We seem to have some debate going on in the culture these days about what it means to be alive. Our hospitals have patients in them these days who are alive, if that means that their hearts are beating and their lungs are filling and emptying, but whose lives are limited to their experiences of pain, loss, frustration at their situation and the four walls of their hospital rooms. Maybe the lucky ones are the ones who have only the heart beating and the lungs filling and emptying without any awareness.
We have great moral and ethical debates about whether or not those people are alive and then what that entails for how they are cared for. Do we prolong a life that is without thought or the ability to act? Conversely, do we end a life that lacks some vital component of what we think it means to be alive? Do we even have the right to ask these questions on behalf of another person?
But as much as those are pressing questions, and moral and ethical debates worth having, to me it begs the further question of what it means to be alive outside the context of the terminal patient. What does it mean for those of us with the capacity to enjoy and to move and to think and to act to have been given the gift of life? How are we supposed to be honoring, or failing that, even acknowledging that gift? What might be the signs that would lead an outside observer to think that we might, just maybe, be alive?
I think that a lot of us are hindered by the fact that we are no longer young., I don’t mean in the ways that some of you keep chiding me for still being just a baby at 46, but the ways in which we are no longer five, or eleven, or fourteen. Can we even remember how that felt? What it was like when everything in the world was new, even the tarnished things had a lustre because they were new experiences we’d not yet had or new ideas we’d not yet thought?
Just so this doesn’t come off as a yearning for a long lost youth, let me tell you I would not go back for a million dollars to the time when I was fourteen, even if you let me keep my knowledge and my learning and just stuck me back in my old body. Not for a million dollars.
And besides, the things I am talking about are still available to us, to any of us no matter what years we have accumulated or how we have spent the ones that have passed.
Because being alive, being raised from the dead is our definition. Now if we can decode what Jesus meant by that statement, that we are the ones who are alive in Him, then we can get to living the lives that he saved for us.
It seems to matter. It matters to Peter in the Acts reading for this morning, that Tabitha, called Dorcas has died. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t matter so much that this or that follower has passed, otherwise the pages of the Bible would be filled with stories of Lazarus and Tabitha and the hundreds and hundreds of other disciples and disciples’ mothers-in-law and cousins and all of the other people who ever died being raised back up again. If breath in the lungs were the important thing, if a heartbeat was the vital sign that mattered, then we’d have way more of it in the Bible. Jesus would have raised up villages full of the dead, conquering death, at least temporarily, for all who had the bad luck to be dead.
It seems like it might mean something else, though. Since Tabitha and Lazarus and the rest are not still walking around, then Jesus might have meant a little more than just physical presence when He said the word “life” and Peter might have had a different set of vital signs in mind when he bid Tabitha to get up.
Maybe that’s the distinction that will serve. What’s the difference between being alive, and not being dead? They sound alike, but being alive seems to have a different set of vital signs that simply not being dead. You can be sitting in your armchair Archie Bunker-style for hours and hours at a time and not moving other than to feed and relieve yourself but not many of us would say that you were alive; in fact many might urge you to get up and get a life. You are not dead; the jury is still out on whether or not you are alive.
Tabitha is a disciple who is involved in a great number of ministries. She was devoted to doing good things, apparently something of a seamstress, and all around beloved in her community. When she died the people who had known and loved her did not miss the clothing that she had made for them, they showed that off to Peter when he knelt at her side. They still had the clothing. The thing that they would miss; was her life.
Tabitha had dedicated herself to serving and loving and helping and ministering; in other words, to being alive not solely to herself, not alive for its own sake; but being alive toward others, being a part of their lives, helping them, holding them, loving them, feeding them, ministering to them. Her vital sign was not her heartbeat, it was her heart.
That was worth saving. That image, that example, those vital signs were brought back from the dead so that people might know what was really important.
My old worship professor at Seminary, Mons Tieg, used to quote an old Scottish professor of his, who, when asked what the purpose of preaching was, replied “The purpose of Preaching? The purpose of Preaching is to raise the dead!” and that seemed like a lot to ask at the time.
Now I have come to see that raising the dead is not so much what Peter is doing this morning, though he does return Tabitha to her community. What Peter does is to return someone who is alive to the people who need to taste of that life, to see it and touch it and know what it means to be alive.
It is a part of the Calling of the Christian to feed the hungry but it is a vital sign of life to feed someone, to share your food and your time in the act of seeing the deed done, person to person, making someone in need, if only for a moment, a part of the family.
You win no crowns in heaven. You win few prizes on earth, for that matter. But suddenly, whether or not you expected it or were aiming at that result, your heart begins to beat its way out of your chest and your life becomes clear to all. The life that Jesus won for you is suddenly not locked up in your chest or in your armchair but is on display, evidence of life in Jesus name.
In the same way it is the Calling of the Christian to seek justice for the oppressed but it is a vital sign of life to risk a bit of your own peace to speak out on behalf of another, treating others as you would like to be treated. It doesn’t matter if they are political prisoners in Honduras or tenth graders in the Santa Rosa School system who are suspended or expelled at a far higher rate than in almost any school district in the state, more than San Francisco to be sure.
They are not necessarily family members of ours. We have no dog in that fight, no skin in that game. It is the Calling of the Christian to feel compassion for their plight, it is a vital sign of life to open our mouths and speak, to step out of our living rooms and act, to stop merely fishing people out of the river and instead hike upstream and find out who keeps throwing them in (thanks to Bishop Gene Robinson for that image).
The thing I have noticed in my own life and experience, I know, only 46 years of it, but still I have noticed that I do not weary of being engaged in ministry, I do not tire of doing this job. I get tired, but do not wish to stop; I get hot because for whatever reason even in California Pastors insist on wearing black, but I do not retreat from the ministry and seek the safety of the air-conditioned office, the comfy chair, the comfort of not being dead.
I find myself over and over again being called to life, being asked by Peter to get up and get out and get on with it, get on with the task of having Vital Signs, signs of life. I used to get tired when I was swinging a hammer for a living and seek the end of my day like it was heaven itself. I used to tire of almost every job I ever had, wishing each minute that it was the last minute. Not every day but it happened.
And it may be the calling of the Christian to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and seek justice for the oppressed, but it is the vital sign of the faith to find a way to engage, to take part, to live the faith, not just confess it; to walk in Jesus footsteps, and Peter’s and Paul’s not just admire them; to show forth the vital signs of a life lived in Jesus’ name and not merely that our hearts still beat and our lungs still inflate and that we are not dead.
It is as true for churches as it is for individuals as well. I came up with a phrase the other day and I want to test it out on you. The Church, in order to be church, has to be moving toward something. It can be moving toward any of a great number of things; but a church that sits back, that ceases to try and be anything more than not dead, ceases to be church after a while.
It is not our burden to be the heart, the beating, loving heart of the creation. It is not the burden of our heart, the one within our chest to be the pump which pushes the blood which carries the oxygen which feeds our cells which allows us to be not dead. That is not the burden of the heart, that is the definition of the heart and that is the definition of the church. That which shines forth with the love of Christ, so generously showered upon God’s children through His holy word that it cannot be contained, cannot be confined to an armchair or a single heart, or a single building.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. I’m not sure I realized that the streets of South Park were the green pastures, or that Elijah’s Pantry might be the still waters, but there indeed are souls restored. There are lives saved and hearts opened and there is faith shining forth, vital signs of the love of God in Christ for all the world to see.
And not just there, but everywhere that Tabitha rises and returns to the people, ministering to them and loving them in the Lord’s name. I don’t care if Tabitha is called Dorcas or Deborah or Chris or Erin or Ward or Larry; those are the vital signs of life; those are the moments we stop being simply not dead and come alive in Christ.
It is those who are alive who shall not want. Who will hunger no more and thirst no more, who scorching heat will not longer strike, from whose eyes every tear will be wiped. Not as our reward, some kind of quid pro quo where we love our neighbor so then God loves us, but rather as a part of the definition of whom we are in Christ, of the new life given to us. It is just what happens when we follow our shepherd, when we hear his voice and follow in His footsteps, follow in his ways, and seek to be alive in Him in all that we say and all that we do.
I can’t believe that it has been almost forty years since the name Karen Ann Quinlan made us all ask what life meant, what it meant to be alive. But we can no longer restrict that question to the end of our lives, as if before then it did not matter. We need to seek more than just not being dead and to discover the life that Jesus saved us for, with green pastures, and still waters and a table spread before us. Signs of God’s gracious love for those whom he has made alive.