The Expeditiary Church - Restoring Life
May 8, 2022 Rev. Drew Stockstill
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.
'Raising of Tabitha'. Guercino, Circa 1618
Her obituary was short. But the line to get into the church for her funeral was long. It wrapped around the building.
The obituary read simply: “Dorcas (Tabitha) of Joppa died again this week. Ms. Tabitha was a follower of The Way and a gifted seamstress. She loved Jesus, her Lord and Savior. She served women. She was devoted to the widows of this community. She will be missed my many and remembered among the saints of the Lord. Funeral services to be held at the Synagogue by the Sea in Joffa.”
It was not Tabitha’ first obituary, but it was her first funeral. Her first obituary came a few years earlier, the last time she was sick; the last time she died. That time she was surrounded by family and the women she loved when she died. There was a great deal of wailing. Grief flowed among the widows of Joffa with more force than the Jordan River after a long rain. This time Tabitha was very old when she died. She had not been sick.
Tabitha had just finished sewing a tunic for a young mother whose husband had died suddenly of a heart attack while working in the fields. They had been very poor and the young widow had no other family. Tabitha had a special place in her heart for women just like this. She had been among the first to show up with fresh bread and warm stews when a woman lost her husband, or child. She knew exactly what not to say, exactly the right amount of help to offer, and how to slip out. She had a special eye for the practical needs: new hand towels, whisking away bedding and then returning it with holes patched together, patches on the knees of little boys’ pants, and always a gorgeous new tunic or shawl for the grieving widow.
Tabitha had finished the final stiches on just such a tunic. One of her best she had to admit. She inspected the seams: not a single missed stich. Tabitha deftly embroidered the Hebrew words Zichorono Livrachah on a small pocked inside the top left of the tunic, where a broken heart would gently beat against. It means, “May his memory be a blessing.” These final stiches were her signature prayer, just for the young woman. Tabitha knotted the tread and bit off the end. She smoothed the soft purple linen, folded it carefully, and tied it up with a cotton string. Her hands were those of an old, old woman, but sure and strong. She sprinkled the tunic with lavender water and tucked a sprig of dried rosemary under the string. She held the bundle to her face and breathed in slowly. She whispered a Psalm 27:14, “Trust on YHVH. Be strong and take courage for your heart. Trust on the Lord.”
Tabitha knew the young woman would wear the tunic to her husband’s funeral, and she hoped the scent would soothe and comfort her. She placed the garment on the table by the door. The woman who helped her with the deliveries and some cleaning and baking would be by later to pick it up. Tabitha kissed her fingers and touched them to the fabric. She was tired and wanted to lie down for a bit before starting the shawl for her friend Judith whose husband, Simon, was dying, but it would have to wait. Besides, she needed to leave some work for the women she had been teaching. They were eager to share what they were learning. And they were eager to share the love and comfort they had once received from Tabitha with other women in need.
Tabitha laid down on her bed. She pulled her soft cotton sheet over her. She closed her eyes. She smelled the lavender, she felt the light streaming into the room. She breathed deeply and was asleep. She did not wake up again.
After this death, there were tears, certainly, and she would be dearly missed, but mostly a great love and gratitude wrapped itself around the women of Joppa. Tabitha was beloved, but everyone who knew her knew how much she loved Jesus, and how happy she would be to finally rest from her labors of love, her joyful work as his honored disciple. As a follower of The Way she had showed many women such a deep love and care when they were at their most heart broken, their most desperate, their most lost, they clung to her. She had taught them all about Jesus, the people he cared for, his miracles, and most of all the way he had died but was raised again to lead all his children into life forever in his Kingdom. She was a modest but devoted follower of The Way and many of the women she cared for became Christians as well, but she served women no matter if they were Hebrew or Greek, Jewish or Christian or worshiped the Roman gods. When a woman came to know the love of Tabitha, they came to know the love of Jesus. At some point they all held her hands, or clung to her neck, or buried their faces in her chest to heave great sobs, struggled to find words to thank her, not just for the clothes, but for all of it, for the love that flowed out of the great well of grace within her. She would hold them close and say, “We love because he first loved us.”
Luke, who is the author of the book of Acts, does not tell us about Tabitha’s second death, but this is how I imagine it based on what he does so carefully tell us about her first death. Tabitha was one of the earliest disciples of Jesus. We don’t know how she came to believe in Jesus, whether she met him once when he walked the earth, or if someone had told her about him and her heart burst with faith. What Luke wants us to know is that she was a devoted woman disciple, he wants us to know her name, all of it. Dorcas her Greek name and Tabitha her Aramaic name. She was multi-cultural, a Greek Jewish follower of Jesus. She was among the very first Christians in the world, and a greatly admired in the earliest church. Luke is very careful that we see and honor Tabitha. Luke says, she was full of good works and acts of charity. And when she died her first death, her body was carefully cleaned according to Jewish custom. Likely it was some of the women who she had once served who now served her, caring for her body with dignity. But her death filled them with grief and they sent for Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, who had recently healed a man in a town nearby. He had also been present when Jesus once brought a young girl back from the dead. When he arrived the widows were in the upper room with Tabitha’s body. They were weeping and clutching tunics and clothes that Tabitha had made for them.
Luke is such an incredible storyteller to use these subtle details to communicate so much about Tabitha and what she meant to her community.
We are exploring the details of the early church in Acts in our sermon series this spring. Luke made sure Tabitha was not only honored but that her value was understood by so many generations of Christians after her because she teaches us core values of the church: to care for those in need, especially the most vulnerable as many widows in ancient Rome would be. Tabitha shows us the way we can impact lives by simple and yet consistent acts of caring. The women who are mourning Tabitha’s death not only want Peter to restore her life, they want him see what she did for them. These women highlight Tabitha’s work by bringing the clothes she had made. They too are teaching us a core value of the early church, to highlight and bring awareness to the work of women.
It’s fitting on a week like this and on Mother’s Day we get to meet Tabitha. We don’t know whether she was a mother or not, but we know she did important mothering work, gathering women around her to build them up as people, and as Christians, the way Jesus did mothering work when
he said he so desired to gather his children under his arms the way a mother hen gathers her chicks. The church is called to be a community of care and compassion, gathering those who are wounded and offering healing, gathering with those who are mourning and offering comfort, gathering those who are lost and offering compassionate guidance, and like Tabitha, gathering
women who would be facing tough choices in a time of grief and offering them community and belonging through acts of love. I love how Luke describes her as just full of good works.
When I think about what the world, what our community needs from the followers of Jesus today, I don’t think of celebrity preachers, I don’t think of fancy buildings, and packed worship services, I think of Tabitha, because she knew what it really means to be a follower of Jesus, it means being aware of unique needs of others and tending them with dignity and devotion. I think Tabitha teaches us about being the church at its best. Tabitha reminds me of some of the women when my grandmother died who never left us alone but quietly fixed plates of food, washed dishes, wiped tears, cried at just the right time and would lighten the mood with a funny story of my Mimi.
Tabitha reminds me of Dana, and Jane, and Nancy, Lynn and when Lydia Grace was born all made quilts. And Tabitha reminds me of so many here who throw baby showers for mothers in the neighborhood, and for us when River was born. Tabitha not only helped women with what they needed, she helped them find a place in community, she showed them they weren’t alone. So when she died they flocked to her and begged for her to come back, and clutched reminders of her, the clothes she made them.
I like to think that many years later, when she died again, that when the women gathered to clean her body, they carried something even greater she gave them, the faith that she is now at rest in the arms of her savior, and the assurance that they will be OK because now they have each other, a community of care that she helped give them, and maybe even a craft and a ministry. How many of those women wiped a tear at the loss of Tabitha but then went to work carrying on the ministry of caring for widows and flowing with deeds of compassion. She gave them comfort, but she also gave them community, and she helped them discover a greater purpose in serving God by caring for each other and those in need.
Imagine a Tabitha ministry right here in this church, Christ Lutheran, the nurses who care for women trapped in the sex industry, the cooking classes in the kitchen, equipping youth with knowledge and skills, the civic education done by Power to the Hill, empowering the community to advocate for what it needs to thrive. This is the church that follows Jesus by following in the path of Tabitha and the women she inspired. And by the power of the Spirit, she is alive in us today. Amen.