"She was devoted to good works"-Sermon for Easter 4, Acts 9:36-43
Our New Testament Lesson from the Acts of the Apostles today tells Tabitha’s story. Acts tells us that Tabitha was a disciple of Jesus, and thus a leader, in the budding first century Christian community, and, further, that she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. It seems she made clothes for a living or at least as a hobby…and it seems she was a gifted seamstress of some acclaim or excellence. I say this because following her death…her friends and fellow Christ-followers in the town of Lydda…during something perhaps akin to a modern day viewing…that is a time set aside before burial to see her physically one last time and pay last respects…to say goodbye…again her friends and and fellow Christ followers at this viewing, if you will, laid out all around her body some of the clothing she lovingly made…some of the fruit of her labor…the beautiful things she had created and then generously shared with others…sort of like they were compelled to say to Peter and others…see all the good she did…all the beautiful things she made and blessed us with. Perhaps similarly…I think of my own grandmother who was an artist…she picked up oil painting late in life and created some beautiful paintings that now hang on the wall of my own home and, as I regularly look at them, I am reminded of her…of all of her life…her paintings, yes…but much more so her love…her own good works and acts of charity given to me…and to so many others.
In Tabitha’s case, we don’t know exactly what her good works and acts of charity were…but we might safely suggest that they were connected to her gift as a seamstress. Perhaps she sowed clothes for people who could not afford to make or purchase their own. Perhaps she made blankets or shawls that were given to expectant mothers to keep their new born babies warm…or given to the sick or dying to bring them comfort and warmth in their time of great need...reminding them of the warmth of those who love them…that they are not alone…instead they are all wrapped up in the warmth of God’s love. Perhaps she knitted socks to keep the feet of those who lived and worked outside dry, clean and toasty…whether they were indeed for those who were homeless or just labored in the great outdoors. Perhaps she knitted tunics for little girls and boys that lived in other parts of the known world…that fellow disciples could take with them on their missionary travels to share with those children in need who they met along the way. We don’t know for sure…but I bet I am on the right track. That Tabitha generously used the gift that God had given her…a gift with needle and thread…charitably shared…good work indeed…that provided for those who received her gifts something absolutely basic and required for living…good, well made, probably even beautiful clothing…something in these days that could so easily be forgotten or overlooked. And even more powerfully in my estimation is what these gifts pointed to…what they represented…beyond the physical comfort and aesthetic beauty they provided…which is that we are all surrounded by and clothed above all with love…God’s love that fills us and sustains us in this life and the one to follow.
And I note that in many ways we stand on Tabitha’s shoulders…replicating her own ministry, her own good works and acts of charity in this place, as in many churches, even today. I remember several years ago when a group of women gathered here at St. Julian’s to make little dresses from pillow cases for girls in need overseas. We have had a number of shawls knitted over the years by both people in this community and friends of this community that we then blessed and passed along to those in the hospital or expectant mothers. And I remember just two Sundays ago, Marty Terry walking in to her church with arms full of socks, lovingly counting them to be sure we had enough, to stuff in our manna bags to help keep the feet of our friends and neighbors who live on our streets dry, clean and toasty.
These are just some expressions of the good work and acts of charity done in our church or by the people who make up our beloved community. For surely our acts of self-giving love and generosity extend beyond the world of textiles. I participated with our Stewardship Committee and so many of you on the day before Palm Sunday as we cleaned and freshened up this building to greet guests and participants alike in the Holy Week that followed. I watched members of our community just recently walk along side one of our own who recently lost a spouse…providing support and prayers and food and tissues to wipe tear filled eyes…and really so much more. I watched our community graciously wash one another’s feet in our Maundy Thursday service…a symbolic act that says see how much I love you…see how much I care for you. I watched many people in this community welcome our neighbors to our Easter Egg Hunt and Celebration at Cat Hollow Park…inviting them into the fun…welcoming them into our family just as if they were always one of our own. The next day on Easter Sunday, I watched our greeters lovingly welcome many guests and regular participants alike into our warm and lovely Easter services. I received the gift of a lovely photograph of my mother-in-law who was with us for Easter…taken by Luis Morales…I don’t know how Luis is with a needle and thread, but he is a gifted photographer who is generous with the pictures he takes. In the past week or so, members of our community baked or provided dozens of cookies for Kairos Prison Ministry that our own Richard Lauzon is distributing this very weekend to the inmates at the prison in which they are serving. And Sunday before last, as already mentioned, I watched us build many more manna bags for our friends and neighbors living on our streets and watched our “Change Lives Here” jar fill up with change and cash to support our pilgrimage and good work among the people of Navajoland. And this is all just in the past three weeks or so…our ministries from Hospitality, to Community of Hope, to Outreach, to Mission and Growth, to Stewardship, to Greeting, to Worship…and there is so much more I could point out…so many more individuals I could point to and name…offering from this place and from our own hearts good works and acts of charity…offering gifts of love…and all pointing to…representing…and reminding us of God’s love that fills us, that sustains us, in this life and the one that follows.
Like my own Grandmother’s paintings that hang on the walls of my own home…these good works and acts of charity…these acts of love…live on…beyond the moment they are offered and received…perhaps some will live on beyond our own life-times…as people are reminded and indeed remember how they were blessed by the good works and acts of charity they were graciously given…love offered and received…and all pointing to…all done in the name of God’s love that fills us and sustains us in this life and the one that follows.
Now it would be easy and, don’t get me wrong, good to hear Tabitha’s story in Acts and get lost in the wonder of the miracle of her life being restored by God through the ministry of Peter. And this gift is indeed worth remembering, celebrating…as I said on Easter Sunday…worth cheering with all our might, high fives all around. It reminds us that our God is the God of life…who has power even over death. This is our great good news…that love is stronger even than death…that death is more gate than grave. Jesus is the first born, not the last born, but the first born from the dead…and all of us get to follow. Thus we are freed from the fear of death…freed from the power of sin. But…and this is so very important…that freedom from sin and death is not just freedom from something…as I have said before…it is to be freedom for something. Freedom for taking risks…for stepping out boldly using our gifts, just like Tabitha did, in acts of charity, of generosity, of self-giving love…all for the purpose of re-shaping our world, our lives and the lives of those who surround us, into something that looks like the kingdom of God…like heaven on earth…like resurrection…like God’s love found in every direction we look.
So…as I reflect on Tabitha’s story…at least as I do so today…I see her body…surrounded by those she loved and who loved her…the saints of God…and amongst them are the all clothes she made…the clothes that she made for others…her good works and acts of charity…all the fruit of her labors…the gift God gave her…freely shared, freely given…a testament and witness to the sort of life she lived…using what God had given to her to bless others…as tangible signs and symbols of God’s love that fills us and sustains us in this life and the one that follows.
Today, we get to remember her story…I’ll call her St. Tabitha the Patron Saint of textile workers, fashion designers, knitters, and sowers…and really…and really all of us who have indeed been given gifts of all sorts and types…to lovingly and generously use…in this place and beyond…as signs and symbols of God’s great love that stands behind it all…behind us all…filling us and sustaining us in this life and the one that follows.
In closing, I have attended, served in and officiated at many funerals in the past 20 years of ministry. And I have noted pretty consistently what is memorialized and celebrated are all the good things and meaningful acts of love that remain in our midst…even after the casket has been closed and our mortal bodies are left behind…almost like they are literally placed all around the church for us to look at, touch, and be blessed by once again. And indeed these good works live on…these act of charity…even, as they are remembered, they continue to bless. Thus our work, which always lies before us, is to identify and hone our own giftedness and then freely use them in this place and beyond. And though surely not always easy, it feels good and right to do so…to borrow a line from Fleetwood Mac…God made lovin’ fun…and all these good works and act of generous charity indeed fill and sustain…for they flow from the love that was at the beginning, is now, and which will be forever, the Love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit from which all that is indeed good flows…filling us and sustaining us in this life and the one that follows. Amen.