Acts 9:36-43; 1 Timothy 6:17-19
I didn’t get very far in reading today’s assigned reading from Acts before I began to follow the questions rapidly rising in my mind. The description of Tabitha as a woman full of good works and acts of charity – it just had a stark ring to it. Why, I wondered.
A brief aside: Those who chose this passage for today’s reading, I am sure were calling us to reflect on the way resurrection continued to appear among the community of disciples. This story was an affirmation that life conquering death was an on-going theme of the lives of the followers of the way of Jesus. Amen! And amen! But that is not today’s sermon, so let’s get back to it.
Full of good works. That phrase can trigger resistance from the Reformed tradition. Good works, in the thought of Martin Luther and John Calvin, do not have a good reputation. As you may know, Martin Luther so disliked the work of James that he removed it from his “canon,” or list of edifying Scriptures because James talked too much about good works. He believed James was far too close to the edge of saying that good works save us. And it was Luther’s dramatic, life-changing, freeing discovery of grace which fueled the Reformation.
Luther had some very good reasons for his harsh reaction to any promotion of good works. He had come of age in an era when many elements of the church proclaimed that one could earn salvation through good works, or buy salvation in lieu of good works. When Luther did his own study of the Bible, he discovered that this was a revolting, oppressing distortion of the message of grace which is woven throughout the scriptures. So any mention of good works triggered Luther’s passion for justice and release from church oppression by the gospel of grace. He had no patience for talk of good works!
So reading about Tabitha, “full of good works and acts of charity,” set off my alarms, as it would any pastor trained in the Reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin. But the extreme of rejecting the practice of good works, is also a distortion of the gospel. Like Judaism, the Jesus way is a call to live in a world-changing way. So I wonder if we can get a better picture of the role of good works by taking a look at the context in which Tabitha lived. Clearly, being full of good works was high praise for her.
There is an old story from one of the Jewish mystical traditions about the origins of the universe. At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, the first act of creation was to contract Godself in order to make room for something else. God drew in God’s breath and stored the light of divine presence in 10 holy vessels. The removal of God’s breath created darkness. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with the primordial light of God’s breath.
God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like seeds throughout what was being created – earth. Shards of light cloaked in shards of broken vessels, sometimes described as shells clamped tightly closed around the light.
This is why humans were created – to uncover the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. And when enough holy sparks have been uncovered to release their light, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned. (Schwartz, Howard, “How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism,” March 2011, www.tikkun.org/nextgen/how-the-ari-created-a-myth-and-transformed-judaism)
This story was written after the time of Jesus, but I see elements of his teachings in it. “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” “Don’t put your light under a basket, but on a stand for all to see.” Even, “I am the light of the world,” like a shard of divine light mixed up in created form. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The concept of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, was certainly known in the time of Jesus.
Good works were central to Jewish practice. First we think of the “mitzvot,” the 613 commands of the Torah, plus seven rabbinic commands, 620 in all. By implication, “mitzvot,” also came to refer to moral deeds performed as a religious duty, and thus, “good works,” or any act of human kindness. Doing mitzvot was doing good works.
Keeping the commandments – doing mitzvot; repairing the world – tikkum olam; good works. They were all the same thing in the Jewish world of Tabitha.
A seamstress like Tabitha knew all about repairs. No seamstress worth her salt would turn away from a garment saying there is no hope of repair. And even once repairs for the garment are exhausted, the scraps of cloth would be carefully saved in order to repair the next tear presented for her miracles of needle and thread. A seamstress would fall right into an understanding of what it means, and what is required to repair the world.
For Jews of the first century and now, doing mitzvot, is to walk in the way which God has taught from ancient times. This is what it means to follow the Law. The “halakhah,” usually translated as “Jewish Law,” means literally, “the path that one walks,” from the Hebrew root meaning, “to go, to walk or to travel.” Judaism is a practice, a lifestyle. Tabitha’s Judaism was finely interwoven into her life, to the point where she is described as full of good works, or full of doing “mitzvot.”
One of the emphases we miss in the Reformed tradition is the emphasis on good works, or at least good teaching about good works. Good works are not something we do in order to earn God’s love. We can never do anything to earn God’s love. Reformed theology gets that right. God loves us and we don’t really have a choice about it and we can’t influence it one way or another. God just loves us. End of story. So, when the Reformers turned away from teaching about good works, all they were saying is that our inclusion in God’s family cannot be earned in any way, shape or form. So far, so good.
But it is time, 500 years later for a corrective course. We need to hear that Tabitha was honored as a woman full of good works – by her community and by her restoration to life. What is easy to miss in our Reformed tradition is that God has called us to repair the world in partnership with the God. We are called to good works of repairing the world. Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” 1 Timothy 6:18-19 “We are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.” Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And we really can’t leave out James: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18)
As I was considering this concept of repairing the world by doing good works, I realized that the raising of Tabitha was an acted parable. Repairing the world is what happened to Tabitha. Her community was sure it was not her time to die. They called desperately to Peter to come. And somehow, the spirit was restored to Tabitha’s body. And Tabitha’s community was repaired in the moment that she took another breath, opened her eyes and got up to be rejoined to those who loved her.
She who was full of good works and acts of charity became part of repairing her own world when she returned to life that day. What she was doing in her good works was demonstrated in what happened to her. Life was restored. Her good works brought life to the world in as real and tangible ways as her own life was brought back to her. In terms of the creation story, she opened a lot of vessels hiding light. And indeed, the kingdom of God was at hand, in the presence of her good works.
Well, maybe this sermon is about resurrection after all! What else does it mean to repair the world? Broken by death and fear, the world desperately needs repair. In our good works and acts of charity, we can repair the world. By bringing the children’s books for homeless families, giving them beautiful stories to draw them together. By making food for hungry ones who show up at the basement of the Mt. Scott church. By every bag of rice and jar of peanut butter filling food pantries. By eating pancakes and playing parachute games with children. By partnering with our community to create a safe shared space for creating community. By lighting candles and saying prayers as we walk through this sacred space.
But how much more resurrection is there to do? Death is all around us as people lose their jobs, and can’t find living wage work; as housing prices skyrocket and leave people homeless; as the wealthy hide their money off shore rather than investing in the lives of the people of the world; as we create one more styrofoam cup to live forever in a garbage dump, as we flush more chemicals into our oceans and rivers. There is so much resurrection work left to be done. The world is desperately in need of repair.
So we can be encouraged by this story. God is about resurrection. And God wants us to be people full of good works and acts of charity. That is how resurrection happens. That is how the world is repaired, and the kingdom of God is among us.