The Call to Heal

 Acts 9:36-43

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. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; 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. 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. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the infant Church in the Apostolic Age.  It does not contain the acts of all the Apostles nor does it contain all of the acts of any one of the Apostles; but it does give us a representative sampling of how the faith was lived out in that age.  At the same time, I believe it gives us an idea of what the Church must be in this day and age; and it also gives us an inkling of our own callings.

What is it that this text transmits?  There is here an unambiguous movement from death to life, a movement from negation to newness.  While we, no doubt, fully appreciate the life-giving acts and miracles of Jesus and while we are certainly accustomed to the power of his healing, we might find it a bit shocking that Peter also has this same power to bring life out of death and despair.

Especially Peter!  After all, you may remember the Gospel text from last week.  In his dialogue with the risen Christ on the beach, Peter gets a sobering glimpse into his own spiritual and moral bankruptcy; and then, right at this low point, he is both reinstated in ministry and called again by the risen Christ to a renewed mission of discipleship. Perhaps the point here is that real ministry happens—not when we are confident of our own skills and certainly not when we are filled with our own self-righteousness or even self-confidence—but when we have been emptied of all such presumption and when we must rely heavily on a power beyond ourselves.

But let’s use a macro, wide-angle lens and place this text into its larger scriptural context.  You may hear here the echoes of Jesus’ healing of the young girl in the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, when he says, “Little girl, get up.”  But beyond that narrative similarity, there are also the healing stories in the Old Testament of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37) where these prophets bring about the restoration of life.  Indeed, throughout the entire biblical narrative beginning with God’s decree, “Let there be light,” there is movement that brings life out of death and newness out of negation.

Now let’s use the micro-lens and look more closely at the text itself.  Did you notice who is it that witnesses and celebrates this life-giving act?  Is it the powers-that-be, those in positions of authority, the big shots of that place and time?  No, when death is in the air, they are nowhere to be found.  No, notice that it is only the saints and widows who are present.  These are those who have not been repelled by the smell of death—and who by virtue of their own vulnerability are living in the shadow of death themselves.  Maybe it takes a certain kind of witness to be open to this newness.

And this, of course, expresses the subversiveness of the early Church. Peter and the others are in constant conflict with the imperial power of the state, because the power to create new life threatens the status quo of the powers-that-be.  These powers are too immersed in living off the politics of fear, death, and despair.

But ultimately, and this is the bigger point here, this story is about a lot more than just Peter’s capacity to bring life out of death.  It is also about our own capacity and calling to do the very same.  In fact, this is precisely our calling to discipleship. And so, more than about being good or obedient, following Jesus is really about receiving and then dispensing this power of newness.  We are called as 21st century disciples to offer this miraculous power of life and healing.

Indeed, on the Wednesday of Holy Week about forty of us gathered here in the church for an anointing ceremony.  But instead of the clergy anointing the laypersons (as is the general custom in the Church), we all anointed each other.  We were all wonderfully equal and deeply connected.  In fact, the person sitting next to the Bishop was not an Episcopalian and had no idea who Skip was.  Before she anointed him, she asked him his name.  Instead of asserting his position, he simply said, “Skip.”  And so she anointed him by gently saying his first name as she anointed him with the holy oil.  What a precious sight it was!

Some of us may not feel that we are quite up to the awesome responsibility of healing others.  We may not feel whole enough ourselves to be able to reach out in this way to someone else.  But it is not our own sense of adequacy that is the prerequisite for our healing others.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  What is required is the awareness that we ourselves are broken, but also that we are deeply joined to others through this very brokenness.

True healing, as it turns out, does not come out the ego’s desire for a specific result or outcome.  Healing has practically nothing to do with fixing or imposing an outcome or even relieving symptoms.  Rather, it is a coinciding—an intentional willingness to enter into the relational field with another.  Rather than an act of will or willfulness, it is, then, an intention of willingness—of consenting to walk with another in vulnerability.  That is precisely what took place in that anointing ceremony in Holy Week.  And the web of tenderness that was woven that night was palpable and, yes, healing.

This is precisely what we as spiritual adults are called to bring to our own life circumstances, but it can only begin with our own journey downward.  Like Peter, we must “die before we die.”  Often it is only through suffering of one kind or another that we are destabilized enough to grow beyond our own arrogance, our own presumed sense of power, and our own excessive need for control.  Indeed, suffering can be defined as whenever we are not in control and when we cannot prevail by our own power alone.

But it takes more than being in pain or feeling out of control.  Unless and until we can find God in our suffering and thereby transform ourselves through our pain, we will not bring newness and life to the situations we are in.  Sadly, if our pain is not transformed (and if in the process we ourselves are not significantly transformed), we will most assuredly pass our pain on to everyone around us.  Indeed, exporting our pain to others is precisely what fuels the continuing tragedy of cruelty in human history.

All this, I think, has something to say to us as we face into the some of the transitions before us in the parish.  For we could take one fork in the road and view this transition as sheer loss and unmitigated disaster.  Feeling that we have had no say in the decisions that have been made, we could clutch and brace against the pain and push away any understanding or consolation that might come from others.  Attempting to bury inside that with which we choose not to deal, it piles up with the accumulation of all of our other past disappointments, betrayals, and abandonments.  Walled off from our own woundedness, on this fork, there is no place for God in our pain.  Becoming more and more bitter, more and more resentful, and more and more miserable, we would be very likely to tragically inflict all this pain on everyone around us.

But fortunately, that is not the only fork in the road.  The other is the one I see us taking.  Instead of closing hard around our loss, we can instead let go more deeply into it, trusting that God is present with us in our uncertainty.  In fact, it is the 23rd Psalm that can bring us significant comfort, especially the fourth verse: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Indeed, it is precisely through such an experience as this that we can explore this valley of the shadow of death down beyond our fear to where it opens up to a spaciousness of great tenderness.  We then are able to meaningfully and compassionately connect with others who are enduring the same loss or pain.  In this coinciding—in this willingness to walk with the other parishioners in this vulnerability—healing takes place.

Instead, then, of transmitting this pain on to others, we become transformed by the very uncertainty of this change—so much so that this community, even more, becomes a great vehicle for the healing for the greater community. Like one of the saints who, along with the widows, were present when Peter brought life from death, we can both witness this kind of transformation and fully participate in it.

So that seems to be the choice before us.  Shall we harden and close ourselves off as we brace against the uncertainty we face?  Or, do we have the willingness to take our own pain down beyond the point of fear—to the place where it opens up into a spacious tenderness that allows us to transmit love and healing so as to bring life from death?  Are we, in other words, softening around our own wounds so as to make them sacred wounds?

The Gospel imperative calls us to love unselfishly those whom God has given to us.  And that’s what we are privileged to do.  But we do this best when we allow God into our own woundedness so that we might be delivered from our bitterness and transformed—transformed to become, like Peter, transmitters of love and healing.  This is the ministry to which each and every one of us is called.