the acts of the a posit a littles: initiatives of wonder

Acts 9:36-43

During our series last fall on sassy women in Scripture
(when they were old women, I bet they wore purple),
we spent some time with Tabitha, the Aramaic name—
or Dorcas in Greek or Zibiah in Hebrew—
a name meaning gazelle—a creature one might well name
an image of grace—an incarnation of grace.
I ended up taking much of what was said back then
working with it some more—adding to it,
and it was published in a preaching magazine.
So, now I’m going to take that
work with that some more, add to it,
and so some of this should sound familiar.
and some of it won’t.

In our home, we treasure quilts
given to us through the years to mark
our wedding and the births of our children.
We were also gifted on such occasions
with hand crocheted and knit blankets that we value immensely.
They are all uniquely beautiful.
They could all be carefully hung and proudly displayed.
And yet, some of them are spread at the foot of beds.
They have stuffed animals on them
and (usually) clean clothes that haven’t yet been put up.
The cats sleep on them.
They get dragged down onto the floor
to act as rugs for playing.
Others are taken outside and unfolded onto the grass
for picnics and for reading in the shade of the tree out front
or for playing card and board games,
or they’re spread out on the floor in front of the TV
for family movie night and they get popcorn and hot chocolate on them.
They’re then washed and dried and brought out for more.

Y’all know Rae and Carrie as artists in our congregation
who custom make the most beautiful clothes.
We’re talking about art that is worn—
literally worn on the body as an article of clothing
even as it is worn as in the process of wearing out
due to the wear and tear of use.

At a funeral not too long ago, a grieving family member,
in remembrance of the deceased matriarch of the family,
held up scarves she had knit both before and during her last illness
and given family members.
After the service, I went up to look at them,
and the oldest ones were frayed and … worn,
still aesthetically beautiful.
The most recent ones, knit during her illness,
were less exemplary with dropped stitches and uneven gaps.
Proudly and lovingly displayed nonetheless.

In almost all these cases,
as much as the fabric art is initially admired—
the care that went into the making of whatever it was
(the quilt, the blanket, the article of clothing, the scarf)—
as much as it’s the art that’s initially admired—
the patterns, the colors, the texture,
the attention to detail, the skill,
nonetheless, the appreciation and the admiration that lingers
is for the artist and for the significance of it (whatever it is) as gift.

Two of such our quilts came to us
from people who have since died,
and we cherish those quilts all the more,
remaining as they do, a celebration of them—
the gifts they were to us and still are to us.
And sometimes, folding a quilt, after it comes out of the dryer,
unfolding it as it’s spread out for some activity,
we note the handwritten tag stitched into the fabric
that reads, “Made by—” and then the name of the artist, “given to—”
and then our names, and we’ll smile in remembrance and in thanksgiving.

So it was in Joppa, in an upper room,
that the most vulnerable (the widows)
of the community of believers that had been Tabitha’s community,
gathered to grieve and to tell Peter their Tabitha stories.
They all held skirts—fingered tunics, scarves—
folded and unfolded quilts, blankets—
each with a handwritten label stitched on somewhere
reading: “made by Tabitha, given to—”
and then the name of whoever it was.

Now consider the introduction of Tabitha
as one devoted to good works and acts of charity.
Consider the possible timing of the giving
of all the skirts and tunics, scarves,
quilts and blankets she made as gifts.
It is, after all, specifically mentioned
that it was the widows who gathered in the room with Peter
displaying their gifts. What do you think?
Did they, each one, receive a gift from Tabitha
in the time of their grief?
Did she lovingly gift them
in the immediate aftermath of their terrible loss?
It certainly offers a new image for the idea
of clothing ourselves with love, doesn’t it (Colossians 3:14)?
It’s part of the prayer made manifest
in prayer shawls, blankets and quilts for the gravely ill.
In your time of distress and disease, wrap yourself in love.

So then it may, in fact, be,
that some of those things Tabitha made and gave away
were actually terribly done—
that her skill level was truly abysmal—
never coming close to matching her enthusiasm
(we all know people like that, don’t we?).
It may be that those skirts, scarves and tunics,
quilts and blankets were ugly,
with mismatched colors that clashed,
patterns that did not line up,
stitching that kept coming undone.
And yet, were kept and treasured by these widows
because so much more than an example of fabric art,
they represented wonderful examples of the art of compassion.

For the art of compassion, the art of relationship—
of love, the very art of being takes just as much discipline—
takes just as much consistent practice—
takes just as much attention to the cultivation of particular skills
as any of the fabric arts. It does not just happen—
no more than any art just happens.
Art takes someone who dedicates themselves to it—
who puts in the time and the effort.

So it was, that when Tabitha was raised,
she reclaimed a small piece of linen
she kept with her always, even to the end of her days—
a small piece of linen on which were stitched
(however poorly or masterfully) these words:
“If I knit and purl with the skill of the master,
but have not love, it all unravels (as beautiful as it may yet be).
If I sew with the greatest of expertise,
but have not love, the stitching will not hold
(though the clothes might).
If I quilt with all the confidence of a virtuoso,
but have not love, it will never be more
than a patchwork quilt of only accomplishment (however impressive).
Love wears all things well,
and when love is worn, makes all things well.”

But now, I bet, there were others in Joppa,
not members of the community of faith,
not gathered in that room with the widows,
but who nonetheless had some of Tabitha’s work—
who had been gifted by her—
who had skirts, scarves, tunics,
quilts, blankets with hand stitched labels
that read “made by Tabitha, given to —,” and then their names.

And why would I think that?
Because it has been both my observation and my experience
that love spills out—spills over—overflows—
flows through lives and communities,
that love is not contained by walls or expectations or traditions,
not restrained by norms and rules and precedents,
that love opens up into deepening relationships and more relationships—
into a future characterized by hope and possibility and integrity,
that love never ends.

Here’s therefore an incredibly important way of assessing relationships:
high school students, college, young adults,
remember this—
true for us all—
if there’s someone with whom you’re infatuated—
someone to whom you’re attracted,
sure there’s that fun initial exclusive isolation,
but then here’s a question to ask:
can I imagine a future with this person that includes my life as I know it?
Is this person, in other words, going to add to my life or take from it?
Does being with this someone open up into more relationships
and better and deeper relationships?
And the more I give, am I aware of how much more I have?

Because unlike most other things,
love doesn’t compute.
When it comes to finances, what goes out
depletes what you have.
We conserve energy, because what’s used
consumes what’s held in reserve.
Love doesn’t compute.
The more you give away,
the more you have.
Because love never ends.

So I bet some of those who had Tabitha’s gifts—
wore her gifts,
but weren’t members of the community of faith—
weren’t in that upper room with the widows,
nonetheless came up to Peter the next day, or the next—
the next week, stopped him at the market—
stopped him buying fruit or fish—
stopped him out walking—
stopped him and said, “Thank you.”
said, “I didn’t know to hope.
She was dead.
I didn’t even think to hope.
How is that you knew?”
And the question was so much less “How did you do that?”
than “How did you do that?
In the very face of death,
how do you have such hope in this world?”

We live in a culture of so much death—
in a culture that, on the one hand, gives death so much power—
extending death as ultimate punishment or threat,
identifying death (explicitly or implicitly) as our greatest fear,
but in a culture that, simultaneously and on the other hand,
ignores the presence and effect of death all around us:

in the graphic violence of our video games,
the body count in the movies we watch,
our strange fascination with the so-called undead,
the rage that exists just below the surface of all too many people
(have you ever thought about how you really don’t want
to make anyone mad anymore,
because you just don’t know what they might do?).
There’s all the hyper individualism that objectifies others—
that’s a kind of death, isn’t it?—that objectifies others
whether by gender, by ethnicity and race, by socio-economic status.
Did you know that Super Bowl Sunday
is the single largest human trafficking incident in our country?
That doesn’t get advertised, of course.
There’s one of the fundamental truths of our culture—
that individual freedoms are prioritized
over any sense of the common good.
Do we see the death in that? the death of a dream?
There’s the idolatry of materialism
and the absolute arrogance of radical partisanship
that values position over conversation,
personal opinion over relationship—opinion over people—
particularly in face of the growing number of the houseless—
foodless, resourceless, optionless in our own land of opportunity.
There are millions of people dying around the world of problems
that could be eradicated for a fraction of a percentage of—
well, of this budget line item or that profit line,
but people, obviously, aren’t as important.
There’s the wide-spread acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence,
our apparent utter inability to look beyond short term gains
and immediate gratification—
it’s overwhelming.

The systemic momentum of our culture is toward death.
May be ironically hard to fathom on a fine spring day like today,
burgeoning with new life, but that’s as God created,
not what we’ve done with what was entrusted to us.
The systemic momentum of our culture is toward death.
Why would anyone think to hope?

And that’s as real a question for people of faith
as for anyone else—
as true for those raised on stories of life-giving truth—
those who might pick up on all the allusions in our story
to other stories of people raised from the dead
in both Old and New Testament:
the story of Elijah raising the son
of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24),
the story of Elisha raising the son
of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-37),
the story of Jesus raising the son
of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17)
and the daughter of the leader of the synagogue (Luke 8:49-56).
Our faith tradition is one of hope even in the face of death
in story after story after story.
The systemic momentum of our culture is toward death,
but gospel truth is life.
Do we believe that?
Do we live it?

This became known throughout Joppa, we read,
and many believed in the Lord.
What do you think that’s referring to?
Tabitha being raised from the dead?
May be. Maybe so.

But maybe when Peter shewed everyone out of the room,
he gathered what they had been working on—
what those widows had been working on
as they grieved together—as they waited—
as they prayed and told stories and shared memories:
skirts, scarves and tunics, quilts and blankets.
And Peter came out and asked, “Whose are these?”
“Oh, that’s mine—that scarf. It’s for Yael who just lost her husband.”
“That’s my skirt. It’s for Deborah, you know, she broke her leg.”
“That sweater’s mine. It’s for—well, for you, actually.
It gets cooler in the evenings and nights here on the coast
and you didn’t bring any sweaters.”
And thus, as it is written,
Peter showed Tabitha to be still alive.

Now does that cheapen the story?
I don’t know. You could probably argue that.
I’m sure there are some—many, maybe, who would.
But you could argue as well, that it cheapens the story
to turn it into some unrepeatable miracle story
that we can’t conceive being a part of.
And so I wonder if it does, in fact, diminish a larger truth
to hear this story just as a miracle story?
Because, I don’t know about you,
but when I hear a miracle story,
as much as I may enjoy it—
as meaningful as I may find it,
I also feel disconnected.
That doesn’t happen to me.
That is not my experience.
And it is always a richer story within my experience than without.
It is a richer truth I know than that I profess.

And we are those with a story both rich and real enough
to look death full on—
to name it and to feel it—
to know it in all its devastating power,
and yet to hope,
and yet to believe,
and yet to love.

So, amidst the death that surrounds us—
amidst the systemic and cultural momentum toward death—
amidst all that would lead to cynicism and decay and despair,
how have we learned the art of compassion?
How are we incarnations of grace?
Because we have, you know. We are.
How does love spill out and over flow
and run through lives and communities?
Because it does, you know.
That’s what makes us part of a story of hope—a story of life.

Well let me tell you—at least in part.
We incarnate grace, we live into life and love
as you bring prayer requests from your neighbors
who know us as a praying community—
as we share prayer shawls and quilts.
The name Erika Brannock is familiar to many of you, no?
Teacher in an area preschool, one of the ones injured
at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
I want you to know that in conversation with our preschool director,
we are providing lunch for that preschool staff
and a quilt for Erika.

as you gather each week in witness and testimony—
as you bring your friends to worship
because you trust our warmth and welcome and witness—
because you trust our voice of respect and joy—
as you give your money because you trust our work—
our partners in ministry, our commitment to the work of hope—
whether that’s food for the hungry through ACTC,
the work of the WEE school, the Alliance, Gail’s ESOL Sunday School,
Heifer, kiva, Garden Harvest, Habitat, Operation Joy
and the Baltimore County Public School Office of Homeless Education.

We incarnate grace—we live into life and love
as you give your time because you know you,
more than just your money, need to be a part of our story—
believing our story to be a part of God’s,
and as a part of God’s story, also a part of God’s work—
as you know that you, essentially, within our culture
and all its systems, within all the violence, all the objectification,
all the wrong priorities, all the death—
you need to be a part of God’s story of hope and life—
as challenge to what is—
as hope for what might yet be—
and so as you offer your prayers—
as you tell your stories in the key of God—
as you give yourself to the divine rhythm—
as your story becomes one more in the great song of our faith tradition—
the story of life raised even from death—
of transcendent hope even amidst death—
of love that never ends—
a story you tell because you live it—
because you know it.
And by virtue of knowing that story—
by virtue of telling it,
and to the extent that we live it,
we are a part of the redeeming of our world.
I hope—I pray you have a profound sense
of how important what we do and who we are is—
not in arrogance,
but as hope.
Life shines in the midst of death,
and death cannot overcome it.
Thanks be to God.

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