Easter 4, May 12, 2019
The First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.
I was 28 and a just few years into my first call. One day the phone rang in the parsonage and the voice on the other end said: “Jack has had a heart attack. Please come to the hospital right away.” This was surprising because Jack was only 37. In addition to being an active member of the church, he was a husband and father to two young sons. One of his sons had found him in the garden and ran to call 911.
The hospital was very close to where I lived and I arrived quickly. His wife Christine and his mother and father – all active members of the church – were huddled in a hallway of the emergency room. “How is he?” I asked. “He’s gone,” his wife said. But I couldn’t understand that. I could not compute that. “You mean they moved him to another hospital?” I said. Christine had to say, “Jack is dead” before I could wrap my mind around it. He was only 37.
They asked me to go into the room and see his body. I didn’t really want to, but I did. I had never seen someone so freshly dead. “I’m supposed to say a prayer,” I thought, but I had no idea what to say. What do you say to God in the face of death? Eventually I prayed that God would receive Jack’s soul and comfort his devastated family. I thanked God for the years that Jack had had on the earth. But it never crossed my mind to pray for Jack to be brought back to life.
But that is exactly what the Apostle Peter prayed for. A good soul named Tabitha (or Dorcas in Greek) who lived in Joppa (which is modern day Tel Aviv) had become ill and died. As was the custom, those who loved her lovingly washed her body and then laid her out in an upstairs room.
I don’t know what those folks thought Peter could do for Tabitha at this point, but when they heard that he was in the town next door, they sent for him to come without delay. And so he did, and was immediately taken upstairs.
The room was full of widows and that implies that Tabitha was a widow too. You might remember that in that time and place widows were at the very bottom rung of society, without rights and often without resources. But unlike most, Tabitha seemed to have had some resources. And with that money she used to buy fabric. She had a gift for making beautiful clothes, which she would give away to those in need. In that way, Tabitha was providing an essential service to some of the most vulnerable members of society. But now she was dead and there was no one to fill that gap.
Peter cleared the room. Maybe he was remembering the time that Jesus did the same thing before raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Or maybe he just needed to gather his thoughts and his courage. Once everyone was gone, Peter knelt beside the lifeless, gray body and began to pray. What on earth did he say? What on earth did he feel? What on earth ever possessed him to finally blurt out: “Tabitha, get up!” And oh my God, she did! Her eyes fluttered open and she looked at Peter and he helped her to sit up on the edge of the bed. And then he threw open the door and invited her friends to come and see for themselves what God had done. The story concludes with this news spreading like wild fire and because of it, many people believed in the Lord. Well, no kidding.
This story and every story in this early church history book called The Acts of the Apostles, are meant to underscore the idea that the power of the Resurrection changed everything, and that this power was available to all the followers of Jesus.
Some people get tangled up in trying to understand if this story about Tabitha is supposed to be a factual report or a metaphor. I won’t tell you what you’re supposed to think, but let me remind you of this: miracle stories in the Bible are meant to get our attention so that we don’t miss the main point. The miracle itself is rarely the main point.
So, what’s the point here?
Tabitha’s claim to fame in the early Christian church was simply this: “that she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” In other words, she was a good church lady – a widow who spent her time helping others. We’ve all known people like that. There are people like that in this church. They are kind-hearted and quiet and devoted. These people have kept a good number of our churches going for a very long time. Without any fanfare, they make lunches for the poor and tutor children and write letters to Congress and raise money for mission and teach Sunday School. They are, like their patron saint Tabitha, devoted to good works and acts of charity.
To the rest of society, they are often invisible. But there is often much more to these folks than meets the eye. There was much more to Tabitha than meets the eye.
The writer of Acts makes a point of calling her a “disciple.” Now that may not seem like much to the casual reader, but this is the firstand only timein the entire New Testament that a woman is called a disciple; that the feminine form of the Greek word is employed. And the explicit message of using such a word is this: that Tabitha was equal to any of the male disciples. And that means that her ministry of making clothes for the poor was as vital to making the Resurrection a reality as anything that the men folk did – including raising the dead.
The great Tabitha stands as a witness that goodness is its own reward. And that is not a reference to some kind of church lady piety. Being good in the eyes of God is about being just and generous, in an unjust and stingy world. Tabitha made clothes for the poor. But what it is for you? What do you do that bears witness to the Resurrection? And do you think of it as being just a vital as the work Alison and I do?
Most folks don’t. But you should. The great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this: “To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone.”
Whatever your gift, whatever your contribution, whatever your ministry or passion, don’t you dare disparage it. Don’t you dare think of it as less than. For by your simple practice of justice and love, you are proving to a cynical world that Jesus is indeed alive. Resurrection didn’t just happen once. Resurrection happens in the everydayness of our lives: moment-by-moment, person-by-person, good deed by good deed – “the way dripping water changes stone.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World