Sermon preached April 25, 2010
Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Matthew 13:51-52
With the title of today’s sermon, you may have expected a story or joke about a wedding – “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” I did look a bit for one, but was unsuccessful. I did, however, find that the phrase was used in a couple of places to discuss the just released on dvd film “Avatar.” We may have to include that on next year’s Faith and Film list.
I do have something old, though, and old joke. Three friends who have met for coffee for years are discussing some of life’s important issues. One poses this question, “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” The first man says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor in my time and a great family man.” The second man says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow.” The last friend replied, “I would like them to say, Look, he’s moving.” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 4th, 93)
The story in Acts is a sort of “look, she’s moving” story. We have Peter in Joppa. He’s come there because a disciple, a woman named Tabitha, Dorcas in Greek, has died. By the way, the name Tabitha in Hebrew and Dorcas in Greek, both mean “Gazelle.” It speaks, perhaps to the grace of this woman, a grace not well conveyed by the name “Dorcas.” In any event, Peter has arrived to a community in grief. They have lost a beloved member, one who had devoted herself to good works and acts of charity, one who had used her talents to weave clothing. Peter sends them all out of the room where Tabiatha’s dead body had been appropriately laid out, and before long, Tabitha is moving.
There are no more difficult stories in the Bible than the few stories like this where someone who has died is brought back to life. They confound us. With our inquisitive minds shaped by scientific rationality we want to know what happened and how it could happen. While those are interesting questions, they are not the best questions to bring to this story. Better are questions of meaning and purpose. What does this story mean? Why would someone include this story in a narrative of the early church? Two statements by others answer these questions well.
“The good news is about bringing life where there is death, love where there is hate, healing where there is brokenness.” (William Loader, textweek.com)
“The church is entrusted with the power to create new life… bodily, concretely, locally.” (Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century theolog)
This story about Peter and Tabitha is a story about the church, about its good news, about its mission. The church exists to give life, to enhance life. Its good news is about life, love and healing. It exists to widen the circle of those who know God’s love and it life-giving power. The last line of the story is not simply a throw-away detail. Tanning was considered an unclean occupation by many, yet Peter stays in Joppa with a certain Simon, a tanner.
The church exists to give life, to enhance life. Through its history, the church has not always done that well. Too many have experienced the church as a life-denying place, as narrow, judgmental, cold. That is not the church as Jesus would have it.
The poet Rilke, in one of his Letters to a Young Poet (6th) wrote, What is keeping you… from living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy? It is a question the church should ask in its work as a healing and life-giving presence. What in life is getting in the way of living life more fully? What is getting in the way of living with hope and expectancy? What in life keeps you from knowing the world more deeply and fully in all its pain and beauty? We should ask the question and then help remove those impediments to life by sharing good news of life, healing and love.
The truth of our lives is that we often create our own prisons. We often distance ourselves from life because it can be difficult and harsh. Frederick Buechner speaks powerfully to this. “The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” (Feasting on the Word, 431)
The church exists to enhance life, to give life, to help bring healing, to help remove the impediments that get in the way of life, including our own steely defenses. That means the church is about forgiveness, forgiveness of self so one can start afresh, forgiveness of others so that we are not held hostage by the past. Let me add that forgiveness is a process, not a moment – a process of not letting the hurt of the past continue to haunt the present and future. It does not necessarily mean reconciliation or restoration of friendship. It is complex, but its complexity does not diminish its importance. That the church is a life giving place means that we are about transformation – inner and outer. Diana Butler Bass says that “transformation is the promise at the heart of the Christian life” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 281). Tabitha engaged in “good works and acts of charity.” Interesting phrasing. “Acts of Charity” implies inner transformation – a heart made more compassionate and loving living that out in action. But the transforming work of the church as a life-giving place also involves us in social transformation. We engage in good works. We do good in the world. What gets in the way of more life for some is the lack of food, clothing shelter, clean water, opportunity for meaningful work. The church in the name of Jesus Christ cares about this. We care about widening the circle, including the excluded. That there is still more work to be done in our world on this issue is made painfully evident by the recent incident at UMD, where students put on Facebook mean-spirited, denigrating comments about an African-American student – comments that were racist, classist and homophobic.
The story in Acts reminds us that the mission of the church is to give life, to enhance life in the name and Spirit of Jesus. We have good news to share about life, healing, hope, love. The church has not been perfect in living its mission, sometimes painfully far from it. Yet at times the church has done its job. At times, this church has done its job. One of the things we want to do today is celebrate our rich heritage at First United Methodist Church. At our best, we have been a place of hope and healing and love, a life-giving, life-enhancing place.
We have been a community gathering place for many years, a front porch for Duluth. This week’s newspaper had a story about Mark Twain’s visits to Duluth in 1886 and 1895. The 1895 visit saw Twain give a lecture at the First Methodist Episcopal Church – our church, when it was downtown. We have held gatherings for celebration, for learning, and for grieving. When Bill McKibben came to Duluth this spring, a small group of clergy and lay people met with him here. When the Rev. Arthur Foy of St. Mark African-Methodist Episcopal Church passed away tragically, this was the place people came to grieve. Just this past Monday, we helped the community say good-bye to long-time band director and musician Jim Stellmaker. Gathering places give life.
Twain’s visit also makes me think we have been a place for faith to ask questions. Mark Twain would not be considered a conventionally religious person. That our church welcomed him tells me we have been a place where people can bring their questions. We have been a place that wants to help people nurture a faith that grows and develops, a faith of the head and heart. Such a faith is life-giving.
In June of 1920, when Duluth became a place of infamy with the June 15 Clayton, Jackson and McGhie lynchings, one of those who spoke out was Rev. Charles N. Pace, pastor of First Methodist Church. “Duluth’s reputation for high-grade citizenship and its moral victories of recent years has been smirched in the disgraceful outbreak of mob violence” (The Duluth Herald, June 16, 1920). Our history is one of engagement in the community on behalf of justice, on behalf of social transformation. We seek healing in the world. We seek to remove social impediments to richer life.
We could go on for some time, but there is not time. Our history, our heritage includes becoming a reconciling congregation, welcoming GLBT people. Our history includes doing significant anti-racism work. Our heritage includes opening our doors for the annual Second Harvest food drive. It includes our mentoring program at Lake Superior elementary. We are fortunate that a part of our heritage is a financial foundation that supports our annual budget. At our best we have been a place of hope and healing, a life-giving place. If we are honest, we also know that we have not always been at our best. There are times when we have been known to be stand-offish, a church for the well-heeled. A former pastor was heard to have said that we don’t do manual labor here. I want to tell you those days are gone. If we are going to be the church we can be, the life-giving church we can be, we will all need to pitch it in a variety of ways – manual labor, small group leaders, teaching, music – the good news is that we have the gifts to do what we need to do.
In fact, to continue to build on our best history and heritage, to be our best as a healing, life-giving presence in our community and our world, change will be needed. United Methodist seminary president Lovett Weems writes in his book Church Leadership: The only way to preserve values over time is to be involved continuously in renewal and change, thus finding ever fresh expressions for those values (xi). We want to be people who can bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old. – and we are doing some of that. When I realized that on this Sunday when we would be remembering our heritage was also going to be a Sunday when Tapestry was going to lead music, I wondered about that. Then I thought, how perfect. To be a life-giving place we need the old and the new together. We need change and renewal, including in our worship and music.
The church exists to enhance life, to give life, to help bring healing, to help remove the impediments that get in the way of life, to be a place of hope. We are fortunate to have such a rich history to build on. And make no mistake about it, while our building is a part of that history, and is often a gift to the community, our richest heritage is our human heritage – it is in the voice of Charles Pace, it is in the music of Ron Gauger, it is in the financial foresight of Dick Bye and Gene Halverson who established our Foundation, it is in the teaching of Barb Ballou, it is in the hugs of Joe Berini - - - it is in every act of faith, hope and love ever engaged in by every person who has called First Methodist Episcopal, First Methodist, First United Methodist Church home.
We can be a place that gives life, that enhances life, one brick at a time, one moment at a time, building on our past toward the future. We can do it, but not alone. We can do it, with a little help from our friends, the friends who gather here again and again. We can do it because the God of Jesus Christ is at work in our lives and in our life together. Amen.