Tabitha Who?

Marie Mainard O’Connell – April 17th 2016

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.

Can I just begin to with a shout-out to all the women who, at some time in their life, were told that they couldn’t do something—anything—in the church because, and I’m quoting here “there were no female disciples?”  I know I’ve heard that at least once, and I’m not alone.  I’m just pointing this out because today’s scripture explicitly opens with “There was a disciple named Tabitha (and also Dorcas)”.  I was pretty excited to discover this is the only time in the new Testament that the Greek uses the feminine form for the word disciple.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear much from the first female disciple Dorcas, owing to the fact that she’s dead and all.

While she doesn’t say much, we do know that she served the poorest and most endangered people, the widows, who no longer had anyone to care for them and basically weren’t considered full people.  This suggests that Tabitha was herself possibly single and wealthy, to be able to sacrifice her time and talents to serve the neediest in the community.  To even be in control of her own assets suggests she might have enjoyed the privileges of wealth and an unmarried state; regardless, something a little different than normal gave Tabitha the ability to act out of her own means.  We know she lived in both the Hebrew and Greek communities because she has two names.  This was a very impressive woman…and as a church we’ve pretty much ignored her.  Tabitha/Dorcas?  Tabitha/Dorcas who?

Part of me wonders if we dismiss her story as a disciple not because she is a woman–oh, that is one reason, don’t mistake me– but that we dismiss her also  because she isn’t a preacher or teacher.  She’s an artist.  She makes clothes, and weaves, and does what I guess we think of as “woman’s work”—but clearly she uses what she knows and is the soul of this community. She is a caretaker.  She is an engine…and so without remembering a word of what she said, we remember what she did.   Her actions spoke volumes, and her loved ones responded.

And here’s a part of where I think this story is still real: is that I know there are people here and now who are dismissed as disciples for the same reason; folks who aren’t considered “real” disciples or leaders because their work is behind the scenes, their work isn’t the flashy teachin-n-preachin, but the more Martha-esque cooking and cleaning and serving and being…and that’s a shame.  Because Tabitha’s everywhere are disciples of the heart, those who give of themselves, whose actions speak louder than words…well, I digress.  It’s simply that I know they are here, quietly sitting, maybe not even recognizing themselves as the disciples they are.

We are told that this disciple, Tabitha, was known for her kindness and charity. For being there, for making gifts of cloth and thread, for doing what was needed most by those whose needs were the greatest.

But then she got sick and died.  Sick!  Died!  And not even a tragic heroic death as a martyr, just a tragic normal life; she got sick and she died.  And nothing saved her from death, not her work, not her faith, not her status as a leader or disciple.  Her community knew what a devastating loss this was–who would care for them now?– so they called for Peter and when he arrived, they brought him to her body and grieved and exclaimed “She made this tunic!”  “She made this dress!”  “This scarf was made just for me!”  It was a beautiful fashion show, a testimony to the work of her hands and heart.  But she was no less the dead for it.

We all know good, faithful people who have died.  Last year my step-grandfather died at the ripe old age of 102.  He might have been 104, but he was born before birth certificates in El Dorado, so no one really knows for sure.  His was a good life, filled with compassion – when he learned that his first wife had severe mental illness, rather than leaving her, or institutionalizing her as was permitted back then, he went back to medical school and became a psychologist, so he might understand her and love her better.

For many years, he would see patients in his home, even as recently as five years ago.  He was the kindest man I’ve ever known, always willing to give money, to answer a telephone call, always thinking about his connections and how he might put in a good word for someone. The family was comforted by the fact that he was no longer in pain, that he was a good Christian man, with many good works to stand for his name.

We arrived early for the funeral, and to help my children adjust, we entered the sanctuary hand in hand and walked down the center aisle to the casket—and it should be said that this was a bright baby blue casket, an electric blue, covered in the brightest possible flowers, rainbow roses and colored mums—because grandpa had left explicit instructions that to celebrate his life, no white flowers or a black coffin would be appropriate.  He wanted things to be colorful.

So my son asked if he could touch the casket.  I said yes.  He did.  My children said “Goodbye grandpa.  We love you.  We’ll see you soon.”  Even now it’s touching and sweet.   And then as we walked back up the aisle, at full voice in the not-exactly empty sanctuary, my son loudly asks, “So, when will grandpa come back?” There’s a moment, I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, when a room of people suddenly whip there heads around to focus all their attention on you, listening as if to say “oh yes, that IS a good question.”  All eye on me, scrambling, I stammered something like “Well, honey, death is like falling asleep and staying that way forever–”  “NO Mom,” he corrected me, still full voice, and now his little hands on his hips to boot,“When will grandpa be resurrected?” 

That’s the real question, isn’t it?

When I spoke about my grandfather, I know that you were probably thinking about someone you have loved and lost.  You might even be thinking about yourself. We hear the story of Tabitha raised from the dead, and part of us wonders “why doesn’t this happen today?”

Are we not faithful enough?

Basically no.  We aren’t faithful enough.

But it isn’t about who we are, it’s about who God is.  It isn’t about how faithful we can be with good works, because none of them will save us from death. Tabitha proves that.  It is about how faithful God is to us, even when we don’t deserve it.

There is another gospel reading appointed for today, one that fits the more traditional theme of the fourth Sunday of Eastertide as Good Shepherd Sunday.  It comes from the book of John, chapter 10, verses 24-28.

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

Tabitha is raised because she belongs to him; she is his sheep; she hears Jesus’ voice. She heard it when she believed, and became a disciple.  She heard Jesus’ voice when she used her privilege and power to care for widows at the bottom of society.  Even after death, she somehow heard Jesus’ voice through Peter, and still she responds—by sitting up, by returning to life.  But what about us?

Did you ever have the experience of being lost in public as a child, and how you called out for your parent or caregiver?  The fear you felt at being lost?  How they called out your name, and you replied “Here I am!” full of joy and relief and unthinking, uncritical response?  To hear the voice of someone you love is to respond to it, to take an action.  You can’t help but reply to someone you love—it is the most natural instinct, a response you can’t help but make.

On one level, resurrection is the return to life out of death, any form of death.  Resurrection is hearing the voice of God calling to you out of your anger, your addiction, your illness; calling to you and you responding “here I am.”  Resurrection is finding freedom where there was only bondage and fear and pain.  But resurrection will also happen that moment someday, at or after our physical death, when we will hear the voice of Jesus saying “get up”, and we will.

But in this moment, right now, so what?  If the resurrection from death is someday, what are we supposed to do right now, when we lose a loved one, a good faithful someone, and the hurt we feel is present and real and searing?

We turn to our community.  Tabitha’s widows were the church; they turned to each other, they turned to Peter, they took what little hope they had and held onto it together.  Whatever one might not be able to believe through the grief, another held onto for them.  In a community, no one is alone, not even in grief or death–and that is a resurrection that happens every day.

I pray that you find yourself surrounded by a community that will hold onto you, hold you up, hold you in prayer, when you find yourself weighed down with sorrow.  I pray that we will be such a community.

Amen.