June 18, 2012

Step Up: Tabitha Acts 9:36-43

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

The central theme of "Ozymandias" is that all leaders, no matter how powerful, inevitably decline and their empires crumble. Most of the powerful men and kingdoms of history no longer exist or are simply ruins in the sand.

Many in our culture chase after life in much the same way as the fabled king Ozymandias. We build and create and accomplish many things believing we will be remembered as great and powerful because of them.

Dictators and world leaders conquer lands and erect statues.
Athletes break records and work to become amazing physical specimens.
Politicians and the wealthy have buildings dedicated in their name.
Authors, artists, and musicians create works hoping to be remembered for a masterpiece.
Businessmen build large companies
Even pastors seek to build large churches and ministries.

We all want to be remembered. We want the memory of our existence to continue beyond our lifetime. We have children and hope to be remembered...fondly...by them. We hope our work makes a difference in the world around us. We want our friends to be better people because they have friended us. There is this drive to do and accomplish and to make meaning out of our lives.

But like Ozymandias...we too will eventually become part of history and be forgotten.

The Bible reminds us of this in Psalm 103:15-16, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

However, it would be foolish to think what we do doesn’t matter...that because we will not be remembered for eternity that disqualifies or minimizes all we do in the years we have been given. Each generation has to stand on the shoulders of the generation before it. It means what we do matters even if we are not remembered. Often, though, what we see as valuable and eternally significant is not the same thing as what God sees as valuable and eternally significant.

We live in a world that values wealth, power, prestige, fame, respect...but when we take an honest look at the Bible we see God valuing something very different.

This morning we continue our series entitled Step Up by looking at a woman who received the very unfortunate Greek name of Dorcas. Of course her family had no idea that 2,000 years later this would be a playground taunt of American children. Good thing she was also known as Tabitha...which I will use so my inner 7th grader can avoid chuckling the whole time.

Both names Tabitha in Aramaic and Dorcas in Greek mean “Gazelle.”

During this time people weren’t given names just to be different. It was meant to provide meaning, and to define their destiny. We try to find a name that is unique and different and sets our child apart from the other 3,000 kids with the same name. But for Tabitha, her name was meaningful...and spoke of her destiny.

The dorcas species of gazelle stands just slightly over 2 feet tall. It speaks of smallness. But how appropriate that we have this woman, a disciple of Jesus, who is unrecognized by the rich and powerful, but well respected and loved by the weak, the lowly, and the rejected of her time...those who in every social category of her time were small too.

Let’s take a deeper look at Tabitha’s life...

Acts 9:36-43
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

If find it interesting that the writer Luke, like he did just a few verses prior with Ananias whom we looked at last week, points out that Tabitha is a disciple. It is as though that one word was meant to portray all that needed to be said about the person’s character. Tabitha was an apprentice of Jesus Christ. She wanted be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did...so, for her, that meant loving the people whom Jesus loves and serving them...and we see that Jesus had a preference for the poor, the downtrodden, the beaten up, and the forgotten.

When Jesus announced the beginning of His earthly ministry, he used the words of God through Isaiah the Prophet, Luke 4:18-19,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

A cursory reading of His ministry shows that Jesus spent time with the outcasts, the sinners, the prostitutes, the unclean, the lepers...all those whom the good and decent in society would avoid.

But this concern was not new to the God of Scripture. The Old Testament prophets time and again chastise the people of God because they use their wealth to satisfy their desires rather than to care for the poor and the hurting.

In his final sermon to the children of God, Moses reminds them that the poor and the defenseless will be among them, and they are to care for them because that is what God desires...

Deuteronomy 15:7 says, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.”
Deuteronomy 10:17-19 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
The fatherless and the widow and the immigrant...these are people who generally lived in poverty and were refused dignity and cheated and mistreated because they had no recourse. Verse after verse in the Old Testament rings this bell of God’s concern for the poor and the rejected, and for those who have no rights.

And Tabitha as a disciple of Jesus understood this. She was known for her good deeds and acts of kindness for the poor and the widows. When Peter arrived in Joppa, Acts 9:39 says, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”

We in the church believe the Bible is the Word of God. We believe it is our guide for faith and salvation and living a life that honors Gods...so why is it that so many in our churches have allowed the wealth of our nation and the overly politicized culture to dictate our beliefs in regards to the poor?

God’s Word calls us to have a preference for the poor...to protect those who can’t protect themselves...to stand up for those who are defenseless...to care for those who are hurting and broken...and to do this not just when they are Christians like me or have the same belief structures as I do or when they won’t take advantage of my kindness again or when they speak American like I do...No, we are called to have a compassionate concern for those despised by the rest of society.

Our lives...our faith...our walk with God...our church must be characterized by this passion of our Lord Jesus. It isn’t our call to just be Christians and do Christian stuff and sing Christian songs...we are called to make a difference in the world around us by our concern for those who are rejected and despised and mistreated.

What we are essentially talking about is putting the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” into practice on behalf of the poor and broken. And let’s be honest, Love has to be both practical and personal. Tabitha isn’t just concerned in an intellectual way about those who are hurting. She doesn’t just drop a check in the offering plate. We return to Acts 9:39, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”

Tabitha made clothes for these women. She knew them and loved them. Poor people were not just a good idea to her...they were her friends.

Every third Saturday of the month we give groceries to those who are having it tough financially. They are poor and downtrodden; broken and rejected. But more than that...many of them are my friends. When I served at the Dayton Vineyard Kitchen the men and women who came in for breakfast were not just poor people...they were my friends.

One of my theological heroes and fathers is John Wesley. I grew up in two denominations that are rooted in his teaching and theological influence. His ministry took place during the Industrial Revolution. Factories were being built, people fled the rural areas for the cities to find jobs, sickness and death and pestilence were rampant. One of things I am most profoundly impacted by is his concern for and defense of the poor.

Wesley understood that concern for the poor has to be practical. Love without action is not love. Love makes action necessary. If I love then I act on behalf of the one I love...so he defended and worked on behalf of the poor in practical ways...

Wesley created an employment agency to help find jobs...he created a loan service to help them acquire tools and equipment...He petitioned public authorities about inadequate wages, insufficient economic safety nets, and the contamination of water, air, and soil...He was one of the first to speak out against slavery...He established free health care and free schools for poor children...He committed himself to literacy and education as a long-term solutions to fighting poverty. The list goes on and on.

Wesley also understood that concern for the poor has to be personal. It can’t be done from a distance. Once when writing to a wealthy woman who was sending him money, but not to getting involved personally with the poor, Wesley wrote, “I am sorry that you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to." He and the early Methodists created poorhouses and widow homes where they kept sleeping rooms so they could be with those they were serving.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, like Tabitha, we are called to love the poor and the hurting and the forgotten, and to love them in practical, personal ways.

The longer I have been following Jesus and working in the church...the more I believe that our spiritual growth depends on our ability to serve those around us. Our world is filled with hurting, lonely, broken people...They are all around us...and they need us to serve them as much as we need to serve them.

Time after time people leave a church or struggle to grow in their faith, and when you look their lives you see they never connected with a small group, they never served a ministry in the church, they never went on a mission trip, they never served the poor...and if the abysmal statistics about Christians spending time in prayer and reading their Bible are true...it is no wonder people struggle to grow in their faith.

It damages our spiritual growth when we are not involved in serving and caring for the poor and the broken in practical and personal ways. We need to serve as much as people need to be served because it transforms our spiritual lives.

So what does it look like for us to make concern for the poor and broken a part of our spiritual growth?

1. Start serving where you are. Serve those closest to you and then work out from there. Begin looking for practical ways to serve those around you...to do an act of kindness that you wouldn’t normally do...

It begins with your spouse and your children...then your co-workers...then you try something a little riskier and you do one of our servant evangelism outreaches or join us for Food for Huber...or you buy someone’s meal in the line at McDonald’s...then there are mission trips and inner-city missions and soup kitchens.

Just get involved and go from there. So often we get caught up in not being able to do something great we forget how great it is to do something small.

2. Use what you have. Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work...If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

You have abilities and resources that this world needs...that God’s Kingdom is calling you to put into service for Him.

3. Develop a generous outlook. It takes hard work to become generous to those around us. To live with an open hand that doesn’t resent those who would use and abuse us for our kindness and to freely give what we have freely received from God’s hand. The way to become more generous is to be more generous. To give and keep giving. To see it all as God’s anyway and to return to him all of it and more.

4. Live sacrificially. Serving the poor takes a commitment in time, in finances, and in our psyche. If we want to support God’s church and support His mission in our world and care for the broken and hurting...it means carving out space in our finances. Not spending all that we make on ourselves. Living more frugally so we don’t have all the bills.

We have to carve out time in our schedules...we live in an overbooked and overactive culture rushing from one thing to another.

We have to carve out time in our psyche because it really does cost us emotional real estate to care for the hurting and the broken. There is a saying among Vineyard pastors...Hurt people hurt people. There is a time and place for appropriate boundaries, but developing genuine friendships and relationships cost us emotionally.

I really like Tabitha. In fact, I love the serving aspect of the Kingdom of God. Harold Kushner, American rabbi says, “When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, ‘Yes, this is how I ought to feel.’”

These inner feelings remind us that we are taking part in something that God fully supports! Our acts of kindness are a practical expression of God’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but they are deeper than that. Serving the poor and broken is a reflection of God’s concern for those who are hurting. We get to be part of something very dear to God’s heart. If we want to do something that matters...If we want to really do something that leaves lasting results in our world...we will work to care for the broken, the hurting, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. One of the statements we live by around here is, “Small things done with great love will change the world.”

We want to change the world...because that is what God has called us to do.

This week, I want to challenge you on two levels.
First, do an act of kindness apart from the church for someone you do not know. Care cards on the back table.

Second, look at your life...you time, your finances and develop a plan to get involved and make kindness and generosity a bigger part of your life. What can you cut out to give yourself more time to serve others? What can you not purchase and use the money to help someone who is hurting?

Our small acts of kindness can change the world.

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