“Living with Interruptions”

April 17, 2016


Acts 9:32-43


Do you like to be interrupted?

Interruptions in conversation can break your train of thought—you try to recollect yourself by asking: "Now, what was I saying?"

Interruptions can side track you, sending you off in a different direction, leaving you wondering: “Where was I?”

Interruptions can also shake us out of the routine, out of the expected.

If I have to ask, “What was I saying?” maybe I need to be saying something else—or listening.

If I have to ask, “Where was I?” maybe I’m better off in that new place.

People will call me, or stop by my study here at the church, and ask, “Am I interrupting you?” It’s the polite thing to do, I know that. I do it as well. And, actually,  I’m always glad for the interruption, for the opening into something new.

The story from Acts about Peter that we heard this morning is a story of interruptions. Astonishing events break into Peter's rather ordinary, routine life:

A man is healed.

A woman is restored to life.

An outcast offers hospitality.

This story interrupts us as well, breaking into our usual ways of thinking, Breaking into our usual ways of looking at life.

And this story is difficult. Listening to this account of interruptions, my modern mindset tells me “no way.” That might have been your reaction as well while you listened. I want to hold out for healing. I want to hold out for new life. And, like the rest of you, I want to do that without sacrificing my intellect.

Look at Peter going “here and there.” That’s a pretty mundane description, isn’t it? 

But then, that’s like much of life, isn’t it?

We go here and there—off to work, dropping into Hy-Vee or New Pi attending a meeting, going to the doctor, to the library, to the game. We go through the day at school, make it to practice sessions, even get homework done.

Church life, too, is just pretty ordinary most of the time:

In spite of what we read about through much of the Book of Acts, most Sundays here come and go without any flashes of lightning or voices from heaven—maybe all Sundays, but that’s OK.

People get sick and we visit them.

People face death and we sit with them, we comfort those who mourn, often out of our own experience of knowing what it means to need such comfort, knowing ourselves what it means to have been comforted by others.

We open our doors wide and welcome all who come through, even those that others would exclude.

That's life among the saints—in Lydda and in Iowa City. Often it’s pretty unremarkable stuff.

Years ago I read a book with a simple title: Congregation. I tried to find a copy this week but couldn’t. I don’t even remember the author’s name. But I remember what he said in writing about getting married, moving to a new town, and starting a new routine. “I could have slept in on Sunday morning,” he wrote. “Instead I went to church.”

That’s the choice that you made today, isn’t it? That’s the choice we make each week. And again, there’s nothing very exotic about all this—just week in, week out living as a community that cares for one another and that, at the same time, cares about the wider world.

Look at Peter going “here and there.” It all seems pretty familiar.

Sometimes, however, healing interrupts the usual routine.

Peter finds a man named Aeneas—the Greek word suggests that he almost stumbles across him. In going here and there you’re bound to run across someone who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The ill. The infirm. The stuck.

There’s a stark simplicity to this story that brings home its reality.

“Jesus Christ heals you,” Peter says. “Get up. Make your bed.”

Aeneas does just this and, for us, that’s where the trouble begins.

For us it doesn’t seem to work that way or that quickly. We turn to medical healers for back surgery, knee replacements, heart bypasses—our modern day miracles occur in hospitals.

I was raised in North American mainline Protestantism during the second half of the last century. And during most of that time, there was one thing that most of us Protestants knew: healing came through scientific advances in medicine, through the skill of physicians and nurses and medical technicians, and through taking good care of ourselves. People who spoke of a connection between faith and healing were regarded as, at best, on the fringe of polite religious society.

So when Morton Kelsey wrote a wonderful book titled Healing and Christianity in the early seventies, he clearly described the sense of the times: “Most Christian thinking, both Catholic and Protestant, has been swept clean of any idea of Christian healing. On one hand the successes of medicine have made it unnecessary, and on the other, modern theology has made any belief in it untenable.”

This was perhaps best illustrated in the old M*A*S*H episode when a desperate Hawkeye called Father Mulcahy to pray for a soldier who was dying. Father Mucahy assessed the situation and said, “O.K., but I’m afraid it won’t do much good.” Then he took the soldier’s hand and prayed for him to recover.

The soldier revived.

Hawkeye asks, “What’s that you said about it not doing any good?”

And Father Mulcahy, looking puzzled and disconcerted, said, “It’s not supposed to work that way!”[i]

Kelsey concludes his sweeping survey of healing and the Christian faith by stating: “Healing is one of the experiences that can give people a knowledge of God, a needed relation to God. The fact that healings do occur is also one of the best evidences that a relation to God is possible and needed, and that this view of the world is reasonable.”[ii]

I am convinced that God is a healing power who desires and seeks the health and wholeness of all God’s creation. In my years as a minister I have seen many people recover after being on the brink of dying. I have seen relationships restored. Maybe you have, too.

And I have known times when there seems to be no healing at all. Maybe you have, too.

So the how, the when, and the why of healing remain a mystery to me.

The Episcopalian priest, Kamila Blessing—and, yes, that’s her real name—says that we are inclined to ask: “Why does healing sometimes occur when we pray for it and sometimes it does not?” Good question.

She suggests, however, that this is the wrong question—or at least the wrong first question. It assumes that God has not healed and that we will know healing when we see it or will receive the healing in the way and at the time we desire. “Human imagination is limited,” Blessing says, “and we should not presume that we know all of the ways in which God can heal.”[iii]

Or as it has been said elsewhere: “If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe God’s giving you something else.”[iv]

What is possible far transcends our conventional modern expectations.

Explained or unexplained, we do know healing in our lives. Healing breaks in when we would least expect it.

Sometimes healing interrupts our ordinary going here and there. Sometimes life interrupts life.

And sometimes life interrupts death.

Peter also encounters a woman of great importance, not only to her small Christian community but also to the church through the ages. Tabitha is the only woman in Acts who is called a “disciple.” Even in the patriarchal world her good works and charity were so strong, so significant that the men took note too, and remembered her story. The widows, those women most on the edge of society, were supported by the income from the clothing that she made.

And so her death was deeply felt.

The Christians in Joppa send for Peter, since he is close by—about a three-hour walk from Lydda.

So Peter starts walking.

Look at the women as Peter arrives. They are in shock. They hold out the tunics and other clothes Tabitha had made. There is something very touching, very real about this scene. All we have left of one who died is what she did, what he made. Here is the song she sang. Here is a photograph.

These women hold onto the tangible proof of Tabitha's good works. Perhaps these tokens of her mercy will move Peter—to what, they don’t say.

Peter sends the mourners out so that he can be alone with Tabitha. And the next thing you know, he is “presenting her alive.”

This is a story of resurrection—the same words are used of the resurrected Jesus earlier in Acts—he “presented himself alive.” The early church was a community of resurrection—of life interrupting death. Their stories are difficult for us, but we keep reading them so that we, too, might know something of the power of the risen Christ.

This story serves as a reminder—one all of us need—of the life giving power of God. That power is still there to interrupt our hopelessness and despair. It is there to interrupt our complacency and cowardice.

Life interrupts life—and death.

And sometimes ordinary people interrupt our ordinary lives.

It's strange how this section of scripture ends. After healing, after this amazing resurrection scene, Peter stays with Simon, the tanner.

Read on in chapter 10 of Acts—go ahead, it’s OK—more happens because of this stay. But for now, the visit alone is enough.

Simon the tanner could have been called: “Simon, an outcast.” As a tanner Simon’s work would have involved him with death. He would have been considered unclean by all the good religious people. They would have avoided him, shunned him. In the minds of many he would be rejected by God and should be rejected by the people.

While many in our nation want to continue creating groups of people who are outcasts and worthy of rejection, for some time now, we’ve taken a different approach in this congregation. Following the lead of Peter, we seek to see people as created in the image of God and to affirm the value of each and all. That isn’t always easy for everyone, and I’m convinced that it is the work of the Spirit of God that allows us to see people in a new way.

Peter, who was a devout, religious person found himself able to stay for some time with Simon, the tanner, the outcast. He was given the opportunity to begin to know another person.

There is a great deal of emphasis in church circles today on “listening to our stories”—that is, hearing what life is like for someone else, discovering how they see the world because of their experiences. That’s not all that we need to do. But it’s a very good place to start. Our stories challenge and can be challenged. Stories remind us that we are all human—from the worst to the best—and we are all capable of the worst and the best.

How we can astonish one another!

 How we can be surprised in finding love where we would least expect it!

The outcast can become a friend. Human beings interrupt our ordinary lives.

When we are simply going “here and there”—we are constantly being interrupted, taken to new places, finding new life.

Open a window this time of year and very likely the wind will rush in, scattering papers, maybe knocking over a lamp. Nothing stays in place.

When the wind of the Spirit starts to blow, no one stays in their place:

            Common fishers get up and start leading and preaching.

            Old men ignore what the doctor says and get up and walk.

            Even the dead don't stay where they are supposed to.

            And the living? They surprise us as well.

We surprise ourselves.

And God keeps doing the most outrageous and unexpected things.

The resurrection Spirit is free to bring life and healing where it will.

The resurrection Spirit makes us Easter people, challenging us to discover anew all that it means to be alive.

[i] Kamila Blessing, It Was a Miracle, pg. 39

[ii] Morton Kelsey, Healing and Christianity, pg. 347.

[iii] Kamila Blessing, It Was a Miracle, pg. 22.

[iv] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 37.