to noble living, a radiant Christian.”  Today only a few of us will remember Lawrence Wharton, but we can all imagine how his untimely death must have shocked this congregation. 

Of course, over the years there have been so many others who, like Tabitha, were pillars of the congregation, a cloud of witnesses whose devotion and generosity held up the life of the church and enabled it’s ministry to flourish.  Undoubtedly, many of you can name some of the Tabitha’s in our congregation today.  I know that I can.  When we lose these pillars, as we inevitably will, it frightens us.  What will our lives, our congregation, do without them?

Last Wednesday was the last Session meeting for the class of ruling elders who are rotating off the Session.  We began our meeting by gathering around the Table in the sanctuary.  We joined in a litany of  thanks. Then we handed a certificate of appreciation to each out-going member of the Session and recounted some of the significant ways their leadership has blessed the congregation over the last few years.  It was poignant farewell to these elders who have fulfilled their ordered ministry with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.  Of course, in this instance, we weren’t grieving a permanent loss; but nevertheless, in the church, as in all of life, we have to continually adjust to change, accept loss, and sometimes grieve deeply when the loss is profoundly disruptive, as was the loss of Tabitha to the congregation at Joppa.

But take heart, this episode in Acts ends not with sorrow and loss but with resurrection, new life, healing and hope.  Luke tells us that Peter sent the grieving congregation downstairs, knelt down and prayed, turned to the body and said, “Tabitha get up.”  She opened her eyes, sat up, and Peter with a gesture of great tenderness, “gave her his hand and helped her up.” Now this may be the point at which our modern sensibilities kick in and some of us will ask:  Do I have to believe that?  Did Peter really raise this woman from the dead? Well, maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t.  Miracles are by nature open to dispute. But friends, whether you take the story literally or symbolically, the meaning is the same:  in the community of the risen Christ, there is no loss that cannot be redeemed.  No death so final that new life cannot spring forth.  No setback so permanent that God’s goodness and mercy cannot bring about a new beginning.  It happened in Joppa, and it still happens today.