A Sermon for Covenant
“It Takes a Village”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
April 21, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Unlike most healing stories in the Bible, in this case, we learn quite a bit about the healed one, Tabitha. She is a disciple, who lives in Joppa, known for doing good and helping the poor. We hear that Tabitha clearly made and kept good friends. At her death, her friends gather around, wearing the proof of her goodwill on their very backs, clothed in the works of her hands.
Most biblical miracles focus on the healing event itself and the power of God; we learn very little about the person who was healed. In this case, we hear all about Tabitha and nothing about God, at least, not directly. God is barely mentioned, which is highly unusual for a miracle account. Even Peter does not invoke the name of God when he heals, nor does he verbally give God the glory, the way he does when healing the lame man in chapter 3 or healing the paralyzed Aeneas just before this story in the city of Lydda.
So just who is at the center of this story, anyway? Is it Tabitha, with her good deeds, is it Peter, with his healing powers? Is it God, at work behind-the-scenes, or is it Tabitha’s friends, who mourn and urge and hope on her behalf? It is odd to find such a dramatic healing story in which God is not explicitly the central character. Could it be that, in a sense, it takes a village to heal a person.
God, of course, is the Ultimate Healer, no doubt. But what if Tabitha’s friends hadn’t sent for Peter? What if Peter never came? What if Tabitha hadn’t been such a friend to her friends in the first place—would they have held out hope on her behalf if she hadn’t been so dear to them before she was gone?
In many New Testament miracles, the emphasis is on the sheer power of God alone. But there are a few exceptions. For example, Luke also reports that a paralyzed man’s friends once carried their friend to Jesus on a mat, and when they could not get close to Jesus for the crowds, they hoisted him onto the roof, dug through ceiling tiles, and lowered him down in front of Jesus. It is the power of God that heals and forgives, but in that case it was the audacity and persistence of friends that made such a healing event possible.
Tabitha seems to have made friends like that herself. It is clear that her death is much grieved, and when her fellow disciples hear that Peter is in a nearby town, they quickly send after him saying, “Please come at once!” It isn’t clear what they hope to accomplish by sending for Peter. After all, she is already dead; what could be done? But it sure seems they are hoping somehow, someway that things could be reversed.
The urgency of their request suggests they thought perhaps Peter could set things right. Did they really think she could be revived? I don’t know about that. Did they dare to hope in the recesses of their heart that there still might be a way forward, a way of healing and life? Yes, I think they did. They seemed to think something could be done. Despite the very worst, Tabitha’s fellow friends and disciples still had gumption enough to dream.
Faith, by the way, rarely has anything at all to do with proof or surety or with knowing what it is we should ask for. Faith is more like the stubborn ability to keep dreaming. Faith is igniting the imagination and discovering possibilities in the face of improbabilities and asking for help even when all seems lost.
Children seem to have this kind of conviction almost intuitively. Just yesterday I saw on facebook that this week at school Asher has been smelling different kinds of plants, and when Ellen asked him what the plants smelled like, he answered, “One smelled like chocolate. And one smelled like my dreams…” Children do not sense any disconnect between their dreams and their daily worlds. Children feel no sense of shame about their dreams, as if they need to cover up their stranger ideas.
But somewhere into adulthood, we grow too refined for our own dreams; we think it necessary to stay cool and collected, logical and reasonable. Our own daydreams seem off limits, and yet, what if our dreams are the beginning seeds of faith? Hope is a defining mark of the people of God, but our reasonable side is always scolding our inner child, “Don’t get your hopes up, don’t get your hopes up” so as to avoid disappointment. But by avoiding disappointment, could it be we’ve avoided a miracle, our lack of vision cutting us off from an invasion of Spirit?
Mind you, dreaming doesn’t stop Tabitha’s friends from mourning or from dressing the body. Their vision and their hope stay grounded in reality. They lovingly wash her body, they weep, they run their fingers over the fabrics of her well-made garments and feel acutely the ache of her absence. But beneath all that, they seem to hold in suspense the possibility that something more is yet to happen.
When Peter arrives, he is pressed in on all sides by the crowd who loves her. They are carrying the things she’s made them, showing Peter the evidence of her kindness. Were they merely expressing their sorrow, or was this a silent form of intercession, a pleading on her behalf?
And though Peter sends everyone out of the room while he kneels and prays and helps her up, I cannot help but think it was not his prayer alone, but the chorus of prayers ringing out from every room in the house that resuscitated her.
Fredrick Buechner writes, “When it comes to putting broken lives back together—when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls—the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”
One of the miraculous things about Tabitha’s life is that she opened herself up to the people around her, and then, when she was dying, her friends were there for her, which had an effect no one could have anticipated. Developing that kind of kinship with other people requires a vulnerability many of us are seldom ready to risk. Especially when you’re hurting or wounded or dying, your instinct is to shut down, hole up, hide, retract, constrict, preserve. Close up your heart like a clenched fist. Only, as Buechner said, it’s hard to receive any love, any help, any healing when all your crevices are sealed shut and your hands aren’t open. It’s hard for anyone to help you if don’t ask or say what you need. It’s hard for anyone to love you, if you keep you hidden away behind a mask. People may love the mask, but it doesn’t do your heart any good if your façade is popular and well-liked.
I am convinced that as we get older, we don’t necessarily learn by default how to be more comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we just learn how to maneuver more easily and more convincingly in our armor, ‘til the armor seems as if it’s a part of us. Like the metal is our very skin and the truth of who we are. It takes work, hard and deliberate work, to peel off the layers of protection, emerge as we truly are, and let people befriend the real us. Tabitha strikes me as a real person, someone who knew others and let herself be known. But vulnerability and healing take hard work. It takes practice to learn how to stop hoarding yourself and share.
Here is what I am finding out: Not everyone you confide in is going to listen. Not everyone is going to respond in the right way every time. Not everyone is going to lavish love and acceptance on your truest self. But somebody, somewhere, is going to place their hand on your life and resurrect something inside you that you thought was long dead. So you keep opening yourself up to the healing touch of people around you. Yes, you are risking further wounds that way. Yes, you are creating the possibility of rejection. But you are also creating the possibility for genuine love and care. No one can love you if you keep parading a false self as a substitute.
Sometimes healing just happens, out-of-the-blue, without warning. But other times, healing happens after a group of friends rather tediously peel tiles away from the ceiling and heave their friend to the feet of Jesus. Arguably some environments lend themselves to healing better than others—such as when you’ve got a group of friends to help.
Tabitha’s resurrection seems so down-to-earth, without even invoking the name of God. No fancy stuff, other than the stuff of her life, which was her work, her clothes, her friends. Perhaps God need not be mentioned because the Spirit was present already. God, there in the good deeds, God, there in abiding friendship, God, there in the weeping. God, in the dreams of friends, who do not give up, even in the face of death. God, in Peter’s prayer, and in Peter’s words, “Tabitha, get up!” God is in her as she rises. The fingerprints of God are all over, such that people in Joppa who hear the story “believe in the Lord.”
Of course, in light of all the tragedies that have occurred in our world in recent days, we are reminded most acutely and painfully that not everyone rises, not everyone gets healed, not everyone escapes paralysis or death, and like Tabitha’s friends, this fills our hearts with mounting grief. But as we are coming to find in every tragedy, small miracles do happen. That is, families and victims with enough time and tender care often do heal, cities pull together, ordinary people exhibit kindness and bravery we didn’t know was possible. When the people rise up, they raise the downtrodden with them. When our prayers rise up, when our ability to dream of a better world refuses to die, when we resurrect hope and generosity, when we stubbornly continue to risk vulnerability despite all threats, then death never gets the final word, and the fingerprints of God pop up in the most destitute of places.
If it takes a village to heal a person, then by all means, don’t set off alone. Join the work. Make yourself accessible to miracle. Don’t speak too hastily of God. Open your eyes and look for God instead. Be a friend to someone. Let someone be a friend to you. Do not let any amount of disappointment shut down your capacity for dreaming. Watch in amazement the daily miracles. Speak resurrection words wherever you can. Live with all your heart. Don’t hide. Amen. Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, 46.  Acts