The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister and Director of Administration, the Memorial Church. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Administration
The Memorial Church
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
Our first lesson for today comes from the Book of Acts. Now, if you are not familiar with the Book of Acts, Acts is an account of the apostles' journey. It's journey to establish the early church. It is an action-packed, even at times, chaotic account of the apostles traveling all over the Roman Empire, following the prompts of the Holy Spirit, performing miracles, getting arrested. And often, this Book is talked about in terms of expansion, movement and growth. Yet our lesson for today is a little bit different. It's a pause in the action.
It tells the story of a community crippled by grief. A community that is at a loss of knowing what to do next, when Peter comes to visit them. The story of Tabitha breaks the form of a lot of the other healing stories in Acts. In fact, it's one of the few places in the book where women are named, let alone details of their ministry are shared. So let us linger here a little bit longer.
Earlier in the Book of Acts in chapter six, we learn about the early churches overall commitment to supporting marginalized widows. The church community in Jerusalem appoints seven men, including Stephen as deacons to oversee its ministry for caring for the widows. Now the church community here in Joppa is engaged in a similar ministry, yet we don't hear anything about it being officially commissioned or carried out by designated leaders. Instead, it's spearheaded by a woman who's identified a need, new Christ calling to serve the marginalized and quite simply just got down to work.
We learned that her name is Tabitha in Aramaic and Dorcas in Greek, meaning Gazelle. She is likely known as Tabitha within the faith community and known as Dorcas in the wider community. Now, at this point in Acts, we've also learned that there are some tensions between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. Perhaps she's bilingual or bi-cultural. Perhaps she stands in the gap between these two worlds. Either way, her acts of charity are known widely and publicly practiced. And Luke, the author of Acts recognizes the impact and importance of Tabitha's ministry, when he calls her a disciple. In fact, it is the only time that this word is used in the feminine, in the entire New Testament. Thereby, Luke implies that Tabitha is fully the equivalent of the male disciples who are named throughout the New Testament.
Now there aren't any Epistles named for Tabitha. She didn't do theology with scribes and Pharisees. She didn't pen a gospel. Women were not permitted to do those things in the early church, nor were they recognized as deacons or preachers or theologians. She may indeed have been a brilliant scholar or mystic or preacher, but we will never know. But what we do know is that she did not wait for an official appointment or permission to follow the prompts of the Spirit. And she ended up touching more lives and influencing more people than any other had done in the town of Joppa, where she lived.
Now, when we learned of Tabitha's ministry, it was to care for the marginalized widows, making tunics, mending clothes, as she lovingly supported them and showed them devotion. She provided them with warmth, adorned and cared for their bodies in a world where their safety and security could easily be at risk because of their social location. And this story is not just an accounting of Tabitha's care and compassion. It is also a testimony about the care and compassion of the women she served and the community that they built amongst themselves. We all need refuge when faced with loss and suffering, and at Tabitha's death, the women found it in one another.
Now, by the time Peter has arrived, the women have lovingly prepared their friend's body for burial. They have tenderly washed her body and laid it for rest in an upper room. They bought all the tunics and clothing she made. They shed tears. They had made communal intercessions for her healing. They waited. It was the women who wept for her and highlighted her contributions to Peter who validated Tabitha's ministry. Her service to them and their subsequent advocacy for her subverts the assumption of where spiritual authority comes from. Does it come from proximity to power or from mutual care and compassion?
In moments of tremendous loss and crushing news, there often is a tendency to retreat, to draw in, to hunker down. It's within all of us. We want to shut out the world so that we can protect what's soft and fragile within us. Yet, as Author Frederick Buechner writes, "You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own."
Tabitha and these women created a community where they were not afraid to weep in public. They did not turn away from the pain of life. They were not afraid to wade into each other's lives. Cree Poet Billy-Ray Belcourt said, "To love someone is firstly to confess, 'I am prepared to be devastated by you." These women opened themselves to being devastated by the loss of Tabitha, but they also opened themselves to the possibility of being transformed by their love for her and one another.
Becoming human is an ongoing project of recognizing the brokenness and divinity within ourselves and one another. And ironically, it's when we confront our brokenness that we face the dwelling of God within us. For it's when we are honest with ourselves about our limited-ness, that we can begin to fully know our dependence upon God and God's Grace. The cracks are where the light shines through, or as the early Church Father Irenaeus said it, "The Glory of God is a human fully alive."
Now at first glance, we may want to say that the miracle of this story is Peter bringing Tabitha back to life. But perhaps this is also a story about the miracles of what God can do, when we open up ourselves to loving one another. The story of Easter is not about a one off inexplicable and explosive miracle about what happens once and for all, with the resurrection of Jesus. It's also about the ripple effects of many resurrections that continue to spread when we open up ourselves to being transformed by love, where life can come after death, endings turn into new beginnings, suffering turns into healing, division turns into reconciliation. It is how Christ has a way of flowing into our lives in moments that both challenge us to the core, and at the very same time, resurrect us and reveal to us once again, who we truly are, God's beloved. Thanks be to God.