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Holy Work

Psalm 23
Acts 9:36-43

 Psalm 23 which our choir sang is surely one of the best known and most powerful psalms in our bible.  Many of your know it by heart.

 Early in my ministry when I worked as a chaplain in Ottawa, I had to sit in intensive care with a couple as they watched their 23 year old daughter who had been healthy and well 2 hours before, literally turn into a huge bruise from head to toe, as every blood vessel in her body broke from a sudden, unknown disease.   Nurses, doctors, parents, chaplain sat helplessly by, unable to do anything to save this beautiful vital life.

 All I could think to do into this overwhelming  silence, was to put my arms around the parents’ shoulders and repeat the words of psalm 23 aloud- The Lord is My shepherd I shall not want—–All of us joined in-parents, nurses, the Jewish doctor- It was an awesome sacred moment of the presence of God in the valley of the shadow. 

 In another setting I was leading worship in a nursing home.   Many participants had altzheimers; others were in wheelchairs. I began to read, Psalm 23 and suddenly one voice, then another-started to repeat it.  Voices that could not have put a full sentence together under  other circumstances-began to repeat the whole thing! I slowed down, and looked into the faces of the people in the room as they recited this ancient psalm- The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, God makes me lie down in green pastures, God leads me beside still waters, God restores my soul——-Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me,  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.   Their faltering  words were more eloquent than any sermon  I could speak.  The word of God came alive in that room. 

 And when I visited Dr. Charles Johnstone in the last week of his life, I asked him what his favourite scripture was and we recited the whole of psalm 23, though Charles could barely get out a half sentence by that time

 The bible is very clear that walking in the valley of the shadow of death is part of living.  And when we walk there, when we truly allow ourselves to be present to the experience of walking in that shadow, we are never the same, whether we walk near a loved one, or whether we have a life-threatening experience ourselves. Grief work is Holy work. It creates the holes through which the Holy can enter.

  The early Christian community in Joppa in our reading from Acts experienced deep grief at the death of the only woman in the Christian scripture who is ever identified by the specific title disciple, surely a sign of her importance in the early Christian community. And whereas many women in scripture are never named at all, she is named both in Aramaic and in Greek.  Tabitha, and Dorcas in Greek, both meaning Gazelle.

 Tabitha, is renowned for  her work with the widows and fatherless of the community of Joppa,  Joppa would never exhaust the needs of the people, for in this seaport lived many families who depended upon the sea for their living.  In wooden boats the men would set sail on the Mediterranean, then called “The Great Sea.”  Often their boats would be torn to bits as the winter storms and wind drove the boats into the treacherous rocks. There were many widows in Joppa.

 Acts does not tell us whether Tabitha was a widow herself.

The emphasis is on her holy work, her ordinary acts of kindness and generosity.  With her sewing needle as her tool and her home as her workshop, in the way she lived her ordinary life, Tabitha,  established a ministry of caring for the poor. We can infer that Tabitha, was a woman of affluence and wealth.  She could have given of her coins only, but she chose to give of her heart and soul and compassion  too. 

  In many places, the Bible declares God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice. The frequency of these urgings suggests that such mandates were not always heeded. Widows remained vulnerable. So, Tabitha ministers with women routinely overlooked. In so doing, she weaves a community who grieves her death, celebrates her gifts, and witnesses her restoration to life.

 In response to her holy work,  the people loved her.  Her death sent  shock waves through the community.   Widows and church folk  whom  she had befriended made their way to her house,  We hear intimate details about the women washing her body  for burial,  laying  her  out in the upper room, surrounded by bolts of cloth, sewing needles, and thread. 

 The mourners stood about her, weeping, struck with grief. They told stories and reminisced about the one who had died. They recalled all of the was she had cared for them and touched their lives.  

 This is what we do when we walk in the valley of the shadow of death is it not?  ….We remember… We gather the stories and try to make sense …We come to terms with what they meant to us in our own lives. Grief work is holy work.   There was no burying of grief here-no attempt to suppress the pain of loss.

     About ten miles from Joppa in the fertile Plain of Sharon was Lydda, where Peter had gone to preach.  The disciples sent two men to Peter to ask if he would come to them without delay.  When Peter arrives, the gathered widows show him the tunics and clothing the Tabitha,  had lovingly made for them. Peter comes to the upper room, where Tabitha’s body has been laid.  Instead of doing the funeral sermon he may have expected to do,  he prays with her, He calls her to life and Tabitha, awakens restored to life.  OK must have been a coma right? or maybe she was unconscious, The story says clearly, the people around her were sure she was dead. From this valley of the shadow of death, she returns to life-is given a second chance at life!  And the story has been remembered and told in loving detail perhaps as a sign of the ongoing power of the resurrection;

 .. The narrator blends words and memories from Jesus’ ministry into this story. The raising of Tabitha strongly resembles Jesus’ raising of a little girl in Mark. Again it happened in an upper room.  The parallel is striking Peter says (“Tabitha, get up”) and Jesus (“talitha cum,” Aramaic for “little girl, get up”).  It seems calling people to life is part of the ongoing work of resurrection.   What would it mean for us to call people to life in our own community?

 Elisabeth Jones in the bible study blog beyond wood and stone  says   “The ones who stayed around long enough to witness the miracle of life beyond death’s dark vale were the ”saints and widows.”   Walter Brueggemann,* a stunningly perceptive scholar of the Bible, points out that “saints are those who do not flee from the smell of death” because they know the God of life. “Widows are those who  live every day in their vulnerability, at the edge of death.”  Living at this edge, facing death and living anyway, they become images of a Living God, witnesses and testifiers to God’s answer: Live!

Nothing is recorded of Tabitha after her healing.  I wonder how it affected her life to have walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and to have been given a second chance at life.

 How would this affect any of us? We lived something like this in February with mom in Thunder Bay.  We were preparing for death, beginning to plan for a funeral. The doctors had declared mom palliative.  Two days later in the upper room of the hospital she sat up…Now she is back in her home where she lives by herself. Life in the face of death! a second chance.   Who could have imagined it?

 How would your life change if you were to discover that you only had few weeks left to live?   You prepare to meet the end.   You gather friends and family for support, and prayer. Then after surgery  it turns out that the tumour was benign! Life still opens before you. How would this affect what you would do with your life?  How you would spend your time and your energy? Would it change what you thought was important and what was not worth wasting energy for?  Dr. Bernie Siegel a cancer specialist would ask “Can we configure our lives into healed patterns without needing the disease and the crisis?”

 Whenever we walk in the valley of the shadow, we ARE changed.  Some like Tabitha are lucky.  They experience a second chance.  But not all have this experience of the valley   Some fight it, try to go around the valley, or think they can avoid it.  But this valley is one we all must walk through. No one, however strong or nimble, can leap from mountain top to mountain top…there will always be the valley of grief, of loss, whether about death or one of the many other losses of life.

 Some think they can run through the valley – get over it quickly. They do not allow themselves time to grieve, to feel the loss.  We are in a hurry about most everything these days. Even in a hurry to heal. People try to push  healing-tell you to get over it – to get on with it. “  But if we are to find life and healing in the face of deep loss, we must be patient with ourselves and one another.  And the deeper the wound, the longer it takes to heal…Grief is a very deep wound…

 The Psalmist is wise when he says we must WALK through this valley.   Not to try to avoid it or rush through it, but walk;  accept it, embrace our pain and loss, give ourselves permission and time to grieve. For this is the first step toward healing so that we can claim the life that is ours because we have dared to face into death, and chosen life.

 We do not walk alone in this valley. Many others have walked through it too, and walk through it with us. Look around you – a whole community of fellow  pilgrims walking with you through this valley. From their presence, we can draw great comfort and strength.   And in the valley we are accompanied by the  God whom the psalmist called the Shepherd, who leads us to green life-giving places where we can have our needs met, who leads us beside still waters where we can be refreshed, renewed, and have our souls restored.

And always, if we grieve in healthy ways, we find life, indomitable, persistent life rising up, at first unexpectedly, but gradually more and more.

 In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God

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