Sunday, 21 April 2013

New life at the margins

Acts 9:36-43
Peter in Lydda and Joppa
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.

We continue, today to take a look at the early church - the book of Acts is full of stories of how the little frightened band of disciples of whom we read in the gospels, emerged from behind their locked door and scattered to spread the good news - with incredible results. Communities formed and grew.
The message spread like wildfire.
And wherever followers of Jesus emerged, a familiar theme runs through all of their life together: The marginalised were included in their circle.
There was always a place for, and more, a search for, those who were consigned to the edges of society - those perhaps not even present on anyone else's radar.
The early church was about the business of inclusion.
And in these few verses from Acts today, we see that reaching out, that embracing the outcast very clearly.
Lets start at the end instead of the beginning.
Int the last verse we read: Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Peter, the apostle stayed with Simon the tanner.
Simon was one of the outcasts of his day.
Because of his work, work that involved him handling smelly animal hides.
In those days, those who had a choice would not choose to work in a tannery.
It was a dirty, smelly job.
Tanneries had to be located well outside towns, because of the stench that came from them.
Even today, tanneries are smelly places to be around.
Drive through Bridge of Weir on certain days - and you can still smell the effects of the tannery there.
At least now, workers are protected by machinery and have facilities to clean up at the end of the day.
Simon, the Tanner, contaminated by the stench of his daily business was regarded with contempt in society because of the effects of his work.
Yet, not only did he find acceptance in the early church community - he was allowed to host one of the apostles.
Following on from the example of Jesus, this community embraced those on the margins, those whom others despised.

As well as considering the company that Peter kept, lets look too at the location of this story. We're told the setting for this story was in Joppa.
Does that ring any bells with you?
Joppa is the place to which Jonah the Old Testament prophet fled when God called him to go and preach to Nineveh.
Peter, too, is confronted by God in that place - but his response is more compliant than Jonah's was.
While he was staying near Joppa, Peter was called to a house where a woman had died, a woman much loved.
Peter went to Joppa responding to God's call and, once he'd done what God asked of him, he stayed in Joppa with Simon the tanner.

The folk to whom Peter was called to minister were also folk on the margins:
Widows who had very little social standing, some of whom were very poor and often overlooked by a society whose laws were supposed to ensure their protection.
It's really touching to read that, when Peter got to the house, the other widows were all there, mourning their loss.
And they were keen to show Peter some of the beautiful things that Dorcas had made .
There is something very special about being admitted to a community in mourning - be that the community of the immediate family or a wider circle of friends.
To hear folks stories, to share folks memories is to tread sacred ground.
To be honoured with the task of somehow bringing those stories and memories together to allow a community to say goodbye is just one of the privileges of ministry.
It involves careful listening.
Sometimes families are very good at sharing their stories.
At other times, those stories have to be gently coaxed out of loved ones.
Where the stories are not remembered or shared, it always proves more difficult to enable loved ones to say their goodbyes.
I'm sure you've all experienced how, even in the sadness, when families get together, there can also be much laughter as they recall good times.
Photographs are brought out.
Families share the things that their loved one accomplished - knitting, crochet, sewing, painting, stories of good works.
Sometimes it can be really hard to keep up - as families move from one story to the next, or as memories come flooding back.
Sometimes everyone speaks at once and it's hard to keep track.
Dorcas was described as "devoted to good works and charity".
A widow, whom the rest of the community wanted to celebrate.
It seems that Peter was faced with everyone talking at once, showing him just some of her works, telling their stories, remembering and celebrating her life.No wonder he felt the need for some quiet to do what God had called him to do.
Peter put all the widows outside for a moment and went in to Tabitha himself.
When he raised Tabitha,Peter called the other widows back into the room to be witnesses to resurrection.
Just like Easter - it was the women who went to the tomb, who first learned the good news.
God makes a habit of revealing wonders to the least likely people.
And this became a theme of the early church - the inclusion of those considered outsiders, sometimes beyond the pale.
In these early manifestations of the church, not only are those on the margins welcomed, they are brought into the centre.
Much is revealed to them and, through them we too learn about the God who brings things to life.
It would seem that, today, we've become so caught up in small things, in internal wranglings that we've lost sight of the God who works at the margins of life and performs miracles with those whom we have written off.
As the church today feels itself under threat, instead of flinging wide the gates, instead of welcoming all, we tighten the rules for inclusion and exclude those in whom we just might glimpse God at work today.
I was involved in discussions this week about how the church might respond to the predicament in which we find ourselves today.
Perceived by many as irrelevant, outdated, exclusive.
The church itself is often consigned to the margins today, considered as having little to say to the world, wielding little influence in our communities.
But that is no bad thing.
For it is at the edges of our communities that we experience the realities of life.
It is there that we experience first hand the stories that are being lived out today: the challenges with which folk grapple every day.
It is no bad thing for the church today to have to live on the edge and to know what that feels like.
And from that place, experience anew the miracles that God is achieving in everyday lives and witness the presence of God in those written off by today's society, those on the margins, those whom the church fails to engage.
A church on the margins is a church interacting with the world and the people that God embraces in love.

Resurrection stories such as the one we read in Acts today, crop up from time to time, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
However we choose to interpret these stories, the notion of the ability to discover new life in all sorts of moments brings a useful focus for our life together in this community.
The hope of resurrection characterises what we are about, characterises our faith in a God who brings new life.
New life is always an option as we journey on in faith, followers of Jesus today.
New life, breathed into our old, familiar patterns.
New life breathed into potential.
New life breathed into possibility.
Resurrection belongs, not to the past but to the present too.
Resurrection occurs all around us, whether we recognise it or not.
We are witnesses to and harbingers of that resurrection.
The main difference between us and those early Christian communities is that we rarely recognise the resurrection that happens in our every day.
And, even when we see it, we fail to speak of it.
Resurrection is not exclusive to the church.
We don't have the monopoly on new life.
The challenge to the church today, is to bear witness to the possibility of resurrection.
To be a people of hope.
To shine a light on those places where resurrection is happening in our communities.
Especially at the fringes, on the margins.

We are challenged as resurrection people to fling wide the gates.
To examine deep within ourselves the people that we consider are beyond the pale.
To think about the many ways we exclude others.
To ask ourselves how and why.

We are challenged, especially from our place on the fringes of society today, to widen our horizons, to embrace those on the margins, to accept that we do not have the monopoly on good news, even on resurrection.
We are challenged to open our eyes and see that God continues to bring resurrection into life today, despite the efforts of the church to contain the miracle of new life and to claim resurrection as an exclusive preserve of the church.

We are challenged to emerge from behind locked doors and live as resurrection people - changed by hope, challenged by joy, suspected of being inclusive.
Practising the life of resurrection that involves human beings in all their brokenness discovering new potential and realising new ambition for the sake of all those on the margins of life today from whom we learn new ways of being God's people this day and every day.
To God be the glory.

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