New Life

Date: April 29, 2007
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
Guest Preacher:

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This congregation has a connection to Tabitha/Dorcas. We have a room downstairs, on the other side of the building, named after Dorcas. One of our small groups meets there every Tuesday morning, to quilt. The quilters finish quilt-tops for a fee and donate the proceeds to various ministries, including the Youth Mission trip every year. Recently the quilters donated $1000 to the Transitions School, a school for homeless youth. Another donation they made a few years ago, was a donation of scissors and pinking shears to women in the Congo. These supplies helped women there to support themselves. The peace-worker who delivered the supplies, and who ministered to the women is my friend, DeEtte Beghtol. Today, I'm wearing a new vestment that DeEtte knitted for me, while she was in Africa.

The robe visually shows the importance of the faith community, gathered by the river. On the back is an African image of the Trinity, symbols of Creator, Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. There is even a cloud made from a boll of cotton, picked from a field in the Congo. Wearing it reminds me of our connection to our sisters and brothers in Africa. And putting it on, as a new vestment, I think: What am I doing in my life that shows care for others in the world? Is there anything about the way that I'm living that would cause someone (who didn't know me) to notice that I am living like Christ?

This week, two encounters have caused me to think carefully about the gap between what we profess as Christians, and how others outside the faith perceive Christianity. The first encounter was a bumper sticker with a quote from Ghandi:
"I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike Christ." Hmmm. . .

The second encounter came at a workshop for clergy on understanding addictions and supporting recovery. One theme that I heard repeatedly, from recovering alcoholics was, "the church is the last place I'd go to get help with my addiction." I asked one woman, why? She said, "Because I was already judging myself. I don't need more judgement. What I need is hope and healing." Then I thought of my own addictions: the overeating when I'm emotionally needy; soap opera watching (yes!)-to let go of reality. . . I too, am afraid to admit my own compulsions, for fear of harsh judgment.

Marion Woodman, in her book, Addiction to Perfection, wrote:
"Compulsions narrow life down until there is no living-existing perhaps, but not living." But-shouldn't the body of Christ be welcoming to all in need of hope and healing? Can the church be a safe place to admit our brokenness, and to genuinely hope for healing?

And Peter said, "Tabitha, get up. . . and calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. The word for "alive" in Greek, is zao: To live, to breathe, to be among the living.

Elizabeth O'Connor, one of my favorite writers wrote:
"I want to dwell among an Easter people, I want to know and be known by them."
She continues:
"The vows that we make when we become members of the church of Jesus Christ are more than an oath to stick around with a particular group of people. I believe that they can be interpreted as a commitment to a total transformation.
This transformation which happens as we try to live out our lives with those who are also called to be in this community, is simply learning to live by love. . .learning to be persons in community with other persons. This is the most creative and difficult work to which any of us will ever be called. There is no higher achievement in all the world than to be a person in community, and this is the call of every Christian. We are to be builders of liberating communities that free love in us and free love in others."

Building liberating communities that free love in us and in others-that's what the early disciple, Dorcas, was doing. That's her name in Greek; in Aramaic it is Tabitha.) We don't know many details about Dorcas. (In fact, I have never preached nor rmember hearing a sermon mentioning her!) We know that she was helping those at the margin of society. She was a disciple, and she was known for her good works, her almsgiving, and the clothing that she made for the widows.

In a patriarchal system, (and in some places in the world today) women with no husband or father to look out for their interests had a real struggle for survival. These widows --the bottom rung of society-these are the ones to whom Dorcas had given life. When Dorcas died, her life-giving work died with her.

But this is an Easter story-and it does not end with death. This story from Acts, and of Peter's healing, echoes stories from the Old Testament, suggesting that the apostles, like the prophets of old, brought power to bear on behalf of the poor.
Following other accounts of life-restoring in Acts, Peter shows Dorcas to be alive. Importantly, Dorcas-- even before Peter called her back to life-- was already living a new way-a life deeply connected to the poor.

I want to live among an Easter people. I want to know and be known by them.
Healing where it seems impossible. Reorientation. New life. That's largely what the book of Acts is about. In the church, in every family, and every congregation, there are places where we have failed to live with the abundant life promised to us through Christ. There are fixed beliefs and patterns that lead to judgment, rejection and conflict. But the new community, the life in Christ, is a community where reality is not based upon rigid law or logic or cause-effect circumstances, but upon God's Spirit breaking forth.

In this new community of Christ, widows will not be left to perish. In the new community, those at the margins are cared for. The poor won't be neglected by religious leaders. People with addictions will not be shunned, but accepted and encouraged in healing and transformation. The power of God through Christ- transforms all structures and arrangements. It changes them from death to life.

Last summer, when I was at a Presbyterian retreat center in New Mexico, I met a Ugandan woman, who, like Dorcas, leads a vibrant life. Her name is Noerine Kaleeba. In 1986, she got a call from England, where her husband Christopher, was studying to get a master's degree. Come quickly, they told her, your husband is very ill.
Noerine went to get her husband, whose body was devastated by AIDS. Although she was able to bring him home, Noerine was forced to care for her husband herself because no health care workers in Uganda would touch him. He died of AIDS in January 1987. In her grief and outrage, Noerine founded The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) to educate Ugandans about HIV/AIDS and to combat prejudice and stigma. TASO has reached more than 80,000 people in Uganda alone, and its programs have been exported to many other countries. Noerine also gives physical, emotional and financial support to 26 AIDS-orphaned children and teens living in her house. Known as "Auntie Noerine", she has a wide circle of friends who help to support her in this work with people in need, at the margins of society. Noerine leads a full and vibrant life, a life reflecting the love of Christ.
I want to live among an Easter people. I want to know and be know by them.
Who are the people we reject? Sometimes, it's the people we're closest to: members of our own family or church whose actions or beliefs we judge to be wrong and hurtful. The Presbyterian church, along with other denominations, is fractured right now. At General Assemblies and presbytery meetings, aind in congregations, there are groups within groups, meeting behind closed doors, suspicious and angry at other Presbyterians who disagree on theological and political issues.
Healing where it seems impossible. Reorientation. New life. Transformation.
We are to be builders of liberating communities, freeing us and others to love. In Galations 2:20, we read, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me." To follow Christ means not so much that we work for Christ, but that we invite Jesus to live in us."

In this season of Easter, we are invited to reflect upon the lives of people like Dorcas, and Noerine, and to ask of God: Are we living as an "Easter people?" How can we open our lives to be the kind of people in whom renewal begins? What blocks the coming of the Holy Spirit?

I want to live among an Easter people. I want to know and be know by them.

What would the world be like? What would your life be like? What would the church be like if every day, we diligently lived into the vows we made at becoming part of the body of Christ? What if, as followers of Jesus, we devoted ourselves to learning to live by love? What if Christians were more like Christ? What would our lives be like, then?