Mother's Day and Resurrection
We have a couple of things to get settled right up front. First, at one time I took a vow never to preach about Mother’s Day; it is not on the church calendar, and the sermons about the holiday that I heard in the country church of my youth were too saccharine for anyone’s spiritual –and perhaps physical—health. And they did not have too much to do with classical Christianity.
Second, knowing me as well as many of you do, you may have taken a vow never to listen to another sermon from me about resurrection. But given the intersection of this secular holiday and today’s lesson from the Book of Acts and the church season we are in…well, it puts us all in a difficult place.
For weeks now, we have been approaching resurrection from various viewpoints. First, there was the well-known story of an empty tomb and Mary seeing a gardener. Then we heard about the risen Christ in a locked room of disciples. Did he look like one of those disciples? Last week the focus of the gospel and the Book of Acts turned away from what the risen Christ looks like and instead focused, I think, on when he shows up. At the most inopportune of times, it appears, as for example, when someone has no clothes on, as was the case with Peter, or is hard at work breathing threats of murder against the followers of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, as was the case with Saul. Just when you don’t want Jesus around, there he is.
Today we get a new viewpoint. Instead of the “what” of resurrection or the “when” of resurrection, today we delve into the “how” of resurrection, of how it is that resurrection continues to take place. The story from the Book of Acts can be a user’s guide, so to speak, for resurrection in the twenty-first century.
To understand its importance for us, don’t get bogged down in the medical science of how it is that Tabitha went from being prepared for burial as a dead body to getting up from her deathbed with the assistance of Peter. That is a resuscitation story, and at the end of the day the writer of the Book of Acts is not asking us to focus on resuscitation. Resuscitation of someone apparently dead is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, and it is something that occasionally happens in the annals of medicine. But resurrection—and how it takes place in every age, even among the physically living—is what the writer ultimately is concerned about.
To understand this truth, we can set aside science, but we cannot set aside the widows in the story. You see, what is happening in this story is the opposite of a Mother’s Day celebration. You probably would not find these women being taken out to Mother’s Day lunch on the second Sunday in May, no doting children. When the Bible mentions widows, it is often what we would call code language. There is the immediate connection to women who have nothing, that is, no husband and
perhaps no children. In the biblical era, they suffered. More broadly, the biblical focus on widows is to enable the listener to envision people on the periphery. Envision people who are forgotten, who suffer economically and socially. Envision people who are at the mercy of forces beyond their control: no social safety net. That situation is not unique to first century Palestine. In every age and in every society we have people for whom there is no safety net, who suffer socially and economically, who have no secure future. The word “widows” is a biblical stand-in for forgotten and helpless individuals.
The story tells us that the widows were weeping after Tabitha died. No wonder. She had apparently been their godsend. The story had already told us that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Did you catch the part about them displaying to Peter the clothing she had made and presumably given to them? She had helped them keep clothes on their backs. After Tabitha saved the lives of others, she found new life herself. We are being set up for the overarching theological the heart of the story, that is, the person who reaches out in love for others eventually finds new life. Or to rephrase the wording somewhat, resurrection is the consequence of unconditional love.
The writer is telling the wider church that the result of Tabitha’s love for others is for her to breathe in new life. It is a story that is consonant with what the church was then discovering about Jesus of Nazareth. His love for the forgotten, his willingness to take on religious and political authorities for the sake of the helpless, his very talk of a different sort of kingdom where the conventionally powerful are no longer in control, resulted in his death, but also resulted in his body taking on new flesh and blood. He became the body of Christ in the world in every time and age. Among Jesus’ disciples, Tabitha finds new life because she loves the forgotten and helpless. This is a story of resurrection that goes beyond the historical Jesus and beyond Tabitha. It becomes our story. The writer is telling you and me that when we love, when the focus goes off of self and on to others, when we stop being greedy, we will discover resurrection; we will breathe in new life. If we want to find life, love others as Christ’s own self, even those whom we would like to forget. That is the heart of what Christianity has to offer the world—and offer you and me.
For some very practical reasons, it is a pity that this story from the Book of Acts is not in the church’s calendar, say, in October or November as stewardship sermons are being preached. As I tell anyone who will listen, the goal of giving away money is not to prop up the church and pay its utility bills. The goal is for us to find new life through giving away from that which we have held on to. The church provides us a way to do so. But it goes beyond financial assets. The lesson that we learn week after week in church is that when we are concerned for the well being of others, when we treat them as beloved members of the body of Christ, as beloved community as our presiding bishop says, we are resurrected to new life ourselves.
The last parable in the gospel of Matthew is the Great Judgment. People unwittingly find the kingdom when, as Jesus says, they welcome the stranger and clothe the
naked. That is what the writer of the Book of Acts is also trying to tell us. We will suddenly and surprisingly experience what is like to find new life when we live like Tabitha, being with others as we would wish others would be with us. In the end, that is what it is like to see the risen Christ, and to be resurrected along with him. Amen.