Preached on 12 May 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle Washington
The fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
My closet is overflowing with clothes. And with just a few clicks on the computer, even more clothes will arrive at my door. In fact, I’m expecting some in the next few days.
That’s not what it was like for Tabitha and her community, though. For them, it took an enormous amount of resources and time to produce clothing. You would begin by shearing the sheep and preparing the wool. Then you had to spin the wool into thread, and the thread into yarn; weave the yarn into cloth, dye the cloth, and finally, sew the cloth into a garment. You might own only what you were wearing and a spare. Maybe.
The widows who showed Peter the garments Tabitha had made for them weren’t pulling them out of the closet, they were showing him what they were wearing. They wanted him to know just how important she was to this community of widows. They depended on her for the clothes on their backs not to mention the good works and acts of charity that Luke tells us she was known for.
I wonder why they sent for Peter. What did they expect from him? You notice, they didn’t send for him when Tabitha became ill, hoping he could heal her. While Peter was known for some miraculous healing, he wasn’t known for raising the dead. Yet, they waited until after Tabitha was dead and they were preparing her body for burial before they sent for him. And when he arrived, they showed him everything she had done for their community.
Did they want him to send them another disciple like Tabitha? Did they want him to help them with other resources? Or did they just want him to understand their plight?
This story is about Raising the Dead. And I don’t mean the miracle God did through Peter. I’m talking about the work God did through Tabitha. We hear in Luke’s story about Tabitha about how God brought vitality to her community.
In her, we see a picture of discipleship, of following Christ’s lead. Luke offers us a lot of detail about her, unlike most healing stories. She has two names: Tabitha, her Aramaic name, and Dorcas, her Greek name. Perhaps she was a bridge between the two communities, with two cultures, two languages.
We see how God works through her “good works and acts of charity” to bring vitality to people who are intimately acquainted with death, giving them hope and dignity.
I want you to think about clothing for a minute. How what someone wears shapes how we think of them. Just as an example, how television shows and movies identify a character as poor by putting them in costumes that look like old, worn-out clothes. Think about how the way a person dresses affects their employment prospects in real life. And think about that in terms of someone living in poverty, trying to work their way up, but not having access to “appropriate” clothing.
Now think about the other end of the spectrum, the red carpet on Oscar night. Everyone talking about what and “who” the stars are wearing.
We attach honor and shame to clothing. And so, imagine what it would be like for Tabitha to offer the dignity of new clothes to widows and other poor people in her community.
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that as we listen to these stories from The Acts of the Apostles during Eastertide, that we ask ourselves, what does this tell us about the “contours of an authentically Christian witness?”
In Tabitha, we see that Christian witness is not about abstractions. It’s not about holding the right doctrine or saying the right words or even having the right intentions in your heart. Authentically Christian witness is about what we do. Good works and acts or charity aren’t spiritual abstractions. They’re real, concrete, tangible, and they make a real difference in the lives of people.
Raising the dead was not just about Jesus and an empty tomb. It’s about God breathing new life into what seems lifeless. God bringing vitality to situations that seem hopeless. God did it through Tabitha and God continues even now.
Even in the miracle of God raising Tabitha from the dead through Peter, it’s not about Tabitha and it’s not about Peter. Through the miracle, the community is strengthened in their belief and in their faith. The witness to God is spread throughout the region.
How is God breathing new life into yours? Into ours? How is God strengthening belief, discipleship, witness?
I wonder if we ever try to put restrictions on how or how much God can use us to breathe new life into a community or a person. Or if we try to choose the beneficiaries of God’s care – or on how much they may benefit.
Authentically Christian witness is in what we do –
that we care and how we care for one another, that results in wholeness and flourishing and upholding human dignity. It’s about new vitality.
It’s about raising the dead.