“Called Into Community”-May 12-2019

Sunday, May 12, 2019

REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM

In a Facebook group I’m a member of, called Casa: An Experiment in Doing Church Online, one of the members posted their thoughts on spiritual life, asking:  ‘Is Spiritual life about doing or being?’  Good question.  Greg Richardson wrote, “Some of us have strong opinions about whether spiritual life is about doing or being. We may not see the point of being without doing. Some of us get so caught up in doing we can lose sight of being. I believe spiritual life draws us beyond either/or approaches … in my experience spiritual life is all about helping us go beyond our own choices … We like to define limits which help us feel comfortable and secure. Spiritual life is determined to show us what life is like beyond the limits we impose on ourselves.”[1]

This seems to imply work on our part, when we’d rather just ask, as the people did in our passage from the Gospel this morning, “Tell us plainly’ about the things of God!” But somethings need to be experienced and not just heard about.  As an illustration, here is a parable told by Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello, which he calls ‘The Explorer’.

“A person leaves his home village to explore the faraway and exotic Amazon. When he returns to his village, the villagers are captivated as the explorer tries to describe his many experiences, along with the incredible beauty of the place, with its thundering waterfalls, beautiful foliage, and extraordinary wildlife. How can he put into words, though, the feelings that flooded his heart when he heard the night sounds of the forest or sensed the dangers of the rapids? So, he tells them they simply must go to the Amazon themselves. To help them with their journey, the explorer draws a map. Immediately the villagers pounce on the map. They copy the map so that everyone can have his or her own copy. They frame the map for their town hall and their homes. Regularly they study the map and discuss it often, until the villagers consider themselves experts on the Amazon – for do they not know the location of every waterfall and rapids, every turn and bend?”[2]

I am guilty of this. I have read ten books on the Camino de Santiago walk in Spain. I have not walked it yet myself. I am like the villagers who became experts on the Amazon – I know everything there is to know about the Camino – all from the comfort of my armchair. 

As a commentary noted, “People will often say, ‘Tell us plainly’ about the things of God…  the most important task, however is to [make] our own personal journeys and experience the living Lord ourselves. For, as DeMello suggests in his parable, there can be a certain futility about drawing maps – however plain and explicit they might be – for armchair explorers.”[3]

We meet Tabitha in our passage from Acts.  Tabitha is a disciple, and a widow, and we are told that she has died and her body is laying in a house in Joppa. The widows whom she helped surround her in their grief.  It is heard that Peter is in a nearby town, and he is sent for and told, “Please come to us without delay.”  The widows in the town of Joppa were Tabitha’s community. She excelled in caring for them.  She made them their tunics and other clothing. And as we follow Peter into the room upstairs where Tabitha lay, it is the hands of the women, held up in the air, holding these garments that testify to the strength and the bonds of this early Christian community. 

The image of Tabitha’s friends, holding the garments she made for them in their hands, keeps coming back to me. ‘This is what she has done for us.’  Tabitha’s friends witness to the power of kindness, the power of noticing, the power of helping, the power of remembering what is found in community. They are telling us, “This is what she has done for us. Her hands … our hands testify to the bonds of this community.” The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon a community honing all of its spiritual strength and resource passionately upon life and wholeness. [4]

Tabitha’s friends witness to the power of kindness, the power of noticing, the power of helping, the power of remembering what is found in community.

Tabitha and her friends represent an early Christian community, as they worshipped at the church in Joppa, a church begun by Philip the Apostle (Acts 8:40).  Philip died in 75 AD. Tabitha took her Christian obligation to care for those in need deeply to heart and it was the work of her life. As our scripture reminds us, Tabitha in Greek is Dorcas.  The Dorcas Society was created in the early 1800’s, a society of women who provided clothing to the poor.

Our Prayer Mantle knitting group here at Stouffville United is representative of the work Tabitha was known for within her community.  Our Prayer Mantle group knits and crochets prayer mantles and lap blankets for distribution through you here in the congregation to any one who could use a ‘hug from God’. They are made in prayer and love, with the intention that the love and prayers knit into each project becomes a living prayer for the recipient.    Our community is identified by the work of our women’s hands.

Peter asks Tabitha’s friends to leave the room, and then he prays, and then says, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  And she opens her eyes, sees him, and sits up. Tabitha had reached out to the many widows and given them new life.  Peter reaches out to Tabitha and gives her new life. He gives her his hand. Tabitha reached out to the widows because God had reached out to her.  Peter reached out to Tabitha because God had reached out to him. And God has reached out to you, pulling you out of your comfortable armchair to say, Come and reach out to others.

Out of this deep sense of belonging, we find the courage to reach out to others.  “God seeks us out long before we seek God. Christ makes us his sheep; we do not make him our shepherd.”

Our Psalm today speaks beautifully of our deep trust in the Shepherd.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  Psalm 100:3 reads, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” In the Gospel passage, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28) 

Someone wrote, “The sheep know and trust the shepherd, not because they have gone through any sort of rational, intellectual discernment, but because they have experienced the shepherd and his “works”.  In the same way, a child knows and trusts a parent because of experience, not reason.” [5] “No one will snatch them out of my hand”, Jesus says.  We are held in the protective hands of Jesus.  As a commentary notes “Just as Easter is proof for Christians that Jesus is ultimately in the hands of God, not in the hands of the emperor or in the hands of death, so in our celebration we claim that we are in Jesus’ hands, not in the hands of other powers.

What might it mean for us to live out of that confidence and trust, and so become the hands of Christ as we are called into community? Whom are we willing to hold on to, as we are held in the hands of Christ? Whom are we to hold?”[6]

Amen.


[1] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/strategicmonk/2019/05/11/practices-from-the-inside-out-is-spiritual-life-about-doing-or-being/?fbclid=IwAR1xxpcwY75PDH_-pYcsIxWr5VqekawuDs0powTrD1PjTkeyeDxb5ArRWYw

[2] Feasting on the Word, 448.

[3] Feasting on the Word, 448.

[4] Feasting on the Word, 431.

[5] Feasting on the Word, 446.

[6] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 2, 448.

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