Death, Dying, and the work of the church
May 8, 2022
You Can’t Go Back to Fishing
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ministry is a weird thing and even after 10 years of ordained ministry and many years as a PK, it still requires a lot of getting use to. My day can sometimes consist of legal work, unclogging a toilet, running to the hospital to pray with someone who dying, running back to church to fix the network, to running to the home of a shut in and bring them home communion, taking a phone call of a disgruntled member for something I had nothing to do but nonetheless needs to be heard, to coming back after dinner to teach a first communion class in the evening. Ministry is filled with may ups and downs, highs and lows, and that can be hard for a new pastor to navigate. How do you jump from a high of singing like a rockstar at VBS to walking with a family after their loved one has suddenLy died and do both things well while not losing your mind?
From a lectionary standpoint, we have been at a pretty high point since Easter. Jesus appearing to Mary in the garden, coming to her at a all time low point to reveal the good news that he is not dead, but in fact, is alive. For the last couple of weeks, we have been hearing stories of the church doing ministry and work at very high points. Last week, Jesus met the disciples on the beach and told them that they can’t go back to who they use to be—and he does this all while cooking them breakfast on the beach. Jesus calls them out for their complacency and then sends them back out to the mission he challenge them to do in the locked upper room. Also last week in the book of Acts, we read about the conversion of St. Paul which is, again, another story filled with great low points to great high points. The New Testament, post resurrection, has a lot of stories describing what its like when things are going well, when there is excitement and amazing things happening. But what about when ministry take a turn? How is the church suppose to respond when ministry is not so exciting? How is the church suppose to respond when something bad happens?
In Acts 9, something terrible happens in the midst of excitement and amazing things taking place—a woman dies unexpectedly. Her name is Tabitha (which is Aramaic) but other know her as Dorcas (which is Greek and means Gazelle). Tabitha not just any woman. Luke describes her as someone who is “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” She is important to the town and local church community. And she died very suddenly which takes away all the excitement within church. “In the midst of comfort, success, and growth, there is the painful reminder that the last enemy of death still lingers and threatens this early Christian community's and our own present day community's confidence and faith in the power and promise of Jesus' resurrection.” Luke presents this very “vivid description and careful detail of this story describe the shock at a sudden death, the preparation for burial, the viewing and visitation of the mourners, all too familiar to ones who have walked with numbness through such scenes at the death and funeral of a loved one.” and its these details that caught my attention this week. Why tell us this? The people of the day know the customs, why write it down? The book of acts was not written for us, but for the people of the first century world.
For the past 9 chapters, we have heard success after success. Even though Paul is breathing threats against the church, we have heard how Paul's heart is changed by God and he becomes the greatest evangelist and writer for the church. Even though the church is scattered because of the threats against the church, the good news spreads because the church was forced out of Jerusalem. The church is growing despite the danger in believing. People are hearing the word of God and responding by being baptized. Amazing things are happening and here, but then all of a sudden everything seems to stop as Peter has to deal with a woman who has died. It feels out of place. For 9 chapters now, we have not had time to deal with death. I don’t have time to stop and deal with this dead woman. There are things for me to do; for the church to do. Let the dead bury the dead…why should we even care of the dead. They are in heaven now. It is the living we need to worry about…Why does Peter stop his work to take care of a dead woman who is no longer of service anyone in her community any more?
Luke tells us this way of thinking is not inline with the gospel. In Luke’s retelling of the situation in Joppa, he describes a community in shock, grasping “for any hope, and crying out in desperation for Peter to come without delay, carefully strengthening their appeal by sending "two men" to carry their request. Peter responds by immediately coming, and upon his arrival is ushered into the "upper room". Even in the busyness of the early church, Peter deems it necessary to stop what he is doing to care for this woman and her family. The church could have created a separate branch of people to deal with burying the dead. The church does this in Act 6, elects 7 men to act as deacons and handle all matters of food distribution. They elect seven deacons to do this work so that they, the 12 apostles, can fully devote themselves to the word of God. They could have done this for the dead, but didn’t and there is a reason for this. The work of gospel, that is the spreading of the good news that he is risen is news that needs to be shared not just with the living, but with the dead as well. Peter stops the work that he is doing, and travels at once to the home of one his flock and cares for her even in death despite the fact that she is dead.
Acts is reminding the church, reminding us, that while ministry for the living is important, so is also ministry for the dead. If we are going to be a people of the resurrection, we need to be willing to proclaim the resurrection even in the face of death. We need to remind people of the resurrection in moments like these and pray with full confidence like Peter, that God will act and the dead will be resurrected.
I once buried this woman who sons came to me a couple months before she died and asked if I would visit her. She was not a member, but knew some of my folks. I went over and visited her a few times before she died and was with her right before her death. After she died, I went over to talk with her children about their mom. I wanted to know a little bit more about her. After about an hour, her once son says to me, “You don’t need to worry about standing up at the pulpit and telling me how great my mom was. We all know she was amazing. What I need you to do is tell me the good news.” Ministry at the time of dead is when the gospel is the most powerful because we proclaim that even in death, we do not lose our hope of the life which is still to come. We proclaim life and resurrection during a funeral even with the evidence of death lying in state before our very eyes. You can’t deny that death might have claimed another victim at a funeral but does not stop us from proclaiming the good news either—that one day our tombs will one day be open and we shall be awaken by our Lord and experience the same resurrection that our Lord experience on that first Easter Sunday.
Luke tells us that “This [miracle] became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” People believed because they heard the message of resurrection. The reason funerals remain front and center in the church’s work today is because they are a time when we can preach the gospel in its most purest form. When we hear someone is ill, sick or dying, we drop everything we are doing to be present at these moments in people’s lives just like Peter was present with Tabitha’s family. Nothing else is important. All other concerns are secondary. Someone else can figure out the Legal problems of the church. Someone else can figure out how to fix the plumbing problem, network issue, or deal with the disgruntle member. The message of resurrection and its power needs to be brought to those in special need of it. This has probably been the hardest part of ministry for us the last few years. Hospitals and nursing homes will not let us in to do this work. I don’t know how to do ministry without being present with people. This text gives us the permission we need to do ministry of presence—to put on hold those other ministries so that we can proclaim the resurrection and hope that can only be found in Jesus Christ. But this is not just my job. It is an important part of my job, but there is nothing stopping you from bringing that resurrected hope to others in the church.
The ministry work being done here at Zion needs be grounded in the hope of the resurrection. All of our ministries, whether they are care for children, families, women’s or men’s ministry, feeding, music, worship need to be grounded in the resurrection. And if they aren’t grounded in the resurrection, then we need to have a conversation.
This text does not answer all our questions about death or why can’t do similar things like the miracle of raising Tabitha back to life happen today, but it does give us a “clear and certain witness to the power our Lord's resurrection has to bringing people into the church, into the faith because even in midst of our greatest enemy, death, we hold the keys to breaking the power of death and begins with these powerful words: Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.