Big Church Week 3: "Tabitha's Tale"
This week I am preaching the third installment of the sermon series, "Big Church." The entire foundation of this series is grounded in the notion that the Church is not an institution, it's a movement. Jesus did not create a mission for the Church, he created a Church for His Mission.
The text for the sermon this week is a strange little story embedded in Acts chapter 9 immediately following the dramatic conversion of Saul. Here's it is:
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”
39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
To begin with, I have to state the obvious: Miracles are hard to understand, especially miracles of the magnitude outlined here in Acts 9. I think that we have come to this place in our culture where we want to believe in miracles but we've been taught to believe they really aren't possible, or at the very least can be explained away.
This overall lack of belief in the existence and occurrence of miracles by the majority in our culture in no way negates the intensity with which some people believe in them. I happen to be in the latter group, by the way---so no hate mail. I'm just stating some truth about this, and we all sort of know that I am right. Even people who believe in the existence of miracles don't believe that they happen all of the time, or can be seen by just anyone.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, "God does not shake miracles into Nature at random as if from a pepper caster. They come on great occasions. They are found at the great ganglions of history..." You got hung up on the word "ganglion" didn't you? I know I did. I looked it up because I had no idea what it meant. It means "center of industrial force or activity," in case you were wondering. C.S. Lewis was a straight up wordsmith.
So, do miracles still happen? That's the usual question, isn't it? They seem to populate the pages of the New Testament with a great deal of frequency. I think miracles still happen, but that we've become deadened to the movement of the Spirit around us. And when I say "we" I mean those of us who are firmly entrenched in Western culture. Many of our brothers and sisters in Latin America and Africa wonder very little about whether miracles happen---the know they happen.
Let me refer to C.S. Lewis again here who once wrote that the only way to see trains passing by is to live near a railway. So maybe it's us. Maybe we have positioned ourselves comfortably outside of the space where miracles happen. And maybe we've also placed ourselves where it's difficult for us to see them when they do.
The story about Tabitha here in Acts 9 does not really fit within our worldview. Like I said, we've adjusted our vision, our lives. But this story speaks to us regardless of where we fall in our understanding or ability to see it. We are drawn toward healing and stories about healing because brokenness is such a part of our lives. Although our Western mindset might not allow us to believe that such a miracle could occur---we long for it to be feasible on a gut level.
So let's take a look at this story and see what makes it so meaningful for us today. To begin with, we discover that Peter is ministering on and near the coast of northern Israel at the seaport of Joppa and ten miles inland at the town of Lydda. Incidentally both of these cities were destroyed around 68 AD during the Jewish revolt against Rome.
Just prior to this passage that we read Peter heals a man named Aenas in Lydda. Aenas had been paralyzed for eight years so the word about Peter healing him spread quickly. The believers at Lydda were called hagios or saints. Meanwhile in the city of Joppa a group of believers were mourning the loss of a faithful member of their community: Tabitha or Dorcas.
Just as an aside, if I had been named Tabitha back in those days---I would have seriously preferred to be called Tabitha and not Dorcas. Just saying.
Her name actually means "gazelle" in both forms but it could have easily been another way of saying "graceful." Tabitha is called a mathetria, which is the feminine version of the Greek word for disciple. This moment in Acts 9 is the only moment in the entire New Testament that the feminine word for disciple is used. So the reader is given a hint that something is up about this Tabitha woman.
Her friends and relatives appear to have started preparing her for burial but then stopped in order to wait for Peter to arrive. She was laid out in a bedroom but had not been anointed for burial so clearly they were all expecting something.
And clearly they were right to do so.
After Peter prays he speaks to Tabitha and he tells her to get up. The words he would have spoken would have been in Aramaic, and would have been Tabitha cumi! We've heard words just like these before when Jesus raised a little girl from the dead during his ministry. The words Jesus used were Talitha cumi!i which mean, "Little girl get up!" So... that's cool. And here's something even cooler. The Greek word used here for "rise!" is anesthemi which is the same Greek word used in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament to describe what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead.
I know. The Bible is awesome.
Let's think about the woman in this story together for a moment, though. What is so special about Tabitha? What did she do that warranted her resurrection? It's true that she was a good person, but I am sure there were plenty of good people in the world that day who died without having Peter summoned to raise them up. In fact, we all know really good people who pass away from one reason or another.
But Luke makes a point to talk about Tabitha's ministry to the poor, particularly the widows she served. They show Peter the clothes that she made--even the "underclothes" which I am sure was sort of awkward. These women knew very little--except that their friend and patron was dead and they were hoping beyond hope that this man who was a witness to the Resurrection could change that.
I need you to do something for me before we go further into this to get to the heart of the matter... Think about a person who created something special for you---maybe even with their own hands. What made it special? Was it the gift or your thoughts about the work that went into it? Or maybe it was something else--something deep and abiding that you hold in your heart.
Tabitha was just an ordinary woman, but she obviously believed that following The Way meant that you lived differently. She knew that if you were a follower of The Way, you gave to those who were in need even when you had to sacrifice to make that happen. And you put your heart and soul into making the world beter so that the people who benefited from your love were blown away by it.
Here is the heart of the story. Luke reminds us here in this text that sometimes the story of the Church isn't always about the "Big Ticket" characters. It's not always about apostles and preachers---not even always about those who walked and talked with Jesus. Sometimes it's about ordinary people who live extraordinary lives. Ordinary people who aren't ordinary to God.
Kind of miraculous when you think about, right?
N.T. Wright calls the Tabithas of the world---these ordinary miraculous people---"the beating heart of the people of God." They represent the new reality of God's kingdom.
Why should we be surprised by any of this really? What's more miraculous---that God raised a woman from the dead, or that God prefers to use ordinary boring people to further his kingdom---to show people what it's like when we figure out that living differently really does change the world.
Theologian Will Willimon says of this moment and this new reality represented in Tabitha's story: "Here in this community no one stays in his or her place. Common fisherman are preaching to the Temple authorities, paralyzed old men are up walking about and changing lives, and a woman called "Gazelle" heads a welfare program among the poor widows of Joppa."
In Acts 17:6 we read that the movement called the Church is all about turning "the world upside down." And in that miraculous moment when the world is turned upside down we realize that it's the faithful, ordinary, humble people who were on the bottom, so to speak, who are given prime real estate on the path the Movement is taking.
I asked some people in our church about the ordinary, miraculous people in their life---the Tabitha's that made a difference with a handmade gift of love---miraculous people that turned their world upside down
Here are their stories...
[My grandmother] & her friends took the remnants from all the dresses she had made me & gave it to me for my graduation. Every time I look at the quilt, I remember the dress it came from & feel her beautiful spirit of love for me. It is indeed one of my most special gifts. She also made quilts for my girls. What a blessed girl I was to have such a grandma & to have her friends also share this with me. They were all my Sunday School teachers, VBS teachers, all had a part in my being the person I am today. SO blessed indeed. - Becky Stam
I have so many precious handmade gifts over the years, but a few years ago I gave my sister Kendra a bag of different yarn. Different colors etc. Not long after that much to my surprise she returned it to me in afghan form. She called it my REMEMBERANCE AFGHAN because I could remember each and every thing I had made with the yarn before giving it to her. Baby blankets, afghans, coat sleeves. It is very special to me. - Kim Harbeck
I only got to go to church camp one year as a kid, and it was awesome. We had something like a secret Santa project, where everyone drew a name out of a hat. I really worked hard that week making special craft projects and nice notes for my secret Santa. But all week long, whomever had my name never did anything. I was really disappointed. We had a campfire that last night and my counselor began to discuss the secret Santa project and prepare us to reveal our secret identities. Before anyone was revealed, however, he said that he knew one boy who hadn't received anything, but who had been a good secret Santa all week, nonetheless. It turns our that my secret Santa person was my counselor. On the nature hike he found a hand whittled walking staff that everyone in the whole camp fell in love with. It looked like something Moses might have used, twisted and yet very smooth to hold. That night he gave it to me in front of the whole camp and thanked me for being a good camper. I still have this walking staff decades later and whenever I pull it out I get comments on what a cool and unique piece it is. It always brings back good camp memories. - Derrick DeYarman
My grandmother made me a quilt for my doll cradle when I was five. It now is on my granddaughter's doll cradle. My grandmother left me a legacy of love and strength. She faced problems head and helped me through one of the toughest times of my early life. - Peggy Coven
The thing that immediately came to my mind was an afghan that my Mom knitted for me more than 40 years ago. When I was a teenager, growing up in the cold north I used to like to watch TV lying on the floor covered with an afghan. The problem was, that as I grew they were never large enough so either my feet or my upper body was cold. So right around the time I graduated from college and starting living on my own, my Mom made me a super-sized afghan more than 6 feet long. My Mom has been gone now for more than 25 years, but the afghan still warms my body and my heart knowing all the hours of love she poured into it. - Ken Nickeson
The Movement that Jesus started is all about how God uses ordinary people who are not ordinary to God to live extraordinary lives... Which is miraculous.
Jesus needs some ordinary miracle makers for this movement of his. Are you ready for a miracle? Are you ready to be one?
What are you waiting for? Arise!