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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Raised...for Work

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: resurrection, alive, work, mother, dorcas

May 8, 2022    The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Trinity Church, Wall Street    9:00 a.m. service

Text: Acts 9:42: “Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”

If you grew up in this tradition, you have probably already figured out from the clues available to you that today is Good Shepherd Sunday, in the annual calendar of holy mother church. The twenty-third Psalm is a hint, and of course the gospel lesson you just heard, where we are made to understand that we are sheep, is a really big hint; and the next two hymns we are going to sing will leave you in no doubt about it. 

We hear this theme every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, and nearly every year preachers everywhere lean into that metaphor for all it’s worth. And, to tell you the truth, that’s what I plan to do at the later service this morning, because you know we worry about the folks who come to the later service. 

Folks who come to the early service are more theologically rigorous. They have higher expectations. And so, sisters and brothers, what I’d like to invite us to think about this morning isn’t about sheep and shepherds. It’s about that story of Peter, and that faithful disciple Dorcas.

This story of the raising of Dorcas is set in the middle of a series of stories about Peter, stories that the writer of Acts collected and shared to help us understand that in the apostles who founded the early church the work of Christ was continuing. A paralyzed man walks. Dorcas—who doesn’t just seem to be dead, she is dead—is raised. Cornelius the Centurion, a soldier of the occupying Roman empire, a man who by rights should be completely outside the economy of salvation, is made part of the Christian community. And in what is perhaps the most remarkable transformation, Peter himself is changed, coming to understand the invitation of the gospel and the power of the cross is for all people, not just his own people.

In all of that, it’s easy to overlook this story of Dorcas. She is deeply loved by those around her. They treasured the things she had made for them. We’re not told what her family situation was, but we know she was a woman of the way, a person associated with the disciples. She helped and nurtured others. She was tireless in good works. 

If you think about it, you know, what she sounds like is...a mom.

This little story we heard this morning is all we know about Dorcas. This good woman, so beloved by so many people, this strong Christian example—she gets exactly 194 words. And even after she is raised from the dead—we never hear about her again. 

Or to sum it up in another way: She works herself to death, the whole community mourns her, she is raised from the dead—and then, as far as we can tell, what does she do? She goes back to work.

Now, that really sounds like a mom.

For many of us who walk this journey of faith, the person who first set us on the path was someone who was a mother to us; someone who nurtured us, whose presence in our lives we treasure, who made things for us—more importantly, who in some sense made us. 

But there’s something about the story of Dorcas that encompasses all of us, not just moms, not just the faithful women around us, but all of us. Because at the very center of the story is the reality that before the happy ending, Dorcas is—dead. This woman of good and charitable works, who nurtures a community and is beloved by them, has died.

Now, I am a stranger here. The chances are pretty good that we will never see each other again. So I have more freedom than I probably should be trusted with to ask you an impolite question. But I want to ask you this: Does that maybe describe us, does that maybe describe you, more than you’d like to admit? Does your faith, your spirit, your hope, feel a little—maybe more than a little—dead?

I come to you this morning from your church in Europe. I minister alongside people in our church who make their churches in the old world—the world from which the church, as we have received it, grew up into what we know today. The theologian Alan Roxburgh has spoken of America as a place of “Euro-tribal religions”; what we regard as denominations here, equal players in the marketplace of religious ideas, are part of the deep and bloody history of the countries and cultures where we now have congregations. 

We, your church in Europe, are incidental to the religious history of the place. We are a migrant church there.

And I can tell you that European culture generally regards Christianity as something that is over. The Episcopal Church in Europe, your church in that place, is a Christian presence in a Europe that imagines itself to be post-Christian. It is as though our ideas about the equal dignity of all people before God, and the transformative power of love to reconcile division and shape justice, and the possibilty of the sacred in these human lives of ours—all of that is seen as a spent force. We are like Dorcas. Dorcas at the very pivot of the story.

But there is a reason why we hear this story during Easter season. No, there are no shepherds here. No sheep. But there is resurrection. Even—especially—when that seems utterly impossible.

I am sure the rector has taught you this, but it bears saying again: the point of Easter, this feast so great that it takes fifty days to celebrate it, the point of Easter is not, at least not just, life after death. Yes, that is certainly part of the claim of Easter. Yes, by our baptism into a death like his we have been made one with a resurrection like his.

But there is something even more profound about this Easter we are in, something that is taught to us right here in the story of Dorcas. It is that the point of the cross, and the grave, and the resurrection, the point of this faith of ours, is to give us not just life after death, but life before death—full life, abundant life, right here, right now—for God’s sake. 

Not the life that most of the people around us lead, lives half-dead to the possibility of the spirit. Not a life disconnected from the possibility of God among us, and in us. But the life we were meant to have—the whole of this human life, physical and emotional and vocational and cultural—and spiritual. All of it. Not just the perishing parts of it.

Dorcas is dead, worked to death. We know what that feels like. And then she is alive—alive because is loved by God, and loved by the people of God, back into the full possibility of life, of the life God intends for her to have.

That is what we are doing here, if we are here for the right reasons. We are here to let the church do that work of loving us back alive, and alert, and raised up to do good works and acts of charity. We are here to be raised from the deaths we give into, not just the death of this mortal body of ours.

And once we allow that to happen, then we are here to be the church that is resurrected, the church that has spent its long, long history doing good works and acts of charity, the church that most people are either dismissing or lamenting as dead. The church that is, like Dorcas, at the pivot of the story. 

That is the dangerous message of Easter for us, friends. God means to awaken us from the little deaths we die every day. God means to love us back out of our spiritual torpor, to show something through us about God’s relentless love in this world; to take us by the hand and show us to the saints and widows, raised, and alivee, and at work.  Amen.