The community that formed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was marked by many distinctive. On Sunday May 12, 2019, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the call to include those on the margins as one of those distinctives. Our text was the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter as recorded in Acts 9:36-43. We read that after having heard the promise of God as revealed in Hosea 1:10 – 2:1.
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As we start, I’ll confess that I don’t usually select scripture readings or plan the worship experience at Crafton Heights in such a way that it mirrors the civil calendar. Some of you know this, because you’ve been disappointed with or irritated by me on the Fourth of July, when we don’t sing a lot of patriotic songs, or on Labor Day, or on Veterans Day. Maybe you know this because you were here on Mother’s Day in 2017, when the scripture for the day happened to be the heartwarming and “sit in church next to Grandma-friendly” tale of David and Bathsheba. Typically, if you come to me with such disappointment, I will say that most of those are, indeed, important days, but that we gather in worship for a different and, I would add, more important reason.
But as I read the scripture chosen for today, and then I realized that today would be Mother’s Day, I thought to myself, “Jackpot!” This is precisely the kind of story that we love, especially on Mother’s Day. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings used in a number of churches that is designed to help congregations encounter the full breadth of God’s Word. And wouldn’t you know it: the Revised Common Lectionary calls the church of Jesus Christ on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter, to consider Acts 9:36-43 – the story of Tabitha and Peter. It’s perfect! I mean, what’s not to like here?
The central figure in this passage appears to be Tabitha. Some translations refer to her by her Greek name, which is Dorcas, but either way it means “gazelle” or “deer”. She is truly remarkable in many, many ways.
You are all familiar with people who have traditions of helping others at various times of the year: someone in your family may go serve a meal at the shelter every Thanksgiving, for instance; someone else raises money to fight world hunger each spring; heck, some of our friends are not here this morning because they alwaysparticipate in “the Race for the Cure”. We know and we love those people, and we admire their regular commitment to charitable giving and living.
But with Tabitha, it’s more than just an annual fund drive. She is all in, all the time – 24/7/365. This is who she is. This is what she does.
Here is one of the ways that you know that Tabitha is remarkable. There are 33 women named in the New Testament, and another 28 who are mentioned, but not named. There are another 16 references to groups of unnamed women. And yet Tabitha is the only woman to be described as a mathetria – the feminine form of the word “disciple” in Greek. Nobody else in the entire Bible has that form of that word used to describe her: I’m here to suggest that indicates something about her devotion to the Lord and her willingness to listen for God’s call in her life.
Tabitha, the disciple, has spent all of who she is serving the poor and the widows. And then, one day, she is gone. The one person on whom the most vulnerable in society could count – she’s died. What are we going to do now?
The most vulnerable ones – nearly always women and children – find themselves without an advocate. These folks don’t have time or energy to argue about theology, or try to shape policy, or sit around listening to the promises of the future… they are simply trying to figure out, “how are we going to get through this day?” And the one who has helped them find the answer to that question on every other day has died. They are alone. Tabitha, who meant everything to them, is gone. There are many of you in this room who know how it feels to lose the person that held your world together; if you don’t know that yet, I suspect that you will. It is a horrible feeling.
So what do they do? Well, they hear that Peter is in Lydda. This apostle who has been rumored to have a great connection to God is not far – he’s about twelve miles away. For the sake of reference, I’ll tell you that’s about as far as it is to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon, or to Kennywood. So as soon as she’s died and her body’s been laid out, a couple of the fellas walkto Lydda so they can tell Peter. They get there, and they tell him that she’s dead, and they say, “Hurry! You’ve got to come!”
Why? What good would it do to have Peter show up now? That’s one of the frustrating things about this passage: there’s not very much explaining that goes on here. The story is told, not explained.
And Peter goes with the unnamed followers of Jesus, walking all the way from Kennywood to Crafton Heights. Peter must represent some sort of hope in Jesus; he’s been acquainted with the Power of the Spirit. They want him there, but nobody says why. Nobody seems to have much of a plan, only that they want Peter to noticeTabitha.
And that’s what happens. They bring Peter into the house, and take him upstairs, and say, “Look at this stuff! Peter, you’ve got to know who she was to us. Peter, say her name. Know that she mattered!”
That happens doesn’t it? This week, social media has been flooded with news of yet another school shooting, and many of you have posted photos of a young hero who saved lives, Kendrick Castillo. You’ve said, “Tell his story. Know his name!” Similarly, following the death of Antwon Rose, there were protestors who cried out, “Say his name!” Because these young men – and so many others – are not just statistics, they are not just news stories – they are real people with complex lives and vibrant hopes.
So there in the house, Tabitha’s friends say, “She was everything. You have to know her, Peter. You have to see who she was.”
And Peter does! He notices, and the story now begins to revolve around Peter, and we see something of what he is like.
We learn that although Tabitha is the one who is called a “disciple” in this passage, Peter proves to be a quick learner too. The Greek word mathetes, which is often translated as “disciple”, means “one who learns” or “follower”. Watching Peter interact with Tabitha’s community should remind us of the ways that Jesus conducted himself with Jairus’ family back in Mark chapter 5. The first thing he does is to kick people out of the room – he can’t afford any distractions or negative energy. And then he does something else he learned from Jesus – he kneels to pray. In his culture, most of the praying was done standing, arms spread toward the heavens, and eyes looking upwards. But here, he kneels, as did his Master Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
After he clears the room, and after he kneels to pray, then Peter says her name – and in saying that, he calls her back to life. Tabitha is restored. The widows and the poor have their hope restored. God’s name is honored. And, as the scripture says, “many people believed in the Lord.”
Do you see what I mean? This is a greatMother’s Day story. A woman’s value is noted, her presence is missed, she is honored and even knelt before by a powerful man, and life comes to a community. It’s perfect.
At this point, Peter has to be the Most Valuable Player in Joppa. I mean, the guy has walked here, from Kennywood, and he’s restored the community. What happens next? Was there a parade? Did he get the key to the city? We don’t know how he was honored, but we know that he must have been, right?
Well there’s one more name in the scripture – one more verse in the chapter that was omitted when we told this story first. Acts 9:43 reads, “Peter stayed in Joppa some time with a tanner named Simon.”
Well, so what? That seems like an afterthought. Maybe it is.
What’s a tanner? A person who makes leather.
Why would first-century people in the Middle East need leather? What would it be used for in that culture? Shoes, straps, saddles, reins, tents, books, drums, wineskins, water bottles, buckets… Leather was indispensable in that place. Tanners were very, very necessary.
And yet, tanners were also problematic. Think about it. Where do you get leather from? Animals. Dead animals. To make leather, people in that culture would start with a skin, and smear one side of it with lime, and let that stand for a few days as the lime worked its magic against the flesh and hair. Then the tanner would scrape the skin, and soak it in a concoction made from dog feces. After it sat there for a while, the skin would be soaked in another brew made from fermented bran. After that, the skin was washed in salt water and dried in the sun. Later, it would be doused with boiling vinegar mixed with copper, dried again, and finally rubbed with olive oil.
I suspect that on hearing that, you are not surprised to know that most Jews thought of tanners as “unclean”. In fact, the rabbis taught that a tannery was to be equated with a bathhouse or a public urinal. A tanner was to be treated as one with boils, polyps, or who collects dog excrement. Many localities had specific laws and ordinances mandating that tanneries were to be built outside of city limits and downwind from the local population.
Now, work with me here: Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this amazingly great Mother’s Day story of the day that Tabitha came back to life – with no explanation as to why or how it happened – and ends it by saying that when all of this had occurred, out of all the possible places he might have stayed in the midst of a very grateful populace… Peter chose to stay at the home of a tanner named Simon.
Peter was called to Joppa so that he could notice the problem that everyone could see – Tabitha was dead! He noticed her. He called her by name. He noticed the condition of the poor and bereft in Joppa and in healing her, he equipped them to face the challenges of a new day. But then he does something even more Jesus-y than raising a much-beloved saint from the dead…
Here, Peter demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and grace by reaching out, by showing up, by saying not only Tabitha’s but Simon’s name. Simon – the guy whom everybody needed, but – unlike Tabitha – nobody wanted or even noticed.
Think about that… When the most important VIP to visit town in weeks decides to stay at Simon’s home – even though he is nothing more than an unclean tanner who ought to remain invisible, out of sight, and downwind… who else is going to visit Simon’s home?
In accepting this gift of hospitality, Peter validates Simon’s being here. In a very visible, concrete way, Peter demonstrates the Gospel truth that when you feel most excluded, shamed, unloved, unwanted, or cast aside… that maybe at that very moment, the grace of God is moving toward you.
In this passage, the prophecy of Hosea has come true: the one who was called “not my people” is now recognized as a child of the Living God. The one who was isolated and alone is called “My People.” The one who was shamed and cast out is called “shown mercy”.
You know, beloved, that this is not just an old-timey Bible story, right? You know that this is what we are about right now, right here? You have a name. And God knows it. You are God’s people. You are children of the living God.
Let us say that to each other, and let us live in such a way that we validate those around us as well. Let us say the names of those whom we see. Let us notice who they are before God. Thanks be to God! Amen.