Weaving Holy Conversations
Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year C
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Let us pray: Fill us with the presence of your Spirit, God, and help us grow as disciples. Help us seek those who show us how to serve neighbours through life-giving words and deeds, and make us bold to follow their example. Amen.
If we could sum up the goal of ministry into one sentence it might be this: Helping people to experience the holy. Of course, that's not a description of just my vocation, but a statement about all of our calling as ministers – just as it says each week in our announcements – that the ministers of this congregation are the people of this congregation. I had a reminder of that this week in a discussion I had with my colleague Bev Brazier who was here from Whitehorse as part of a Northern Lights presbytery oversight visitation team. I don't remember the exact content of the conversation, but that phrase of experiencing the holy stuck with me. Bev was excited by this week's readings – especially the story of Dorcas, also known as Tabitha. Not that I wasn't excited, but her enthusiasm for the story helped to grow my own. Lorne named some of the features of this story that make it remarkable – the fact that Tabitha was named as a disciple – indicating that women were included in this designation, and also indicating that the use of the word disciple may well have had a wider meaning than is often presently understood. It is also important to recognize the fact that Tabitha's name is known to this day – a fact which should not be remarkable, but unfortunately it is, because so many other women of the bible go unnamed.
Of course, the incident described by the story from the book of Acts is also remarkable, the raising form the dead of Tabitha by Peter, but there are so many other things to glean from the story that the raising to life is almost an afterthought.
In both the Hebrew bible and the Christian scriptures, widows and orphans are very often named as people who are most in need of care and compassion. What this means is that in the way the social systems of biblical Palestine were structured – widows and orphans were the on the lowest rung. In a patriarchal society, identity and economy were centred on the men. So when a man died, his wife was left without any status or means of support. This is why the Levitical laws are so clear about what should happen when a husband dies, and the responsibility of brothers to care for the marriage partners of their deceased brothers. The religious laws – which were also the civil laws were structured to make sure that the most needy were cared for. This also says a lot about the scriptural record as a manual for how to treat people justly. Widows and orphans are cited so often as those being most in need of care and support because they represent not only a real segment of society, but they serve also as a metaphor, as an example of the needy in other societies.
We are told that Tabitha was well known for doing good and helping out. We are also told that her friends were widows. It's not too difficult to make the connection that the people she was helping out were likely also her friends. So, Tabitha was engaged in the work that is so often described in scripture – namely involved in the support of widows – the most needy segment of society.
And that perhaps describes another one sentence description of ministry – doing good and helping out with those who are in need. So the two sentences I've offered are this: 1) Helping people to experience the holy and 2) doing good and helping out with those who are in need. A case could be made that they are really one and the same.
We learn something else in that tender moment when Peter is first brought to the body of Tabitha. Her friends, the widows, show Peter some pieces of clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them. So, we have some insight into the kind of good that Tabitha was doing before her death. She was clothing them – perhaps by weaving the cloth they needed. In perhaps the most well known description of meeting Christ in everyday life, the gospel asks and then answers: When did we ever feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? Truly I say to you, whenever you fed or gave drink to the least of these, you gave it to me.
Interestingly enough, when Tabitha is raised to new life, the passage reads: When this became known all over Joppa, many put their trust in the Master. In other words, it is the risen Christ who is credited with the miracle at Joppa.
Well, that's the way my week began – hosting Bev at our house and therefore having an opportunity to engage in collegial conversation about congregational ministry her, but also to spend a small amount of time reflecting with her on the object for this week – to have conversations about the holy we might discover in the readings assigned to this day – and certainly the holy is present as I've hopefully suggested, in the story of Tabitha. I also had opportunity, as did a number of other people – most particularly the members of the Ministry and Personnel committee and the Board – to engage in holy conversations with both Bev and Frank Shultz – the other person who was here this week as part of the Pastoral Oversight visitation team. Now you may not have called them holy conversations, but that's what they were – at least we hope they were, for regardless of what the questions were, they were really questions seeking answers about the way that the presence of God is both celebrated and discerned in the ministry we are about as a congregation.
In an interesting conjunction of events, the end of my week was spent in the presence of anywhere between forty and sixty women at St. Andrew's United Church in Lacombe, Alberta. The occasion was the Alberta and Northwest Conference United Church Women Annual Meeting. The experience was actually a lot more comfortable for me than I imagined! However this is not to say that there was not at least one uncomfortable moment. It happened when a very important discussion took place in the last couple of hours of their meeting. The issue was to determine a way forward for the Conference UCW. Like many parts of the church in our present time – there is much concern for the future. Numbers are in severe decline, and with the decline of membership the number of dollars are also dwindling. To sum up the task these women had before them – they had to make a decision as to whether they would engage in a pro-active plan of defining a way forward which would take into account both the needs for change they had expressed and which would discern the other changes needed. The other option was to continue on the way they have for the past number of years. The decision had dollars attached to it, for the first option required a decision to make a plan and employ a project director – thus using up some of their already dwindling financial resources. The second option while being stated as a carry-on as before option, was of course not an option that did not involve change. The uncomfortable moment for me was when one of the women present – and remember I am the only male in the room – but also the person representing the most power – suggested that it was time for the women of the church to go on strike (not her exact words, but my description of what she said) and just see what would happen to the church without them! I don't think I was squirming visibly, but I managed to just sit and listen. I was pretty sure she was not representing the majority opinion around me, and ultimately I think I was proven correct. I was invited to respond somewhat later, and I tried to weave a holy conversation with them, describing the fear we all experience when we see massive change around us. But it's not our work – it is God's work that we must discern, listen for, and engage in – that's the holy I tried to bring into the conversation.
Of course this is not just about the Conference United Church Women. Their concerns are simply an example of the kinds of conversations that are happening all across the church – and I don't mean just the United Church of Canada. In what I think was my own discerning of God's voice in the midst of the discussion that those women were having I reminded them that both options they were about to vote upon – whether a vote to spend some of their valuable dollars to put forward a plan, or a vote to simply carry on as before – both options were a vote for change – the difference being that one option allowed change to control them, while the other was an opportunity to have some control over the change.
We've always needed holy conversations. We've always needed those discussions which invite us into a deep consideration of the ways in which God is present and the ways in which God is calling us into the future. But I suggest that we've lost in our present day and age a certain willingness or readiness to have those holy conversations. Perhaps we are discouraged – and somewhat rightly – by the negative light that religion is getting these days – but that's religion, it's not clearly about the presence of the holy in our lives – as individuals and as a community of faith.
At one point some of the women at yesterday's meeting said that the problem was that they needed membership – as if there was some magic solution that would suddenly drop a whole bunch of younger women into their particular units – and that those younger women would come with a desire to be involved not only at the local level, but also the presbyterial and conference level. Of course it was a lament, not a cry for a real solution (although I probably would not have described it that way to those offering the lamentation) and lament is also a holy conversation. What I did not have a chance to offer was that membership would only increase as a result of other holy conversations – ones that told stories of what had prompted current UCW members to join the organization and conversations that might point to new ways of being that would meet others at a point of holy invitation in their own lives.
And so, a holy conversation is being woven for me – a weaving that combines the story of Tabitha – a woman from the early days of the church, and the story of the women of our conference who are part of the UCW organization. And God of course is always involved – as subject and participant in the words and thoughts we share. Amen.