The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
A few nights ago, I was at home, thinking about going to sleep, when my phone made the warbling noise that lets me know I’ve received a message. At first I was grumpy (Who was pinging me at this late hour?), but when I looked at the message, my annoyance was replaced with wonder. I did not recognize the picture or the last name of the sender, but her other names and the question she asked raised in me a surge of unexpected delight: Ann Barrett, who had been my best friend at the summer camp I’d attended in Appalachia — and whom I had not seen or spoken to in thirty years. I was caught up in a flood of memories: laughing in our cabin, walking to dinner arm in arm, skinny-dipping by the rifle range, floating candles on the river, writing letters back and forth from college, her innocent hand-writing telling me she had found a great boyfriend and was hoping for a ring. And then, on my screen, the question: “What are you up to?” What was I up to? How could I describe thirty years of a life in a text-message? What were the words that would show this intimate stranger who I was, what kind of woman I had become?
What would you have written? Think about it: If you had to tell someone who you are in twenty-five words, or even in a hundred, what would you say? It is so hard to give a stranger any real sense of your humanity. Perhaps that’s why Jesus turned so often to story: because the lived, breathed texture of our lives indicates much more clearly who we are and whose than any array of words, no matter how carefully chosen.
Our identities are complex — mixtures of our experiences, our biology, our choices, and the ideas and people we have encountered on the way. In today’s readings, identity seems particularly slippery and hard to grasp. Tabitha, we are told, is also Dorcas. (Both words mean “gazelle.”) But names don’t work like that. My name means “honeybee” in Hebrew, but if you call out, “Hey, Honeybee!” I’m not likely to recognize that you are talking to me. And yet, somehow Tabitha is also Dorcas — probably because the people who were reading Luke’s words were more likely to know Greek than to know Aramaic. Luke changes her name in order to make her intelligible to people who have never met her.
Later, St. John sees in a vision a great multitude and an elder asks him, “Who are these…and where have they come from?” And when John replies that he does not know, the elder explains, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal: they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” (Rev 7:13-14) But that doesn’t tell us who they are: merely that they are related to Jesus. John himself had observed more detail than that: he tells us that the multitude came “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” (Rev 7: 9) But in this story, that’s not the thing that matters. To the elder, what matters is their connection to Christ.
Even Jesus seems strangely opaque. When the Jews come to him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” all Jesus says is, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” (John 10:24-25)
In all these stories, we are up against the limits of our preconceptions: the Jews cannot reconcile this man Jesus with their understanding of who the messiah was supposed to be; Luke’s Greek-speaking readers need help to imagine a Hebrew woman’s life; St. John cannot find words to describe a crowd of people who are dissimilar, yet who share a common purpose. It’s a problem that dogs us all the time: How do we live in a pluralistic and multicultural society, honoring our own identity without denigrating the identities of others? How do we speak of people without labeling them in inadequate ways? How do we describe the members of a church that is meant to include everyone? How do we speak of ourselves without invoking the very categories Christ has made ultimately irrelevant?
Two years ago, the Vestry of this church voted unanimously to embrace a multi-cultural identity. It felt like a radical act, but that’s only a reflection of our context. The truth is that the church of Christ has always been multicultural. Ancient Rome was the most diverse, polyglot society the world had ever known. Walking down the streets of even a backwater like Judea, it would not have been surprising to see tall men with yellow or red hair from Northern Europe, to hear languages from Africa and the Mediterranean, to buy silk from Persia or silver from Britain or slave-girls from Turkey or Namibia, to see Arabs and Greeks and people who worshiped Mithras and Isis and Zeus. The question for the church is not how to become multicultural; the question is how, after the fall of Rome, we allowed ourselves to become narrow.
History intervened, and we did. While the church as a whole remained international after the break-up of Rome, the diversity of countries and provinces and towns decreased until parishes were largely homogenous. And so the issue with which we wrestle, here in the 21st century, is how to recapture what we have always been: a great “multitude [of people]… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
And our three stories today, opaque though they are, all gesture in the same direction. When the Christians in Joppa summon Peter and wish to show him who Tabitha was, they do not resort to words. Instead, they hold up the garments she has made for the poor; they allow her to define her life, not through outward marks of identity, but through her deeds. See this tunic? It is the image of her soul, which was a loving one.
This scene always seemed strange to me until I met a certain woman in Alabama. There was in our church a ministry of women who would gather each week to knit or crochet miniature caps and booties and blankets for the premature babies born in the local charity hospital. Among them, there was one who dedicated herself to sewing tiny, perfect linen burial clothes, sized for babies who weighed less than three pounds. I could barely bring myself to look at them: they spoke so palpably of loss She told me that she had lost her own child; this was her way of reaching out from her own pain to begin to assuage the pain of others. See this tunic? It is the image of her soul. See what a tender one it is!
Jesus, too, appeals beyond the confines of words. When the Jews will not understand who he is, he says, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” (John 10:25) And St. John’s great multitude are described, not by their markers of external identity, but by the fact that they chose to be baptized into Christ. Some deeds speak more clearly than words; they show us who we really are.
The author of Colossians sums it up in these words: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all.”
But Christ is all and in all. Think about that! What if every person we meet were simply to be welcomed as Christ, because Christ is in them? How would that rock our world? That’s the promise underneath the second focus area in our strategic plan: integration of the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members of our parish through shared engagement in service, worship, pastoral care, and education. By talking in terms of language groups, we do not mean to minimize the other forms of diversity in our congregation. We include people who’ve lived in many countries, who come from several continents, as well as American-born people from a wide variety of racial and ethnic heritages. But the key for Christians is not only that we will be different from one another; it is our essential unity in Christ. The idea is not simply to learn about one another or to appreciate one another’s heritage: it’s to share our lives with one another, so that, at the last, when our friends hold up for us the evidence of what we have done with our lives, we will find that we were inextricable from one another. There will be the meals that we cooked and ate together and the ones we prepared for the homeless; the flowers we arranged; the children that we taught together; the homes that we repaired in Appalachia. There will no longer be Us and Them, but only We: we who love one another.
Jean Vanier writes, “To become a good shepherd is…to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them to grow and become fully alive.” That’s what Christ does for us: he shows us the beauty of our souls, which most of us barely dare to claim. The first time we taught the Core Curriculum, we were speaking of our souls, and one man said, “I can believe that my soul is a thing of shining beauty, but I cannot believe that I am really my soul.” Our work in this life is to erase that disbelief for one another, to evoke that beauty in one another, to show everyone we meet, not the image of Christ in ourselves, but the image of Christ in them.
A couple years after I was ordained, I took a group on a mission trip to Bolivia. One day, having a few spare hours, three of us hiked out of our remote mountain village into the Andes around us. After a while, I came to a stream; on the other side was a tiny girl, not more than four or five years old, holding in her arms a newborn lamb. I was an utter stranger: different from her family in race and in dress; I did not speak her language. But she crossed the stream to where I stood and smiled up at me; then she put the lamb down at my feet and gestured for me to touch it. It was an act of utter trust: to take the best thing she had and share it with a passing stranger. To assume that what delighted her would delight me. That I would be gentle and kind and loving, that I could be those things. I never knew her name and I cannot speak her language, but I have never forgotten her. Looking at what she did, I could see the beauty of her soul. And for a moment, I could glimpse a world in which there was one flock, one shepherd.
 Or would know, until the late twentieth century.
 Col 3:11, RSV. Italics mine.
 Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John.