|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, May 12, 2019 12:00 PM|
On the first couple Sundays in the season of Easter, we heard of the immediate consequences of Christ’s Resurrection: baffling appearances of Jesus to his confused disciples, alternating fear and reassurance, numerous signs that the world of this small group of Jesus’ friends had been changed for good.
Today our readings give us a broad sweep of the further consequences of the Resurrection, looking both backward and forward—backward to Jesus identifying himself as the Good Shepherd, forward to the early days of the Church when the disciples are turning the world upside down, and forward still farther, as far as we can go, to the summation of God’s creation, when “forward” ceases to mean anything at all.
What can we make of this story from the Acts of the Apostles, of a woman named Tabitha who made clothes for people in her community who needed them? She was too young to die. She was too needed to die. Peter seems to agree, because he stands by her body and urges her to rise and continue her earthly work.
Last week we heard of the death of bestselling author Rachel Held Evans. Evans was a vital voice within the Church for those who have been abused by the Church, a person who began as a fundamentalist literalist and died an Episcopalian. Her works included A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evolving in Monkey Town, and Searching for Sunday. Evans died at 37 and left behind a husband and two very young children. I was so sad when I heard this news. And as I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles, I thought, “Tabitha got to come back from the dead. Why couldn’t Rachel? She still had work to do, too!” But no. Rachel Held Evans is now at rest from her labors, whether we like it or not. For whatever reason, she is not Tabitha.
But Tabitha’s story can still strengthen us as a sign that even as people’s work ends, God’s work is not finished. It was not finished then, and it’s not finished now. And we know this because we just heard yet another story that goes beyond our time, to a time out of time. All the people from all the nations are gathered together with palm branches in their hands, like the people did in Jerusalem that day, and many are robed in white, symbolizing that they were martyred for their faith. Yes, the good will continue to die young, whether they are women suffering from random infection or children who tackle active shooters. This life asks more of them than it could ever be fair to ask, and then they go through death and come out the other side to find this palm branch-waving assembly. And they hear the words of John the revelator:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Did you hear that? The Lamb is the shepherd! What on earth does this mean? The Revelation to John is full of mixed metaphors, but this one is my favorite. You thought you were seeing a young sheep slaughtered for the evil ones’ feast. Instead you see that lamb seated on a throne with thousands of millions praising and honoring it. The Lamb is a King is a Shepherd is a Savior. And now comes the time of joy and the time of rest.
God is still working, and we know this because our own story is not yet finished. It’s a big story and it’s full of tragedy, but when we look at the world around us, we can begin to see it: God is coming to us in the midst of our uncertainty and anxiety, and God is giving us rest.
On Tuesday I went to the federal courthouse in Tacoma, one of a dozen or more clergy who showed up to stand with Chaplains on the Harbor as they sought a restraining order against the city of Aberdeen. If you were here six weeks ago you heard a sermon from the Rev. Sarah Monroe, but in case you missed it, that sermon is up on our website. Sarah heads up Chaplains on the Harbor, a diocesan ministry among the poor of Grays Harbor County. A few months ago they won a lawsuit against the city when it would not give the Chaplains permission to visit the homeless in their camp. Now the city has been planning to evict the homeless from a piece of riverside property which the city apparently bought for the sole purpose of clearing the homeless from it. It’s not a safe place to live, but it’s their only place to live. And as the city made ready to clear the camp without offering the homeless any other place to exist, Chaplains on the Harbor took the city to court to prevent it.
As I stood outside the courthouse waiting for us to pray and then enter, a journalist asked me what I thought of this legal action. I said, “I’ve supported Chaplains on the Harbor financially for a long time. I rooted for them in the first lawsuit, which they won. This case is a longer shot, because it has implications not only for Aberdeen but for the homeless throughout our country. And I support them in this, too.” After I spoke I realized that I expected to be let down.
We went into the courtroom, and those of us with collars all sat in a group and looked sternly at the judge, Ronald B. Leighton, as he entered. We all rose, we all were seated, and the judge, seemingly distracted, told us that he’d already made up his mind not to grant the restraining order, but that the prosecution could speak anyway. My heart sank. I should have known.
The Chaplains’ lawyer did speak, and he spoke very well, about the fact that the city has left its own homeless citizens with literally no options. They have no money to move elsewhere, there are no jobs for them, and now these human beings have been systematically herded into this one piece of property. There’s even a law preventing them from storing their few possessions in shopping carts, so a sweep would mean that they’d have to give up for lost anything they couldn’t carry. And where would they go then?
The defense lawyer said, “There are certain parks where they can be.” The prosecution shot back, “Great! Name them and we’ll help them move!” No names were forthcoming.
To explain what happened next, I want to quote Aaron Scott, one of the core ministers of Chaplains on the Harbor. Here’s how he described the action on Facebook:
That … judge damn near got slain in the Spirit on Tuesday at our hearing in federal court. I watched the Holy Ghost work him over right before my eyes. I watched a lot of sick, deceitful rhetoric about homeless people spill out of his mouth until he was just about emptied—like a purge. And then I watched him, a man who has probably been in control of most of his interpersonal interactions for the vast majority of his life, lose control of his own internal narrative. In his own courtroom. In front of homeless plaintiffs. In front of two dozen clergy. Time got weird. It was a perfectly clear and sunny day but the room got hazy.
He wasn’t sympathetic. He didn’t have the correct analysis. He said all the wrong things. He ruled in our favor anyway. He looked up at all the priests in their collars right before we adjourned and awkwardly stammered out, “My family has always lived in neighborhoods with poor people and it has been, in many ways, a great blessing.”
Maybe it was the social pressure: maybe he was really overwhelmed by our standing-room-only coalition that included a 92-year-old priest and World War II veteran (who slept through most of the proceedings), the local drag group, Native elders, punks, hillbillies, and street moms. I think we played our strategy very powerfully. Our lawyer is a shark who ran circles around the city attorney. But there was something else happening, too. It felt like a spiritual jailbreak. Like the Holy Dove was breaking and entering to crack a squat in federal court for an hour, to protect Her people. And She got away with it.
Friends, God is still working. We do our best to defeat God far too often. But last Tuesday, God’s work was right in front of our eyes. To clarify: the judge first went on an extended ramble in front of us all about how the administrative and legislative branches of government have broken down, forcing the judicial branch to do their work for them. He opined, “We’re the only grownups left in the room!” He argued with himself out loud, turning to wicked stereotypes about the homeless being lazy and unwilling to change—but then he defeated his own arguments. In the end, the judge would not allow the restraining order to take effect, but instead he placed a 30-day stay on it and ordered the city to negotiate a solution with the homeless. And he said, “If I hear of any sweeps in the meantime, there’ll be hell to pay!”
The shepherd is still caring for the sheep. And sometimes the sheep die, sheep who succumb to infection, and sacrificial lambs who charge at active shooters to protect their classmates, and ewes who fall prey to exposure on the banks of the Chehalis. And the shepherd greets them on the other side in greener pastures beside still waters, and there the sheep find rest.
But sometimes the sheep live on, permanently changing our world by witnessing to the shepherd’s ministrations. Sometimes the shepherd’s rod and staff beat back the wolves, just for today. Our sheeply souls are restored and revived in the understanding that our shepherd was also a Lamb led to the slaughter. We follow a victim into victory. And the host at the table is also the food that keeps us going a little bit longer, until we can find the next spring of living water.
The consequences of the Resurrection encompass both death and life—both yours and mine. Alleluia!