Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Tabitha, Get Up!

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Acts 9:36-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

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“Have you seen Tabitha?”  “Have you seen Dorcas?”  No matter if you were looking for her using her Greek or Aramaic name, she was probably a tough woman to track down.  In either language, her name means “gazelle” and Tabitha moved with the speed of one.  If there was someone in the community who needed help, she was the first to respond – -with a meal, a garment, a visit or a prayer.  She moved from one need to the next, answering them as she was able, caring for those who were marginalized, ignored, or simply not taken care of by society.  If there was a need in Joppa, people knew to call the widow Tabitha, and she would fix it.  Her work and care for the widows especially was praised, and she was well known as a disciple of Jesus.  Widows lived on the margins of society, often with no one to care for them.  Women were not valued by the culture at large, and widows rarely has anyone to stand up for them, which is what made Tabitha’s work all the more extraordinary.  In the entire book of Acts, she is the only woman explicitly referred to as a disciple, verse 36 of our reading today is the only place in the entirety of the New Testament that the feminine form of the Greek word mathetes is used – when it describes her.  Tabitha was known in the church community, and in the wider community.

This is why it would have been a little chaotic in the house that day – -what with all the people crowded into the Upper Room.  No matter how she was known, or what she was known for, the truth of the matter was still this – -Tabitha was dead.  This woman who was devoted to acts of charity and good works had taken ill and died, rather quickly it seems.  And so they — her people, her community — took her body upstairs and washed her, anointed her, and prepared her for the rituals and rites that accompany death.  Their grief was strong as they gathered around her.  She was not only the gazelle who moved quickly from need to need, she was one of them.  She was the widow who knew their specific needs firsthand.  She was their friend.  She was known in the community for who she was and what she did. Tabitha kept them clothed in tunics and other outer garments – possibly when they had no one else to do it.  When the news she had died began to spread, they came to her. “Have you seen Tabitha?  Did you hear what has happened?” They came to prepare her and mourn her.  These were not paid mourners, but people who loved her, cared for her, and were truly devastated at the news of her death.  The room became more and more crowded, and as often happens at funerals, the conversation shifted to news of other things – -the news that Peter was in Joppa and had just healed Aeneas.  So they sent 2 men to him, with their request – please come quickly.

I’m not convinced that they thought Peter could do anything.  Tabitha was dead.  Not mostly dead, not in a coma, not taking a nap, but heart-and-lungs-stopped, her body decaying- really dead.  I’m not sure if they wanted a miracle, or if they simply wanted the comfort that Peter may bring them.  They only asked him to come.  Maybe they wanted to ask Peter the big questions we sometimes ask of God when death happens “Why?  Why her and why us?”  Maybe they wanted him to come preach her funeral – – the funeral sermon still would have been a relatively new phenomenon for the church at this time – -Peter would know what to say.  Perhaps they just wanted to have her life honored by his presence.  Perhaps a few of them hoped that he might come and do something, but the request is never made outright beyond “come”.  No matter the reason, they sent for him and he came.  Peter made his way into the Upper Room of the house where she was, through the throngs of those who gathered to see her one last time.  He saw first hand the works of her hands – -saw the stitches she knit, the fabric she wove, the seams she sewed. Peter saw the mark her life had made on this community of faith.  When he finally got close enough to see her, Peter did the strangest thing – – he told everyone to leave.

Why on earth…? Why would Peter look at this shocked and shaken community and kick them all out of the room – tell them all to leave the visitation, if we put it in modern terms?  A colleague of mine had a great explanation – Peter didn’t know what else to do.  He had no idea what this group expected of him, no idea what they wanted, no idea what they needed, and so he emptied the room so he could do the only thing he knew to do – pray.[1] Because, Peter knew as sure as he was standing there that Tabitha was dead.  Not mostly dead, like Wesley in the movie The Princess Bride…have you ever seen the movie The Princess Bride?   It is a fairy tale, a story within a story, and for today what you need to know is that the hero, Wesley, has been tortured – seemingly to death.  His friends have taken him to Miracle Max in hopes of finding a cure.  For if Wesley dies, the movie cannot come to a proper resolution.  Without Wesley, the princess will die, the death of Inigo Montoya’s father cannot be avenged, and there will not be a happy ending.  Wesley’s early death is a most inconvenient plot twist indeed.  But, there is the miracle worker named Miracle Max, and when Inigo declares that Wesley cannot tell Max himself why he needs the miracle, as he is, in fact, dead, Max says this:

Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya: What’s that?
Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.[2]

Miracle Max does indeed come up with the requisite miracle – it is chocolate coated and about the size and shape of a large walnut.  Wesley comes back from being mostly dead for the final invasion of the castle.  But Tabitha, our disciple from Acts, she is not mostly dead.  She is in the state of being where all Miracle Max can do is go through her pockets looking for change, and Peter does not have a pocket of chocolate coated pills to make mostly dead people alive.  So instead, he clears the room and falls back on some sound words of wisdom – -when in doubt, pray.

Peter has no idea what is wanted of him, what is needed of him, or really, what the next best course of action is to take.  So he drops to his knees at the side of the dead woman and he prays.  Luke does not share his prayer with us – -we have no idea if Peter is praying for her to be at peace in heaven, that her twin sister will walk through the door agreeing to pretend to be her for all eternity, or that the earth will open up and swallow them all.  Perhaps, Peter prays for the right words to say to the crowd gathered outside the door, for a way he can offer the comfort of Christ in this time.  We do not know how long he stayed there on his knees, praying for guidance, for help, praying to God.  But that’s what he did.  And then he looked at Tabitha and said three words to her, “Tabitha, get up.”

Have you seen Tabitha?  Well, Peter saw her.  He saw that moment when she went from being dead to alive.  He saw her cheeks flush as the blood began to re-circulate and saw her chest rise as her lungs took in oxygen again.   And she saw him.  She opened her eyes, and saw him, and sat up.  And being the gentleman that he was, Peter took his hand and offered it to her and helped her up.  He then called the people he had removed from the room and showed the living, breathing, walking and talking Tabitha to them.

“Have you seen Tabitha?  She’s alive!”  The details of the reunion are left to our imagination by Luke. The response of the community to the resurrection of their beloved is probably full of the joy mixed with confusion we could expect from such an event.  Yet this is their story too – -they are the people who were in shock, who grieved, who were at a loss when she died, and here she was, back in the flesh and probably already back at work.  “Have you seen Tabitha today?  I have no idea how she recovered so quickly after her ordeal!”

This is truly a story for the Easter Season.  In his commentary on today’s text, Bruce G. Epperly says this: “Easter is the most unsettling season of the Christian year.  We are challenged to reframe our world view and expand the realm of possibility to include the miraculous and unexpected.  The resurrection breaks down the walls of limitation within which we have confined ourselves and our understanding of God’s presence in the world.  New life bursts forth…when we least expect it.  This new life can neither be predicted or controlled, but comes as a grace when we are most hopeless about ourselves and the world.”

When we are most helpless about ourselves and the world….  Have you been there?  In that most helpless place?  That is when we are most in need of resurrection, of the reminder of new life in Christ, the reminder that no matter what, God remains at work in the world, and death does not have the last word.  Christians are Easter people by definition.  We look for the ways Christ is active in our lives, for the ways in which the power of Christ overcomes the power of the world.  Tabitha’s story is a reminder of how that is possible, or how it was possible, once, a long time ago.  Joseph H. Harvard says the message Luke wants us to hear in today’s passage is this:  “The God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world, bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those in despair, and life where death seems to reign.”[3] His compares the world to Humpty Dumpty – -as being broken and unable to be put back together again – do you know the nursery rhyme?  Let’s say it together…

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

If we live in a world where we have not read Acts, where we have not seen Tabitha, where we do not know Jesus, then we can indeed assume that the world is like Humpty Dumpty, that it is broken and all the kings horses and all the kings men cannot put it back together again.  It is hopeless.  However, if we live in a world where we have seen Tabitha, if we know Jesus, if we read the Book of Acts, if we believe the Gospel —  then we know that even after the death and resurrection of Jesus, especially after, the Holy Spirit was and is at work in the world, the power of God prevails, and there is hope that the world can and will be put back together again.

Tabitha is the proof of that.  Her tireless efforts are one way we see the world being put back together.  Have you seen her?  Not the Tabitha whom Peter resurrected – -she did eventually die, as did Peter himself.  But her work continues.  Google her other name – -Dorcas.  “Dorcas Society” has almost 395,000 hits, “Dorcas Foundation” over a million and a half.  All over the world, people continue to serve in the name Christ and of this woman.  They bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the diseased, and proclaim the power of the Gospel to bring forth new life.

Thinking and reading about Tabitha this week has called to mind many of the ways we do the same things, many of the ways we practice resurrection.  I think of the faces I see in the kitchen serving those who need hot meals weekly – -those who feed children and families, wash dishes and wipe down tables.  I think about all the faces of children I see each week who come here and while learning how to read and write and improve their scholastic ability, also learn that Jesus loves them and cares for them.  I look at the containers of food that will fill the shelves of our food pantries, and see her there in all of this – Tabitha.  She is there with the women and men who ensure that this community – both this church community and the community outside our doors — are cared for as well.  It was not her good works that saved her – -it was not how good she was, not how many prayer shawls she knit or meals she delivered or dishes she washed that caused Peter to raise her.  That was all the work of Christ.  God is still at work in our world.  God still breaks into our lives every day.  Christ is still here, putting the world back together, one piece at a time.  It is not our works that save us.  It is what we do with our lives that proclaim the Gospel and reflect the work of Christ through us to the rest of the world.  We may see it as a meal served to a person living on the edge – but actually it may be hope for someone in despair, a sign that someone cares for and loves them.  God working through us to bring forth new life.

Tabitha was not the only one who I thought about this week.  Peter, the one who was summoned to come and do something, had no idea what to do once he got there.  And so he responded the only way he knew how – -he prayed.  And through that prayer he was able to see how God was empowering him to bring forth new life.  One thing we are called to do in this Easter season is to stop trying to be Miracle Max and all the King’s horsemen and rather to be like Peter.  To pray about how God will use us to proclaim and practice the resurrection in our own lives.  God may not be telling us to bring dead things back to life, but God may be telling us how we can be like both Peter and Tabitha – -praying and serving.  Following in the path of discipleship that was laid out for us so many Easters ago.  Reminding us that it is true, today, tomorrow and always that “the God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still active in the world, bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those in despair, and life where death seems to reign.”  That is the good news for us in this Easter season.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] Carl Wilton blogging at: A Pastor’s cancer Diary.  April 20, 2010: Hope IS a Miracle. http://cewilton.blogspot.com/2010/04/april-20-2010-hope-is-miracle.html

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/quotes

[3] Harvard, Joseph H. Pastoral Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. (426).

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