What about the Names?

Acts 9:33-43
David A. Davis
October 23, 2022
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Just last Thursday night the Session of Nassau Presbyterian Church met for our monthly meeting. The new ruling elders ordained and installed last Sunday here in the sanctuary began their team. It was an evening for introductions. I asked each elder to share an experience around Nassau Church, recent or long ago, that they carry with them in their heart. After someone finished sharing, they were asked to invite someone else to take turn. One of the advantages of a Zoom meeting is that the boxes all include names. I invite Keith. I invite Tais. I invite Laura. I invite Trip. I invite Claire. I invite Penn. I invite Sallye. I invite Bill. And it went on, the introductions and sharing went on for almost an hour.

A few folks talked about their wedding here in the sanctuary. Several mentioned this being a home to their kids, that their children sort of led the way when it came to Nassau becoming their church. One elder told of being born and baptized here, a third generation elder. We heard of a recent visit with a church member 100 years old. A faith-changing small group conversation that included people sharing thoughts about what eternal life might be like. A child’s baptism early in the pandemic with only worship leaders, immediate family members, and a few close friends here in the sanctuary yet with a strong sense of feeling absolutely surrounded by the community of faith and family near and far on livestream.  A hospital waiting room visit with a pastor as a parent was so sick. Incredible experiences for adults chaperoning youth trips and mission trips and building relationships with those young people that continue as they are become young adults. Being prayed over with a laying on of hands and the powerful experience of both the Spirit’s presence and being cared for. The community and relationships found in the choir room and choir loft. Children learning faith through song. Being greeted by children in coffee hour who know you because you teach or you tell bible stories. A life changing trip to Israel and Palestine that changed forever how to read the bible and brought new, now lifelong relationships and gave a parent and adult child a memory to talk about forever. A sermon here in the sanctuary after Roe v. Wade was overturned that supported and empowered an entire family’s struggle to process what has happened. The absolute importance of the weekly rhythm of Sunday in and Sunday out with worship, word, praise, and song etched ever deeper in the soul. I invite Kathryn. I invite Kate. I invite Tom. I invite Arthur. I invite Anne. I invite Carol. I invite Deb, Janet, Benjamin, Karen, Rich, Melissa, Jeff, Rachel, Carol, Tim, Barbara. All shared through laughter, tears, and gratitude. And the snippets I just shared were not near all of it. It was an hour-long testimony to the here and there in the Body of Christ that is Nassau Presbyterian Church.

Now as Peter went here and there” Luke writes in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. “Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers.”  I invite Aeneas. I invite Tabitha. Names abound in the text for today. Tabitha whose Greek name was Dorcas. Aeneas, Peter, a certain tanner named Simon. The town of Lydda. The town of Joppa. Plenty of details come with Tabitha’s story. Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. When Tabitha died, they washed her and laid her in a room upstairs. The widows, they were weeping with Peter, showing him the tunics and the clothing Tabitha/Dorcas had made. The details of sadness and remembering, the details of death, they resonate with the reader; a sort of universal response comes with death. The widows, their care and preparation for Tabitha’s body was matched only by Tabitha’s care and devotion to them when she was alive; how she must have provided for them, supported them, how her good works and act of charity rested at the heart of their existence. You know how vulnerable widows were in the ancient world. One preacher suggests that the disciples called for Peter to come not because they expected him to raise Tabitha from the dead but because they knew this community of widows was hurting and would need care and that Jesus would have told them, would have expected them to take the lead. But of course, Jesus wasn’t around, was he. “Peter, Peter, we need your help.”

The New Testament Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells of how the ministry of Jesus Christ continued and took the form of the church. These chapters in Acts tell of how the teaching, the serving, the proclaiming, the healing ministry of Jesus passed on to those who followed him. Peter announces to Aeneas that “Jesus Christ heals you.” Luke, the writer here, announces to the reader that through this story of Tabitha’s rising, many believed in the Lord. The literary and theological momentum here is to assert that the resurrection power of God in Christ Jesus did not stop back there somewhere after the Empty Tomb and the Emmaus Road.  With this coupling of a healing and a rising, Luke affirms an ongoing resurrection hope and sustains a gospel word of life conquering death, and points to the ongoing ministry of the Risen Christ among those who believe. With all the names and the details, Luke clearly seeks to embody that resurrection hope not just in the crowds of Pentecost but in the lives of each one. For according to Luke, it was more than just the gathered crowds, it was more than just Aeneas and Tabitha. According to Luke, Peter went here and there among all the believers. Here and there, now and then, this and that and such and such, in every corner of life, pointing to, living out, proclaiming, working toward life in God’s name, a vision of life as God intends in the kingdom of heaven, God’s victory over the power of evil and death. Resurrection hope embedded in the here and there of life.

This week our fall linked in series has started in our small groups and in adult education led by Professor Heath Carter. The series is entitled “The End of the (Main)Line: The Surprising Past and Uncertain Future of an American Protestant Powerhouse”. Part of the preparation for small group and adult attendees was to read the opening chapter of the Pew Research Center 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The survey results of 35,000 people in the United States reached by cell phone or landline are reported in a very granular way and tells of the statistical decline of pretty much every branch of the Christian Church in America between 2007 and 2014. I shared with the small group I lead on Wednesday mornings that Presbyterian Church (USA) has been in decline in terms of membership since before I was born in 1962. Those who have listened to my preaching over the years likely know that while I am not naïve to the struggles and realities of the mainline church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and particular congregations near and far, I refuse to accept the apocalyptic gloom and doom predictions that sometimes sound more like a nostalgic lament that life in the church just isn’t what it used to be back in the day (50,60, 70) years ago. Part of my determination, to be honest and transparent, is for some semblance of occupational health. But there are two much more profound reasons for my own thought. First is a theological one. Jesus Christ alone is head of the church and the church’s future rests in him and him alone. The second is experiential. One of the real, significant reasons I have little patience of the gloom and doom is because of you and so many others who have taught me faith, shown me faith, lived faith, You and so many others. Maybe not Aeneas and Dorcas, but names far to many to mention.

Amid the loud trumpet blast of decline, you and I, we find ourselves back here again and again, now both in the room and virtually. The Holy Spirit draws us back. The grace of God bids us come. A routine of praise and worship offers something to lean on while life swirls. Our community of faith gathers here again where the echoes of God’s comfort still bounce off these walls, here where we offer our resurrection shouts, where we sing of “Immanuel” and celebrate the Light of World, here where we feast at Christ’s Table and bath in his love, here where we place our future days again and again and again in the wisdom and the faithfulness of God. Here to worship the Living God with you and me smack in the middle of it knowing, of course, that questions will always go unanswered and full explanations are rare.. But time and time again, we find ourselves here, together, on the Lord’s Day, knowing that even when words fail, that the promise of God surrounds us. Time and time again we come here, expressing both a bit gratitude and a bit of a plea, that God would once again meet us in the now and then and the here and there of life.

As I sat this week with the Pew Study in one hand and the story of Aeneas, Dorcas, Peter, and a certain tanner named Simon in the other, it occurred to me that the Pew Study doesn’t have any names. 35,000 people. But no names. I can’t explain away a crippled man walking anymore than I can explain a saint of the community who was dead and then was shown to be alive. But the bible gives names and tells their stories. And according to Luke many believed and turned to the Lord and had life in his name because what God did in and through Aeneas and Tabitha whose Greek name was Dorcas. Luke telling about Aeneas and Dorcas to proclaim the resurrection power of God in Christ Jesus lives on, Signs of resurrection power, and life-giving hope, and the gospel promise of life conquering death smack in the middle of all the names and details of life. These that are recorded and many others in the here and there of life. When I find my own cynicism or discouragement on the rise when it comes to the religious landscape so close to home, time and time again God grants an experience, a sign, like Thursday night. Or when in the here and there of this community of faith I come upon someone’s love, someone’s selfless care, someone’s courage moving forward, someone’s strength in the midst of unspeakable loss, someone’s constant prayer, someone’s undeterred commitment to justice or inclusion or reconciliation, someone’s fresh taste of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace.

When you read the names, when you hear the names, when you know there are names, there is a profound ordinariness about it all. Among people like us. Stories, powerful testimonies, week after week, year after year, signs of resurrection hope….in your life and in mine. So many of them we point to and celebrate and remember here when we are together. It must be part of brings us back each Lord’s Day. Time and time again we come here, expressing with laughter, tears and gratitude and also a bit of a plea, that God would once again meet us in the now and then and the here and there of life.

Like the here and now of just today in the life of Nassau Presbyterian Church:

Hyun Jin and Soohjun, Joseph, Cherrie, Michael and Grace and Charlotte, Wendy and Steve, Jane, Elizabeth, Charles and Sharyn, Jean and Ed, Chaijung and Heejeoung and Sung Ryung.

Rob, Robbie, Robert Dixon Hayes III, I baptize you.

What about the names? Isaiah 43:1

“Now says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you O Israel, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

What about the names? Yes, its about a whole lot more than Zoom hospitality. Because the invitation, the invitation to you comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through Jesus Christ who will never, ever forsake you or his church, the Body of Christ.