In the midst of a busy week, I thought I would post the sermon I preached last Sunday. Apologies to those who are "hearing" this for the second time!
The scriptures we read were Acts 9:36-43(the story of Tabitha), Psalm 23 (the shepherd psalm), Revelations 7:9-17 (can't come up with a quick description for this one:)) and John 10:22-30 ("My sheep know my voice.")
These scripture readings are awash in comforting images. “My sheep know my voice.” A woman of generosity brought back to life. Those who have come through great tribulations will hunger no more and thirst no more. And then “The Lord is my shepherd..." One of the most beloved scriptures and for many just those first five words are enough to bring forth the rest of the Psalm which washes over their souls with comfort and relief.
Words of comfort abound and we need comfort in light of the many recent tragedies. And yet do I feel comfort...nope. I can be a difficult person, especially when it comes to matters of faith. There is a website called “The Hardest Question.” Writers on this website look at the scriptures for the week and find the difficulties in those scriptures and write about those questions. I love that this site exists because this is what I tend to do. I read scriptures and may see the comfort but I always see the challenges.
Today is no different. One of the difficulties in the first reading for today is the way it has not been translated. My feminist rage is kindled as I recall it took 20 some years for anyone in the church to point out to me this story of Tabitha and other such stories as examples of strong women in the bible. It took several more years for it to sink in Tabitha is referred to as a “disciple.” I had heard many times about “women be silent in church” but never had heard about a female disciple.
Well, anyway after the memory of my righteous wrath passed you would think I could enjoy this beautiful story. But, no, then I notice how this story might sound to one in the midst of hardship: are we supposed to expect our loved ones to rise from the dead and be miraculously healed? What does this mean for those for whom this doesn’t happen?
Surely the other scriptures would bring solace to my oh so difficult soul. Nope again. In today’s gospel verse, what about those who don’t know Jesus’ voice? If I embrace my own faith does that mean consigning some of my friends to hell? I read the 23rd psalm and I wonder what about people who are “in want” living in desperate poverty? What about times when tragedy strikes and "thy rod and thy staff" seem to be absent? Is the Lord everyone’s shepherd or just some people’s?
Perhaps you think I am over analyzing or being difficult. But I think it is important to consider the most difficult questions of scripture. People who don’t have a church background will ask these questions, people who have been horribly hurt by the church will ask these questions, young people often ask these questions and difficult people like me ask these questions. Not that there are necessarily answers. If there were easy answers they wouldn’t be difficult questions.
The church has a rich history of bravely facing questions. Jacob wrestling with the angel. Abraham repeatedly questioning God, pleading for the righteous in the city of Sodom. I have been doing some reading on Judaism and I find we have a rich heritage also of understanding God cannot be pinned down. In “A History of God”, Karen Armstrong says of early Rabbis, “When they spoke of God’s presence on earth, they were as careful as the biblical writers to distinguish those traces of God that he allows us to see from the greater divine mystery which is inaccessible.” Even scriptures cannot completely reveal or illuminate the mystery of God. Our most difficult questions serve, then as a reminder of the transcendence of God and the inadequacy of words to describe such a God.
God is beyond words. Our questions are good and holy and right. God is not about easy answers. When we would easily divide our brothers and sisters into categories of in and out, saved and heathen God’s grace intervenes to shove such easy answers aside. The reading from Revelations says, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9, NRSV).” Tabitha was so multicultural she had two names. In these stories scriptures give us hints about the expanse of God’s grace. We might have easy answers about who is in and who is out but God never lets go easily. Psalm 23 says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” In seminary I learned the word translated as "follow" could be better translated as "pursue" ....Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me... God pursues us with the love of his boundless grace.
For me, with all the recent tragedies and sorrows, with friends and community members who are struggling with cancer and other illnesses, the victim’s of the bombing and the explosion and so on, my questions, surprisingly, do not detract from the comfort of scripture. God’s boundless grace allows the questions I cannot quiet to add depth to the comfort offered in these passages. Now they are transformed to describe the gentle mercy, incomprehensible mystery, and pursuing love with words such as these: (my own interpretation of 23rd Psalm)
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies, thou anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life and I dwell in the house of the Lord forever."