A Sermon on Acts 9:36-42
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
May 12, 2019 – Fourth Sunday of Easter (C)
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since 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.” So 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. Peter 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
I will be the first to admit that I rarely preach out of the Book of Acts. I suspect that many of us overlook it – between the epic stories of the Old Testament, the life-changing preaching of the Gospels, and the deep theology of the epistles, we tend to miss this history of the early church. So, if you also haven’t read Acts in a long time, let me jog your memory. Officially called “The Acts of the Apostles,” this is the fifth book in the New Testament, and tells us primarily about the missionary activities of Peter and Paul. Without Acts, we’d have little idea what the early church looked like and a lot of Paul’s letters would be even harder to understand without this context. Acts was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and is meant as a Second Chapter to Luke; think of it this way – Jesus is the beginning of the story, the church is the second part of the story, and it all hinges on Easter, which happens right in the middle. In short, Acts is the story of what life is like after the Resurrection, the life that we all live today in faith.
And so in Acts, we get this little known story of Tabitha, also called Dorcas. Tabitha is the only woman in the Bible to be named a “disciple,” but other than that she’s fairly ordinary.
We know lots of women like her.
She devoted her life to service, particularly ministry with widows. She may have been a widow herself, but perhaps not. She may have had quite a bit of money with which to do her charity, or may have scrimped and saved to care for those around her. She was probably older, but we don’t know for sure. We really don’t know much about her. What we do know is that she and the other widows spent their time making clothes, which was a common task for older women in those days. She becomes ill and dies, as we all do, and her church mourned her loss. She wasn’t “famous or well-known, [but] she was important to those who did know her. It is clear that she loved and that she was loved. They did not want to lose her. She was a disciple who was giving and faithful.”[i]
Many of us know women who are or were like Tabitha. Hard-working. Faithful. Loving. Selfless. Perhaps, like the women who brought their tunics to show to Peter, you also have handmade keepsakes by women who have loved and influenced you. I shared with the children the prayer shawl that I have from Gail, a pastor who nurtured me in the faith when I was just learning how to be a minister. I look at that shawl in my office and I remember her. And we have keepsakes all over this church, made by women of devout faith. The banners upstairs were made by Nelda Atkins. Some of our Nativities were painted by Linda Wilper, and our Advent wreath was decorated by Ruth Washburn. Some of the curtains in our church were sewn by Lola Ruppert, and we’re about to celebrate the Strawberry Festival started by Gladys Clayton and other women of Westminster. And those are just the first few off the top of my head. There are women and men throughout the history of the church and who are in this sanctuary today who build and sew and organize and clean and mend and create. This is the patchwork quilt of our faith – all of our lives and stories stitched together to make what we call church.
Here’s the extraordinary thing about that: this is all pretty ordinary. This is just what we do: feeding the hungry, creating music and worship, caring for the sick and dying, loving one another. Basic, run of the mill Christianity. And isn’t it wonderful!
Tabitha’s life was ordinary and yet still mattered. Tabitha was a woman of faith like hundreds we’ve known, so common that we forget her name. And yet, her life was still worthy of redemption and even resurrection. Tabitha’s life mattered not because she was extraordinary, but because she was loved by her community and loved by God. And friends, that’s the good news. Tabitha mattered to God. We matter to God. You matter to God. You don’t have to be extraordinary to belong in the Kingdom.
Now, human beings are capable of great things, particularly with God’s help. Some of you may aspire to notoriety for your discipleship and that is fantastic. If you are a headliner, there is room at God’s Table for you. But the majority of us are going to live pretty normal lives. We, like Tabitha, might get our names mentioned once or twice, but other than that will just quietly go about our lives. Our world (and let’s be honest, sometimes our inner dialogue), will tell us that we didn’t accomplish much; that there’s nothing important about us. But the good news of this gospel is that you do not have to be the best thing since sliced bread to be important. Your life, your ministry, your acts of goodness matter deeply to God and to those around you. Even if you never make a headline in a newspaper, even if your Tweet never goes viral, you matter in this place and to God.
Megan Berry posted a meme on Facebook last night that’s been wiggling around in my mind all morning. It said, in part: “Because of you, someone has a favorite mug to drink their tea out of that you bought them. Someone hears a song on the radio, and it reminds them of you. Someone’s remembered a joke you told them and smiled to themselves. Never think you don’t have an impact. Your fingerprints can’t be wiped away from the little marks of kindness that you’ve left behind.” I’d add this: Because of you, a hungry family has an extra can of food to eat. Because of you, a person in the hospital knows that they aren’t alone. Because of you, the children of this church know that they belong to God. Because of you, someone has a shoulder to cry on. Because you are a disciple of the Living God, because you are devoted to good works and acts of charity, you have made the Kingdom of God a little more real here on earth.
The story of Acts is our story: it is the story of the church living in response to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That story continues through us. And the story of Tabitha is our story, as well: a story of intentional kindness, of loving community, and ordinary faith; a story of good works and charity; a story of disciples who may never be quite so famous as the big names of the Bible, but who still point to the truth of new life. Tabitha’s life, her ministry and her story, are important, even if little known. Our stories, too, are an important piece of God’s work in the world.
Beloved, you matter so much to God, and you matter so much to this church family. May all of our lives, whether ordinary or extraordinary, point to the good news of new life in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.