The following sermon was preached by Stephanie Lord, LSTC M.Div. student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, May 3, 2007.
It's Peter's first call, his first week of CPE, or his first month of internship and his supervisor is out of town and what should happen, but somebody dies. He is hoping that he remembers what Jesus taught him--so far the preaching part has been pretty straightforward and the persecution that Jesus said he would experience has happened, but now here is he is and really, he's only WATCHED someone be raised from the dead before. Peter arrives in Joppa and is taken immediately to the room where Tabitha is laid. The grief of the widows around him is tangible--you can see what a difference Tabitha made in their lives as they hold up tunics that she made and their voices cry stories of her commitment, patience, and love.
So what does Peter do? He puts on his best holy face and tells them that he needs a moment alone for prayer. OK, I've said similar things when I have absolutely NO idea what to do next. Maybe Peter is buying time to look up the appropriate rite in Occasional Services Maybe he is overwhelmed by the widows' grief and needs a moment to collect himself. Whatever his reason, Peter closes the door and he prays. And then perhaps in desperation or spoken with complete trust, he says: Tabitha, get up.
Peter comes to this very unique community--a community of widows--of women who in their poverty and need have gathered together with the help and love of Tabitha who has made them garments and showed them compassion. This is a community of believers led by a disciple of Christ, and her illness and death has devastated them. Her death is not only the end of her life, but the end of her life-giving work for this community of widows. So they send for Peter, "please come to us without delay" without saying what is expected of him. They have washed and prepared the body--are they looking for a miracle or for someone to help them bury their beloved friend and commend her to their Lord Jesus Christ?
"Please come to us without delay." That is the widows' plea to one whom they trust, a leader in the church, their pastor. Please come to us because we trust that you bear God's word for us. Please come because you know so well the story of the One who was not stopped by death. Please come to us to help us see where Christ is even as we grieve.
"Please come without delay." Maybe that was Peter's prayer, too, when he closed the door on that upstairs room. Please come to us without delay, God, because I have no idea what to say to these people. Please come because I have seen and know that your presence means hope among grief and life in the midst of death. Please come to us--to me and to these that I care for.
"Please come to us without delay." The things that are coming without delay are barreling down on this LSTC community as we can count on one hand the number of class days left in the semester. Without delay comes moving and new places and fresh starts and hellos and goodbyes. In the haste of these changes and that indescribable mix of fear and excitement, we too pray, please come. Please come because we don't know the next step. Please come and grieve with us as we leave our community. Please come as we celebrate each other's gifts and send each other with blessings to answer the call that we have heard.
In this week where we have been reminded that we are both sheep and shepherds, we are the community wiping our tears with tunics and shirtsleeves and asking to hear Christ proclaimed in our midst. We are Tabitha who clearly knew and shared God's love for all but we feel lifeless and shadowed by death. We are Peter, uncertain and brazen, confident and questioning answering the call to "please come."
The widows wait outside, holding each other and praying. Peter closes his eyes as he sits next to Tabitha. Swirling in their minds are memories of meals shared--do this in remembrance of me. Memories of water cooling warm brows and dirty feet. Images of spirit moving among the people and God's love for those pushed to the edges. And one clear picture of an empty tomb--and Peter says, Tabitha, get up. He takes her hand and calls the saints and widows. The tunics that were wiping tears become banners and ribbons of celebration. God gives life to the faithful servant. God gives life to the community who grieves. God gives life to the one is called to lead. The life God gives stretches into the rooms where we pray alone and where we huddle together looking for comfort. God gives us life when we're scared and uncertain. God gives life even as we "wait patiently and manage our anxiety" in this time of change and transition.
It's our first call, our first week as a hospital chaplain, our first month of internship, our last week of classes--we close our eyes to pray and hear the water splashing and the words of assurance "this is the Body of Christ given for you." We see an empty tomb and trusting in the God gives life to all, we get up and carry these things to the places who have asked of us, "please come." May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel. Amen.