*Sermon preached on 12 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton. If we are to understand what “being” church… the body of Christ… is amid this world, there is no better place to start than the Book of Acts. We are in a changing season, a time when the Church is sometimes far removed from the spirit that draws people into relationship, with one another and with Christ. We should be asking ourselves how the “way” of Jesus exploded across the Roman Empire, in spite of agressive efforts to stamp it out. It wasn’t just “know the Lord” that brought people, and certainly not the desire to be persecuted. It was what they saw in the believers. THAT is what we must ponder if we are to witness in our own age. So… start with Acts! – Vinson
Book of Acts 9:36-43 (New Revised Standard Version)
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. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
As we continue through the Book of Acts, discerning what “Church” is for the community of Christ followers, and what that means for us today as we seek to be “church,” we are brought to the telling of the death and the life restored, of Tabitha, by Peter. Mourning her loss. Celebrating her life. The most concrete reminders of her life being how she made and clothed those who were the marginalized of the time. The tension mimics the words of Ecclesiastes [3:1-4] that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” Dance, is, of course, the last word, to we who are a resurrection people, in the reign of Christ Jesus.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
So it seems that the timing of today’s lesson feels appropriate to frame the week we have ahead, as we look to the welfare of one another in the shadows and in the sunshine, within our community gathered in Jesus’ name. But, I suppose there is always an element of that on Mother’s Day, which brings a mix of emotions that varies by life history.
In approaching the passage from the Book of Acts today, I find myself reminded not so much of my Mother’s abilities as a seamstress, but the only reality TV show my family’s found worth watching: “Project Runway.” We’re somewhat addicted to it, even our son watches, as each season starts off with a new group of fashion designers, each with his or her own flair, making their way through thematic design challenges for unusual occasions or using unusual materials. Yeah, there is a bit of behind the scenes drama sometimes between people, but it is just fascinating as to what they come up with, and yes, how they help each other with insight and sometimes labor. Always, under a severe time constraint as they work, most of the time we find ourselves stunned with the creativity and detail, right down to the stitching that says something tangible about the personality of the designer and his or her care about making clothes for normal people.
Apparently, if Luke’s words in the Book of Acts are to be taken at face value, Tabitha would have done very well in “Project Runway” – because she took the time and her means to make clothes that spoke to the worthiness of each person in the sight of God – the widows and others who lacked economic means to clothe themselves. These were no hand-me-downs, but custom made to give light and life to each life troubled by loss and economic stress. It is, I have to think, the same spirit that guides us when we feed people at the Welcome Table – as we ensure meals are the best of home cooking on a large scale. After all, even if sometimes we might wonder how it will come together, the careful design of each meal honors the worthiness of each who partakes. Adding to it, of course, is their experience of being waited upon and served – with a love and respect akin to that which Jesus showed for his disciples when he washed their feet.
As always, scripture speaks in silence as much as words. Luke doesn’t say Peter or some other disciple, converted Tabitha, but presents her as already being a disciple. I think it not unreasonable to suggest, she had her own encounter with Jesus during his three years of crisscrossing Judea and Galilee.
Then, in Acts 9:36, her discipleship was given definition by the acts of loving kindness by which she is known, imitating Christ by her love for those whom he loves. We know those hands which have surrounded us or others with love… that have clothed… or fed… or encouraged… or in any number of ways – made Christ visible.
But then, Tabitha dies.
It strikes the community with as much anguish as if our guests suddenly found themselves with no Welcome Table, no place to experience hospitality and develop friendships. With her death, it’s as if people came up to Peter showing photos of the meals they had eaten here, of their friends at table, and pleading for him to do something – pleading for restoration of a life that gives hope.
Given the custom of burial by sundown, with ten miles separating the two small cities – a three or four hour journey for the messengers to Peter and his travel to Joppa, we know Peter would have had to rush. Traveling in increasingly less Jewish and more Gentile locales, with Joppa itself primarily a Greek city in this timeframe, Peter enters a semi-chaotic scene amid weeping widows and others as “they showed the tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made for them. Keep in mind, in that age property of the husband went to any sons, or back to his family; there was no right of survivorship, like we know. The focus was on just surviving, so the spiritual impact of being properly clothed in such a way that one could be seen as a person worthy of respect, simply cannot be overstated.
Literally named a “female disciple” in the original Greek text, the only time this word is used in Acts, Luke makes clear she is no ordinary follower. If the male disciples of Acts 6 are spoken of as filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, her spirit is abundant with good works and alms.
Her name, given in both in the Aramaic spoken throughout Judea and the common Greek pervasive throughout the Roman world, was likely not her birth name, but the name that had been given her because of her character, a name meaning Gazelle. An animal of grace and quick movement, it is known for its watchfulness in that it sleeps – literally! — with one eye open, and for having keen eyesight that puts one in mind of how Proverbs 22:9 puts it, those who have “…a good eye will be blessed, for [they] shares [their] bread with the poor,” and if, as Jesus said, “your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” [Matthew 6:22].
Tabitha has an eye for people.
Luke holds her up as not just a committed Christian, but as a person of some status and importance in the Joppa Christian community – every bit as much as Priscilla would become in the Roman community of believers.
So what do we make of it all?
I think the temptation that is present is that we can put people up on pedestals so high that we forget that at the end of the day – we’re all human beings. Disciples are ordinary people who live out an extraordinary love, one which compels those who live in the “way, the truth, and the life” of Jesus – to care about the wholeness of others’ lives – hearts, minds, and bodies. Tabitha was just such a disciple. She lived in the way of Jesus… simply, mercifully, and justly – as a gifted servant and craftswoman – a normal human being – whose extraordinary care and creativity was in seeing Christ in the “least of these” in society. This is our high calling.
Perhaps as well this story asks us to ponder the challenge in doing good, especially works of charity and mercy, is sometimes feeling like you’re at the bottom end of a stream, pulling people out, with acts of justice akin to going upstream to the other end to stop whoever is throwing them in. Either way, fatigue can enter in, raising the question of whether we, like Tabitha, may seemingly run out of life and energy to do the great work.
As those who seek to be not simply hearers of His word, but doers as well, in this life of love… of service… of mercy and justice, we don’t have a Peter among to raise us up. We have the Table of the Lord.
We have been made an Easter people, here we gather in the grace of our Lord, to be equipped in common love, fed for the journey, and blessed with life-affirming and sustaining grace.