Tabitha’s Neighborhood

Acts 9:32-43
Andrew Scales
September 4, 2022
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On a Wednesday morning in November 1550 in Geneva, the pastor and theologian John Calvin delivered a sermon on the prophet Micah. Civic life in Geneva was tearing itself apart. Refugees from all over Europe fled religious persecution and found safety in Geneva. But their struggles were just beginning. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded. Efforts at poor relief among local churches strained to a breaking point. Many city leaders pushed against efforts to incorporate these new arrivals as citizens. Wealthy families from “Old Geneva” began to speculate on local markets, hoarding food and intentionally driving up rent across the city. Winter was on its way, and many people in the city were without adequate food or shelter.

That morning, Calvin drew upon the words of the Hebrew prophets to warn of God’s judgment against the wealthy and powerful members of his town. He spoke against inequities in housing, and ferociously denounced the practice of withholding food to make a profit. He reminded listeners that God imposed daily rest at night, as well as on the sabbath day, in part so that people who have many resources would be forced to stop gaining an economic advantage on people who were struggling.

At the end of the sermon, Calvin imagines what God might say to the people of Geneva. Because of all the great injustices happening, God says, “I, myself, will draw near to you.” “I will be near to you.” “I am the God who is near.” It sounds like a word of judgment: God’s coming, look out!

But as the words turned over in my mind reading in French and translating into English, I realized that, in Calvin’s sixteenth-century French, the word prochain means near as an adjective, but as a noun it means neighbor. Hear it again: “I, myself, will become a neighbor to you.” “I will be your neighbor.” “I am the God who is your neighbor.” God’s coming judgment—of ancient Israel, of early modern Geneva, of our time—is not what we expect it to be. It is, surprisingly, an invitation to turn from a life that puts stock in deadly or selfish things, and to turn toward the neighborhood’s shalom, its flourishing. In Jesus Christ, God says, “I will become your neighbor.” “I will move into your neighborhood.” God asks us to treat the neighbor in the manner we would treat Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, the early followers of Jesus are trying to figure out how to walk in his ways after he has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Jesus has gone back to his Father, but he has promised that his Spirit will remain at work in the world. Throughout the stories of Acts, Peter, Paul, Philip, Mary, Lydia, and others keep encountering the risen Jesus in the lives and faces of their neighbors. God is working in and through small communities and ordinary people, healing broken relationships, welcoming strangers, breathing new life into places in the Spirit of Jesus.

This morning’s story about Tabitha is about resurrection: resurrection of a person, and resurrection of a community. Acts tells us that Tabitha was a follower of Jesus, a mathetria, a “female disciple.” Tabitha devoted her life to love and good works toward her community, especially people who were vulnerable, such as widows. When she dies, her community begs Peter to come to them.

When Peter walks into the room where they’ve washed and laid out Tabitha’s body for burial, the whole community stands around him dressed in clothes that she made for them. Tabitha, this follower of Jesus, devoted her life to serving her neighbors in a way that made a profound difference in their lives. People who otherwise would have been forgotten or mistreated had food and clothing. She loved them so much, and Peter can see from their tears how much they loved her.

It’s the kind of love that Peter knew when he lived and worked and ate with Jesus: a beloved community gathered in this small, out-of-the-way town called Joppa.

When Peter sends the widows and saints out of the room, he prays over her body and says to her, “Tabitha, get up.” “Tabitha, rise.” She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and he helps her up. Then he shows her to the saints. Many people in Joppa believed in God because they saw that Tabitha was alive.

I wonder if, just as God raised Tabitha to life in ancient Joppa, God is still raising up disciples like Tabitha in neighborhoods all around us. This story made me think of my friend Isabella, who is one of our undergraduate student leaders with Princeton Presbyterians. Isabella’s from Western North Carolina, and when she went home this summer, her home church was going through a rough time. Like many churches coming through this pandemic, there are concerns about budget issues, stress about worship numbers…

Isabella went to a congregational meeting about what to do next, and she could hear the anxiety in the room. The conversation was about how they could attract new members. How could they bring people into the building, get them involved, and have them join for worship?

When Isabella got up, she started talking about how they could think of the question in a different way. Instead of worrying about how they could convince people to come, they could think about what people in the community needed. She told them about Mister Rogers Day, an event that Princeton Presbyterians hosts here at Nassau. An innovation from the pandemic, we gather outside in March to make tie-dye t-shirts and play lawn games. We offer a “make-your-own care package” table to students, and we stock the shelves of Arm in Arm with toiletries. We celebrate Mister Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who devoted his life to telling children that they were loved and loveable on his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

As Isabella explained Mister Rogers Day to her fellow church members, she also started talking about the needs that families have in their community. In the summertime, parents need childcare while they work. Kids who rely on school lunches face uncertainty about where some of their meals are coming from. Without camps or summer classes, it’s easy for children to lose ground in what they’ve learned during the school year, especially as we come through a disruptive pandemic. They need to hear stories of the Bible in a way that focuses on God’s love for them, and their calling to love neighbors who don’t look like them.

In the moment, she decided that her church should host a Mister Rogers Vacation Bible School. And that’s exactly what she and other church volunteers did. Every day, Isabella’s lesson plan began and ended by singing a song that Mister Rogers wrote. Sometimes the younger children watched an episode of Daniel Tiger, which is an animated continuation of characters from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. They made tie-dye t-shirts and learned about Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. There was a mid-week dinner for families to come and be together. At the end of the week, Isabella and the other volunteers sent each child home with two things: a bag of groceries for their families, and a book for themselves.

What if Tabitha’s neighborhood today looks like a bunch of children in tie-dye t-shirts outside Hickory, North Carolina, holding a bag of groceries in their arms and a book in their hands? When Peter says, “Tabitha, rise,” it’s not just a story for first-century Christians, it’s a miracle story that plays out in small communities all around us today. Tabitha is still alive, following Jesus, seeing the presence of God in the face of the neighbor. Her neighborhood is alive wherever children and vulnerable people are loved, clothed, fed, and taught that they are precious in God’s eyes.

People in Tabitha’s neighborhood see this sort of extravagant kindness and believe: God is alive! God can make us and our neighborhoods come alive! People who were once strangers can laugh and cry while singing songs called “It’s You I Like” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” They don’t just hear the Good News that they are loved. They feel that love deep down inside through the meals they eat, the stories they share, the clothes they wear.

This word of Good News comes from Isabella and her neighborhood to us, here in Princeton, as we stand at the threshold of another school year. We are so excited at Princeton Presbyterians and Nassau Presbyterian Church that students have come from around the world to study at the University, the Seminary, Westminster Choir College, Mercer County Community College, TCNJ, and many other schools.

We are so glad you’ve come, and we hope that these years are full of joy. If I may be honest for a moment as a pastor in this place, we also know that Princeton can be very hard on people. Students often receive the message that they’re not enough, that they must earn their belonging, that success in school and work are the only ways to matter here. It can be a lonely place, a place where it feels sometimes like the priority is to survive and make it through until the next chapter of life.

Let’s imagine something different together. Len and I are beginning our seventh year here with you, and it has always been our hope that the campus ministry Princeton Presbyterians becomes a community where you can see the love of God in the face of your neighbor.

Amid academic programs and a town culture that can grind people up or treat them like machines until they break down, we invite each one of you here at Nassau to be a neighbor, to belong to each other, just as we belong to God in Jesus Christ. We believe that God is drawing near as our neighbor through the love and generosity we show one another. God weeps with people when they grieve, and God surprises us with signs of new life among us. God enjoys delicious meals, and tie-dye t-shirts, and colorful books, and generous giving, and heartfelt songs. Each one of you, student or not, has something beautiful to bring to our life together. God invites us to imagine Princeton as a neighborhood, a place where each one of us deserves to be treated with dignity and generosity.

It’s an astonishing thing to imagine, that across centuries and thousands of miles, disciples as different as John Calvin, Tabitha, Mister Rogers, and Isabella are all inviting us into the same question. It’s a question that God has already asked and answered in Jesus Christ: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”