Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When I think about Tabitha in Acts, I think about all the Tabithas I’ve met in my life. Tabitha is that woman you know who is a cancer survivor who also knits hats for the people in the chemo room. She knows from experience how cold it gets when you're in treatment and that it is easy to feel lonesome when you're in isolation. So, she knits little warm reminders that God is with people while they sit, getting medicine that will make them sick to help them get better. Tabitha is the woman who sews all summer or maybe all winter, hoping that the quilts she creates can both raise a little money for the church and keep loved ones warm on a cold night. Tabitha is the one who donated the unexpected bonus of stimulus money to people who needed extra cash more than she did. I’ve met a hundred Tabithas. I bet you have, too.
Tabitha, also called Dorcas, was the first woman explicitly called a disciple in the book of Acts, though undoubtedly not the only woman disciple. She was called a disciple because she did what disciples did: followed the model of Christ by helping people in need. In her commentary on the text, Dr. Mitzi Smith notes that Tabitha understood that if you are a person of privilege, as she likely was if she had money to share as freely as she did, that it is your Christian responsibility to share with those who have less. We don’t know how she came by her money. But, we do know that she, like many other wealthy women who helped fund early Christian mission, used her money to serve her neighbors and serve Christ. When she became sick and died, people were bereft.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the book of Luke. The love with which Jesus’ body was tended is mirrored by the tenderness with which Tabitha’s body was prepared. They took her body to the upper room of a home. Dr. Smith, in her commentary, encourages us to remember that important things can happen in upper rooms. In Acts 1, eleven disciples met in an upper room to receive the Holy Spirt. Something powerful can happen in this upper room, too. That’s why two of her friends went to find Peter.
In his commentary on this text, Eric Barreto reminds us that there are multiple resurrection accounts in Luke and Acts: Jesus raised a son a of a widowed woman and a daughter of a man named Jairus. Jesus himself conquered death. And, while it is not a resurrection, Peter heals a man named Aeneas who had been paralyzed. I don’t know if the men who went to get Peter intended for him to raise Tabitha from the dead or just wanted him to be able to come pay respects. Regardless of why they asked him, he stopped what he was doing and went to Joppa. When he arrived, the widows who had no one to care for them but Tabitha showed them the clothes that she had lovingly made. Maybe you have done the same when you have gathered to mourn... told stories of how they loved you and helped you.
Asking for some time with Tabitha's body, the mourners left and Peter knelt to pray. He turned back to the body and said three simple words, "Tabitha, get up." Thank God, she did. Peter made sure that the widows, whom she served, and the other disciples, whom she happily served alongside, were the first ones to see her return. What a gift it is to give this kind of good news, of life restored and relationships renewed.
Of all the Gospels, Luke and its sequel Acts, have the clearest authorial voice. At the beginning of each book, the author says that they are sharing these stories so that we will hear them and believe. It is about demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit and the life-giving potential of Christ's love. Dr. Wil Gafney says that each of Jesus’ miracles, and I’d argue, those done empowered by his spirit, is an epiphany... something that helps us see God more clearly. I think that good works like Tabitha’s are epiphanies, too. Because God is clearly manifest in the steady creak of a spinner's wheel and the bold snap of the weaver’s loom... in food cooked and shared... in lives tended to in compassion and care.
Do you remember how Jesus described his mission at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke? I hoped so. I just preached about it. He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." To follow Jesus... to act in accordance with his spirit... means that you will tend to those same things. Tabitha shows us that being a disciple is taking up Jesus’ mission statement as your own. When she looked at the most vulnerable members of her community, she saw fellow children of God, and made sure that their basic needs were supplied. While the Bible story shares that news of Tabitha's resurrection inspired many more people to follow Jesus, I bet that her generous spirit and advocate's heart had already taught plenty of people an important lesson about Jesus. The miracle worked through Peter just sealed the deal.
The author of Luke and Acts continually brings us back to the idea that God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is a life-restorer and one who brings life into barren places. Tabitha's story reminds us just how expansive this restoration of life can be. Life can be restored through an action as simple as the creation of a garment for one who is deeply impoverished and as radical as the resurrection of the dead. Oppression and illness and captivity have many faces. Grace needs to have just as many. I pray that we each can leave a legacy of love as powerful as Tabitha's. May we arise with her, and continue to serve the ones Christ loved.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Gail R. O' Day "Acts" in The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Loretta J. Reynolds, "The Secret of Greatness: Acts 9:32-42," preached at Danforth Chapel at Berea College in March 1998
Wil Gafney, "Epiphany VII" in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
The synagogue that Jesus was a part of likely wouldn't have looked like this. This is more likely true to the look of a synagogue in the late 1880's, when Tissot painted the original. Judaism had adapted and evolved a lot from the time of Jesus' life to the time recorded in this painting. Christians should be careful not to assume that more modern Jewish practices will mirror the practices that Jesus would have lived with.
Luke 4:16-27 The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’
Jesus was born to angelic proclaim, with a mom who had a scandalous pregnancy story and a kind stepfather. Poor, hard-working shepherds were the first witnesses to his birth. Two elderly prophets cry out with joy upon meeting him during the first eight days of his life. He learned with his elders as a boy in the temple. As a man, he was baptized and tempted and called to bring about the Reign of God. Today’s reading is about when he went back home to tell them about his mission.
This moment in his hometown synagogue was not his first public lesson. He’d already been teaching in the countryside. We don’t know the exact content of those first lessons, but we know that it moved people. We do, however, have a sense of how this first lesson in Nazareth went. He was not received as well as one might imagine. Or, maybe you could imagine this, because you know what it’s like to go back home and be told that you’ve gotten too big for your britches.
Scholars remind us that the synagogue was the central institution for everyday Jewish life. The Temple in Jerusalem was the heart of Jewish communal religious identity and all Jewish people would have been expected to visit for certain holidays and rituals. But, beginning during the exile, when the temple was destroyed and people did not have the same freedom of movement, they began to gather in synagogues. They did not have a priest, but they did have faithful lay leaders. The Pharisees, dedicated and knowledgeable, would be grounded in their religious teachings and present for most gatherings. All adult men were invited to read scripture and to comment on it. Scholars tell us that the services were simple: usually reading and teaching, praying, and gathering of offerings for the poor.
Jesus did the thing all adult men were invited to do. He read scripture and commented on it. Looking through the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he read these words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then, he offered this commentary, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And, this is where the people listening started to get annoyed. Well, maybe not annoyed yet. But definitely frightened and amazed. Isn’t this just Joseph’s son? What is he talking about?
Justice and mercy were not new to the Jewish faith. But, Jesus seemed to associate himself so closely with the leader described in Isaiah that people who were paying attention couldn’t help but wonder if he was saying what he was really saying. Is he claiming to be this Anointed One? In her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney says that he goes so far as to claim the title of Liberator that is usually given to God in Scripture. Not just anyone will claim a title of God’s as their own. Typically, only the very ill, the very corrupt, or dangerously ambitious will even try. And, yet, here’s Jesus, proclaiming this world-changing, oppression-busting mission as his own.
Jesus knew his scripture well. When they brought up Joseph, a move that Dr. Gafney argues could have been an allusion to Jesus’ questionable parentage, he reminds them that Elijah and Elisha, revered prophets in their tradition, spent most of their time preaching outside of Israel. No prophet is accepted in their hometown, remember? The people got so mad when Jesus reminded them of this, that they almost threw him off a cliff.
One scholar I’ve read argues that Jesus was describing his ministry as the beginning of a season of Jubilee. Ruth Anne Reese, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that, according to the book of Leviticus, every 50th year was to be set aside as a time of liberation and restoration. While justice was demanded at all times, the Jubilee was the particular time in which slaves were freed and captives restored to their own communities. She thinks that Jesus reoriented Jubilee so it wasn't just observed every 50 years. It was to be observed on that very day, and every day that followed. Jubilee became his legacy that we as his followers are called to live out every day. Jubilee was being fulfilled. Jubilee is still being fulfilled.
In her commentary, Dr. Gafney points out that Jesus’ assumption of this mission and his comparison of his own mission with that of Elijah and Elisha, he’s telling us something about how God works in this world. Dr. Gafney says, “God will go right on doing her good work no matter what anyone thinks of her messenger, including folks who were not thought worthy.” The people he was raised with had clear expectations for the Messiah. Jesus, this guy they had known his whole life, just didn’t fit those expectations. But, he knew what his mission was. And, he wouldn’t let their rage stop him.
It makes sense that Jesus, whose life started with unexpected, powerless people being given great honors and important missions, could find it within himself to continue a mission that the people he had grown up with didn’t support. This makes particular sense if we understand him to be preaching the Reign of God as Perpetual Jubilee. The Jubilee was rooted in justice and mercy for the oppressed. Of course, God would entrust leadership to the ones who the world considered lowly (Remember Mary? Remember the Shepherds?). Of course, we could see God incarnate in the life of Jesus. God’s reign won’t be about helping the powerful maintain power. Jesus’ mission, which we have inherited as the Body of Christ, is liberation, proclamation, and healing. May we live like we have heard God’s Jubilee and that is being fulfilled, through and with us at this very moment.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2741
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4248
Wil Gafney, "Epiphany VI" in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Swanson, John August. Wedding Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58581 [retrieved February 8, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1996 by John August Swanson.
John 2:1-11: The Wedding at Cana
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Filling the Jars: John 2:1-11
In the book of John, there are seven signs that show us something about Jesus. The scholar Karoline Lewis says it is best to think of signs not just as revelations of God manifesting through Jesus... seven epiphanies, if you will. In six of the stories, he commands a tremendous amount of power. In chapter four, Jesus heals a sick child. In chapter five, Jesus heals a man who had been paralyzed. In chapter six, he feeds 5,000 people and walks on water. In chapter nine, he heals a man who was born blind, and in chapter eleven, he raises a man named Lazarus from the dead. Those stories alone, where is upends the laws of physics and overpowers death, would be enough to show us that something divine was happening in Jesus.
But there’s not just six stories. There’s seven. And this sign, turning water into wine, is the first of the seven. Why start with this story about that doesn’t, at least at face value, have anything to say about life or death like the others do? I think it’s because this story, as simple and kind of funny as it is, is here to show us the ethics that undergirded all the later healings. Isn’t there another part of the Bible that says that those who can be trusted with small things can later be trusted with large things? Well, at this wedding, Jesus comes through in a low stakes way that helps us see that he can do something important when the stakes are high.
I want you to picture a wedding. It could be your wedding. It could be one you’ve seen on tv. It should be one where most things are going pretty well and people are having a good time... and probably drinking too much. And, the caterer should look stressed out. Because they are running out of wine. And, this is the kind of wedding where you had to have wine. Jesus and his mom are at the wedding. Mary is sure Jesus can help out. And, as any a mother proud of her special son would do, she insists that he fix the situation.
Jesus tries to decline his mother’s request. He says “my hour is not yet come.” But his mother has already decided he will help and has walked away from him and up to the servants. She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus realizes that he has already lost this argument and goes about doing what his mother says. The servants line up 6 jugs that each contain 30 gallons of water. That is a lot of water. These servants are the only ones who see what happens next.
Jesus tells them to draw some of the liquid out and take it the head waiter. Sometime between that moment that they draw up the water and the moment the steward tastes it, it has become wine. And, not just any wine, but very good wine. The steward just assumes that the groom had good stuff socked away and did the weirdly generous move of bringing it out after everyone was probably too drunk to appreciate it. What is interesting, beyond the fact that they now have 180 gallons of wine is that Jesus doesn’t explain why he decided to make all this wine. He explains the purpose of all of the other 6 signs after he does them. As you heard, the story simply says that this was the first of the signs and revealed his glory to his disciples and a bunch of wait staff. That’s it. That’s his first public act. Make a ton of wine at a party and only the wait staff see him do it.
A few points I’ve learned in researching this scripture. Wine is important, not just because it feels celebratory, but because it is usually safer to drink than water during this time. Scholars who know about wedding customs of this era note that to run out of wine in the middle of what is probably a multiple day wedding celebration is to run out of a basic provision of life. This is more than simply running out of drinks at a short party and sending people home. The family hosting the wedding provides food and drinks and the family and friends attending chip in with food and drinks. Someone did some bad planning or someone had a family that either couldn’t or wouldn’t help take care of the food and drink needs for all the attendees. The lack of wine could be a sign of greater issues going on. Jesus and his mom had likely already contributed food and drinks to the event. Isn’t it interesting that his mom encouraged him to give more... to be more gracious than necessary and not to just go home and grumble about the bad hosts?
Do you remember that part of Proverbs where God’s Wisdom is personified as a woman who builds a house and sets a rich feast for all to enjoy? I’ve preached on it a couple times. It’s interesting to me that the beginning of the book of John guides us to consider Jesus to be God’s Wisdom come alive, in flesh like ours, and living among us. Jesus, in helping this couple host their friends and family, becomes Wisdom who fills cups until they overflow and fills bellies until they are full. Jesus shows us that God starts with enough, more than enough, in fact. And, Jesus himself will begin his public ministry in that same spirit of abundance.
Karoline Lewis, who has a great commentary on the book of John, actually notes that abundance is part of many of the more serious signs. Fore example, in chapter 5, when Jesus heals a man, the man was just asking for help getting into a healing pool. Jesus gave him enough grace that he didn’t even need the pool to get better. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man and the community gets really scared by the miraculous act and expel the man from their community. Jesus finds the man an even more gracious community by inviting him to become a sheep in his fold. Even the eventual raising of Lazarus doesn’t end with the resurrection. Instead, the last time we see him, he is eating a meal at a full table with his sisters. Though out the book of John, Jesus will so be identified with reckless and extravagant acts of grace that, after the resurrection, the disciples, when they meet a man on the beach who they think is Jesus, they will believe it’s him when he tells them where to fish and that catch so many that they can barely drag the net back to shore.
We read about the water becoming wine first, before all the rest of the signs, so that we know God is offering us more than the bare minimum in this incarnation. God's love, God’s wisdom is best known in extravagant hospitality and deep generosity. In a world that keeps telling us and that we’d do better to hoard than to share, this story stands in holy contrast. More is possible. Enough is possible if we do what Jesus says and line up the jars so the miracles can happen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Lindsey S. Jodrey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3946
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2748
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd Ed
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5276
Swanson, John August. Celebration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56538 [retrieved January 27, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1997 by John August Swanson.
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Co-inheritors of the Promise
Do you know what a murmuration is? It’s when a whole bunch of birds... sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands... fly together in sweeping, swirling patterns. You’ve probably seen murmurations of starlings like the one in this video:
Yes, starlings are invasive, introduced onto this continent by people without a clear sense of what affect they might have on our environment. I am aware that the birders among us may not appreciate them very much. That being said, this behavior is fascinating. I read a reflection by Sierra Pickett on murmurations while preparing for annual meeting. She said:
“Starlings’ murmuration consists of a flock moving in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every individual bird focuses on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage a larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity (at times upwards of over a million birds).”
I read this in the midst of a blizzard yesterday. Every dog walk and every look out the window reminded me of the power of small things moving together forcefully. Did anyone else have to go outside in the blizzard? Even if it wasn’t the worst one you’ve ever been in, wasn’t it still so obviously a force not to be underestimated?
Blizzards are so overwhelming because the snow, teeny tiny flakes, joins with the wind, a force we feel more than see, to make it impossible to navigate outdoors. Our entire region, save folks running plows, putting out fires, and working in hospitals and gas stations, was pretty well shut down by hundreds of millions of snowflakes sweeping through the air, across the land, and into every possible nook and cranny. Blizzards, though, are unintentional, a result of just the right weather patterns colliding at the right time (though we’ll likely see more because of climate change). Starling murmurations are full of intention. They are individual beings, motivated by both need and intuition, to work together for their common good.
We would do well to understand church, the Body of Christ, as being more like a murmuration than a blizzard. We are individual beings motivated by our faith to work together for the Gospel. When we are doing church well, we are joining together with intention, not simply by accident. When we are living the mission we’re called to, we aren’t just reacting to the world around us. We are paying attention to one another and the Holy Spirit, and moving together, often in beautiful ways, towards our goal. Our shared ministry, at its best, is a murmuration... evidence of our communication with each other and God and the world around us.
We aren’t actually sure who wrote the letter that we have come to the Book of Ephesians. According to the scholar Bart Ehrman, while within the letter, the author claims to be the Apostle Paul, there are enough differences in theology, personal history, and writing style that many modern scholars think the writer was likely a follower of Paul, but probably not Paul. Questions of authorship aside, the goal of the letter is pretty clear: How does one help Christians from different ethnic backgrounds to understand themselves as on Body of Christ? The Unity of the Body of Christ was something that concerned Paul and whomever wrote this letter and remains important to Christians to this day.
In the time of the writing of this letter, it seems that one barrier that was keeping devout people from feeling like one body was their different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Given that Jesus was Jewish during his lifetime, that his first followers were Jewish, and that they understood him to be the incarnation of the Jewish Messiah, some who would come in the generations after the first disciples would argue that in order to follow Jesus, you must be Jewish and follow Jewish religious rules. Starting with the disciples in Acts and through the letters of Paul into these letters that follow in Paul’s tradition, the earliest preachers of the Gospel traditions that we have inherited affirm, as Dr. Wil Gafney says, “the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is for all persons.” The writer of Ephesians wanted to make sure that Gentiles, in particular, knew that they had been fully and wholly incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Letters like this one to the Ephesians were passed around to Christian communities to help them navigate all the issues that come with bringing individuals together into one body. They became theological foundations to guide them, and eventually us, as we move together, sweeping and swirling our way to the Kindom of God. So, we have these words to remind us of the broadness of God’s love stretching from the first hearers to us. This wide and deep love is what allows us to move together, out of our needs, inspired by our faith, as one whole body. As we make plans for the coming year, having celebrated how we have moved together, in faith, over the last year, may we remember what it means to tend to each other, guide each other, and trust each other as sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the Gospel. God’s love is wide. Who can we help make sure knows that they are a part of it?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.