Sermon: 12th May 2019

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Psalm 23, Revelations 7:9-17, Acts 9:36-43

Comfort, Caring, Confidence

It’s easy to feel helpless – or hopeless – these days. What can one person do, what can one congregation accomplish? But perhaps those are the wrong questions. Instead, we are asked simply to do what we can do, and to be confident that that good will carry on, and the day of gladness and comfort will come.

* * * * *.

I can’t speak for you, but for me I’m still waiting for things to get back to normal. It’s getting closer, I think, but there’s still a tension, a nervousness, an uncertainty, in the air. Traffic remains oddly light – a convenience for getting around to be sure but a sign that life remains off-kilter. I’m wondering if tensions won’t remain high until Vesak comes and goes, as a time when fresh attacks might happen. But then there’s the end of Ramadan after that, and something more thereafter. The real point may be that ‘normal’ isn’t normal – life just has different phases and attitudes and feelings at different times. I’ve lived through crises in other countries during my career, and I’m familiar with feeling this way. It’s hard to stick to the usual tasks and schedule. It’s easy to keep checking for news bulletins and emails, even though I know nothing new will likely pop up. You have all lived through these periods right here at home. And you thought they were over. But life has to go on; we have to turn away from the fixation on fear or the strobe lights of news headlines and live lives that continue to serve ourselves and our families and our nation. We need comfort and confidence and hope – and our scripture passages today offer all these. They point us to the value of the ordinary, the importance of the daily, and remind us that we too carry on the work of the apostles and disciples in those daily tasks and routines.

We all know the 23rd Psalm that we sang as our second hymn well. If you have learnt by heart any passage of Scripture at all, it may well be this one. You may know it even without having tried to memorize it, it is so common in church life. Today we sang it rather than read it, but it is the psalm appointed for this day, along with the passages Savithri just read. And it strikes me as a good place to start, for it speaks to our day. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …’ . And so we have, so has Sri Lanka. The shadow of death became all too real for too many on Easter Day, and the darkness of the human heart shown that day continues to cast its pall over us all. Parents afraid to send their children to school, Muslims staying at home for fear of assault on the streets, restaurants empty when they should be full, everyone paying a cost, first the little people who depend on daily income, followed by the owners and bosses higher up the ladder. Fear is normal, fear is understandable – but fear is not a fact, it’s an emotion. And we must take charge of our emotions and submit them to our reasoning minds – and to God. ‘for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’ Now I concede immediately that life is uncertain, and bad things do happen even to good people. Perhaps especially to good people. But to live in constant fear is not to live, it is only to survive. Fear looks forward, unto what might happen, but also might not, but that fear of the might means we do not live today as people of faith, looking for the good signs of God around us. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Grimly realistic, yes – but full of confidence that each day can be managed, and fretting about the fearful future will do nothing but weaken us. ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou are with me. Thy road 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.’ With confidence in the Good Shepherd, even the evil we have seen can give rise to goodness and mercy, when people overcome their fear and reach out to those hurt, in body or spirit, to those excluded, and frightened. We have the good news of this beloved Psalm – He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul. May we hear and know those words in our very being – and then be able to share them.

And how do we do that? The reading from Acts points us in the right direction, I think. Now after the beautiful language of the psalmist, this passage from Acts about Tabitha and Peter — well, it’s not poetry. ‘Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died.’ As I said, not poetry. But few of us are poets, and all language need not be beautiful to be important. For starters, you note that Tabitha here is called a disciple. In Greek words have masculine and feminine forms, you can tell who a word refers to by how it’s spelled. And in this case, the word disciple is feminine – the disciple is not a man, but Tabitha, a woman, the only time in the entire New Testament that we find the word in this way. So Tabitha was not just a follower, she must have had a real impact on people. But how? A great preacher? A teacher? What? “So Peter got up and went with them,” – the other disciples who had gone to call Peter – “and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” Today we go to Cool Planet or House of Fashion or maybe your favorite tailor, and we come by our clothing easily and even cheaply. In those days not so. Most people only had maybe two sets of clothes, each of which had required much time and effort to make, or maybe obtain. Clothing was so scarce and important that in Jewish law you could not hold a person’s tunic, the outer piece of cloth, overnight if you had taken it as a pawn, as security for a debt. You had to return it before nightfall, so essential to life was it. But Tabitha – Dorcas – she had obviously made or purchased many tunics, and provided them to the widows in the community. I have no idea what she preached or how she taught – she may have been brilliant, we just don’t know – but we know what she did. She met people’s need. She did what she was able to do, apparently – spin and weave and sew – and with those skills she served those around her. ‘All the widows stood beside him’ – to be a widow in those days was not only to grieve, but to be without income, typically, and certainly to be without social status, for it was a deeply patriarchal society. But Dorcas had served those she could with skills she had.

When our Presbyterian branch of the Christian faith started, vocation meant being a priest or a nun. That’s what a Christian vocation was. Full-time service to the church. But John Calvin and his followers said if the whole world belongs to God, and Christians live in the real world, as shown by God becoming human in Jesus, then all honest work can be Godly work – a vocation, a calling that earns a living and serves the people. Tabitha had a vocation; Tabitha, Dorcas, the disciple of Jesus, served God and her community by doing what she did to the glory of God. So also may we live as Christ’s disciples, may we serve the good world God created, through whatever work we do well and do best.

Peter’s miracle also serves to remind us that the work of Jesus – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast – continues in the church, continues in the work of those who call him Lord. The apostles and disciples did not simply talk about what Jesus had said or done – they did it. The Church in the power of the spirit esus, but does his ministry of Jesus.

The 23rd Psalm offers comfort and encouragement. Tabitha shows us what it means to live as disciples, doing ordinary things in caring ways as the vocation, the calling of Christians. Peter in a different way shows us that we continue to ministry of Jesus as well as his memory. Comfort, caring, and then confidence, as we return to poetry with those stirring words and important reminders of the passage from Revelations.

‘After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, …and all the angels stood around the throne .. and worshipped God, singing Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!’ All tribes and peoples and languages. That vision of a world at peace, of a world at one, of a world that knows its Creator created all, and calls all together in thankful praise – that vision sustains us and draws us forward. No, we shall not see it in our time, I know – but without a vision the people perish. Without a vision of what Sri Lanka can be, should be, must be for the sake of its people, of its children – without that vision communal hatred and violence will continue to scar the image of God which all of its people bear.

This passage continues a few lines down, ‘One of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white? .. he said to me ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, … the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This land has come, again, through a great ordeal. The promises of God, the confidence of a better future, remain. But we must live out those promises in our own lives, giving not into fear, but knowing the comfort, and caring, and confidence we find in faith.

It’s easy to feel helpless – or hopeless – these days. What can one person do, what can one congregation accomplish? But perhaps those are the wrong questions. Instead, we are asked simply to do what we can do, and to be confident that that good will carry on, and the day of gladness and comfort will come.

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