A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, May 2, 2004, Easter 4, dedicated to the nineteen new members, their eight children and especially Joseph Provenzano on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of VI in the sermon series, "Good News for Today")
Acts 9:32-43; Revelation 7:9-17
As you know, after worship June 6th, my family and I will share with you in a farewell luncheon and then we will be gone on sabbatical from June 7-September 18. We will be traveling in Europe and the western United States thanks to a grant from the Lilly Foundation. In the next six sermons, I will be focusing on the lectionary texts of the day and the Good News for our Daily Living. Today, Acts takes us and Joppa and Revelation carries us to a place where our tears are dried and our sadness is ended - a place of new life in the face of death.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
In the space of our living, there is Good News within our range of vision which we miss or take for granted. As a child growing up there were two pieces of art that adorned my families living room and dining room that I saw, but never really beheld. Each night at dinner, I would sit across the room from a wall adorned with Chinese and Japanese art. There were four delicately painted scrolls that they had unrolled, flattened and framed in bamboo and covered by glass. Three were flowers and colorful paintings. One was a scene of a father and son high in the mountains of China greeting one another at a distance and reuniting - the biblical story of the prodigal son. The father stood high in the mountains as the son made his way up the steep, rocky incline to the family home. There was joy on their reuniting faces.
Next to our front door, was another piece of art - a large charcoal rendition of the Resurrected Christ as drawn by an Indian Christian. My parents have told me that the Hindu style of Divinity is very feminine in nature. The lines on the face are slender and gentle. As a result, until recently, I had always thought the piece to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, not the Christ. In his hands, the Christ figure holds a lotus flower as sign of peace and blessing.
In my coming and going each day through the doorway of my childhood and youth, my journey in and out was overseen by the gentle and peaceful Risen Christ whom I did not even know was watching. In the daily breaking of bread and sharing of table fellowship, I, the child who would travel far and experience the nature of being that prodigal and returning to love and grace never thought twice about the sacrament of holy love known in the painting that overlooked my journey.
In today's good news found in the Book of Acts (which I call the Gospel of the Holy Spirit), there are two stories of two people whom we rarely acknowledge and barely know - Aeneas and Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). The first story is a healing story. Aeneas has been bedridden for eight years in the two of Lydda. He is paralyzed and Peter finds him there in bed. We do not know how Peter finds him, we only know that he is a saint in Lydda. As the old Congregational hymn reminds, "the saints of God are just folks like you and me" in the New Testament. They are church members. They are not super heroes. They are not perfect. They are not set apart for martyrdom or glory. They are folks like you and me. Calling on the power of Jesus Christ, Peter heals Aeneas. He stands up. He is seen by all in Lydda and Sharon and they turn to the Lord our God in faith! With this man and this town (and the adjoining town of Sharon!) Changed forever by the unleashing of the Holy Spirit in this good news healing miracle, Peter simply moves on. He does not linger. We never hear anything more about Aeneas or the saints of Lydda. Like the charcoal drawing overseeing my coming and going throughout my childhood, this biblical story is placed forever in a fleeting passage telling us to be saints of God, to be open to healing miracles, to live well in the power of the Spirit and always in the name of the Risen Christ.
To Joppa Peter goes. There the portrait of Tabitha is painted more colorfully by the broad strokes of the author's pen. Tabitha, whose name means, "the Gazelle" has ceased leaping for the joy of the Lord. She is dead. Her decaying body is placed in an upper room and surrounded in prayer by the widows whom she served. That's right, Tabitha was a woman of faith who dedicated her the space of living to those who were grieving. She was, if you will, a Christian hospice worker for those who had lost their husbands. She was good news in the face of the worst news we can imagine. She was an angel of mercy entering the lives of people perhaps previously unknown to her who had lost loved ones.
You know Tabitha. In every generation, in millions of hamlets, towns, valleys and cities, God sends Tabithas to the human race. My great-grandmother Carrie Lorena Limbach Mathias was Tabitha in the Tascarawrus County valley where my maternal family farm sat for generations. My grandmother called her "the angel of the valley" because she would find her way to people's homes to be present to them and minister to them in their greatest hours of grief and pain. Frankly, my mother has those same qualities of angelic care passed on to her through her mother and grandmother. (She will be upset with me that I said that when she reads this!). There are many here, who are Tabithas for us - and for this city and surrounding communities. You are good news and the breath of God's new life for so many in the face of death. I am grateful, and they are grateful.
Now I must admit, that often we do not see the Tabithas of this world until they have died. Quietly, gently they look over our going out and our coming in. Quietly and gently, they minister to us as angels of mercy and then one day, they die. What do you do when the Tabithas of our world die? How do you fill the gap of compassion left in their passing? This is question which each of us is called to resolve in our situation of life, but in this story, it not yet time to solve this puzzle.
In this story, there is a power loose in the world that can break the grip of death's power. In the community of Joppa, the widows are not left to perish alone. Tabitha is raised to new life through the power of the Risen Christ. It is not her time - so to speak - as all the boundaries of life, and the power of the highest heavens, and the breath of life obey Christ's command to bring the dead to life! As Tabitha is raised from the dead, as she is saved to serve, the widows to whom she has ministered, reenter the upper room and "God wipes away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:17).
How God's special agents of healing and resurrection can wrench new life from death is something that consumes our modern minds. But I feel we too often trivialize God's power by seeking to explain it. I believe "these stories can only be heard, asserted, and inserted into life as they are thrust into the flow of Acts. It is not Peter who turns our history inside out but the story, the story that proclaims that our history is not closed and that there is someone, some subversive reality, there for the widows of this world." (Quoted in William H. Willimon's Commentary on Acts, John Knox Press, Atlanta, GA., 1988, p. 85).
In the space of our living, there is Good News within our range of vision that we miss or take for granted. Too often we are unaware of the angels in our midst. We do not see the Christ looking down upon in merciful love. We do not see the stories of our lives gracefully portrayed around us for our own healing and redemption.
Toward the end of C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, there is a scene where a group of dwarves sits huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black stable when the truth is they are in the midst of an endless grassy countryside with sun shining and blue skies overhead. The huge golden Lion, Aslan, (who is the Christ character of this story) stands nearby with all the other dwarves knelling in a circle around his forepaws. They are burying their hands and faces in his mane as stoops to his great head to touch them with his tongue. When Aslan offers them bread, they think it is poisoned. When he offers them wine, they think it to be ditch water. In the first letter of John we read that "perfect love casts out fear" (I John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear casts out love, even God's love.
So often we act like Lewis' dwarves in a stable when in fact we are children of light in the open fields of God's perfect love. I believe God gives us memory to enable us to go back in time and the space of our living - sometimes far back, sometimes back to a moment before this one - so that we can get it right this time. Memories to go back to a dining room where the story of grace is surrounding us. Memories to go back to the doorways of our lives where Christ is guiding our way in and out. Memories to go back to a place in time when a loved one died and something in us died too. Memories to go back to a place in time when saint was healed and when an angel of the valley was raised from the dead. Memories to go back to a place in time when bread was body and wine was blood poured out for us and for our salvation.
As we work our way through the power that memory gives us to think, to feel, to imagine our own healing and our resurrection from the dead, let the sad things of your life take their place in the past. Then, let the healed memories of your life come out of the darkened stable to this table of grace today and receive new life, new hope, new love.
Today there is good news. Today, there is new life in the face of death. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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