Scripture: Acts 9:32-43
Achim Leistner is one of the most important people in the world that you have never heard of. He is an Australian lens maker with an oddly specific talent. He can craft and create perfect orbs. The imperfections in his orbs can be measured in nanometers. To give you some perspective about how impressive that is, a single sheet of paper is 100,00o nanometers thick. What makes him important is what a perfect sphere can mean for science. Scientific study requires exact measurements so that experiments can repeated with the exact conditions. To help facilitate this there is a perfect physical model of a kilogram, called the Le Grande K. This model is the standard for a kilogram that all other kilogram weights are calibrated against. It is made of elemental substances that are very stable and had to modify. In addition to that, it is kept in a very controlled environment. Despite all of these precautions the Le Grande K has lost weight. This technically should not have happened, and I am not even going to pretend to understand the theories of quantum physics that try to explain this. This does create a problem for scientists though because how can you have a universal weight measurement if you cannot be sure that a kilogram is actually a kilogram. This is where Achim Leister comes in, because if he can make an absolutely perfect sphere that weighs exactly one kilogram then scientists can count the number of atoms that make up that sphere and have an exact and universal measurement of a kilogram. Now if you are like me, you are probably wondering why that is such a big deal but in the world of science when the most minute variation could change things it is vastly important. Achim Leistner is extremely important to several fields of scientific research. They vitally need him to succeed at making a perfect sphere. Perfection to this magnitude though is not easy, because if he is off by just a handful of atoms it does not work. No one else in the world is able to craft an orb as close to perfect as Achim Leistner. If he succeeds, his odd skill will fill an invaluable need in scientific advancement.
We often equate importance with power, but that is a fallacy. The people in charge might reap most of the benefits, but usually the most important people in any enterprise or organization are the ones who do something small but necessary that no one else can quite do as well as them. This is why Achim Leister is so important to scientific advancement, they need him. We see the same dynamic in this morning’s scripture. Peter was one of the original twelve disciples, he was the one that Jesus said was the rock upon which his church would be built. Today, even someone with a passing knowledge of the Bible would at least recognize Peter. Tabitha, not so much. However, to the believers of Joppa, it was Tabitha who was the most important disciple. Tabitha was the one that they needed. We should all strive to be so needed. Tabitha is an example for us to live in such a way, that the response that others have to us is “I need you.”
This scripture begins with Peter leaving Jerusalem and beginning to travel around to fledging groups of believers in other parts of Judea. As he traveled around to visit “the Lord’s people” it is kind of hard not to envision this a bit as a celebrity appearance. I do not want to oversell Peter, but he was kind of a big deal. This big deal/celebrity image kind of gets cemented more when one of the first things he does is heal a man who had been bedridden for eight years in Lydda. Hearing that Peter was in Lydda, the disciples from nearby Joppa come to get Peter. The focus of the scripture quickly changes from Peter though, because they reason why they wanted him to come was to see if he could bring Tabitha back. The scripture shifts from the “up front” person in Peter to the behind the scenes person of Tabitha. She was the person who was so important to her community that when she died their response was to find a way to bring her back.
We get the sense that Tabitha was the kind of person who put their faith into action. Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbor, and we get a sense that Tabitha did that. Verse 36 tells us that she was always doing good and helping the poor. While it is not explicitly stated, we get an idea of the kind of good work that she did. Verse 39 tells us that all of the widows were mourning her death, and they showed Peter the clothing that she had made. In first century society, widows were some of the most destitute and impoverished people in society. If their husband died, then the widow had to rely on their son, but if the widow did not have a son or the son did not fulfill his obligations, then the widow was in very dire straits. Tabitha cared for and provided for the widows. Part of her work was clearly making clothes for them. Yet that must have only been part of it, because the bible does not state that she “did a lot of caring for the widows.” It states she was “always doing good works and helping the poor.” The work she did for others and the care she showed the poor was what defined for. It is what she was known for, and we get the impression that is what she was loved for. It is why she was so needed, and her loss was such a great blow.
It was Jewish burial practice in the first century to bury very quickly. It was common to bury a body the same day that the person died. Given that, it is amazing how fast they got Peter there. Lydda was about 12 miles from Joppa. Even at a marathon running pace, it would have taken nearly two hours to get there and another two hours to get back. They really wanted Peter to be present, not so that he could attend the funeral but so that he could prevent it. The need for her was so great, it seems, that they could not imagine going on without her and they went to extraordinary measures. Tabitha made such an impact on her community that they did not settle for mourning her. They were willing to go to any lengths to get her back. When people gathered after her passing they did not start sharing condolences, their first thought was how can we fix this. She was needed so greatly that God raised the dead.
The only thing we know about Tabitha is what is in this scripture. That unfortunately leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The scripture says she was always doing good. How did she do that? Was she independently wealthy? How else would she have the times and resources? I wonder if she was older or childless, because I do not know how someone could find the time to raise children and always do good to help others. Also, where did she get the energy to always help others? Did her veins pump coffee instead of blood? As a single individual, especially in a culture that did not value the efforts of women, it is amazing how much Tabitha was able to accomplish, how much she was able to make a difference, and how needed she was in her community.
We can and should definitely see the example of discipleship that Tabitha set as something to strive for. However, it also seems she was playing on hard mode. We should seek to be doing good, we should seek to be helping the poor, and we should meet needs in our community. However, we do not need to take it all upon ourselves as individuals. Single handedly trying to reach all of the needs of a community through doing good is commendable, but the reality is that doing so will quickly cause the vast majority of us to burnout. Fortunately, we do not have to do it all on our own, and in fact it is best if we do not. We have a congregation, a faith family-the body of Christ to rely on. Tabitha was always doing good, and while it may be difficult for us to individually reach that level, together we can. Together we can contribute what we are able to make a real difference. Our combined efforts multiply and we can do far more good than we could on our own. As a church we can become just as needed in Edinburgh as Tabitha was in Joppa. There is a saying that is embedded deep in our Methodist tradition, which likely grew out of the teachings of John Wesley. It goes like this: “Do all of the good you can, by all of the means you can. In all of the ways you can, in all of the places you can, to all of the people you can, as long as you ever can. This could be our rallying cry and our inspiration. As a church I sincerely believe that we do good, but the word all in that saying is convicting, just like Tabitha was always doing good. We can celebrate the good that we do, such as supporting the food pantry and our heavy involvement with the cheer fun, but we have to also be willing to admit that both as individuals and as a congregation we are not yet doing all the good we can, by all of the means we can, as often as we can. We are not there yet, but together we can.
We can and we should do all of the good we can in our community, because that is what Jesus told us to do. We are to love our neighbors, and one of the best ways that we can love them is to show them through our actions. We serve them by doing all of the good we can. When we do that we show this town that we are for them. That we love them, because God loves them, and we have proven that by our actions.
On more than one occasion I have heard Bishop Mike Coyner, former leader of the Indiana Conference of the UMC, ask a group of clergy two questions: If a stranger came into town and stopped at the local gas station to ask for directions to the Methodist church would anyone in there know where it is? The second question was If your church closed tomorrow, would the community even know you were gone? Those are convicting questions, meant to challenge the pastors to consider how well the local churches they are serving are serving the community. In this morning’s scripture Tabitha did so much good that her community needed so much, that they would not let her die. May we follow her example, and as a church let’s go and do so much good in Edinburgh, IN that the community says “I need you.”
In the life of American Christianity we are in a transition that is seeing a lot of change. Unfortunately, part of that change is that churches are closing. A lot of churches. This year, it is given that somewhere over 4,000 churches will close their churches forever. This has led to a lot of anxiety over how small and aging churches are going to stay viable. The answer, in theory, is fairly straightforward: be needed. If a community needs a church because of all the good that church is doing, then it is not going anywhere. A church is needed, when in trying to live out the radical love of Christ all of the members work together to show that love to the community by seeing needs, meeting needs, and always doing. A church that consistently says to the community “I love you” will have the community respond “I need you.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s be that church.
May we follow the example of Tabitha. There are so many creative and vial ways that we can better serve and better love the people of this community. Exactly how we can do that, I do not know yet. Let’s figure it out together. Let’s work side by side, leveraging our talents, our passions, and our resources to make an eternal difference in this community. May we do all of the good we can to help all of the people we can as often as we can. In doing so may we let this town know that we, the people of Edinburgh UMC, are for them.