WORSHIP SERVICE May 8 2022 9:30 Informal Worship Service
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REPRINT OF PASTOR ERIK’S SERMON MAY 8 2022
John 10:22-30 · “In God’s Grip” · Mother’s Day
One of my favorite parts about watching sports may not be something you would expect. It isn’t the thrill of victory when the team you’re cheering for wins. It isn’t the amazing physical feats that the athletes can do or the high scoring night for a star player. I certainly appreciate all these aspects of sports and they are part of what makes them so exciting to watch. But another aspect that I really appreciate is those moments that occur every so often when one player has been knocked down and a player from the opposing team stops for a second and lends a hand to help him back up.
It is such a simple thing, but for me it is always gets my attention and feels kind of powerful because it takes me out of the heat of the moment and reminds me this is just a game. It shows that the player has just stopped to relax for a second from the competition to remember what is really important—that they are playing hard, but no one wants to see another player get hurt. They pause for a moment to recognize that they are both human and though the opposing player wants to win, he still has a mutual respect, and he knows what it feels like to hit the ground. A hand goes out and a hand comes up and they grip each other. Then the one player helps the other up off the ground. It’s like for a moment they belong to same team.
The image of someone helping someone else up is a vivid picture of what it literally means to lend someone a hand. It is a concrete way that someone can give another person assistance, and it is a central image in the readings today. In the Book of Acts we hear how Peter reaches out to a woman who has just been revived from the dead. The scripture tells us that he gives her his hand and helps her up.
The woman’s name was Tabitha, and during her lifetime she was someone who was accustomed to lending people a hand. She may have done this literally, but she also did it through the many ways that she gave people assistance. The Bible tells us that she was a disciple. It is the same word used for the twelve disciples of Jesus. So if anyone tells you only men were disciples, you tell them they don’t know Tabitha. Of course, there were many other women who were also followers of Jesus, but here it specifically says that Tabitha was a disciple. Her devotion to Jesus has led her to be devoted to good works and acts of charity. She was not a preacher. She had not met Jesus in a blinding light like Paul on the road to Damascus. She had not seen the Holy Spirit come down in tongues of flame like Peter. She was simply moved to lend a hand to those in need. For all we know she could have been single woman, or a widow, which would have put her into the category of one of the most vulnerable persons in her society.
Yet Tabitha used her gifts and talents to help others. We know one way that she gave assistance to others was through her ability to sew and mend clothing. The Bible tells us that after she had gotten sick and died, many of the local widows gather around Tabitha to mourn her loss. These widows have brought with them different kinds of clothes that Tabitha had made for them while she was still alive. I can imagine that these simple items were helping the widows feel grounded as they wondered if they might lose their grip in the midst of their grief for their friend who died too soon and too suddenly. I can just picture them sitting around shedding a few tears and sharing a few stories of how Tabitha had made this or that coat, shirt or dress for them and how those items were a sign of how she had cared for them. They were there because they had seen God’s spirit in Tabitha through the good works she had done.
Our theme this Easter season is, “What does it mean to be Easter people?” Today’s story makes it clear that part of being Easter people is being willing to lend a hand. It also means believing that God will give us a hand. Peter affirms the life of Tabitha as a faithful disciple who was a witness to Jesus through her acts of charity. But more than an affirmation of Tabitha’s good works, Peter’s revival of this disciple is an affirmation of God’s grip on us. It is important to remember that in this encounter, Tabitha had died. Up until this point in the book of Acts, Peter has been performing miraculous healings. But now in this story, Peter is raising Tabitha from the dead. He is giving a visible sign that not only was Tabitha in God’s hands in life, but she is also in God’s hands in death.
Although we may not get to witness a miracle like Peter performed in the Book of Acts, as people are approaching death, it can be comforting to have someone beside them who is willing to hold their hand. I have been privileged to witness this as I have been invited to be with folks who are dying. Oftentimes in those situations a person will reach out to hold my hand as I sit next to their bedside and I have seen many family members reach out to hold the hands of their loved ones. There have even been a few instances where the person who was dying seemed to be unconscious, but when their loved one grasped their hand the person actually grasped it back as if to say, “I know you’re here and I appreciate it.”
Author Lisa Goich knows the power of holding someone’s hand as they are dying. She wrote the book “14 Days: A Mother, a Daughter and a Two Week Goodbye.” A few years ago she invited her readers to post pictures on her website of people holding their mother’s hands. Here are a few of those pictures and the stories that go with them.
From Elissa Kline about her mother, Josine: “My mother was born in Romania and her family fled to Israel during WW2. She’s lived in Paris, NYC and LA. She was a respected and renown art curator. She spoke six languages and was brilliant and tough. Last year she had a stroke at age 88. I snapped this photo soon after she came home. It was a tender moment when she reached out, almost as a child would, to hold my hand.”
From Jo Shumacher about her mother, Liz: “Holding hands with my 91-year-old mother while she was in the hospital for a bout of pneumonia. She entered Hospice Care shortly after this photo was taken. I miss her. I was her advocate and caregiver, daughter and friend, art partner and goofy pal for the last four years of her life. I have no regrets.”
From Kenneth Wirth about His Mother, Michelle: “She fought long and hard for twenty-eight years, but now the cancer can’t hurt her anymore. She was the strongest and bravest woman I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She will always be my hero.”
There is something about being able to hold someone’s hand that can be very reassuring not only for the loved one who is dying, but also for the person who is trying to comfort the loved one. Feeling the hand of someone else is a feeling that we belong to each other and that can produce a kind of hope, even as a person faces the uncertainty of death.
Seminary Professor Elisabeth Johnson talks about this sense of belonging as she reflects upon today’s Gospel passage. She writes,
“…there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality. By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the Good Shepherd who says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” No. It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.”
Secure in this belonging, we are then free to lend a hand to others so that they too might know that they belong to God. We can stop and rest when anxiety would threaten to overwhelm us, trusting that we are in God’s hands. When we feel like life has knocked us down, we can trust that God is reaching out to help pick us up. When we feel like we are losing our grip, we can trust we are always in God’s grip. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner