I used to enjoy playing a game called “Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It is based on the game “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which you try and see how many degrees of relationship you are removed from a celebrity. It is fun to try.
I can tell you that I am two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon. My brother Jonathan saw him in a restaurant in South Carolina and got his autograph. You’ll be happy to know that I am one degree removed from Phyllis Diller, and Dick van Dyke, if passing them on a street in their Malibu neighborhood and waving counts. In the same Malibu neighborhood I actually talked to Alan Arkin as he was getting his mail. He said, “Hi,” and I said, “Hi.” He said, “Have a great day.” I said, “You too.” Hey, it counts. And due to living where we do, I am only a couple of degrees removed from Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, and Nicole Kidman. And then there’s that time our beach chairs were right next to Luke Bryan on the beach for a whole week. And I have a football signed to me by Nick Saban. I contend there’s no degree of separation there…we are one.
Of course on another level, it is a statement about the worship of celebrity and the superficiality that can entail, as if knowing someone who knows someone somehow entails a relationship worthy of the name.
Today, though, that’s what I believe this text invites us to think about – degrees of separation.
Jerusalem is where all the action is in the first part of the Book of Acts. It was the place in Luke where Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, the place where the women discovered the empty tomb, and the place where the risen Christ encountered his disciples and gave them the command to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. For the first several chapters of his story in Acts, Luke has kept us in Jerusalem. But now, for the first time, Peter takes a few steps away from the city. Today we find him in Joppa, a small town on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Jerusalem by 40 miles, gathered with a group of disciples who live there.
It is really, by the game’s standards, only one degree of separation from Jesus, but it must have felt like so many more degrees to Peter, so many more miles from Jerusalem, from Jesus, when he got to urgent summons from some disciples in Joppa. One of their own is dead.
Luke takes care to tell us her name, in both Hebrew and Greek. She is Tabitha, Dorcas in Greek. Both mean the same thing – “Gazelle.” She must have been every bit the embodiment of that name. She is the only woman in the entire New Testament to be given the title “Disciple.” She is “devoted to good works and charity.”
Here is a disciple of Jesus Christ, this far west of Jerusalem, a woman, with both a Hebrew and Greek name. She appears to be the leader of a guild of widows who made garments for the sake of good works and charity. The widows are gathered around her lifeless body, weeping. When Peter shows up, they lift the garments up, like holy objects, which they most certainly were, these signs of her gifts, of her presence and importance. Their tears fall onto the clothing, their grief is raw. Something has been lost here. Luke doesn’t tell us about Peter’s thoughts, but I venture to say he felt so far away in that moment, from Jerusalem, here in this house with these grieving disciples and this lifeless gazelle.
Peter may not know it, but he is taking his first steps into a surprising world that is shot through with resurrection. And it is a much larger world than even he can imagine.
Already the resurrection power of Jesus is alive in that house, among those widows. Tabitha somewhere along the way heard the story of Jesus and was so captured by his Spirit that she devoted herself to his way in the world.
It happens. Allison Terry-Evans heard about all the clothes being discarded as refugees made their way across the Aegean Sea, arriving cold and soaked. All those clothes that might have been thrown away were piling up in every camp. She felt a call and had an idea. She founded the Dirty Girlz, who pick up all the discarded clothes, wash them, and re-distribute them. Our group saw the value of their work up close while we were in Lesvos.
One day, when Allison dies and her friends and family gather to grieve the loss, perhaps they will hold up a pair of socks, or a beautiful Syrian coat, or an Afghan quilt. Look at these signs. Look at what she left behind.
It happens. Brenda Hauk, a school teacher with special needs children begins to wonder why there are so few services that respect the dignity and autonomy and gifts of this adult population. She says she felt God’s call, and dedicated her life to founding BrightStone. And now Kate and her friends and so many more have a place, a sacred space, where their gifts can be called forth.
When Brenda breathes her last, and her family and friends gather to grieve, they will hold up artwork, food, the many gifts of those she loved that her faithfulness to God’s call brought forth.
Peter has seen these gifts. Who’s to say what he is thinking. But Luke tells us what he does. He sends everyone out. Can you see the change in Peter already? Impetuous, loud, always ready for the show. His is humble. He is alone with Tabitha. He gets on his knees. He prays. We do not hear what he prays, only that he does. It is tender moment, a holy moment, but it is also an unsure moment, a vulnerable moment. It may not have just been humility that made Peter put them all out, but fear – fear that he might fail.
I wonder if Peter was trembling as he prayed. We don’t know how long he stayed on his knees. But at some point, in prose as matter-of-fact as if he is narrating the preparation of dinner, Luke says that Peter looked at the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Her eyes open, and when she sees Peter, she sits up. Peter takes her by the hand and helps her up.
And that’s when they know. There is no degree of separation from the Spirit of Christ.
Tabitha no doubt got up from her death-bed and sprang into action befitting her name. She was restored to the community. She made more tunics. She continued to lead the little community of widows. And then one day, she died. The widows grieved yet again. But I suspect this time they did not grieve as those without hope. For this time they had seen a sign that a new age had dawned, and they knew that nothing could ever be quite the same again.
Since Anne has been taking classes for her Certificate of Ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, I’ve been the beneficiary of some of her learning. Her last class was in Pastoral Care, and one of the things the professor encouraged was that every time you were getting ready to meet with someone, whether in the hospital or in the home or at the church, you should take a moment to set down whatever you bring with you – your anxieties, worries, distractions, to-do lists, your pre-conceived ideas of how the visit is going to go, your fear that you may not be enough or have the right words – you set it down so you can offer the gift of complete presence to the person. It was certainly one of Anne’s gifts long before she took the class, but it is a good reminder not only to pastors, but to all who want to give the gift of their time and presence to another.
But here’s the thing. That setting down, the opening of the door, the stepping into the room, is a place of incredible vulnerability. Things happen in such spaces as that. You are opening yourself to the possibility that even resurrection can happen, transformation, new directions, new life.
I’m imagining some of your funerals right now – don’t worry, I’m sure they are all far off. But you notice we don’t call them funerals. We call them Services of Witness to the Resurrection. We call them that because we are witnessing to the hope of resurrection and claiming those promises for the one who has died. But we also call it that because we give witness to the ways resurrection power was part of the person’s life while they lived.
I’m imagining some of yours. Someone will come to me and hold up a garment and say, “I was having a hard time, and she was my Stephen Minister. She walked with me for over a year through my pain. She was the light of Christ to me.”
Maybe the ashes will be here at the font, and someone will approach and hold up a garment, “He was my covenant partner. He allowed me to ask question and listened patiently to my teenage worries. I’m a person of faith because of what Christ did through him.”
Standing outside at the Memorial Garden, someone will come up to me, lifting up a garment – “I was a stranger, new to this church, and he went out of his way to welcome me, to genuinely welcome me. He sought me out every Sunday. He might not ever know what that meant to me. It’s a big reason I became part of this community of faith. I felt the welcome of Christ through him.”
I don’t really have to imagine these conversations. I’ve already had them, and scores more just like them. The power of resurrection is calling forth the gifts of the members of this community of faith and transforming lives.
When they speak of you, what garments of life are they holding up that are signs of your gifts? You are baptized, so you surely have them.
And when they speak of us, First Presbyterian Church, what garments of life are they holding up that are signs of the gift of this church to our community, nation, and world?
They are surely here, among us, beautiful signs of resurrection…there is no degree of separation. Christ is risen! Amen.