4/21/2013 sermon: Our legacy is not death

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Acts 11:1-18
4Easter, Year C

Our legacy is not death

While watching the news unfold in Boston this week, I thought a lot about how we choose to spend our lives. The choices we make in our lives, the actions we take, leave a legacy in our world. Of course, we can see this most vividly when someone chooses to maim and destroy others. Evil actions leave a legacy of pain and grief and fear, of anger and even exultation at a “victorious” ending (whatever THAT might be).

I heard a sermon many years ago that suggested that big bad things tend to happen more often during the season of Easter than during any other. The preacher—an Episcopal priest—suggested that there is something in our world that just can’t stand that Jesus won victory over death. He suggested that this is a kind of push-back against the legacy that Jesus left on our world. At the time I thought that this suggestion was too, well, woogie—too far out there to be a rational answer. But now I looked them up: the massacre in Waco, Texas; the Oklahoma City bombing; the school shootings at Columbine, Colorado; the shootings at Virginia Tech in our own state (to name just a few), all join with the Boston Marathon bombings as the legacy of evil in our world which occurred during Easter.

You can look them up for yourself, and decide what you think about this theory. But this train of thought makes me wonder, what will our legacy be? Will we—will you—have made a difference in our community, and in our world? What kind of difference will we make?

Today I want to look at one life, one legacy. I hope that by doing so, this life, lived for Christ, will show you that our legacy is not death.

So here’s a story.

The year was 1834. The place was the Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. And there was cholera everywhere. The people of that island managed to stem the tide of the epidemic, but only by burning the linens and clothes of everyone who had been infected with the disease. The epidemic was over, but the poor people of that island now had no clothes or bed linens, and no money to get more.

So the women on that island worked together to help those people get new clothes. They turned to what one historian has called “the benevolent use of the needle,” making clothes and quilts for those who needed them but who couldn’t afford them. They modeled themselves after a sixth-century organization which, in turn, had much older roots. They called themselves the Dorcas Society.

Soon there were other chapters of this society around the world. In 1859, for example, Christ Church in Philadelphia had one of these women’s societies (as did many other Episcopal churches). For a time, well into the 20th century, Dorcas Societies thrived, dwindling only as women no longer sewed their own clothes.

There are still a few Dorcas Societies in existence around the world. And in Hawaii as recently as 1992, a group of Lutheran women formed a BRAND NEW Dorcas Society to provide blankets for people who had lost everything in Hurricane Iniki.

Of course, the woman who provided all this inspiration was Tabitha (in Aramaic), or Dorcas (in Greek), who we heard about in our Acts lesson today. These names mean “gazelle,” implying that this woman was full of beauty and grace. She certainly was well-loved; our lesson says that she “was devoted to good works and acts of charity,” and had made clothes for the widows in this early Christian community.

Did you notice that Dorcas never spoke a word in our lesson? We don’t know what she thought, what she said, or what she professed as her faith in Christ Jesus. Dorcas left a powerful legacy that has spanned some 2,000 years, but we don’t hear from Dorcas, because she was DEAD.

Dorcas had lived in Joppa, a seaport 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem. When she had gotten ill and died, the apostle Peter was in Lydda, some 11 miles away, healing a man of his paralysis. Those in the church washed Dorcas’ dead body and, hearing of this miracle and realizing how near to them Peter was, they sent word to Peter to come right away, to not tarry.

This was pretty amazing. Dorcas was dead, but the community sent for Peter. We don’t know whether the community expected Peter to officiate at Dorcas’ funeral, or to raise her to new life. Maybe those early Christians didn’t even know what might be possible, but we can see that, by sending for Peter, they had great faith.

But Peter certainaly knew what was possible. Peter had been with Jesus when Jesus had healed Lazarus. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus raised Lazarus from death so that God’s Son might be glorified through that miracle. And now, when called to Joppa and knowing what was possible, Peter did not tarry.

Peter went to Joppa and Peter prayed. Then he raised Dorcas from the dead so that once again God’s Son might be glorified, and so that we would know that there is more to life than death, even after our life here has seemingly ended.

But Peter is not the only disciple of Christ in this story. We have the dead-and-now-resurrected Dorcas to consider. And I am going to warn you that what you see in Dorcas’ legacy very much depends upon the perspective you bring into the story with you.

Some people—way back when—argued that Dorcas was a slave name. PERHAPS. But then they misused this passage to argue for the continued enslavement of some people by other people. We know today that this is NOT gospel, and slavery will not prevail.

All of those Dorcas Societies I told you about earlier? Those societies were filled with women who wanted to be the kind of disciple that Dorcas had been. They assumed that, like the women whom she had served, Dorcas had been a widow. PERHAPS. And those women modeled their lives after hers by using their hands and their feet to do the “woman’s work” of God in their world, helping others. We know today that we are all called to use our hands and feet to do the work of the gospel.

Then again, we might look again at Dorcas and notice that the very early church used deacons to meet the needs of the widows and orphans. And, noticing this, we might understand that Dorcas was one of the first deacons of the Christian faith. PERHAPS. And we can model our lives after hers by using our hands and our feet to do the work of ministry in our world, helping others in the name of God.

However we approach the story of Dorcas, the message that I hear, loud and clear, is that our legacy is not death. In fact, we learn here that NOTHING is so dead that more prayer is not warranted. Dorcas was two days dead, yet Peter prayed and God brought her back to life. Perhaps today we wouldn’t even bother to pray for someone or something we consider dead. “What’s the use?” we might say to ourselves. But this story shows us that our legacy is not death.

What is there in your life that seemingly is dead, or stuck, but needs prayer? I urge you to ignore the illusion of death and pray for healing, anyway. What is there in our life as a community of faith that you think of as dead? I urge you to pray for our community’s healing, and then stand back to recognize how and in what form new life will surely come.

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