April 17, 2016
I will never forget the delight and joy and rush of happiness I felt the first time I saw the movie, "E.T." I will never forget my devastation and sorrow the first time I watched the scene where E.T. dies. E.T. and Eliot, the boy who discovered, befriended and protected him, began to share emotions. Eliot felt what E.T. felt. When E.T. was scared or excited or drunk, then Eliot was scared, excited or drunk. And when E.T. became ill, Eliot became ill. After a long cold night in the forest, E.T. and Eliot were both sick. E.T.'s existence on this planet was discovered. He and Eliot were taken into a governmental mobile lab/operating room of some sort. They were both attached to monitors their recorded their vital statistics. E.T. was scared and sick. He wanted Eliot and Eliot wanted him. As E.T. grew sicker the attachment between them weakened and finally ceased altogether. Eliot grew stronger while E.T. slowly died. When they were completely separated emotionally and physically, one from the other, E.T. died. And when this sweet creature died, I felt as though a part of me died as well. Even the flower E.T. brought back to life with just a touch of his finger began to wilt toward death once more.
The doctors and scientists gave Eliot a moment alone to say goodbye to his friend. Eliot tenderly and tearfully told E.T. how much he loved him and needed him.
The first time I witnessed this moment on the big screen, I thought my heart would break. The only sounds you heard in the entire theater were sniffs and muffled sobs. E.T. -- our beloved E.T. -- was dead. The audience's grief seemed as connected to Eliot's sorrow as Eliot had been connected emotionally to E.T.
But if our grief matched Eliot's, then so did our elation when everything changed. As Eliot uttered his sweet, final goodbyes, E.T.'s heart light began to glow. For whatever reason, E.T. who had been dead was now alive once more. Eliot was overjoyed and so were we all. Even the flower, which was dying without its healer, begins to spring back into new life. E.T. is alive! He is alive!
I saw this movie in the theater five times in the summer that it premiered. Yet even on my fifth viewing, my grief and elation at the death and life of E.T. was not dimmed. Knowing how the rest of the story played out didn't keep my grief over his death at bay nor dilute my joy at his living.
Life out of death, joy out of sorrow, is not a new theme -- in movies or in scripture. In our story from Acts, Peter was called upon by believers in Joppa to come to them because Tabitha, also known by her Greek name -- Dorcas, had died. Tabitha is the one woman in Acts, perhaps in the New Testament, who is called a disciple in the same way men were called disciples. This says something about the regard in which Tabitha was held. As the story points out, she was devoted to charity and doing good works. She took care of people. When Peter arrived and went to the house and the room where Tabitha was lying in state, the widows held up tunics and other clothing she had made for them. This is what this devout woman, this disciple did -- she took care of people. She helped them. She loved them.
Peter sent everyone away; when he was alone he knelt down beside her and prayed. Then he looked at her and said, "Tabitha, get up." Tabitha opened her eyes. Peter helped her up, and then called to all the people gathered and showed them that she was indeed alive. Our story ends with the declaration that many people believed because Tabitha lived.
You know you're in trouble as a preacher when the scholars and commentators you turn to declare that this story from Acts is a great story, but even they are not sure what a preacher can do with it as far as proclamation is concerned. I have to admit that when I realized the people I consider in the know when it comes to scripture and preaching made a statement like this, I was almost ready to give up on Acts for today. I contemplated abandoning my decision to preach on Acts for Eastertide and choose one of the other scriptures for my sermon.
But stories are at the heart of the gospel. They were certainly at the heart of Jesus' preaching and teaching. This is a good story. Tabitha was dead but came back to life. She came back to aliveness. Yet the trouble with stories like this one is that while we can take them seriously and believe that they happened -- they happened back then, a long time ago, in a faraway land. What about now? I suspect that we can all name people who have been prayed over, loved, cared for, attended to, treated, etc. with the intent that they would live, but they died. And they didn't -- at least not to our knowledge -- come back into their aliveness; at least not here. It's not that I don't believe that miracles happen. I do. I am not a completely skeptic. It's not that I don't believe in prayer. I believe completely that prayer has the power to open hearts and minds and hands, but I know that I have prayed and prayed for someone to get well and they didn't. I have prayed and pleaded and hoped for someone to come back to aliveness, but it didn't happen. So what does this story have to say about that? Why was Tabitha brought back to life, but the other people I've loved and prayed for weren't? The truth is that Tabitha was brought back to life, but unless there is a 2,000 year old woman walking around somewhere, she died again; just as Peter died and the other apostles and the believers there in Joppa died. It would seem that living, even living again, is a temporary condition -- at least here in this life.
But what I find striking about Tabitha is that it seems she was completely alive when she was alive. Her aliveness did not rest upon her coming back to life. She served. She cared. She loved. She did for others while she was alive. She was filled with life before she died. Although we don't hear any more about her after she came back to life, I like to believe that she was as filled with life the second time around as she was the first.
The question remains, however, what do we do with this story now? How does it speak to us? Certainly, we should seek to live with intention and mindfulness right now because we don't know how long we will live and we don't know that we will have a second chance at life here. But I want to take this one step further and proclaim that this story reminds us that new life out of death here can be a reality. I'm not saying that someone who has died will suddenly rise up and live again. I'm not saying that can't happen; it's not impossible but I suspect it is improbable. Yet life out of death can be a reality. I hesitate to make an allegory out of this story, but it is hard not to. Death seems so prevalent in our lives, in our world. Death is everywhere. People die. Relationships die. Communities die. But our hope in the resurrection of Jesus our Lord is not just that we will have new life down the road somewhere else, on some other plane of existence, it's that we will experience new life now. That is true in our relationships. That is true in our communities. That is true in our churches -- in this church. Isn't that what we are working for, reaching for, hoping for? New life. In the working lunch we're having immediately following worship, we'll be talking about our hopes for our congregation, for God's congregation. We will be praying for and contemplating how God is using us now and how God may use us in the future. This is an exciting time in the life of our congregation.
However it seems to me that we are not just talking about life, we are talking about new life. We are talking about aliveness. We hope and pray not just that our church will be resuscitated, but that it will be resurrected. We want new life. But new life implies the death of old life. We have worked so hard to get to this point. We have stepped out, leapt out in faith and trust that God will help us land. But what do we still have to let go and let die? What must die so that we can be filled with aliveness? I don't have answers to offer. But I believe and I trust that God continually calls new life out of death. God continually does a new thing. God is calling new life out of us. God is calling a new thing out of this old thing. God is calling us to aliveness. Always. Always. That is good news indeed. Let us hear and heed and follow God's call.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"