Sermon - Fourth Sunday of Easter (5/12/2019)
Acts 9:36-43; Ps. 23; Rev. 7:9-17; Jn. 10:22-30
The first congregation where I served right after I was ordained had a rather eclectic high school youth group. Most of these kids came from families that didn’t have a lot of financial or social resources. By and large these were not the cool kids. Most of them thought of themselves as outsiders – this was the late 80s, so there was a lot of really dark, heavy metal music going on. Most of their families didn’t go to church very often if at all, but the youth group was a safe place for them and they were pretty attached to each other.
Around that time a movie came out called “Romero.” It was a Hollywood-quality movie about Oscar Romero, who was a Catholic bishop in El Salvador in the 1970s. Romero was a fairly conservative bishop who slowly became increasingly outspoken in defense of the poor in El Salvador, and against the political violence that was intensifying in that country. In 1980, he gave a nationally broadcast sermon on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, in which he dramatically told the soldiers in the El Salvadoran army that if they were ordered to violate the human rights of civilians, their Christian duty was not to obey them. The next day, while presiding over the Eucharist, he was assassinated.
There are a lot of religious movies that, to be honest, I could never have shown to this youth group. If the good guys and the bad guys are too obvious and the point too moralistic, they would have seen through it in a second– but “Romero” is actually a pretty well-done movie, that does a good job setting out the complexities of the situation and the doubts and questions that Romero faced. So I thought they might be willing to sit through this movie, and that maybe we could talk about how we all could be more inspired to stand up against injustice and the marginalized and live out our faith.
Well, we watched the movie, and that’s not what they got out of it. Their reaction was unanimous and harsh: “What an idiot,” they said. “He should have known better – of course saying stuff like that was going to get him killed. What was he thinking?” I suggested that maybe Romero cared so much about people who were being treated harshly that he was willing to take risks in order to help them. “Then he was a fool,” they said.
Well, as a 27-year-old idealistic young pastor, I was not prepared for that reaction. I knew that some people had criticized Oscar Romero for being too idealistic, but they usually meant that he was naïve about the threat of Communism, or something like that. I didn’t think that was accurate, but I understood that perspective and it’s one of the questions the movie deals with. But that was the farthest thing from my youth group’s mind. They completely saw that he risked his life for people who were powerless, but they saw nothing inspiring about that. To the contrary, to them it was just pointless. Foolish.
Part of the reason they reacted this way, I think, is that a lot of these kids felt powerless in their own lives – that they had at some point stood up at some point for themselves, or maybe even for somebody else, and been cut down for it. And so they had come to approach life defensively, as so many of us do – keep your head down, don’t get noticed, try to survive another day. For a lot of reasons, especially for these kids, in many cases understandable reasons.
But there was something more about my failed youth group movie night that I still think about. It’s this: People of faith will inevitably be led to do things that would make no sense if Jesus is not raised from the dead. Jesus stood up to the religious and military powers of the day on behalf of the least and the lost and the excluded, and they killed him for it. And if Jesus is still in the tomb, why would anyone choose to follow Jesus on the path to humiliating failure and early death? But if we truly believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, if we truly believe that God has the power to raise the dead, if we truly believe that God’s love for us is so unconditional and so vast that not even death can separate us from God, if we truly believe that we are in God’s hands and nothing will snatch us out of God’s loving care, and if we truly believe that God deeply loves and cares for our neighbor as much as God does for us – then inevitably we will be led to do things that would not make sense if our faith is not true.
In the first reading today we hear the story of a disciple of Jesus by the name of Tabitha. At least that was her name in the Aramaic language; she also had a name in the Greek language, which was Dorcas. Just the fact that she had two names in two languages tells us something about her – that she moved between two communities, two cultures, and two language groups. She lived in the town of Joppa, which today is called Jaffa, which is a part of the modern city of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast. When she died, the people sent for Peter, who just happened to be in the next town over that day. And when Peter arrived, the widows of Joppa were having a wake for Tabitha. Because Tabitha had sewn clothing for each of them, which they were showing to one another and then to Peter as they mourned for Tabitha.
I don’t know if you have Netflix, or if you’ve ever seen the show “Queer Eye.” Every episode is about someone who is down on the luck and whose life is a mess, and these five gay men come and give them a makeover. When the show first started I was skeptical – I thought it played too strongly on the stereotype of gay men as fabulously fashionable. I’ve never felt that I live up to that, so it’s not a stereotype that I particularly care for – but it turns out to be a pretty good show. One of the guys is an expert in clothes, and he’ll go through the closet of the person getting the makeover, and he’ll ask, Why do you wear this? And the answer is that it hides something they don’t like about their bodies – they wear something baggy to cover up being overweight, or something like that. And he’ll take them to some boutique clothing store and he picks out something they would never think of buying for themselves. And when they come out of the dressing room and see themselves in the mirror, it’s usually the first time in the show you see them smile. He sees something in them that they don’t see in themselves, and he finds clothing that brings it out.
I think that’s kind of the effect that Tabitha, the disciple of Jesus, had on the widows of Joppa, when she made clothes for them. Widows in that culture were the ultimate powerless people – people with no status or dignity or social worth in most people’s eyes. But Tabitha didn’t just donate some old clothes to Goodwill that these widows eventually received – she made the clothes for these widows, specifically sewn for each one individually. It was because of the relationship these widows had with Tabitha, or Dorcas, depending on which language they spoke, this woman who had given them dignity and joy by seeing them as people worth spending time on, worth making clothing for – this relationship is why they came to sit together and mourn for Tabitha when she died, showing off their new clothes to each other to celebrate the life of this woman who loved them so concretely.
Tabitha lived her life as a disciple of Jesus – as someone who lived in a way that valued the people Jesus valued, someone who found her calling in giving dignity and self-respect to the powerless, someone whose faith led her to this act of kindness and love for people who were nobodies. Her love for them made no sense unless the gospel is true, unless Jesus is raised from the dead. And in living out this faith, she experiences resurrection herself.
Peter asks everyone to leave the room, and then he says: Tabitha, get up. The Greek word in the original text translated “get up” is the same word to describing the rising of Jesus. So we could translate it: Tabitha, rise. And the same Greek word is also used a few verses earlier, when Peter is called to come to Joppa. We read: “Peter got up and and went with them.” The original Greek has the same word: “And rising, Peter went with them.” So everyone is rising, Peter and Tabitha. Everyone is experiencing resurrection, Dorcas and the widows for whom she made clothes.
The miracle of being physically restored to life is given to Tabitha, but not to everyone. Why some and not others is a question no one can answer. But the grace of resurrection, of sharing in the resurrection of Jesus, is offered to everyone. From the perspective of the resurrection, whether we live or whether we die, either way we are in the hands of the God who lives and who gives life, God the good shepherd who never lets anyone fall from God’s hands.
So I invite you to ask youself, today and over the coming days: If I really believe in the resurrection, what changes about my life? If we believe that the living God who loves us beyond our imagining also loves our neighbor beyond our imagining, what will we do for them that makes sense only in the light of God’s eternal love for us and them? How will our children know, how will the world know, that we believe in the resurrection? That we believe that, even in the valley of death, God is our shepherd?