This morning I want start with some thanksgiving. I would like to thank the members of the Search Committee and the Vestry for being so faithful in prayerful discernment with me and the other candidates for Rector of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church. My interactions with them gave me a sense of hope and joy about what lies ahead for us as a community of faith. Though I know he has moved on to his next cure, I would also like to thank Henry for being such a faithful shepherd among us, especially during a time of transition and upheaval while still being new to the priesthood. He paved the way for us to be ready for this next phase of ministry. And finally, I would like to thank each one of you. You have put a tremendous amount of prayer and trust into this process, and I am grateful for your support of this parish. I am looking forward to learning about your ministries in this place and helping bolster your good work in the world.
The people of Hickory Neck are in good company today. In our reading from Acts this morning, we hear about another faithful servant of God. Tabitha, also known in her community by the name Dorcas, is a disciple renowned for her good works and acts of charity. We know that she is an adept seamstress, who uses her sewing prowess to clothe the needy in her community. We know that her witness and work are so powerful that the widows who benefit from her charity are found weeping by her deathbed. We know that her discipleship is so profound that two men journey to a nearby town to find Peter in the hopes that he might be able to do something miraculous for the woman who was a miracle for so many others.[i]
As I prayed with Tabitha this week, I realized how many similarities her witness shares with Hickory Neck’s witness and ministry. One of the reasons I was attracted to Hickory Neck during the discernment process was the vibrancy of ministry and the health of the congregation. I was impressed to learn that thousands of dollars raised by your annual Fall Festival go directly to supporting local outreach ministries. I have enjoyed hearing stories about making meals, visiting prisoners, and collecting goods for our neighbors in need. But even more impressive to me is the desire among parishioners to do more: to dream bigger dreams about how not only we can use our hands to more directly serve the poor, but also how we might use the gift of this property more creatively to be a living witness of the love of Jesus in our community. What I saw in the discernment process was a church who is healthy and vibrant and who is poised for new and exciting work.
Now what is funny about all those good vibrations is that juxtaposed with that percolating vision is a community who has been treading water. After the decline of your last rector, a shortened interim period, and making due with only an assistant, many of you have also shared with me your sense that these last few years have also been a time of getting by, but maybe not necessarily thriving. I would never suggest that these last years have been like a death – but maybe like a time of hibernation. Like an animal who lives off their stored up energy and fat over the winter, Hickory Neck has been getting by with the things that she learned long ago: good worship and music, solid pastoral care and welcome, and powerful outreach ministries and educational opportunities.
Now Tabitha is not hibernating. According to Luke’s writing in Acts, Tabitha is not just sleeping. She becomes quite ill and dies. Truthfully, if Tabitha had been in a deep sleep, her story might be a little easier to believe. I do not know about you, but miracle stories like Tabitha’s are always a little strange to me. Whether the story is the one from First Kings, where Elijah brings the son of the widow back to life after a strange ritual of laying himself over the dead boy’s body three times[ii]; or whether the story is of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb[iii]; or whether the story is this strange one where Peter prays over a dead disciple and simply says, “Tabitha, get up,” and she does, these stories always seem strange to me. One, I do not really understand the mechanics of raising someone from the dead. Having never seen such a miracle myself, I cannot imagine how or why such a thing happens. Perhaps I am too jaded by modern science, but part of me just does not understand raising people from the dead. Two, I do not understand why people are raised from the dead. The idea sounds great in principle. I am sure the mourning families and friends are incredibly relieved. But, with the exception of Jesus, all of the people who are raised from the dead must have to die again eventually. I’m not sure why people even bother. Finally, what I really do not understand about these stories is what they mean for us today. Though we love these biblical stories, I know plenty of people who would like to see their loved ones raised from the dead. Many of them might even have a case based on the good works they have done, like Tabitha. Surely people like Tabitha deserve another chance to keep making a difference in the world!
Regardless of the fact that the text does not tell us how, or why, or even why not someone else, what the text does tell us is that Tabitha is in fact dead, Peter in fact raises her from the dead, and then the alive Tabitha is presented to her people, presumably to get back to doing all the good works and charity she had been doing before – or perhaps even better works of charity. Implicit in Peter’s words, “Tabitha, get up,” is the notion that Tabitha’s work is not done yet. In fact, Tabitha must have even greater works to do. God is not done with Tabitha yet.
That is what I love about this story for Hickory Neck. God is not done with us yet either. As I was reading up about hibernation, one of the things I learned is that some species, like polar bears, hibernate while gestating their young. I was blown away by that realization. Pregnancy is that time when the host is usually taking on more calories, building up muscles to prepare for the birth, and dealing with the activity of a developing fetus – especially once the kicking begins. I cannot imagine sleeping through that whole process or storing up enough sustenance to help both bodies grow and thrive during hibernation.
But the more I thought about the hibernating polar bear, the more I realized that is exactly what has been happening with Hickory Neck. Perhaps these last couple of years have felt like a hibernation period – a time of lower energy and output. But I wonder if Hickory Neck is not unlike a hibernating mama polar bear. Though we have been keeping things steady, we have also been working hard on nurturing and producing new life. We have not been sleeping to survive a cold spell. We have been resting to cultivate and grow new life – a new life which is about to be born.
Today, Peter’s words and actions are for us too. The text tells us that when Peter arrives he sends everyone outside, kneels down, and prays. We have been praying too. We have been praying that God guide us through a time of turbulence and transition, we have been praying that Jesus nurture us during our time of hibernating, and we have been praying that the Holy Spirit help us explode with renewed energy and life. After Peter prays, his words to Tabitha are simple, “Tabitha, get up.” Hickory Neck has received a similar charge. When the Holy Spirit led us to one another, we heard the same words. “Hickory Neck, get up.” God is not done with us yet either. That new life we have been gestating is eager to be born in and through us. Finally, one more thing happens in our text. The text says, “Peter gave Tabitha his hand and helped her up.” Though Peter’s words are unambiguous to Tabitha, Peter does not expect Tabitha to get up and get to work alone. He offers her a hand. The same is true for us. Though we are charged to get up and start caring for this new life we have been nurturing, we do not do the work alone. The Holy Spirit is reaching out to us to help guide us to our feet. I will be reaching out my hand to each of you, but I will also need you to reach your hand out to me. And, more importantly, we will also need to reach out our hands to those not yet in our midst, who will be a part of the new life we have been gestating. I do not know about you, but I cannot wait to see what our new growing family looks like. So, Hickory Neck, get up! Amen.
[i] Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 429.
[ii] 1 Kings 17.17-24
[iii] John 11.1-44