Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When I think about Tabitha in Acts, I think about all the Tabithas I’ve met in my life. Tabitha is that woman you know who is a cancer survivor who also knits hats for the people in the chemo room. She knows from experience how cold it gets when you're in treatment and that it is easy to feel lonesome when you're in isolation. So, she knits little warm reminders that God is with people while they sit, getting medicine that will make them sick to help them get better. Tabitha is the woman who sews all summer or maybe all winter, hoping that the quilts she creates can both raise a little money for the church and keep loved ones warm on a cold night. Tabitha is the one who donated the unexpected bonus of stimulus money to people who needed extra cash more than she did. I’ve met a hundred Tabithas. I bet you have, too.
Tabitha, also called Dorcas, was the first woman explicitly called a disciple in the book of Acts, though undoubtedly not the only woman disciple. She was called a disciple because she did what disciples did: followed the model of Christ by helping people in need. In her commentary on the text, Dr. Mitzi Smith notes that Tabitha understood that if you are a person of privilege, as she likely was if she had money to share as freely as she did, that it is your Christian responsibility to share with those who have less. We don’t know how she came by her money. But, we do know that she, like many other wealthy women who helped fund early Christian mission, used her money to serve her neighbors and serve Christ. When she became sick and died, people were bereft.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the book of Luke. The love with which Jesus’ body was tended is mirrored by the tenderness with which Tabitha’s body was prepared. They took her body to the upper room of a home. Dr. Smith, in her commentary, encourages us to remember that important things can happen in upper rooms. In Acts 1, eleven disciples met in an upper room to receive the Holy Spirt. Something powerful can happen in this upper room, too. That’s why two of her friends went to find Peter.
In his commentary on this text, Eric Barreto reminds us that there are multiple resurrection accounts in Luke and Acts: Jesus raised a son a of a widowed woman and a daughter of a man named Jairus. Jesus himself conquered death. And, while it is not a resurrection, Peter heals a man named Aeneas who had been paralyzed. I don’t know if the men who went to get Peter intended for him to raise Tabitha from the dead or just wanted him to be able to come pay respects. Regardless of why they asked him, he stopped what he was doing and went to Joppa. When he arrived, the widows who had no one to care for them but Tabitha showed them the clothes that she had lovingly made. Maybe you have done the same when you have gathered to mourn... told stories of how they loved you and helped you.
Asking for some time with Tabitha's body, the mourners left and Peter knelt to pray. He turned back to the body and said three simple words, "Tabitha, get up." Thank God, she did. Peter made sure that the widows, whom she served, and the other disciples, whom she happily served alongside, were the first ones to see her return. What a gift it is to give this kind of good news, of life restored and relationships renewed.
Of all the Gospels, Luke and its sequel Acts, have the clearest authorial voice. At the beginning of each book, the author says that they are sharing these stories so that we will hear them and believe. It is about demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit and the life-giving potential of Christ's love. Dr. Wil Gafney says that each of Jesus’ miracles, and I’d argue, those done empowered by his spirit, is an epiphany... something that helps us see God more clearly. I think that good works like Tabitha’s are epiphanies, too. Because God is clearly manifest in the steady creak of a spinner's wheel and the bold snap of the weaver’s loom... in food cooked and shared... in lives tended to in compassion and care.
Do you remember how Jesus described his mission at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke? I hoped so. I just preached about it. He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." To follow Jesus... to act in accordance with his spirit... means that you will tend to those same things. Tabitha shows us that being a disciple is taking up Jesus’ mission statement as your own. When she looked at the most vulnerable members of her community, she saw fellow children of God, and made sure that their basic needs were supplied. While the Bible story shares that news of Tabitha's resurrection inspired many more people to follow Jesus, I bet that her generous spirit and advocate's heart had already taught plenty of people an important lesson about Jesus. The miracle worked through Peter just sealed the deal.
The author of Luke and Acts continually brings us back to the idea that God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is a life-restorer and one who brings life into barren places. Tabitha's story reminds us just how expansive this restoration of life can be. Life can be restored through an action as simple as the creation of a garment for one who is deeply impoverished and as radical as the resurrection of the dead. Oppression and illness and captivity have many faces. Grace needs to have just as many. I pray that we each can leave a legacy of love as powerful as Tabitha's. May we arise with her, and continue to serve the ones Christ loved.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Gail R. O' Day "Acts" in The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Loretta J. Reynolds, "The Secret of Greatness: Acts 9:32-42," preached at Danforth Chapel at Berea College in March 1998
Wil Gafney, "Epiphany VII" in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.