Acts 9:36-43 Common English Bible (CEB)
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37 About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” 39 Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.
40 Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42 The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord.
Dorcas, aka Tabitha, was one of the disciples living in Joppa. According to the Acts of the Apostles, her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. She spent her life caring for the widows of the town, making and giving away clothing. It can be said with some assurance that she was well off. She had a house. She had the means to provide clothing - new clothing - for those who had no one to care for them.
A word about some words:
Disciples: At Ask the Pastor this week, one of the questions was “What does disciple mean?” It means follower, or student. So the first twelve Jesus called were disciples, as were all the others who followed Jesus during the years of his ministry. After Jesus ascended, those early disciples became known as apostles - people who went around teaching the newer disciples the Good News. The apostles were still followers of Jesus, but they were now the teachers. When we say we are Disciples of Christ, we mean we are followers of Christ. Dorcas was a follower of Jesus. As such she made it her business to care for those who had less than she did. The disciples named in the passage, the ones who sent for Peter, were the other Christians living in that place.
Widows: Widows, when we talk about them in Scripture, weren’t merely women whose husband had died. They were women who no longer had anyone to provide for them. If they had no son, and if the husbands of their daughters didn’t want the responsibility of an extra woman, they were left to fend for themselves - homeless and hungry, with no one to turn to. The Temple was supposed to feed them, but the 10% tithe only goes so far, especially if the collection is being taken up in a poor community. The same was the case with orphans - children with no fathers. Aliens - which is sometimes translated as strangers or foreigners - were in the same boat. They were often refugees from other countries, who had no family in this new place to rely upon. So when we hear the words “Widows and orphans and aliens” in Scripture, what we are really hearing is “powerless people with no rights and no one to stand up for them.”
Back to the story: Dorcas may have had a living husband, or she may very well have been one of those fortunate widows whose husband was able to provide for her. This often happened when husband and wife had been merchants together and she continued running the business after his death. Or he may have left specific instructions on his death that gave her sufficient to live on. This was not unheard of. (A Public Service Announcement - Wills are important. Even if you are young. Just saying . . .) Whatever the case, Dorcas was well known for her compassion - her overflowing heart. The powerless in her community knew that they could come to her for help. She took Jesus’ commission to feed the hungry and clothe the naked very seriously indeed.
Dwight Praylow has been a UPS driver in Irmo, Texas for 15 years. He met Nancy McCummings when he delivered packages for her disabled son who lived with her. After that son, the last of her children, died in 2013, Mrs. McCummings was left alone. On his delivery runs in the neighborhood Dwight noticed her home was in poor repair and learned from neighbors that it had become infested with roaches. He decided he needed to do something. He said that he figured if it takes a village to raise a child, that same village needs to take care of the elderly. So he gathered up his brothers and his friends, collected donations of money and materials - bleach, paint, a refrigerator, flooring, even some furniture - and as soon as they could they put Mrs. McCummings in a hotel, cleaned up the house, exterminated the roaches and did some of the most necessary repairs. The house still needs work - and they have set up a Facebook page for anyone who wants to help - but it’s livable now, and that’s more than could be said for the condition of the home when Dwight first decided to help.
Most people would have just shook their heads and driven by. They might have wondered what her family was doing to help, never realizing that she had no one. Dwight and his friends had hearts overflowing with compassion - and those hearts drove them to help one of the least of God’s children, just as Dorcas did.
The story of Dorcas being brought back to life is more than simply another “raised from the dead” story. In most of those are stories the one grieving being rewarded for their faithfulness - like Elijah raising the widow’s son and Jesus raising the daughter of the Temple official. This one, however, doesn’t reward the widows who grieve the loss of their benefactor as much as it rewards the church in Joppa, enabling it to continue doing the work of caring for the helpless. This story tells us that death really isn’t the end.
Congregations often freak out a little when a generous benefactor dies. They also tend to freak out when a generous benefactor gets angry at something the pastor said or an action the congregation has taken and threatens to leave the congregation or withhold their tithe. I understand that panic. The idea that all of a sudden we might not be able to pay the electric bill, or worse, the office administrator (!), can bring panic into the heart of any board. These days it almost never happens that one of the apostles will come around and raise that benefactor from the dead. But somehow the church manages to survive the loss when a member passes. There is often a flurry of whispers saying, “How are we going to replace her? Who is going to make all those tunics and other clothes? Does anybody else even know how to sew?” but still, the church manages.
In the other case, when a member threatens to withhold their tithe or leave the congregation, what too often happens is that the board backs down or the pastor apologizes for whatever she said for fear of losing that person’s money. In those cases it often seems as if the church sees members more as checkbooks than as disciples. And that church continues to slowly die of fear. But sometimes the congregation realizes that the loss of that person, or that checkbook, isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes the congregation decides that going forward without that person will be ok. Scary, maybe, but ok. The Dwight Praylows of that congregation step forward and make up the difference with an extra $1, a can of paint, an hour of their time . . . And that church, having walked forward in faith and love for one another through the fear and grief of losing something - someone - they have greatly valued over the years - grows.
Sometimes a few members realize that they could give a little more, or help out a little more. For example, since coming to First Christian I decided to stop listening to conventional wisdom, which says I need to first pay all my bills and expenses and then give to “charity”. Since coming here I decided to tithe, really tithe. A full 10% of my income. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always just given what was left. And this week, having received some financial gifts, I was able to give over and above my usual tithe. I was able to donate a little for the new building, and a little for the sound system - both things that are dear to my heart. I’m not going to tell you that tithing has made my financial situation better - but I am going to tell you that tithing has made my heart feel better. I don't know how much my little bit helps, but I do know that every little bit helps.
Sometimes that benefactor, that angry member, realizes that not everyone in the congregation, or the denomination, is always going to agree on everything, but as long as we always agree that we are disciples, followers of Jesus, and that we try to follow Jesus’ teachings the best way we can, individually and in community, it’s going to be ok. Sometimes that person remembers that we are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, and that unity doesn’t mean uniformity, but simply coming together for one united purpose - to carry the Good News of God’s love for the world, as manifested in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to everyone.
The church is a place where love lives. It is a place where like minded people come together to worship God in community. It is a place from which we go forth, fed and strengthened by the overflowing compassion and love that we find at the Lord’s Table, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the comfortless . . .
“As love grows within you so beauty grows, for love is the beauty of the soul.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas). The beauty of Dorcas’ soul was so great that all the disciples in that place, all the Christians in the city of Joppa grieved her loss. Her importance to the church in Joppa was so great that Peter raised her from death so that she might continue giving, from the overflow of compassion and love that lived in her. When the beauty of a congregation’s soul is as great as Dorcas’, it too, will find new life. Even if it looks as though death is imminent, It too, will raise back up to do even more good work, to reach even more people, to share the Good News of God’s love even farther afield.
My brothers and sisters, the Good News is that God’s overflowing, unconditional, steadfast and faithful love beautifies our souls, our hearts, our lives, indeed, the entire world around us. The Good News this Easter Season is that He is Risen! And so are we - lifted into new life through the beauty of God’s overflowing love.