April 21, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
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 couldn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral, but I got to listen to the audio tape. It was a wonderful celebration, with my dad and uncles singing together, family sharing stories, worship and thanksgiving for her life. Afterward, family members went to my Aunt Helen’s house, where they distributed the few belongings grandma owned. My brother picked up something for my sister and me. It wasn’t much of anything, not something she made, but I treasure the pendant he chose for me, something that my grandmother had bought in Mexico City for a few pennies. Several of my cousins who were there got one of Grandma’s Bibles, which would have been a treasure, too.
You see, my Grandmother Shultz was a disciple, like Dorcas. When Grandma was 61 years old, after she had raised nine children, she learned to speak Spanish and went to live in Mexico City, where she held Good News clubs for children and taught them Bible stories. She ministered to the poorest of the poor, and gave everything she had in the name of her Lord Jesus. On our birthdays, she would send each of her many grandchildren a card in which she had taped two dimes. We would dutifully write our thank you note: Dear Grandma, thank you for the … money. She didn’t leave us any money, no inheritance at all, except the legacy of her love for God and her love for Jesus and her love for all God’s children. My father described it as a spiritual legacy. My grandmother was a true disciple.
Tabitha, also called Dorcas, was the first woman disciple named in the Bible. We don’t know much about her, but there are some things we can conjecture about her. She was clearly a blessing to the widows of Joppa, a coastal city near where modern Tel Aviv now stands. She had done so much good, and was so beloved, that when she died, it only made sense to summon Peter. It is interesting that when Dorcas fell ill and died, the women who loved her didn’t anoint or wrap her up for burial. They washed her body, and laid her out, and waited for Peter. Maybe they hoped against hope that Peter could raise her, or maybe, like Christians across the centuries, they wanted a pastor there, a leader of the church, to bless them, to pray with them, to grieve with them.
Joppa, the home of Dorcas, was a bit of a detour for Peter. He had been going “here and there among all the believers” and his most recent stop had been in the nearby town of Lydda. While he was there, he had healed a man paralyzed for eight years. When Peter arrived in Joppa, her friends wanted to show him what Dorcas had made; they wanted to share their sweet memories of her. Through their tears, they spoke of how good and kind she was, how compassionate to those in need, how skilled she was at spinning and weaving and sewing.
Here’s the dress she made for my sister. Sister was alone, no son to care for her, and this dress cheered her up so!
Here’s the afghan she crocheted for my father. The warmth of it made his last days better. Now when I see it I remember his smile, and I remember her laugh.
Here’s the quilt she gave me when my baby was born. She came in with this quilt and with a plate filled with cake, and she stayed until the baby went to sleep.
Here’s the coat she sewed for my neighbor. He was shivering in the early mornings until she left this at his door.
They laid out the fabric and with it the memories of their friend.
They smoothed the cloth with their wrinkled hands, remembering.
Maybe she was a poor widow, like they were. Maybe she had been a deacon in their church.
Maybe she was the one who brought flowers and fixed communion, maybe she was the one who took up collections for the poor, or raised a garden for the hungry. She was the first and only woman identified in the Bible as a disciple. And these women, her friends, wanted to be sure that she was remembered. Dorcas was dead, but her works lived after her, and the widows held in their hands a legacy of her love, woven into the weft and warp of the fabric of those garments, stitched into the sleeves and hems of the tunics, spun into the very yarns and threads of her handiwork.
The Bible says Peter shooed them all out of the room, but I’ll bet you that they didn’t leave.
I’ll bet you they stayed there, to watch, to be with her, to pray with Peter.
During Bible study on Tuesday we talked about the works of beloved hands, the hands of mothers and aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, friends. We described the work: the quilts and clothes, towels and tea cozies, afghans and antimacassars. We remembered those whom we had loved, their legacies to us, not merely blankets or garments or flour sack towels, but the care visible in their stitching and the affection that you can almost feel in the fabric. Like our memories, this tale of Dorcas’ handiwork is a lovely story.
But it is not the whole story. Because Peter is not there just to call on the family, to comfort these grieving widows. He is there to demonstrate God’s power. And so, he speaks to her: “Tabitha, get up!” And when she opens her eyes, he takes her by the hand, and the saints and widows see that she is alive! It is a resurrection moment, another story of metanoia, of transformation. The lame walk, the blind see, and the dead live again.
This is the Easter season, from now until Pentecost on May 19. It is the season in which we Christians continue our celebration of the triumph of God’s love over the world’s evil, the defeat of death through the resurrection of our Lord. But this past week has felt like anything but an Easter celebration. In fact, it has felt more like Good Friday, more like funeral than festivity. I have found myself praying odd little prayers off and on since Monday:
God, let there not be any deaths.
Please Lord, let it not be terrorism.
Holy One, please let it not be a Muslim fundamentalist.
Dear Lord, let there not be any deaths.
Oh God, support the people of West, Texas.
Please, dear God, make that Chechen boy turn himself in.
I’ve tried to be sure that my prayers are not selfish prayers or angry prayers, but prayers of humility and service. I’ve tried to pray the way a disciple would, the way a disciple should. My sermon co-authors, the women who come to Bible study on Tuesday, made a list of the traits of a disciple, as we thought about Dorcas.
Disciples are people of generosity, commitment, and sacrificial love.
They are charitable, faithful, compassionate people.
They can be anyone, and yet they become teachers, witnesses, community builders.
They are ordinary people who have experienced the presence of Christ.
And because of that, they are followers who have become leaders.
The story of Dorcas, you see, is the story of us. Her life was changed because of her experience with the living Christ. Her life was lived in service to his message, with compassion, care, generosity and faithfulness. Her death was a stunning loss for her community, and it cast a pall of grief over them.
You know what a pall is, right? It’s a piece of fabric that is used to cover up a coffin.
So a pall of grief is a fitting metaphor. Originally, a pall was a black cloth, often of velvet.
Today, palls are more often white. Because our service of witness to the resurrection emphasizes that all who are baptized into Christ have "clothed themselves" with Christ, and that all who are buried with Christ in baptism will be raised with him in newness of life, the pall is, in a way, the last garment worn by a person.
Since it covers the coffin entirely, the pall democratizes the funeral, just the way that loss and grief level and unite all of us. Neither a fancy expensive coffin nor a low-cost box is visible beneath it. So you can’t tell, looking at the casket, whether the deceased person was well-to-do, or, like Dorcas probably was, quite poor. You can’t look at the pall and guesstimate what the size of the estate will be. Unless you consider the person’s spiritual legacy.
Then that cloth covering the casket will tell you something, something really, really important. A quilt made for you by a grandmother reminds you of her love. A tea towel embroidered for you by a friend is a symbol of her care. The pall will tell you that the person was a disciple. And knowing that, you can trust that they will be raised to new life, like Dorcas was, like each of us will be.
In the warp and weft of the fabric of our lives, we are woven into a tapestry of Christian life.
We are made into disciples. And because we are disciples, we wear the mark of baptism, and we have put on Christ, whose life and death and resurrection make us Easter people.
As Easter people, we stand alongside those who mourn, and we offer up our prayers as disciples, asking for comfort, for peace.
As Easter people, we join together in acts of caring and compassion,
trusting that the one in whose name we give will make our gifts and our works holy.
As children of the heavenly father, we become brothers and sisters in Christ,
and we are joined together in a family with an inheritance that is indescribably valuable,
made especially for us through the work of Jesus Christ.
Like Dorcas, we are disciples, followers who have become leaders.
Like Dorcas, we are Easter people, be raised up to new life by God’s love.
Like her, we wear a cloth not made with human hands,
and our lives are a legacy of the love of God.
Thanks be to God for resurrection!