Friday, April 19, 2013

“A Disciple Named Dorcas” - April 21, 2013

Text: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23

It has really been a rough week.  A dark and dreary week.  It has been overcast and rainy most of the week, but that is just the beginning.  The darkness and dreariness goes far beyond the weather.

The news has been just abysmal.  On Monday, two young men set off bombs in a horrific attack at the Boston Marathon, killing an 8 year old boy and two young women and causing many horrible injuries, some requiring amputation.  Some of the stories are just heartbreaking.
Then came news from Texas of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant.  In a normal week, this would be big news, but this week it was almost buried by the news out of Boston.  But the death and destruction was just massive.  A good part of the town of West, Texas was leveled, many were injured, and the current count is 14 killed, mostly fire fighters and first responders.

There is more.  An unexploded pipe bomb was found in Cedar Falls, where Zoe goes to school.  That same day, the baseball game was canceled at the University of Evansville, where I went to school, because of a threatened shooting.  Letters to President Obama and Sen. Wicker of Mississippi containing deadly poison were intercepted.  Several inches of rain caused flash flooding.  Then there was the violent manhunt in Boston for the suspects in the terrorist attack.  It has almost been apocalyptic.

It’s been that kind of week.  Pain and hurt are in the air.  Death is in the air.

It is with all of this on our minds that we come to today’s scripture reading from Acts, and what we find there is that - pain and hurt and death are in the air.

The Book of Acts is the second volume of Luke’ work – he writes the Gospel of Luke, telling the story of Jesus, and then the Acts of the Apostles, telling the story of the amazing growth of the early church.  As part of this story, Luke reports on the life of an otherwise unknown widow, Tabitha.

I don’t know whether you know anyone named Tabitha, but I think right away of Tabitha Stevens, the daughter of Samantha and Darrin on the old sitcom Bewitched.

Luke translates the Aramaic Tabitha for us as Dorcas in Greek.  I have known a few Dorcases in my life, but very few.  The fact that this name is given in both Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew, and Greek is a sign that this was someone who moved between both cultures.  In English, the word means Gazelle.

Whether Tabitha, Dorcas, or Gazelle, the wonder is that we know of this woman at all.  Thankfully, scripture includes not just the stories of the Moseses and Davids and Marys and Pauls, but also of people like Dorcas.

As our scripture begins, Dorcas has died.  Because Peter happened to be in the nearby town of Lydda, messengers were sent asking Peter to come without delay to Joppa, where the community was grieving.

There does not seem to be any expectation that Peter will come in and perform some kind of miracle – it seems as though they simply want this leader of the church to be with a grieving community as a pastor – and perhaps to do the funeral.  Peter arrives, and the widows in the church especially are just devastated.   

Women today are much more likely to be in poverty than men.  But this is by no means a recent phenomenon; it has been that way for centuries. 

In Biblical times, women without men topped the list of vulnerable populations.  There is a reason the Bible mentions caring for widows again and again.  James, for example, says that true religion is to help widows and orphans in their distress.  The reason the Bible says so much about caring for widows is that this was a real problem.  There were a lot of widows who needed care.  They were vulnerable, they were of low status, most had no way to earn a living, there was no social safety net, they could be taken advantage of and had little recourse to the legal system, and they were often treated very poorly.

Earlier in the Book of Acts, an argument broke out in the church over the treatment of widows, with the Greek widows arguing that the Hebrew widows were receiving more in the way of assistance.  The concern was such that the office of deacon was created to resolve it.  Deacons came about in order to care for widows. 

Well, there did not seem to be an active deacon board in Joppa.  The widows of Joppa only had Dorcas.  It is noteworthy perhaps that she is the only woman in all of scripture to be called a disciple.  She certainly wasn’t the only woman who was a disciple but the only one identified by that title.  She cared for the widows, apparently out of her own resources and in the most practical of ways -- she sewed their clothing.  She may have well been a widow herself who had some financial means.  Her death was such a crisis that they sent for Peter.

So Peter arrives, and the widows are gathered around the body, weeping.  They have with them clothing that Dorcas had made for them.  Most of the poor had only one set of clothing.  These poor widows had been clothed by Dorcas and rather than threadbare clothing, they had beautiful tunics.  They held these items of apparel and remember the love she had put into them – and not just the love that went into the clothing, the love she invested in them, the love she poured into their fledgling Christian community.

When a loved one dies, pictures of that person may become a cherished possession.  At funeral visitations or at memorial services, we may see photographs of the person that we loved.  They didn’t have that.  What these widows had was the clothing that Dorcas had lovingly made for them.   

Peter asks the widows to leave the room.  Alone with the body, Peter prayed and then said, “Tabitha, get up.”  She opened her eyes and, with help, got up.  Peter had been on the move, teaching and healing by the power of the Holy Spirit.  By that same Spirit he was able to show Dorcas to be alive and well, restored body and soul to the widows who depended on her acts of charity for their survival.

Many who heard about Dorcas’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.  Amazingly, God cared for them.

What was it about Dorcas that meant so much to these people?  And of all the people whom Peter ministered to, only one was raised from the dead – Dorcas.  Why her?

Dorcas did not erect a church building or head a national committee.  She did not preach a sermon anyone remembers.  She did not write a gospel.  She did not hold high office.  She was not a theologian.  She made clothes for the weak and poor, the sick and the widows, out of love, not out of desire to be praised for her craftsmanship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says that what you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.  That was Dorcas.  That is what she did.  And two thousand years later, she is remembered.

It’s not just because she made clothes.  Dorcas made custom clothing for poor widows.  She took each widow seriously, as an individual.  She took careful measurements, chose the fabric, selected the color, cut the cloth, stitched it, and dignified and honored this widow with a tunic to be proud of.  She provided beautiful clothes, but more than that, she provided care and love for poor widows.

Our Old Testament reading is the most familiar of scriptures, the 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd.  Matthew 9:36 says that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Dorcas was simply following in the way of Jesus.  Poor widows were harassed and helpless, and Dorcas was a shepherd to them.  No wonder they wept.  No wonder they despaired.

I think that this episode was a turning point for Peter.  I think that it had a huge impact on him.  For one, it is the only time he raised someone from the dead – or more correctly, the only time God raised someone form the dead through him.  But I think it was more than that.  I think the ministry of Dorcas among the most vulnerable, the least, the lowly, set Peter toward the understanding of the value of every single person.  Because at the end of this passage, we are told that Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Did you catch that?  Simon, a tanner.  He worked with animal hides.  His occupation involved working with dead animals, which made him ritually unclean.

A good Jew would most certainly not stay the home of someone who was a tanner by profession, someone who was almost always ritually unclean.  But Peter does.  Peter was expanding his boundaries, gaining a wider vision of who was acceptable before God and who mattered before God.

Well, it’s a nice story.  I learned a couple of things about Dorcas and about Simon the tanner and about widows in the ancient world.  But what does all of this have to do with us today?

Well, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you,” and he was right.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t minister to people in need.  There is always a need for people like Dorcas, people who pour out themselves in care for those who are “the least of these.”

In years past, and still today in many places, there are Dorcas Societies or Dorcas Guilds – groups of women in churches who sew and knit and quilt and crochet and make things for others, not unlike our Prayer Shawl ministry.  You might say that Dorcas is an example of a “religion of the hands.”  We so often want to make it a religion of our mouths, talking incessantly, or our brains, pondering deep and beautiful thoughts, but Dorcas blesses others through her handiwork. 

Susan and I have visited several of our members who are ill or in nursing homes or who have suffered loss or who have moved away from friends and family, who have been given a prayer shawl or blanket.  And without exception, people have talked about how meaningful this is and how much they appreciate it.

Now, this religion of the hands is by no means limited to sewing or needlework.  Anything made in love for others and any act of kindness done on behalf of others is an offering to God.  Creating for others, building things for others, using our skills to provide for others and bless others – these are ministries to which we all are called.

This story offers us an encouragement to look at our own lives and recognize the power of God at work in and among us.  We can be tempted to judge others – and ourselves – by worldly standards of success.  Dorcas’ story is an invitation to go beyond the patterns of who is in and who is out and who gets honored and who is really important and what gets valued.  Look at your own life and see the signs of God in acts of generosity and love, and be encouraged.  Look around and see folks who are involved in so many ways in ministries of compassion and care, and know that this is what the kingdom is about.

I think of folks here this morning who volunteer their time and help people in need in so many ways – through Habitat and YSS and CCJ, through Good Neighbor, through MICA, through local housing ministries, by supporting ACCESS and getting involved with AMOS.  I know of folks who send cards to those who are hurting, or help their neighbors who are in need, or give rides to the doctor’s office, or visit folks in the hospital, or take students out for lunch.  In these and many other ways, we carry on the legacy of Dorcas, who provided loving, caring, very practical ministry, and who was loved for it and is yet remembered for it.

Now, this story can in a way be read as somewhat of a cautionary tale.  The death of Dorcas produced a crisis for a lot of people.  They grieved her loss, for sure, but they also may be grieving the loss of her ministry to the needy – as though without her, it couldn’t be done.  What would they do without her?  This is a real theological issue.

No matter how gifted or caring or talented a person might be, none of us are irreplaceable.  God gives gifts to all of us and calls all of us to service, to ministry.  We can be tempted to stand back and watch in awe as Dorcas cares and loves and nurtures and provides.  Maybe the others in Lydda had deferred to Dorcas.  One writer said that it is possible that the grief of the community got in the way of their imagination.  Maybe they had let Dorcas be the “Mission” person, the “Caring” person in the church.  But that is not the way it is supposed to work.  We are all called to share what we have.  We are called to join in. 

There is a phrase that I heard a number of years ago, something written by Wesley Frensdorf, who was the Episcopal bishop of Nevada.  There are not that many Episcopalians in Nevada.  They mostly have very small churches.  Frensdorf saw the need for and the value of each person’s gifts, and he said he dreamed of a church in which “all sheep share in the shepherding.”  We can’t do everything, but like Dorcas, we can contribute what we have.  We can use our gifts to share in the shepherding.  May it be so.  Amen.

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