Where is your charity directed?

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. (Acts 9:36-41)

About a year after graduating from college (almost 25 years ago now), I got a job at Cathedral Shelter of Chicago, one of the Episcopal Charities of the Diocese of Chicago.

I didn’t know it, but I had walked into the middle of an ongoing dispute between the executive director (I was his assistant) and the board of directors over the future direction of the agency.

The dispute boiled down to whether Cathedral Shelter should emphasize programs like its Christmas Basket distribution, very popular with suburban parishes, or seek state funding to expand its residential halfway house for recovering addicts. In the fallout of the disagreement, my boss was let go (and I went with him, three months after I had been hired).

As you can see from the Cathedral Shelter website, their inpatient addiction treatment program was recognized as “Best of Chicago” from 2008-2011. They continue to offer the popular Christmas Basket program, but it’s listed third among their programs and services.

Peter doesn’t know it, but he’s about to turn the same corner. He will meet Cornelius in tomorrow morning’s reading, and his experience will raise a question of emphasis.

Should the Jewish believers in the Way continue to focus only on themselves and on helping through acts of charity like those exemplified by Dorcas?

Or will the new church have to also embrace the much harder road of reconciling Jew and Gentile, proclaiming more broadly the saving love of Jesus Christ and incorporating people who will stretch and test their capabilities?

It’s not an all-or-nothing choice, but a new emphasis that will take the church in many new directions and shape its mission profoundly.

At the heart of that decision, however, is Peter — the faithful disciple who not only “gave her his hand and helped her up” (Acts 9:41), but also proclaimed “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34).

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