Acts 9:36-42 (New Revised Standard)
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
Resurrection! It is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. We are still so excited over the resurrection! And we remain excited over the smaller miracles God provides every day. At this time of year they are still new, still fresh in our minds. The 23rd Psalm, the best known and best loved of all the psalms tells us of God’s constant presence and comfort no matter what is going on in our lives. The Acts of the Apostles tells us a new story of resurrection – Dorcas is brought back to life by Peter. Dorcas was a good woman, a woman of means, a woman who was able and willing to give of her bounty for the benefit of others who had less in the way of material blessings. A woman who dedicated her wealth and time to caring for those who had no one else to care for them. A woman who served God and believed in Jesus as the Messiah.
Resurrection! Just three weeks ago we celebrated the resurrection of Christ. The sanctuary was filled with flowers and our voices were raised in triumphant song. Our prayers, everything we did on Easter was a celebration Jesus was definitely dead. He died a horrible death on the cross. He was laid in the tomb and then . . . . he was raised by the power of God. Now we are given the story of Tabitha. She is definitely dead, laid out in her house. And she is raised from death, brought back to life by the power of God with Peter as God’s instrument.
You need to know that I was all set to preach on Earth Stewardship as I always do on this Sunday. I had my Celtic tree of life all ready to hang as I always do. I had a focus for the sermon.
And then I read the lectionary passages on an Earth Stewardship Sunday sermon starter site. (Say that 3 times fast!) And even though they had really good ideas for sermons, I read the passage on Dorcas, and I considered some conversations I’ve had and some articles I’ve read while on vacation and I got angry. And I need to share that anger with you. Because there are some people who think Delhaven is dead, or at the very least dying – beyond hope.
Delhaven – dead? Not yet, not quite. I know – I see y’all looking around here on a Sunday morning. Wondering where everyone is. Wondering just how long we can keep going. I see you looking for a glimmer of hope. That’s why we get so happy when we hear babies crying and children fussing in the pews. Children mean new life. Children mean a future. I need to tell you something true. I need you to believe me when I tell you this. We are not dead. We are still here. We are strong and willing to do whatever it takes to bring new life back into our pews. I’ve heard you say that – and I believe it.
In the annual report for our Yearbook I am asked for a lot of numbers. I’m asked for the number of official members – people who have deliberately joined the congregation, coming up front here at the invitation and accepting the right hand of Christian Fellowship, getting their name in the big black book in the church office. If your name is in the book and you have neither died nor informed us officially that you have joined another congregation, you’re a member no matter how long it is since we last saw or heard from you. If your name isn’t in the book – well, as far as the Yearbook is concerned, you don’t count. Even if you have been showing up every week for decades – if you never came forward to officially join the church you don’t count. First I write down what that number was last year, then what it is this year.
Then I’m asked to list the number of new members and whether they came by transfer of membership, affirmation or baptism.
I’m asked for the number of those members who actually participate in the life of the congregation by attendance or donation. And this is defined as anyone whose name is in the book and who has shown up or given money at least ONCE during the calendar year. Even if they live in another state and attend another church regularly.
This is NOT my definition of participating!
Finally, I’m asked for the average Sunday worship attendance. This is the only number for which I am allowed to count un-baptized children and one time visitors and folks who show up every week but have never officially joined the congregation. This is also the only number I really care about.
I am never asked for how many left the church and why. So there is no explanation offered if our numbers show we had 4 new people join but we have 6 less total members than last year. The denomination doesn’t seem to care if people moved out of state or died or went to another congregation or why. Only in how many new people have become official members of the congregation and how. Only if our membership numbers are growing and by how much.
I want you to know that I reject this method of determining membership in this community. I believe that if you are showing up, doing something to support the work of the church and carrying the Good News of God’s love when you go out of here, then you are part of this community.
The denomination seems to carry that same lack of caring into our 2020 Vision. Our goal, set in the year 2000, is to be able to report 1000 new Disciples congregations by the year 2020. And we are well more than halfway to that goal is half the time allotted. This is wonderful!
But we don’t seem to be able to get an answer to the question, “But how many have closed?” How do we reconcile total congregations today against total congregations in 2000? How many closed their doors and how many left over a controversial General Assembly? And even, how many of those new churches are flourishing after 5 or 10 years? We keep hearing about the new congregations that have grown into the thousands but little if anything about small but mighty congregations. It’s almost as if New and Mega are the only model anyone is interested in.
Our denomination seems to believe that small congregations living in large church buildings really need to close their doors and let their building go to a new church start. I have been told that we will not receive help from denomination or region to start a 2nd worship service or 2nd congregation here unless we make it a completely separate church, with it’s own budget and bylaws. They won’t help with training us, they won’t help in any way. We are on our own in this matter. And they believe we are doomed unless we follow their direction.
I REJECT THIS WAY OF THINKING!
We Disciples are a resurrection church.
We focus on the Risen Christ.
We believe that in Christ death is defeated.
We believe that as long as there is life there is hope.
We believe that through the power of God Jesus was raised from the dead,
and Lazarus and Dorcas
So why do we believe that a congregation that isn’t even dead yet can’t rise again?
Do we deny our theology when it comes up against a real world “business model?”
Do we believe the Spirit is impotent?
Because all those churches started in Israel and Greece and all over the Middle East and even into Rome itself weren’t started because people had a plan for how to start new churches. They started because people were on fire for Christ. Because people had a passion for serving God and they could not HELP but share it with others. Because people went out into their neighborhoods helping even strangers, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, healing the sick, and the neighbors responded with curiosity. “Who ARE these people?” they asked. “Let’s go see what they are all about.” THAT’s how the word of God was spread in the 1st and 2nd centuries. There was no plan, no 2020 vision, no anyone deciding which congregational model was “right” or which little box any particular congregation fitted into on some graph.
God raised Dorcas from death. Peter prayed and God’s Spirit entered back into her. She opened her eyes, he told her to get up, he gave her his hand. And the news spread around the neighborhood, Dorcas was dead and she was brought back to life by the power of God. And many people believed in the Lord.
I believe that we are being called to enter into a time of prayer. Last year in our retreat we designated a year of prayer, but we had no focus for that prayer. I believe it is time to focus that prayer and I would ask that each of you pray for discernment asking “where do we go from here?”. We have been doing this a little. We did it in our Lenten Suppers. We will continue in our 2nd Tuesdays beginning in May. And I believe we are been moving toward a new light and life as a body.
But now I call upon this congregation to make the summer of 2010 a time of intentional prayer for Delhaven with our focus being Resurrection.
I call upon each of you to spend the summer pondering and praying on what the Resurrection means. Personally. In your own life. And in the life of the congregation.
I call upon each of you to pray for the Spirit of God to enter into the body.
I call upon each of you to focus upon one thing and one thing only every day
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen!