Grace Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2016, Easter 4C
I don’t like to refer to them as ‘minor’ characters. It might be that they only appear in these biblical stories briefly, and sometimes they don’t even get names, but they aren’t ‘minor’ or else their stories probably wouldn’t have been included in these gospel and early-church narratives; as John puts it towards the end of his gospel, what they left out about Jesus and his deeds and his followers could fill a whole library to overflowing. So, for now, I’ll call them ‘brief’ characters, to acknowledge that they aren’t characters who appear frequently or for a long stretch of the story, but only appear once, are part of the story briefly, and do not appear again. Still, their stories are important to tell.
For such a ‘brief’ character, we do get an awful lot about Dorcas. Among other things we get two names for her – Dorcas is the name by which she is known in Greek, while Tabitha is the Aramaic version of her name. We also find out that whichever name you use for her, it would translate into English as “gazelle.” That’s a lot already about a person who never speaks in Luke’s two-part narrative of the earthly life of Christ (what we call Luke) and the story of the early church (the “Acts of the Apostles” from which we read today.
But that’s only the beginning of what we learn about Tabitha, or Dorcas. We are also told, in passing, that she was a disciple. If you’re thinking that might be unusual, you’re right; Tabitha is the only woman for whom Luke uses the word μαθήτρια, the feminine form of the Greek for “disciple.” None of the women who traveled with Jesus and the twelve, nor any other woman in Acts, gets this designation from Luke. Furthermore, we find out just how hard Dorcas worked to minister to the poor of Joppa. We see this in a particularly poignant scene where many of the people of Joppa had gathered where Tabitha’s body was laid to grieve, showing each other the tunics and cloaks and shawls and scarves that she had created for them. Can you, in your wildest imaginings, conceive of a more powerful witness to the influence of a single life than this? Dorcas was nothing less than a one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, using her relative position of privilege to work tirelessly for those less fortunate in her town.
And now she was gone, and the poor of Joppa literally did not know what become of them.
Notice I didn’t say “poor citizens of Joppa,” and for good reason; quite likely no one in the room was a “citizen” of the governing authority of that time, namely the Roman Empire. In a place like Joppa the main concern for the poor that Rome was likely to show was that those poor stay the heck out of the way of Rome. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Dorcas (and maybe some of her fellow believers, possibly) was the only one standing between them and complete destitution.
And now she was gone.
How much of this was made clear to Peter when he was begged to come over from Lydda, where he was at the time, Luke does not tell us; all he indicates was that the two men were sent to say “please come immediately,” and maybe that was enough to get Peter to go. Maybe he remembered the time when Jesus had been begged to go to the home of a little girl, daughter of a man named Jairus, ultimately to raise that little girl up from the dead. At any rate Peter goes with the two men and is led immediately up to that room were Tabitha had been laid, with the scene of grieving poor widows around them, showing her handiwork to all who came.
Not unlike Jesus before him, Peter had everybody else leave the room, and then knelt to pray. It’s not hard believe that Peter’s prayer might have gone something like this:
OK, Lord, what have you gotten me into here? I mean, preaching is one thing, getting thrown into jail is one thing, but this? Just because I saw you raise people like that little girl from the dead…I can’t do this. You know that. If anything is going to happen here, Lord, you’re going to have to do it.
On the other hand, I would not presume to guess how the Lord responded to such a prayer, if indeed Peter prayed it. But we do know what happened next: Peter told Dorcas to get up, and she did.
Peter then called the others back into the room to see the very much alive Tabitha, and we are then told that “many believed in the Lord,” presumably because of what happened there. Clearly one can imagine many being impressed by the miracle of a woman who was dead being raised to life. We see in other places in scripture how some will respond to this kind of miracle with an immediate response of belief, so that wouldn’t be a shock.
I suspect, though, that there’s also another level of “belief response” at work here. Remember who Dorcas is; our one-woman faith-based anti-poverty initiative, a woman of resources who gave of those resources for others who did not have them, maybe even at the expense of her own health or well-being. Were there other women like her in Joppa, or was she really the one, the only one, standing in the gap between the poor and oblivion? Was she really a one-woman initiative?
Whatever was the case, the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas, maybe meant something different to those whose lives had been salvaged by her generosity and tireless work. A miracle, yes, but maybe it was a miracle with a particular meaning, one in which Tabitha was not the only one being saved. In the words of Presbyterian pastor Heidi Peterson,
Many who heard about Tabitha’s venture to and return from the other side believed, perhaps because it was a miraculous event. Or perhaps because of what the event revealed about God. The widows would not be abandoned. God would not allow it.[i]
Notice that Dorcas never speaks in this passage, and as this is the only place in scripture where she is mentioned, we can say we never see or hear her say a word. She was no preacher, not a prophet, and doesn’t get the label “full of the Holy Spirit” that Luke applies to others in his gospel and history, like the martyr Stephen. And yet the witness of her work was such that her death was sufficient reason to yank the foremost of the apostles off his given journey to be there to do…whatever God would allow or enable him to do. She mattered that much, because her work mattered that much.
Her work was to extend herself for those who were the most marginalized of society at the time, those who were routinely crushed by the machine of the Roman Empire and the patriarchal structures of both that empire and the religious and societal structures in which they made the mistake of losing their husbands to death. And for this she mattered, not necessarily to the Roman governor of the region or the important leaders of the city, but to the poor widows, and to the fledgling congregation of which she was a part.
And she mattered enough to God.
What then does this mean for us?
We have Tabithas or Dorcases in our congregation; you know who they are. Do we leave them on their own to do the work? Do we support them in a way that recognizes the absolutely indispensible work they do in the face of crushing need?
Is there more we can do? Are there more Tabithas among us, who simply need our support to in turn be there for those in need?
What do we want our witness to be in this place? Are we merely about the business of survival, or are there avenues of service we need to be exploring and opening up on this stretch of US-441 where we stand?
Are we going merely to talk the talk, or will we walk the walk?
Dorcas did the latter. Dare we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Heidi A. Peterson, “Clothed With Compassion” (Acts 9:36-43), Christian Century (April 18-25, 2001), 11.
Hymns: “Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!” (PH 105); “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” (PH 170); “For All the Faithful Women” (GtG 324); “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (PH 394)