On Tabitha (And What Those Things You Can't Get Rid of Say About You)
Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
May 8, 2022 • Easter 4C
Scripture: Acts 9:36–43
I brought a few things with me from home this morning. I’ve got this hat celebrating the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win. My dad bought it for me to mark the championship. I rarely wear it — mostly because I don’t want to mess it up, but I’m going to hold onto it forever.
I’ve got these two wooden icons — one marking the baptism of Jesus and another of Rublev’s Trinity. This one is my favorite. These were given to me by my friend Eddie after I had the joy of baptizing his youngest son.
I have this ampersand. If you ever watched the live stream while we were online-only, you probably saw this in the background in my home office. It was given to me by my BFF Jennifer after she moved to Missouri from North Carolina. It’s a reminder of the importance of improv to both of us — and of God’s never-ending “yes and” in our lives.
I brought this John Wesley coffee mug given to me by my friends Greg and Connie — one that I drink out of just about every Sunday morning before I pack up and make my way here to Woods.
There’s this shirt from Lisa that says, “But here’s the thing…” from the time I was preaching and said, “But here’s the thing…” and then followed that up with “someone should put that on a t-shirt.” And so she did.
There’s more I wanted to bring but couldn’t find — like the silver cross necklace from my friend and mentor, Amanda, when I graduated from Duke Divinity. And also the sympathy card given to me by my first-ever Duke intern, Emily, on her last day that said, simply, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I bet you have things like this, too. Items in your possession — things in closets or hanging on your wall or adorning your bookshelves — that carry so much more meaning for you than they would to most anybody else. Maybe it’s a piece of artwork or an article of clothing. Maybe it’s an antique that belonged to a distant relative or a book someone gave you.
Because the thing is not the thing, right? It’s not about the hat or the shirt or the ampersand or the icons or the coffee mug. For me, it’s about the people who gave each to me. The people who have, by God’s grace, intersected my life, impacted my trajectory — and have changed me for the better.
Is there something that’s coming to mind for you right now?
This is exactly why I love this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail in the story from Acts. I’ll get to it in a sec, but first, as a reminder, we are still in the season of Easter. Easter is not just a single day but a whole fifty-day season in which we roll around in and savor the good news of resurrection — of love defeating death, of the hope of a new world right here and right now. Because the news is that good.
And today’s passage comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Acts, written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, is essentially Luke’s sequel. It’s part two. Acts tells the story of the church in its infancy — about how, once Jesus ascends to heaven and then sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (which we’ll celebrate together in a few weeks), it’s about how these fledgling followers of Jesus discern what it means to live together in the Spirit — the presence and power of God with them. About how to live in light of the resurrection. About how to make sense of this strange new upside-down world that the resurrection has brought to bear. The best description of this book I’ve ever heard: The story of Acts is the story of people trying to assemble a bike while riding it.
And if you want to follow along with today’s scripture, you can of course check out the digital bulletin at local.updates.church or by scanning the QR code on the back of the chair in front of you.
But today we get the story of Tabitha, her Hebrew name — who also has a name in Greek, Dorcas. And you might be thinking, “What kind of a name is Dorcas?” But, get this — the name Dorcas also means “gazelle,” which I think is pretty cool and makes you think twice before knocking it.
And right off the bat, I want you to notice how the passage opens in verse 36.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…”
This is not the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail I was referring to, but this is definitely another one. That Tabitha is named as a disciple is not insignificant. This is a big deal. She’s the only woman in the Bible to receive this designation. Certainly, there were other unnamed women who could be counted as disciples — those who were designated as followers of The Way — but that Luke goes out of his way to drop this here is meant to send a message that something new is happening. That in this new community, the lines and barriers and designations and titles that had once been used to exclude and marginalize were being reformed. They are crumbling. It sends a signal that those gates were falling off their hinges and that in this new Jesus-centered community, things would be different.
So Tabitha, the disciple, the passage says, was devoted to good works and acts of charity, but she falls ill and dies. And so her friends, her community, those who have surrounded her with love continue to do just that — they wash her and lay her in a room upstairs, and they send for Peter — one of the apostles — the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, who has denied Jesus three times and was reconciled in the story we heard Tim preach on last week — they send for Peter who they have learned is close by. And when they get to Peter, they say, “Please come to us without delay.” Note that they don’t say, “Come and raise her to life again.” They simply want him to come and be with them. Perhaps simply to mourn together in community. Perhaps more. We don’t know.
But Peter does come and when they arrive, they take him upstairs to see Tabitha’s body. And a group of widows are all standing beside him. Remember, widows are among the most vulnerable in those days. They’re among the most at-risk. And as they’re there crying, grieving the loss of their sister, their friend, their caregiver, here’s that detail I love — the detail I couldn’t shake this week:
“All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” (39)
Can you picture this? As part of their grief, as part of their remembrance, as a way of telling her story — they began a show and tell with Peter. The words of these women aren’t documented for us, but just as I did at the start, it was probably something like, “She made me this garment. She made this tunic for me, too. Tabitha gave me these clothes. Dorcas made this. And this is how we know she loved us — this is how we know she loved Jesus, too — because of how she took care of us.”
What we discover here in this tender blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment is all that Tabitha had meant to this community. And we see that it’s a profound and significant loss — because Tabitha’s life mirrored that of Jesus. Because this detail reveals just how much she blessed these women. In how she shepherded and cared for them and clothed them. And you can tell, too, can’t you — by their intense grief, by their presence standing there with Peter — that it wasn’t just about what she’d given to them materially. It was also about how she’d given her time and attention, too. How she’d come alongside them in solidarity and taken the time to cultivate relationship with them. How she’d seen them and known them. How to her, they weren’t just widows to help and throw money and resources at their problems, but they were people to know. With stories and experiences and loves all their own. They weren’t just defined by their vulnerability, lumped together with other “people in need,” but they were beloved children of God to delight in. Friends to cherish — each with her own particularity and gifts. As she knit the clothes, she was also knitting community.
And in this detail, as well, we see how Tabitha had used what gifts and privilege she had and gave it away for the sake of these women — just as Jesus gave his life for them and for us — for the sake of community — worried not about status or prestige, but instead about whether all had enough. Whether all had belonging. Worried not about upward mobility and ambition but on downward mobility — the way of the cross.
Maybe you’d agree that there’s not enough of this sort of love in the world. That we could always use more. As one commentator put it, “The loss of any life is sad, but the loss of a life that fights to make the world a better place is a bitter loss, indeed.” God seems to have thought so, too, because after the women show Peter all that Dorcas had made, Peter clears the room, kneels down, prays, and then turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And it’s in that moment that she becomes the first disciple to experience resurrection power in that way — opening her eyes, seeing Peter, taking his hand, and standing up.
We learn that Peter then calls the saints and widows together and shows Tabitha alive — and word of this miracle — of one of the apostles harnessing the resurrection power of Jesus — spreads throughout Joppa, and because of it, many throughout Joppa come to believe in the Lord.
It is a big deal to be sure. There’s definitely something here about our own call to claim what power God has given us — about what can happen when we, like Peter, take time and carve out space to kneel and pray for each other. About how sometimes we may sell ourselves short and in so doing limit what God is capable of in and through us. That’s real. Don’t sell yourself short. Claim that power.
But this week, especially, as I hear this story again, my mind is centering less on Peter and his miracle and more on Tabitha and hers. And on one level, I think this is because our lives are so shaped by the relentless non-stop pace of the news cycle, by the outrage or scandal of the day, by the loudest, most bombastic voices that get to drive the narratives and direct our attention. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get so caught up in it all, that I miss that which is small by comparison but no less powerful. It makes me wonder, as word spread throughout Joppa: Did the story of the resurrection also include the story of Tabitha, the first disciple — about the women she loved and how she loved them? About the clothes she made? The resources and privilege she poured out? The arms — and gates — she opened?
For me at least, this story has been an invitation to notice the story beneath the story. To not jump too quickly to what’s big and loud and new and shiny — but to instead pay attention to the more quiet acts of resurrection — those that don’t get as much airtime but that are no less full of God’s presence and power.
And maybe it’s not that for you, but perhaps your life has become about that striving for more — whatever that means to you. I see Peter, and I can see myself in his ambition. In how he wants to get that word out quickly so that others would come to believe. But this morning, I think I also need to be reminded that the way of Jesus is the way of downward mobility. It’s a giving up of ourselves for the sake of another again and again and again. It’s a sacrifice. And that’s the stuff that knits community. That knits us together and makes us whole by God’s grace. Tabitha models that for us, doesn’t she?
And what’s more — I’m also so aware of how heavy of a week it’s been for so many. The draft Supreme Court decision that was leaked left so many I know and love just reeling, just at a loss, feeling absolutely powerless and feeling afraid — for their bodies, for their children, for their future — all in the name of a faith that’s hard to recognize.
There’s also deep pain in our denomination, The United Methodist Church, this week — as a number of colleagues, friends, and faith communities from around the world begin the process of splintering off to form a new denomination that holds, as settled doctrine, the exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons. It’s heartbreaking not only because of the fracturing of our connection but for those who have the wounds of past harm reopened — reminded again that the struggle for belonging and liberation and equity is far from over in our world.
But here’s the thing: In the face of this pain, this fear, this anger, this heartache, I’m drawn to Tabitha this week because she offers us a way to channel that grief. To respond to that anger and fear. She reminds me how to live. She reminds me of my calling as a follower of Jesus. She reminds me of our purpose. About why we do what we do. Why we show up here week after week. Why I preach the same thing over and over again. Why this matters.
That we would live in such a way, as a disciple — one whose life mirrors that of Jesus — that in the not too distant future, somebody else might hold a card or a framed picture or a t-shirt or a cross and show it to someone and say, “This was given to me by Brooke and Talley and Leah and Joanna and Tedd and Cassie and John. And this is how I know he loved me. That she loved me. This is how I know they loved Jesus, too.”
With the speed and grace of a gazelle, let’s get about that work — work of resurrection that will change this world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.