By Sheri Hostetler
Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43
Our story from Acts takes place in Joppa, a coastal town about 35 miles west of Jerusalem. It is now a suburb of Tel Aviv. Dorcas, or Tabitha (the Hebrew version of her name) — actually, I’m going to call her Tabitha because I can’t get this middl-school snicker out of my mind whenever I hear the name Dorcas. Tabitha is one of the main disciples of a small community of Jewish followers of Jesus that has formed in Joppa. Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity, the text says; she was a beloved person in this community, caring for the most vulnerable by making garments for them. Today, in our world of fast fashion, we might not realize what a big deal this was. Clothing back then was major expense — one cloak might cost more than half of the annual wages of a poor person. Tabitha was seriously into the redistribution of wealth by giving widows and poor people clothing.
Alas, Tabitha falls ill and dies. Her grieving friends, many of them the widows she cared for, wash her body and lay her in an upper room. Meanwhile, messengers are dispatched to hunt down Peter, in nearby Lydda, and bring him to Joppa. There is no mention in this passage that the people in Joppa hoped that Peter might restore Tabitha to life; perhaps they simply wanted Peter — the “conference minister” or “bishop” of that day — to come and mourn the loss of this great woman with them.
Peter must have heard the wails and moans of the mourners from quite far off. This is not a culture where people mourn by quietly sniffling into their handkerchiefs. But when Peter arrives at Tabitha’s house, he spends no time in mourning. He sends everyone outside the room where Tabitha’s body is lying. There, alone with her body, with sounds of weeping coming up the stairs from the first floor, he begins praying. The Greek word for “pray” used here is doesn’t mean to beseech or beg. It is instead a word composed of two Greek words: one of which means to earnestly worship, and one of which implies direction toward. And so we get a sense of a great act of worship toward God that is Peter’s prayer.
And now, his prayer complete, Peter turns to Tabitha. Remember, it’s been several hours at least since she died. They had to dispatch messengers to get Peter in Lydda, and it’s about 20 miles round trip between Lydda and Joppa. Peter looks at her and says, “Tabitha, get up.” A second passes, two, perhaps twenty. She opens her eyes, looks at Peter, and sits up, and the tears of the widows are turned to crazy joy.
This is a moving story, but what do we do with it? We know — painfully, we know — that the dead do not come back to life. Even those who most believe in the power of God to perform miracles of healing — even those folks don’t expect that. When’s the last time you heard a faith healer praying for resuscitation? When I about 10, a guest preacher in my home church fell over dead in the middle of his sermon from a heart attack. We gasped, and prayed, but once it was clear he was gone, no one in that room of devout people believed he would come back to life.
And yet, there are miraculous stories of resuscitation in the Bible from the Hebrew Scriptures — where Elijah and Elisha each raise someone — to Jesus, who does it three times — to Peter and Paul, who each have one to their name. These stories carry meaning, even if we can’t believe that dead bodies are made alive again. These stories tell us that God heals in powerful and unpredictable and unimaginable ways — and that we can pray for divine healing that’s behind our comprehension or what our rational minds can accept.
I think of the story that Kinari told in our service after Easter where we shared stories of new life. The woman who is now a midwife in the Indonesian village where the hospital is located was at one point deathly ill. She was a young mother with a mysterious illness and nothing anyone did was making her better. In desperation, she prays and says, “God, if you heal me, I will do anything you ask. Anything.” She was healed, mysteriously, miraculously, and soon after that she saw the job description for being a midwife in this remote region of Indonesia. She knew immediately that she was supposed to take that job, that this was what God had in mind for her. Now, she’s saving the lives of people practically every day in that area. God heals in powerful and unpredictable and unimaginable ways.
I haven’t always been able to say that and believe it. When I was growing up in my home Amish-Mennonite community, it was almost a pre-scientific world. The Bible was taken literally. People believed that folks could be healed of cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and that if you weren’t healed of those things it was probably because your faith wasn’t strong enough. As I came of age, I began to doubt and critique the faith of these folks that I grew up among. I got learning, and college did exactly what everyone in that community feared it would — I lost my faith or, at least their faith. I no longer believed in miraculous healing or a God who intervenes to heal some and not others. I suspect my story is similar to that of many of you here.
But now, 30 years later, I say: I don’t know. How could I possibly know how the Sprit of Life, the Creator of the Cosmos, does anything, much less heal people? How can we possibly understand the mind of God? And: Not everything has to make sense. This doesn’t mean uncritically accepting everything on faith. It means, holding a large place for mystery in our spirits and souls. It means being humble — saying to our Creator, it is you who have made us, and not we ourselves. You probably know more than we do.
Can we allow ourselves to pray for healing in ways we can’t predict or imagine? In ways that go beyond our understanding? Sometimes, when I’m praying for something audacious, I say, “God, I don’t even really believe that you intervene in this way, and I’m not sure that it theologically makes sense to me, and I don’t really understand why you would intervene now and not at other times, but I’m asking for healing anyway because I believe that the way you work is beyond my puny understandings.” And sometimes, when I’m really desperate — like when Patrick was in the ER — I skip the preamble and just pray, “Help, God. I need a miracle. I need my son to be healed. Now.”
There is another kind of divine healing that is much less mysterious but no less powerful. And that is the healing that’s expressed in Psalm 23. I love that our lectionary paired these scriptures together — one a story of the most audacious kind of healing imaginable and another the story of the most common kind: the healing that comes from the experience of God’s presence no matter what is happening to us. The healing that comes from knowing that God and God’s people are with us in our darkest valley, that God’s mercy follows us, pursues us, throughout our life.
I’ve never seen anyone resuscitated; I haven’t even seen anyone who has miraculously been healed in some kind of spectacular way. But I was with Ann a few days before she died, and she feared no evil. I recited the 23rd psalm to her, she perked up ever so slightly to listen, and then relaxed back as if lying down in green pastures. Those of us with Alma in her last hours saw someone so dwelling in the house of the Lord that there was barely any transition between her living and her dying — she was in the same house either way. We anointed her head with oil; her cup overflowed. I’ve been with many of you in some of the most frightening moments of your life, and I have seen how the presence of God and God’s people has restored your soul and comforted you as you have walked through the darkest of valleys. I’ve been with some of you as you have recalled the most painful times of your life and have seen, with the grace of hindsight, how, even then, you were being upheld and sustained by Love. Surely, goodness and mercy has followed us all the days of our life and we will dwell in the House of the Lord our whole life long.
And so, may we have the humility to pray for healing, audacious healing, healing that goes beyond our understanding. And may we also know the Divine Presence that leads us all the days of our life. Amen.