Offering Resurrection

Jay Forth

May 12, 2019

 Text: Acts 9:36-43 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.  At that time she became ill and died.  When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  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.' 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.  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.  He gave her his hand and helped her up.  Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

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Last month, a friend of mine passed away.  His name was Bernard Williams, a regular at the Potter's House and a wandering philosopher.  Bernard and I met years ago, probably around 2012, at a cafe on 18th street.  He overheard me and a friend talking about philosophy and theology and he interjected, "You like Gilles Deleuze, too?  He's a great thinker… yada yada yada." And on he went.  Bernard was brilliant beyond comparison.  He could talk circles around anyone on topics such as art and film, contemporary philosophy, race theory, jazz, and much more.  Thereafter, I would run into Bernard around Adams-Morgan--at Potter's House, at Tryst, outside of McDonalds, near a bus stop--with books in hand and ready to talk about his latest interests and thoughts.  After a while, he would stop by The Festival Center from time to time and we'd chat for as long as time allowed.  Our conversations would meander from philosophy to personal reflection to politics and back again.  Bernard was not wealthy or famous.  He experienced homelessness, alienation from his family, and had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since his early 20s.

He spent many weeks in the hospital and I visited him twice during that time.  I knew it didn't look good, but I still cried when I heard he had passed.  No matter how imminent and expected, death always comes too soon; cutting something short that should have been longer.  At his small funeral, I cried again, among the 20 or so people there.  But I was comforted by the testimony of his handful of friends; those who were also touched by this humble genius.  As one friend mentioned, Bernard was indeed a skilled black intellectual for our time.

But I also wondered how terrible it was that I didn't have a picture of Bernard.   How will anyone know that this brilliant and kind soul existed? 

Who would believe that this towering intellectual sat among us on the streets of Adams Morgan?

How do I convey the impression he left on me?

Will he disappear beneath the shifting sands of time?

In our Acts passage today, Tabitha (also called Dorcas) is a well-known disciple and a generous woman.  She is a towering figure among the disciples of Joppa and leader of a community of women.  But as happens, she becomes ill.  Maybe as she suffers, the people hold out hope for her improvement.  [I suspect this is why they wait so long to contact Peter.] But eventually, she passes away.  She dies.  And, Peter, urged by the disciples from Joppa, runs to the scene.  He sees the grief, the mourning, the hole left in the community by Tabitha's death.  The widows show him pieces of cloth as signs, evidence of her magnanimity, of her beautiful works and of the impression she had made among them.  Peter ushers them out of the room where Tabitha's body was laid.  He knelt and prayed over Tabitha's lifeless body.  He says, "Tabitha, get up." God, then, restores life to Tabitha and restores Tabitha to the people of Joppa.

This story might sound like too much to hope for.  After 2,000 years since the life of Jesus, resurrection can sound like a fairytale, magic, and terribly unbellievable for our modern times.  Nonetheless, I reflected on this scene of Peter praying over Tabitha: God working with and through Peter for Tabitha's resurrection. The question before us is "How do we engage the past?,"  How do we offer resurrection to those who are dead? Is resurrection something we can offer to each other? 

Surely, we can hardly bring people back from the dead.  Too many of us mourn for loved ones who have passed away too soon.  We grieve and long for that familiar touch, voice, and gaze once again.  We sit here like the community of widows with garments in hand--carrying the signs and marks of those who have left us. 

However, if we simply wait for the miraculous, I feel that we will have missed something important.  Because, for us, resurrection can no longer be only hope for a future; it must become a duty and a responsibility today. 

On the brink of ecological disaster and among the ruins of capitalism, we feel ourselves caught in the torrent of a suicidal world.  Part of globalization is realizing that the world is so very small.  We feel huddled together, like being squished together at a packed concert or on a cramped elevator.  If one person moves their arm to fix their hair, they bump another who spills their coffee on a third person. 

And we are this feeling cramped-ness more intensely today when the death we manufacture and export return to us with terrifying ferocity.  A world where war, weaponry, white supremacy, and exploitation are choking the air we breathe and poisoning our waters.  With human extinction a real threat once again, we feel that the world, like Tabitha, lies ill in its bed; nearing its end.  Resurrection as hope is no longer sufficient to rise to the challenges of today.  Resurrection must be duty, responsibility, and discipleship.  Resurrection is not only a hope but a protest against the arrogance of the present state of things.  A calling to which we must respond, like Peter who ran to Tabitha's side.

I believe not only can we respond, but we must respond.   For the many wandering and dying on the underside of our capitalist machine,
For the many in forced migration from their homes,  For the multitude and for the earth who are reduced to raw material for profit, Can we respond not only with hope, but with resurrection?  Resurrection today? 

My favorite thinker, Jacques Derrida, reminds us that "the dead – can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living." We must offer resurrection by allowing those counted as dead to speak, again.  Even today, we must make space for those counted dead, lost, forgotten and as nothing to return and to speak again.  To allow those resigned to the dust to speak to us and among us again and again.

The murder of black people by police has sparked the Movement for Black Lives.  Often times, this movement urges us not simply to mourn the loss of these victims but to say their names.  To say the name of Sandra Bland, of Eric Garner, of Philando Castile, of Tamir Rice, of Mike Brown, and so many more.  Don't just count their number, but say their names.  Say their names so the power of who they are can haunt, unsettle, and speak to us again today.  To say their name so their life and power is given resurrection among us again.

Every year there's a protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia, which was launched by the Catholic Maryknoll order.  Every year, hundreds gather to protest US military intervention in Latin America through training dictators in methods of torture and killing, the distribution of weapons, and the toppling of governments.  Every year, the protesters march and they read aloud the names of those who have died from US backed violence.  After each name is read aloud, the people shout Presente!.  Then the next name, Presente!   Then the next name, Presente!  Each time, the name and life of each person lost to imperialism is recalled with power anew.  Each name and person lost, returns with new force, speaking again like the blood of Abel that cries up from the earth.

Peter says her name, "Tabitha, Get up." "Tabitha, be present." Tabitha, be with us once again!

Whether one has died from injustice, like the many just recounted, or from more natural and less egregious causes (like Bernard or Tabitha), we should say their name.  We offer them resurrection by saying their name; by remembering the faithful, recalling their works, testifying to their life.  We offer resurrection by refusing for them to be forgotten and allowing the dead to speak to us anew today.  This is what theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls, "dangerous memory." By that he means, the way remembering, retelling, and witnessing to those who have been lost disturbs the present order.  Dangerous memory open us, again and again, to the possibilities that seem closed off today.  Practicing dangerous memory is a practice in resurrection when the world, like Tabitha, feels on death's door.

What gives us the right to practice dangerous memory?  Because "dangerous memory" is exactly what we are given in the life of Jesus.  We say his name every time we gather, "in the name of Jesus." Dangerous memory is what God has given us.  Dangerous memory IS God's grace, a power that brings to life what the world has killed, that makes possible what the world made impossible, and that opens again what the world has closed off.  It is the affirmation that, as the World Social Forum put it, "another world is possible!"

In Holy Communion, in the liturgy, and in reading Scripture, we are given God's gift of a dangerous memory in Jesus of Nazareth.  And, we are called to offer this gift of resurrection to one another today:

  • Like Peter, to respond to the needs of our time.   
  • Like Peter, to come alongside in solidarity with those who mourn and grieve.   
  • Like Peter, to pray for one another and to yearn for the impossible.   
  • Like Peter, to say the names of those blessed and radical souls we have lost.   
  • Like Peter, to allow the dangerous memory of the past to return among us with new vigor.

In lieu of the final restoration of all things, can we begin to offer resurrection to each other in a climate bent on death?  Can we allow the voices of those lost and trampled by Empire to speak again with new force?  Rising to this occasion is our challenge and our call today. 

May the Spirit give us the power. 

Amen.