“Get Up!”

A sermon preached on Acts 9:36-43 at Hyattsville Mennonite Church on Sunday, May 12, 2019 (Fourth Sunday of Easter). This picture shows the beautiful, creative arrangement on the altar to set the space for an encounter with Dorcas.

Let us pray.  God of Resurrection Glory: You gave Peter the power to raise up Dorcas from the dead.  Raise us up, we pray, from the things that hold us back and weigh us down.  That we might raise each other up.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Holy One, my help and my comforter. 

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In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, we encounter someone who is very special.  So special, in fact, that she is the only person in the entire New Testament that bears the title mathetria, the Greek word for “female disciple.”  She served her community tirelessly and was known for her numerous good deeds that included giving to the poor and sewing clothes and blankets for widows.  She was a seamstress; but not just a seamstress.  She was the very thread that held her community together.  And though we do not know for certain if she had children of her own, she was a mother; she was a mother of the church. 

Her name in Aramaic is Tsabiyah.  In Greek, it’s Tabita.  In English, Tabitha.  Tsabiyah is the Aramaic word for gazelle.  And the Greek word for gazelle is Dorcas.  So, she is also sometimes called Dorcas. 

This woman, this female disciple of many names, this mother of the church, was so essential, so central, to the community she served that she could not die.  Death, though a physical reality, was simply not on the table for her community.  Some of us have these people in our lives, right?  You know, the kind of people who are the very thread of our lives, holding together the people, the memories, and the traditions that form us and bring us comfort?  Without them … none of that would exist. 

But when Dorcas did die, a physical and biological inevitability, her people grieved her loss deeply.  In fact, their grief was so immense that the Apostle Peter, the rock on whom the church was built, was summoned, made the 14-mile trek from Lydda to the port-city of Joppa.  And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. 

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8 days ago, the church lost another female disciple, who was also very special, whose early death was inconceivable to those whose lives she touched and transformed.  I’m speaking of course of Rachel Held Evans; whose Twitter feed was the thread that held together those who were seeking, struggling, and recovering in a new kind of digital, twenty-first century church.  

What does resurrection mean for us three weeks after Easter Sunday?  What does resurrection mean for the church, nearly two thousand years after the discovery of the empty tomb by those tenacious women?  It’s fine and good for God to raise Dorcas from the dead, but what about Rachel Held Evans?  Why hasn’t God raised her from the dead?  I do believe the church still needs her.  I know her children, her husband, her family, and her friends need her still.     

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Let’s travel back together now into the story of Dorcas.  After clearing all the widows from the room, Peter prays fervently over Dorcas and simply says to her two words: “Get up!”  It’s a pretty bold thing to say to a dead body, don’t you think?  And honestly, there must have been a reason Peter cleared the room beforehand.  I can only imagine how scary and creepy it would be to see a dead body all the sudden begin to stir – fingers and toes wiggling – and come back to life. 

Now, a few verses earlier in the scripture before this scene unfolds, Peter is in a town called Lydda to heal a man named Aeneas.  We are told that Aeneas was paralyzed and, as a result, had been bedridden for 8 years.  Curiously, Peter says the same thing to Aeneas that he says to Dorcas.  Those two familiar words. What are they? “Get up!”  (I’m just making sure y’all are still paying attention.)

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Noticing this striking similarity across both passages, I began to do some research.  I started by reading the text in its original Greek.  The Greek word for “Get up!” is anistemi, which actually appears a total of 44 times in the Book of Acts, more than any other book or letter of the New Testament.  Anistemi is the verb form of anastasisAnistemi or “Get up!” is resurrection as a verb.  Anastasis is resurrection as a noun. 

I believe all this emphasis on “Get up!,” 44 mentions of it, in fact, provides us with some insight into the work, focus, and mission of the early church as portrayed in the Book of Acts: resurrection as a verb, not just as a noun. 

I wonder if our focus on resurrection as a noun – that is, as an event, a triumph over death, a victory over empire, a future-oriented, hope-driving promise – has turned our focus away from living into an embodied, holistic, powerful understanding of resurrection as a verb in the here and now.  Not as something we do on our own, but as something that God does through us for the sake of others and for the sake of the world. 

What if we actually lived resurrection, instead of just believing it? 

The resurrection of Christ is indeed good news and we must celebrate it every chance we get, reminding each other that there is life beyond death.  That evil, no matter how great, never has the last word.  And that God is bigger and more mysterious than human understanding.  And any time we put God in a box, God will break out of it – just as God broke out from the tomb on that fateful Sunday morning that forever changed the world. 

But, at the same time, we must ask ourselves, how are we being, what are we doing, and what are we saying that calls the people in our lives out of spiritual death, darkness, and despair, and delivers them into new life, new hope, new faith, new love, new beauty, new peace, and new joy now?  Do our words encourage, or do our words defeat?  Do our actions heal or do our actions kill?  Do we exist to lift others up or do we exist to tear others down?  As the German philosopher Martin Buber has asked, do we encounter and relate to the subjects of our lives as an “it” or as a “thou?”

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I’m going to share a story to help illustrate the point I’m making.  It’s the most powerful experience in recent years that I have had of anistemi, resurrection as a verb. 

The day had been difficult.  I was carrying the grief of losing a close friend, work had been full of stress, and I was feeling overwhelmed by my first semester in seminary.  While taking the Metro home from work, I pondered how heavy my life had become.  Feeling especially constricted and increasingly impatient on my rush-hour commute – y’all know the feeling – I got off the Metro for some fresh air and walked the rest of the way home.  I felt invisible and alone as I made my way up Connecticut Avenue toward Dupont Circle.  My anxiety must have been written all over my face because as I continued on my walk, a man sitting on the sidewalk looked up at me and said, “Hey, where’s your smile?” 

Friends, I was seen. 

Immediately, the weight of my day began to melt.  I thanked the man and quickly turned away, tears welling up in my eyes.  After a couple blocks, I made it to Dupont Circle, sat on a bench, and wept.  The man I had just encountered was a ray of light in my life; his simple question, of where’s my smile, had healed me in that moment.  That’s anistemi (ah-NES-tay-me), resurrection as a verb. 

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Siblings in Christ, the Holy Spirit is pulsing God’s grace through the universe.  If we submit the beat of our hearts to the pulse of the Spirit, we allow the grace of God to take root in our soul, and nurture every fiber of our being.  God has called us to channel Her grace through the actions of our lives, in the same way that Peter channeled God’s grace in a way that brought life to Dorcas where there was death and healing to Aeneas where it was needed. 

I love you.  Resurrection as a verb. 

I see you, not with my eyes … but with my soul.  Resurrection as a verb.  

I journey with you. Resurrection as a verb. 

I create beauty with you. Resurrection as a verb.

I build peace with you.  Resurrection as a verb.

I grow a garden with you. Resurrection as a verb.

I am sorry.  Resurrection as a verb. 

I am with you.  Resurrection as a verb.

I listen to you.  I hear you, not with my ears … but with my heart.  Resurrection as a verb.

I laugh with you.  Resurrection as a verb.

The church does not do the world a favor when it just sits idly by, remembering the past, and waiting in joyful hope for the resurrection that is promised to come.  Friends, you already know that we are in troubled times and the witness of the church is becoming fraught and politicized into right versus left.  With another presidential election on the horizon that is sure to stoke hate and fear, we need a certain timeless wisdom for the living of these days.  That timeless wisdom lives on in our sacred scripture.  From time to time, it is helpful to look back to the early church, to those closest to the resurrection event – they were no stranger to political turmoil themselves, and learn from the stories of their lives what it means to be faithful disciples in the ways that only today we can uniquely be. 

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Losing those we love to death is one the hardest experiences of being human.  Dorcas did eventually die again.  And were God to raise Rachel Held Evans or even Jean Vanier, they would die again, too.  But that fledging church in the Book of Acts, those parents of the church like Dorcas and Peter, who bravely sowed the seeds of faith that bear fruit even to this day, are telling us something.  They are telling us something and it is very important. 

The church is at its best when it is lost in the work of getting others up, not in an ableist way, but by elevating and empowering those it witnesses to on the path of justice and equity; to know themselves as God’s beloved and as worthy of the calling they have received, and to be with them in the ups and downs and beliefs and doubts of life.  The church is at its best when it is busy healing and giving new life, not when it is lost in the work of judgment, shaming, and proof-texting to create a certain certainty that is inimical to faith. 

I am a certified candidate for ordination in The United Methodist Church, but because I am also living into God’s call on my life to love another man, my path to ordination in The United Methodist Church may soon come to an end — if groups cannot discern a new expression of Methodism that will create space for me and others like me to live and love as God has created us.  And as this sermon ends (and I promise it is soon coming to an end), it is not lost on me that because of this church, now I’m speaking of Hyattsville Mennonite, and because of your pastor’s invitation and support, I got up and preached to you, today.  That’s resurrection as a verb. 

Siblings in Christ, go forth, breathe in the Spirit, and trust that the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you now.  Go forth and resurrect.  Amen. 

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