Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

As Graceful as a Gazelle

Message preached April 17, 2016
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Acts 9:32-43

Order of Worship

Listen to this message

         In the foyer of what is now the administration wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital here in Baltimore is a statue. Not all that long ago, this was the entryway for every person seeking to be restored to health at this institution. Coming through the front door each would encounter this larger‑than‑life statue of Jesus with his arms open wide. Etched in the stone at his feet are his words: “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” … Would you pray with me.

        Lord God, we come to you as we are, seeking your wholeness in place of our brokenness, your energy in place of our weariness. Speak to us through your Word. Touch us beyond the words. Help us to release those burdens that only drag us down, to put aside those struggles that are counter‑productive to what you desire for us. Give us your re‑creating rest. This we pray, in the name of the One who said, “Come to me.” Amen.

          Sisters and brothers in Christ, listen to the following story from holy scripture. It tells some of what happened in the early days of Christ’s church, how the good news of Jesus spread from place to place, person to person. Don’t become so enthralled by the miraculous, though, that you miss the important. Hear God speak through ordinary people.

[read Acts 9:32-43]

         Two stories about persons restored to health, one brief and to the point, the other full of detail and quite impressive. If we focus on the illness involved, we see a paralysis that lasted 8 years, and a death. In both cases, a few simple words drastically changed a devastating situation. Standing in this location, we hear these stories with a strange mixture of awe and skepticism. These are not everyday occurrences in our experience. Of course, our Pentecostal friends challenge us to open ourselves to the possibility that such things still happen.

         These are more than stories about illness, however. Those involved have names. Even though the account of his healing is very brief, the paralyzed man is known. Aeneas is his name. What’s interesting is that God moves through a person living on the margins of a town. The ill, after all, tend to exist out of our awareness. Isn’t that their major burden, to be forgotten. Perhaps Aeneas was once an energetic, well‑liked man about town. If that were the case, after 8 years in a bed it would be no longer. Sickness marginalizes people. They lose their independence. They become a “patient” on someone’s caseload. Families struggle to care for them. Much of their life is spent, intentionally or not, behind closed doors.

         The wonder of this story is that God opens that door, seeking out a man who has a name. In fact, his is the only name we ever associate in the Bible with the town of Lydda, otherwise known as Lod. The disciple Peter encounters this man at his bedside. Listen again, as God, through this simple fisherman, calls the paralyzed man by name into resurrection life. “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!

         Remember that statue of Jesus at Johns Hopkins? “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,” the inscription says. “Rest” is not limited to sleeping in bed, you know. For Aeneas, it meant getting up after 8 years on the margins and coming to Jesus. It meant independence after so many years of dependence, taking care of himself ‑ making his own bed. A miracle. Of course, any parent will tell you that making a bed can sometimes be a bit of a miracle for a young person.

         There is further wonder in this account, though. This once‑marginalized, perhaps forgotten man rises from his bed and becomes a witness to not only his town, but the next. Because of Aeneas, many turn toward the Lord. Who would have predicted such a thing only a few days earlier? After all, this man was stuck in bed, out of sight ‑ out of mind, dependent upon everyone else. Miraculously, he becomes an invaluable part of God’s strategy. God moves in such interesting ways, don’t you agree? The focus of this story, like most every story, is this: “Jesus Christ heals you.” It wasn’t that simple fisherman Peter, nor is it this preacherman Pete.

         The story goes on, both in our scripture passage and in our lives. In the book of Acts, the scene shifts 10 miles down the road to the town of Joppa, where lived a remarkable woman by the name of Tabitha. Her name means “gazelle,” and her life was certainly as graceful as that antelope. She was, herself, a believer in Christ. In fact, when this scripture says she was a “disciple,” it is the only time in the New Testament that the feminine form of that particular word in Greek is used.

         Tabitha’s relationship with God in Christ was such that his grace overflowed into her hands. As swiftly and beautifully as a gazelle, she made clothing for others who were less fortunate. She was known for her charity. That’s how God’s love illustrates itself it our lives. Love takes over. Look a bit closer at this woman. She was a widow. While women who have lost their mates fare better in our society then back in Tabitha’s day, widows still travel a difficult road. They become marginal. My mother used to talk about how friendships changed when my father died and she ceased being a part of a “couple.”

         One of the most profound things I remember from my spiritual upbringing was my family’s attachment to several widows in our church. I don’t recall her name, but I can still see this one woman’s home in my mind’s eye ‑ the times we shared an evening. We often stopped and brought her and others to church.

         In Tabitha’s day, widows were the most vulnerable in society. It was not without reason that part of the mission given to the church by Jesus was to care for them, along with children, and immigrants. Widows lived on the margins, often poor and helpless. The interesting thing about this story is that God empowered a widow to live out her name. Tabitha, God’s “gazelle,” took care of those who were in a similar condition as herself. She was not helpless. God made her a helper. God does work in interesting ways, don’t you agree?

         Only Tabitha, this gazelle of a woman, became ill and died. Peter was called from Lydda. “Please come without delay,” they said. Note, this rock of a man upon whom Christ was supposedly building his church didn’t file the request and attend to more important matters or persons first. When the widows called, he came. In the upper room in which they laid her body, the other widows showed him Tabitha’s handiwork.

         Don’t misunderstand what’s happening, folks. This was not a viewing in an art gallery. Nor were those women trying to impress Peter with Tabitha’s worthiness of being saved. No, these were articles of clothing they themselves were wearing. What they were trying to impress upon this male disciple was the vulnerable position they were in. Their helper was dead. What was God going to do about it? How would they survive in the world without Tabitha? Do you hear? Do you see? No, not Peter ‑ you!

         In a scene reminiscent of some of the stories of Elijah in the Old Testament, similar as well to another room where Jesus healed the daughter of Jairus, the fisherman Peter (who was not Elijah nor Jesus) asked these others to leave the room. Alone, he knelt and prayed beside the body. Then he simply said, “Tabitha, get up.” And she did. God would not leave these widows helpless. This was not charity as we usually understand it. This was love in flesh ‑ a widow raised from the dead with a purpose.

         Is not this the promise of scripture? We speak of Jesus being raised from the dead on Easter. We talk about dying and rising with him. “I am the resurrection and the life,” we recall him saying, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” Are these just idle words? You decide.

         As for me, I’d rather place my trust, my life into the hands of this God who commissions a common fisherman to preach; this God who empowers a paralyzed old man to get up and about and changing lives; this God who raises from death a woman called “Gazelle” to continue heading a self‑help program among the poor. God works in such interesting ways, wouldn’t you agree? This God still does.

         When there is someone I need to visit at Johns Hopkins hospital, if I have time I often take a few minutes to wander over to that foyer of the administration building and sit. Here is the One to whom the apostle Peter pointed long ago when he said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you, get up and make your bed.” Here is the One in whose name Peter long ago spoke, “Tabitha, get up.” Here is Jesus, who continues to say “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.  I/we may not be paralyzed in quite the same way as Aeneas, but we may be immobilized in other ways ‑ unable to “make our own bed,” so to speak. Likewise, I/we may not have tasted death like Tabitha, but we may experience gracelessness, brokenness, weariness ‑ that which pulls us down, and takes away our meaning and purpose.

         Well, listen to this preacherman Pete, as I speak some simple words that don’t belong to me:

Jesus Christ heals you, get up.
And may you, yourself, be as graceful as a gazelle!
Amen. Let it be so!

©2016 (revised from 2004) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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