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In the Direction of “Forth”

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams –April 21, 2013 – Easter 4: Acts 9:36-43

I’m going to focus in on the story from Acts this morning.  During the season of Easter we hear from the book of Acts on every Sunday because this book takes us beyond the story of what’s in the gospels – Jesus’ life and death and resurrection – and into the disciples response to their experience of the Christ.  Acts is the story of the disciples living into and working out the impact of resurrection; it’s the story of how resurrection dramatically changed their hearts and lives, how they became church and then changed others lives by sharing and living the good news.

And the story we heard in today’ s passage is one of the truly amazing ones. Remember that by the point this story took place, Jesus had not only risen but he’d ascended too.  (We’re not quite there yet on the liturgical calendar, but we are in the Book of Acts). And so at this point the disciples were on their own . . . well, sort of on their own.  Jesus had ascended, but the spirit had already come upon them (that happened in the second chapter of Acts).   With that coming of the Spirit, the disciples had been gifted and sent forth.  They’d been sent to proclaim and to do the good news of Christ.

Now remember that while they’d seen a lot and experienced a lot, technically the disciples had not been given much training.  There hadn’t been a course on praying or preaching or even healing, no geographical analysis on which towns in the surrounding area might be most in need of what they had to offer.  They just went in the direction of “forth” and did their best to trust that they had what they needed in order to do what needed to be done.  And there’s something kind of wonderful about that.

Today we heard that some of the disciples went to Joppa and there they learned that a woman named Tabitha had become ill and she had died.  Now judging by the little that we do know about her, Tabitha was an extremely important person in their community. Not important because she held any sort of office or fame but because, “She was devoted to good works and to charity,” the book of Acts says.  So when Peter arrived on the scene there were many women gathered there caring for the body, weeping and telling stories about their beloved friend.   And so Peter, who knew that healing needed to happen and had actually recently been sent forth to do just that knelt down and prayed.

And that’s important.  Notice first that before Peter did anything, he prayed.  Now we don’t know what he prayed, exactly but maybe it was something like, “Dear God, how do I do this?  Given all the stories these people have heard, their expectations are through the roof.  And I’m new at this.  And I’m scared.”  Or maybe Peter prayed something like, “Remember that time, God, when I tried to walk on water and I sunk?  Well, that memory is making me a little nervous right now.  I’m not sure how to step.  Help me.”   Or maybe Peter prayed something like, “I watched what you did with Lazarus, God and I saw what happened with Jairus’ daughter.  You brought them back. Please do that again, now.”  Or maybe he simply said “Your will be done,” (although knowing what we do know about Peter having that as an initial thought was probably unlikely.)

When it comes right down to it though, it doesn’t really matter what he prayed.  There’s no exact formula to this healing stuff, we just need to know that Peter prayed something and it seems to have mattered.   Earlier this year as a part of our Wednesday night gatherings, we read an Anne Lammot book in which she claims that when it comes right down to it, there really are only three basic prayers, anyway.  The first is “Help”, the second is “Thanks” and the third is “Wow!”  Odds are good that Peter’s prayer that moment when he was kneeling by the dead body of Tabitha was some version of the first.  “Help me, God.”

Then, when Peter was done praying he turned to the body and he spoke to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up,” which was the most courageous moment in this whole story.  At that moment, Peter bet it all on resurrection.  And sure enough, Tabitha opened her eyes. Then seeing Peter, she sat up which is probably when he transitioned to the second prayer of “Thank you.”  Or maybe  he skipped right over that to “Wow!” and circled back to “Thank you” a little later.  Regardless, there was celebration and “many believed in the Lord,” Acts tells us.

And that’s about all it tells us.  Peter stayed in Joppa with a certain Simon, and presumably Tabitha and her friends went back to doing good works and acts of charity.  And they had this amazing story of resurrection to be and to tell.

Now there’s a lot here and we can’t possibly hit it all this morning but I do want to highlight a couple of things.  The first is that Jesus not only told the disciples to go out and heal, he also passed on to them the power to do it.  And I want us to hear that.  To feel that. To believe that!  And it wasn’t only Peter that was given the gift of healing it was all of them, and all of us too.  There are very few things that Jesus commands us to do but healing is one of those things:  Forgive! Feed! Heal! and Love!   And we’ve not only been sent forth to consider those things; we’ve actually been sent forth with the command to do and the power to do all of them.  Doing healing is a significant part of our response to resurrection.

But we know also that healing doesn’t always look like it did in this story. And I think that’s one of the reasons it can feel risky.  I’ve knelt by bedsides and prayed my heart out and I’ve never had a dead person respond by opening their eyes.  And that might only be true of me, but I’m guessing not.  In the midst of this command to heal there is mystery.  In fact there’s mystery at work in of all of Jesus’ commands and while that may seem a little unfair, I think it’s what makes them holy and allows forgiving and feeding and healing and loving to be not just our work, but God’s too.

If we could look at the body of a beloved one who had died, kneel down in prayer and invite them back to us we would.  If we could touch every hurt, and pray and watch the wound immediately go away, we would.  This has been a week in which the news from Boston, West Texas, China and so many other places in the world have reminded us how much hurt and pain there is out there.  And if we could pray it all away right now, raise up the people who died too early, too violently, too unfairly we would do that.

But sometimes, most times, all the times that I’ve been at bedsides or other similar circumstances, those prayers don’t get the kind of response that Peter did.  Often, the help we receive from the “help me” prayer doesn’t look quite how we want it to look, doesn’t look how we think it should look.  But, (and this is a big BUT) I do believe that help comes and I do believe that healing happens. Because for every one Tabitha story there are hundreds and thousands of stories about mysterious sorts of hope and love that get spread even in the midst of death.  Stories and experiences about healings that don’t include “the one who has died sitting up and breathing again” but that do include those who are left on this earth be breathing differently, loving differently, living differently, reconciling in moments that are offered them.

I have a sister in law who was about three tenths of a mile from the finish line in Boston when the bombs when off on Monday and her story is an amazing one too. Although completely surrounded by strangers, within minutes she was offered a cell phone – and the person who offered it to her actually dialed home for her when she realized her fingers were too numb to do it herself-  a jacket, and a cup of water and then a stranger on the sidelines offered to be her local guide back to the bus that would reconnect her with some basic belongings.  Now none of that erased the pain that was caused, but it put something new, something good, something that I would call “holy” into the mix that day.  The often hard but also beautiful truth is that healing is more than simply reversing what the world has done.  And resurrection involves more than a woman who has died sitting up in bed and getting back to good works.

And it’s that “more” that we’ve been invited into and it’s that “more” that forms the foundations of belief and is the kind of healing that we have been commanded to do.   The good news is that God always hears the “help me” prayer and God always responds.  And together we can be the Body of Christ that is present to the need, whatever it happens to be. And no matter what the outcome, in those experiences there will come the opportunity for a loud and strong, “Wow, Thank You, God.” And maybe, just maybe that’s what healing looks like after all.

So go in the direction of forth and do it.