Rising with Tabitha – May 5, 2019

Rising with Tabitha

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Acts 9:36-42

May 12, 2019

Main Idea:  We are called to rise up.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Today is Mothers’ Day, a day when we lift up the care and the witness of the women in our lives and  and we recognize the power of women to change the world.  It is providential that our Scripture text today lifts up a powerful and faithful woman and the community that cared for her.

In this season of Easter we are spending time with people from the early church, in those heady days when the experience of the Risen Christ was a new and wondrous reality and the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work transforming a small and grief stricken group into a committed community of believers who share the Good News of God’s love to all of the known world.  This morning we will visit with Tabitha, Peter, and the community at Joppa as we hear the call to rise up and serve Christ in the world.

In the first verse of our Scripture text we learn so much!  “Now in Joppa”, (Joppa was an ancient coastal town (now part of Tel Aviv), which was the launching point for Jonah’s travels to the Ninevites)  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple” (This is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek word for disciple is used in a feminine form.) “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas”, (The fact that we learn both her Aramaic and Greek name means that she lived in both cultures, moving back and forth as needed. Her name means “Gazelle”, perhaps because she was beautiful, graceful, strong, and quick.)  “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.” (Tabitha most likely was a widow, no longer under the protection of a husband or father.  But she seems to be a person of means who devoted her life to helping those in need.)

Tabitha was a disciple (the only woman so named). She was a saint of the church.  If as Baptists, we had patron saints, Tabitha would be the patron saint of all the church ladies who have faithfully given their time, resources, and energy to the work of the church.  The women whom we honor today (and frankly whom we ought to honor everyday).

So our Scripture text gives us a marvelous understanding of this amazing woman and then, in the next sentence it says “At that time she became ill and died.”  Just like that! One moment she is doing good works and the next she is sick and then dead.  Viscerally, we feel the shock of her death, and we join in the grief of her community. How could they go on without her?  They were unconsolable.  The community had heard that the apostle Peter was visiting a town nearby so they sent two men to ask him to come to them without delay. 

Peter had been preaching and healing people in the name of Christ since the Day of Pentecost.  His ability to heal people had become well known.  But Tabitha was no longer sick, she was dead, and her body had been prepared for burial.  When Peter arrived, the community brought him to the upper room where Tabitha’s body had been laid out and they told him about who Tabitha had been.  They showed him the work that she had done, the clothing she had made, the care she had shown.  They honored her good work, they remembered her value to the community, and they grieved her passing.

Peter had them all leave the room so that they could continue talking together as a community and so he could try something.  After hearing about Tabitha’s work as a disciple, Peter decided to pray to God on Tabitha’s behalf.  We don’t know what Peter said in his prayer or even if he said anything, perhaps he just listened.  But the prayer led him to speak to Tabitha’s body.   “Tabitha, get up,” he said.  And she opened up her eyes and sat up.  Peter gave her his hand and she rose up from the bed upon which her body had been laid.  Peter called her community back to the room and they all celebrated her return. Tabitha’s return brought healing to her community.  When the wider community of Joppa heard of this miracle, many came to believe in the power of Christ.

This story is powerful and also problematic.  All of us have stood by the bed of someone we love who was dying or had died and we wished that we could say “Dear One, get up” and they would.  Life is not that simple, as much as we wish it was.   Nor are our prayers simply wishes that God chooses to grant or not.  The point of the story is not that if we just do enough good we will rise from the dead.    So what does this story have to tell us?  What is the good news?

First, it recognizes and honors the faith and work of Tabitha and of all who serve in Christ’s name. Tabitha did not just talk about her faith in Christ, she lived it.  She shared Christ’s love through tangible acts; through clothing, food, and shelter.  Her whole life was devoted to serving Christ by serving others.  She did not stop to quibble about different understandings of theology nor did she judge those who came to her for help.  She just loved them and served them as she loved and served God.  The church through the ages has been sustained and enriched by the service of women and men like Tabitha who have given of themselves. In fact, we would not even be here without their selfless contributions. In this sanctuary this morning there are many who have given countless hours of their time and abundantly of their energy, resources, and care.  We are called to recognize and honor those who have given so much to us.  But that is not all!

This story calls us to get up, to rise up like Tabitha, in order to extend Christ’s love in the world. It is not enough to point out the good work of others. It is not enough to honor their work. We are called to share in the work!  To get out beyond these walls to feed people, to clothe people, to care for those in need, and to advocate for those who are vulnerable.  One exciting new opportunity for us is our new Sister Church partnership with the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Mayaguez.  This partnership will raise our concerns beyond Vermont to work with our American Baptist friends in Puerto Rico. We won’t parse our theological understandings of the atonement or send each other questionnaires regarding our political leanings.  We will share our stories and our hopes.  We will work together on ministries that matter. Hopefully, we will be able to visit them in Puerto Rico and host them here in Vermont. I am sure that we will learn so much from each other and that our ministries together will be blessings for our communities and the wider world.

Another opportunity to rise up and serve Christ, is to speak in the public square about the need for safe and peaceful communities and to work to make these safe and peaceful communities a reality. Yesterday we had a very informative workshop regarding church security and I am very grateful to the Burlington Police officer for spending his day off with us.   But I am angry that our world has come to such a state that this training is necessary.  Our world is awash with hatred, fear, and division.  We must rise up to stop the violence that plagues us. Women working for peace was actually the original meaning of Mothers’ Day.

It is easy to become discouraged when contemplating the state of our world but our Scripture text tells us one more important, amazing, foundational truth.  In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit caused many extraordinary things to happen; people were healed, people were raised from the dead, people were transformed from enemies to friends. The Spirit caused this small band of Jesus’ followers to grow into the worldwide faith that is Christianity today. God is still at work in the world.  The grace of Christ is all around us and the power of the Holy Spirit moves among us. The story of Tabitha, Peter, and the community of Joppa reminds us that God’s love is more powerful than any force in this world.  Death is no match for the power of God.  

We are called to rise up and serve our God.  We are guided and encouraged by our Christ.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit.   May our works, like Tabitha’s, be as beautiful as Christ’s love.

Let us pray,

Living God, we praise you for your acts of power; those in the past and those acts today.  Help us to discern your presence and empower us to serve you. Amen.