Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The widow of Joppa


As delivered to Dr. Bob's congregation in Doncaster.

Acts 9.36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7.9-17
John 10.22-30

I'd like to give you some context, if I may, to explain why you have a Lutheran in your pulpit this morning and to do that, although he will hate me for this, I need to tell you something about my friendship with your curate Richard Walton.

Richard and I studied together on the Yorkshire Ministry Course and graduated at the same time. I say that we studied together: that would be in the sense that while we both bought books for the course, Richard read his.

I used to look forward with some anticipation to Richard's arrival on a Wednesday evening. He, not doubt, believed that was out of pure affection on my part but I had a little plan.

"Now then, Richard, what was the thing that most struck you in our preparatory reading this week?" Every week Richard would deliver up this nugget of deeply thought through, perceptive and theological insight which I would then drop into the tutorial publicly and very early on so that I could then sit back and switch off. My work here is done.

Richard was deferred to by all of us in our year group as the fount and source of knowledge: our tutor would ask a question and Richard would wait graciously for the rest of us to have a stab at answering before he would say, very tentatively, "I think I know the answer to this." He invariably did. Then one day to everyone's shock and horror, he said "I don't think I know this." The consternation subsided and the discussion continued until a quiet little voice offered "Actually, I think I may know the answer to this after all." And he did. The natural order of the universe had been restored.

Richard become known as Dr. Bob very early on because one of our tutors, a lovely person, but a bit dippy - the quality of her photocopying is legendary throughout Yorkshire - referred to him consistently throughout our first year as Robert. He was too self-effacing to consider that it was appropriate or significant enough to put her right.

One thing you need to know about Richard: during the peace, when he approaches you with that bluff, manly handshake, give him a warm hug instead. He loves that.

I’d like to concentrate on today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In the Roman Empire of the first-century, women without men topped the list of vulnerable populations. A widow had little access to economic structures. The recurring biblical theme of charitable concern for widows reveals their inferior status and poor treatment in the community. They were marginal people outside of the traditional male-headed households. Worse, their livelihood was often at risk unless they had children who could provide for them. Very often they would have to band together for survival.

The widows of Joppa, we read, had only Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, and her faith-based initiative. The only woman, interestingly, in all of scripture to be called a disciple, she cared for other widows, apparently out of her own resources and in the most practical of ways - she sewed their clothing. Her death was such a crisis that they sent for Peter.

Alone with the body, Peter prayed and then commanded her to get up. And she did. This was the first time in the postresurrection church that a disciple had exercised the authority of life over death in this way. Now Biblical scholars argue amongst themselves about whether this death and resurrection is literal in the sense that Peter utilised the gifts that Jesus bequeathed him and the other disciples, or symbolic in that it has something deeper to say about the nature of death and resurrection. Well, to concentrate on that part of the story can take us down unhelpful theological routes that we don’t have the time for this morning and we so I’d like to concentrate on something else of significance in the story that we could easily miss.

Why Dorcas? What is it about her that made her death the occasion for Peter to do what he did? My hunch is that Peter acted as he did because of who Dorcas was, and also because of who she was not.

Certainly she was an important woman in her own small community, but a social nobody everywhere else because of her gender and her status as widow.
So what? What has this to with me? And let’s be clear: it needs to have something to do with me – with us - or it’s just a little piece of history.

Note the double identity of Tabitha/Dorcas in the story: we don’t know if Tabitha or Dorcas is a Jewish woman who was given a Greek name, or a Gentile woman given a Hebrew name. In any case, the fact that this woman is of ambiguous identity makes her a theological conundrum in this story: marginalised for being a woman, for being a widow and possibly for being a gentile convert. Those issues were still causes of contention within the church and were not easily resolved. There is a message here for you and I to apply to the lives that we lead and especially to our dealings with others.

Lutherans like me talk a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and not through good works lest any man should boast, but what we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace and that’s a question that echoes through time and through Scripture itself: who’s in and who’s out of the lifeboat of salvation? Is it about baptism or personal conviction, about conversion or discipleship or some combination?

There is a story told of a Lutheran who went to Heaven. He was, of course, met by St. Peter and shown around until he came to a walled off section. “What’s behind there?” he asked. “Well,” replied Peter “that’s where the Anglicans are. They think they’re the only ones here and we don’t like to disillusion them.” It works, of course, with any denomination but a lot of Christians have that mindset.

Jesus’ ministry was originally to the Jews but he would broaden those “boundaries” to include non-Jews in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those of his own people at the time. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these boundaries on the part of his disciples and those who followed them.

Nor has this struggle been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time, and often in the face of real opposition, in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle: which of us would really welcome the alcoholic tramp into the seat beside us. We keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We seem to like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.

Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for the marginalised like the widows of Joppa: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity and the conditions they demand as evidence of “true discipleship”. But in the end the eternal fate of others is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace.

Just to conclude then. Did you notice what didn’t happen in the story? Nobody performed an act of contrition. No offering was made nor any sacrifice. There was no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness. This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s grace is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: none of us deserve it.

So, as we make our contribution towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our obedient discipleship, let us do so in the knowledge that we have done nothing to earn God’s grace. Let's be careful how we are seen to apply that same grace to others. Just consider for a moment: if we were in Joppa we’d be looking down on the widows, particularly the gentile widows. But we’re not, were in Doncaster. Who are we looking down on?