Acts 9: 36-13
My brother and I used to make fun of country music, “my dog died, and my wife left me and it’s Christmas and I’m alone…” and we’d go on and on with the most heart wrenching comical lyrics we could make up. But the reality of it was, that we didn’t want to admit, and probably still don’t, is that country music made us cry. It’s lyrics got to our hearts- is really moving! Often the artist is giving a testimony, telling a story that speaks to the heart.
Tim McGraw has this great song, I mean, awful and super corny song if you talk to my brother, called “Live like you were dying,” I’ll spare you singing the chorus because I’m a little under the weather today- but it’s the artists reflection on the new awareness he got when he learned he was terminally ill, or just lost a loved one.
It goes like this. Sing with me:
“I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’
And he said, Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin’”
Everything has a cycle of life and death. A natural process of living, thriving, death and dying. We each do, churches do, every living organism lives and dies. But ideas, live on. Our new consultant Michael Piazza, when laying out for us an exciting process for drawing closer as community through Small Groups as we envision our future, he reminded us that not a single church that the apostle Paul planted is still alive- and that is not any failure of Paul’s. Everything lives and dies, and the mainline church in general is clearly in a pattern of death and decline. But church takes on new forms. Life takes on new forms after death.
But, he said, with a process of re-visioning, we can chart a path of not only survival but of thriving. We have to first own up to the death around us though, and even the way certain patterns or systems need to die in order for others to emerge in their place. We don’t know what they are yet- no one does, but we discover that together—what an honor and what fun! To really talk together about what matters to us to hold on to about our tradition. We need to keep death daily before our eyes, so that we can chart the resurrection.
And in our death denying culture- not our fault- it’s the water we swim in- but our death denying culture would have us believe that we live on forever.
But it hasn’t always been this way, Medieval philosophers kept skulls on their desks as awareness of death. Saint Benedict, alive in the late 5th and early 6th century left behind a rule book for Monks in his order, called the Rule of Saint Benedict- and one of the rules in 4:47 states, “keep death daily before your eyes.” He is considered the Father of Western Monasticism.
If you have ever been at a bedside of someone as they pass away, you know that it is one of the most sacred things you can ever witness. Often there is a sense of peace, of calm, of ease around the deceased, even if we are full of many mixed emotions. Not every death is peaceful- some people die in horrific, and tragic ways. But on the hospice floor of Middlesex Hospital, where they expect death, the staff marks these moments as sacred; they gathering and ring a bell every time someone passes away.
“Hospice worker Marie de Hennezel laments that we hide death, treating it as if it were shameful and dirty, a scandal even, rather than as life’s crowning moment. She talks about what she has learned from accompanying people through the living of their final moments: ‘My own sense of aliveness is more intense than ever.’”
The Elder Passage, a group of folks here at First Church who consider themselves seniors, or have concern for those who are called ‘Elders,’ they ring a bell at the beginning and the end of their gatherings. They seek to keep the reality of death daily before their eyes.
We read Psalm 23 today, the most comforting and beautiful Psalm read at almost every funeral, that leads us through an image of a gentle Shepherd God guiding us to places of idyllic beauty and calm, of peace and blessing, a place we imagine we go once we pass on to the other side.
Our Bible reading from the Book of Acts today talks about the death of Tabitha, and the text adds that Tabitha in Greek is Dorcus. So we have today, the death of Dorcus. And a close reading, that pays attention to characters, shows how intimately the disciples dealt with the death. The Book of Acts says, “At that time, she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.” But wait, who are “they?” “They” aren’t Doolittle’s funeral home. “They” are the other disciples, the women washed her body, the women who loved her and worked with her, maybe those who benefited from Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity. The text says, “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” We remember her for her legacy. Such intimacy with death, with the body, with each other.
On our altar today we have compost. We have dirt. We have soil. Because earth is another thing, although incredibly resilient, that we know is dying. We also know a certain perception of God is dying, God as above, untouchable, and beyond us. God as a white haired man in the sky who rules over our fate, who tells us we are stewards of the earth. That God is dying, if he’s not dead already. The God many people are leaving church to find, is the God of bodies, the God of the earth, the sacred reality that weaves all life together, a sacred sense of spirituality that articulates an invisible web of connectivity. We have dirt on the altar today, because we know about that God, and we invite that God inside our walls. Because many people think that the God we worship is a Sky Daddy, completely other, outside of earth, outside of ourselves, and that perception of God has allowed us to use and abuse the earth and each other, rather than treat it as God’s body. The earth as God’s body. And God’s body, mother earth, because of our neglect, is dying.
Our guest artist of Friday night, Peterson Toscano, performed this fabulous character on Saturday called Elizabeth Jeremiah- a southern Pentecostal woman who comes across this thing called ‘Eco-feminism,’ that says the earth is God’s body, and she is wildly skeptical of it, and a little disgusted by it, but eventually admits, “While the concept of mother earth sounds like new age pagan devil worship to me, I can see that she is sick, and that we did that to her. And I know how hard it is to make peace with a harmed woman.”
We have dirt on our altar, and mushrooms during Second Hour, because Earth Day is coming up this week– on April 22nd. And because we honor earth as sacred, as harmed, as dying. We have dirt on our altar to honor the earth as God’s body. This way of seeing God, in the dirt allows us to come to terms with our own bodies as connected to the earth, to understand the earth as the source of our life, our food, our joy, our vitality, to truly honor the earth as sacred. To honor our bodies and lives as sacred. And to hope together, to bond together, to work together, for the reality of resurrection for the earth, for ourselves, and for our beloved community.
We keep death daily before our eyes because we live life with a resurrected spirit if we do so. We aren’t satisfied with status quo, or the way was have always done it, or death having the last word and being the final answer. We keep death daily before our eyes because it transforms us, it transforms us to put our hearts and minds together to become the life-giving community we want to be. We keep death daily before our eyes to remember how powerful our lives are, that we each have a purpose, a ministry, a sacred value and worth. We keep death daily before our eyes because it is an inevitability! We waste time denying and fearing death.
Tabitha, or Dorcus, represent to us everything we want to be- remembered by our good works and charity, surrounded by our loved ones who are witnessing us, others facing our death with intimacy and tears and great care, and then… when the disciples call to Peter, “Please come to us without delay,” Peter goes to the bedside of Tabitha, of Dorcus, to the bedside of the earth, of the dying church, and Lord does he pray. He kneels down, to honor the life, and with the hope of the resurrection of Jesus freshly on his heart, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Maybe he meant, let your spirit rise, and be with God, leave this earthly plane. Get up you are free. But the text insists- she literally get’s up.
“Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Acts 9:41-43
We are people of the resurrection. And whether we believe in the resurrection through the metaphor that life has the last word over death, that peace has the last word over violence, or that Jesus rose from the dead and it is our task to imitate Christ, and rise. Whether we believe in the resurrection through our good works and acts of charity living beyond us, and that we and our loved ones will live in peace with God in cosmos after we pass to the other side, whether we believe in the resurrection through a group of 21 9-18 year olds in Oregon, suing the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel industry on behalf of future generations, for knowing that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel causes global warming, whether we believe in the resurrection through the sure signs of spring budding up all around us, we are people of the resurrection. And rebirth abounds. Let us invite life abundant to rise up within us, around us, in our community and in the earth. And let us witness to the incredible death embracing and life-giving power of the resurrection. Because rebirth abounds. Amen.