“The Wrong Question”
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. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Resurrection is the theme of the fifty days of Eastertide. But historically the month of April has been filled with particularly horrific events. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated in April. Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Immigration Center murders in New York – all of these tragic events happened in April.
The poet T.S. Elliott famously stated that “April is the cruelest month” in his poem, The Waste Land,” written in 1922. The first stanza continues:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
And this year, April continues its cruel trend, as we think of the bombs that exploded in Boston on Monday, killing three people and wounding more than 100. Like may of you, I spent Friday distracted by the footage of police attempting to find the second suspect in the bombing, his brother having been killed in a horrifying shootout. More death. More terror. More brutality.
In April, the temptation is strong to shut down and shut out such horrifying images. The scenes of mayhem do not fit our spring mood. Such images are entirely incongruent with the blooming beauty of the season. April contains the season of Easter and resurrection, but for too many April will be forever marked by death.
What then shall we say as people of the resurrection in the face of violent death that so often marks the season of Easter?
First, I think, we need to resist the temptation to be glib. I am more than willing to admit that pretty much all the horrible things that happen in the world are beyond my understanding. And it is beyond yours as well. I cannot give a reasonable explanation for why people lost their lives and limbs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or why small children were gunned down in a first grade classroom or why a fertilizer factory in Texas blew up and killed dozens of people . Any person of faith who rushes to tell you why bad things happen to good people, or bad people, or any people is simply being dishonest. We can argue until we are blue in the face about gun laws and immigration policy and safety inspections. These are important conversations to have and public policies really do matter. Yet we also know that terrible things happen in the world that we cannot control or understand. Cain is still killing Abel. Human beings are a dangerous species, destructive, and so vulnerable. The psalmist says humans are made both wonderfully and, truth be told, fearfully.
Yet we are people of faith who are called to be salt and light and Christ in the world. We are called to speak God’s healing word to a hurting world. What then shall we say about these things?
Well, maybe this morning, after a week like the one we’ve had, maybe we can only talk about Tabitha.
Let’s talk about Tabitha and her little church in Joppa near the Mediterranean Sea. Tabitha — the first and only named female disciple in the Bible. Yes, we know that other women walked with Jesus and ministered with Jesus. We know that other women played an important role in the early church. But only Tabitha is depicted in scripture as a female disciple with a capital D. So today, let us talk about Tabitha and her story in the Book of Acts.
When we talk about Tabitha, we need to remember that she was born into and lived in a Roman-occupied world that can only be described as very grim. Tabitha’s world was one in which wealth was concentrated into the hands of a very, very small percentage of people. Only a few people – and all of them were male, by the way — held all the power and privilege in the 1stcentury. Most of the population was grindingly poor beyond our imagining.
And widows were among the most vulnerable citizens of all. Because women could neither own nor inherit property, a woman was entirely dependent upon her father and then, after she was married, on her husband. If her husband died, the widow’s only hope was that there would be a male relative such as her husband’s brother to support her. And if there was no man willing or able to help her, a widow was truly on her own, dependent upon the charity and pity of her community.
Such social and nutritional insecurity takes its toll. In fact, Tabitha was born into an age when life expectancy for women like her was around 40 years old. The widow’s life was marked by poverty, malnutrition and illness. In fact, it is fair to say that death as described here in Acts was not a natural one, not really. Her death was likely caused by political and religious systems that relegated widows to a life of scrapping and scraping to get by the best they could. Widows as much as any victim of Roman execution, were victims of a corrupt and brutal system. As quoted famously in Hobbes’ Leviathan, their lives were, “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Power belonged to men, to the wealthy, to the emperor and to death.
But this little church in Joppa, an early Christian community, existed as a different sort of system standing against the prevailing structures. And I’m not sure we truly appreciate how utterly strange these Christians must have appeared in the 1st century. In this little church in Joppa, the community made it their priority to make sure widows and other vulnerable people like children would be cared for and not starve if they could possibly help it. This little church stood as a shimmering light of hope in an otherwise dark world.
And remarkably, this little church in Joppa had a woman named Tabitha among its leaders. Acts tells us that Tabitha, despite her own precarious social position, was entirely devoted to good works and acts of charity. Far from being a victim, Tabitha was something like an entrepreneur, earning a living as a seamstress and sharing the fruits of her labors with the community of widows in Joppa. She was, as one commentator notes, a one-woman faith-based initiative. She made garments not only to sell, but also to keep the widows in the community clothed.
And that is a very big deal in Tabitha’s society. Making clothing was an incredibly labor-intensive project in the first century. A single tunic could take many days to produce, and most people had a modest wardrobe of only one or two. But somehow, Tabitha kept the widows warm, clothed and protected in a hostile world. Tabitha’s existence was as bare bones as the others, but she devoted her life to taking care of the marginal people who made up this tiny church in Joppa.
No wonder they were devastated when she died. No wonder the women were weeping when Peter comes to Joppa.
It is remarkable that Peter shows up, isn’t it? It is. This is a bunch of non-entities living an impoverished community. Yet Peter comes in the name of Jesus Christ and that changes everything.
Peter heals Tabitha, all alone, evoking the image and language Jesus himself used when he cared about and cured another nobody – Jairus’ daughter, remember her? Another woman, a young woman, with no name. By the time Jesus got to her, she was dead just like Tabitha. Jesus dismisses most of the crowd and heals her privately and quietly, just as Peter does in our text. And Jesus speaks Jairus’ daughter back into life – “Child, get up.” And Jesus takes her by the hand and her life is restored. And Peter has that same power to heal Tabitha. The power of the Holy Spirit that blows like crazy throughout the book of Acts.
What struck me most this week about the events in Boston and in Texas, for that matter, were the images and stories of people who risked everything and rushed into horrific situations to assist those who had been injured. The people who acted quickly to help were not only firefighters, police or EMS staff, but also ordinary people
At the memorial service on Thursday, President Obama said: “Scripture teaches us, ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.’” That’s from the first chapter of 2 Timothy. The president went on to say:
“And that’s the spirit you’ve displayed in recent days. When doctors and nurses, police and firefighters and EMTs and Guardsmen run towards explosions to treat the wounded — that’s discipline. When exhausted runners, including our troops and veterans — who never expected to see such carnage on the streets back home — become first responders themselves, tending to the injured — that’s real power.
When Bostonians carry victims in their arms, deliver water and blankets, line up to give blood, open their homes to total strangers, give them rides back to reunite with their families — that’s love.”
I am convinced the same Holy Spirit who sent Peter rushing to this group of destitute widows who had lost their one slender thread of hope of surviving in a world in which the odds were hideously stacked against them – it is the same reckless Holy Spirit that sent people into the mayhem at the finish line in Boston on Monday afternoon and into the fiery furnace in Texas this week. The first responders in Boston and Texas didn’t stop to ask if those in need were worthy of their assistance. They simply rushed in to bring life out of death, many of them at great risk to their own lives. And on Friday, I thought of the doctors at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston who, after a long week of caring for those injured in Monday’s blast, gave their same best efforts to care for the 19 year old man who had planted the bomb and nearly bled to death in a boat while the entire city was shut down.
In this season of resurrection, God’s church is called to say no to the power of death that permeates this sin sick world, and say yes to the life that is ours in Jesus Christ. And we do this by being like Tabitha – open and generous and willing to share what we have even when it’s hard…harder than we ever imagined. To stand in the space of grief and lift up our voices in weeping. And to do those things that bring about peace. One tunic at a time. In doing small, generous acts for one another we break death’s ability to sever our connections with one another. Which is really what resurrection is about.
We may not have the same worries and concerns of the widows in that little church in Joppa. Most of us do not have to struggle to survive, but we do struggle to hear that word of life that Peter brought to Tabitha, and need to experience that extraordinary surge of the Holy Spirit’s power. Not every church can summon an apostle with the power to raise the dead, but what we can do is follow the example of that little church in Joppa and refuse to be silent in the face of suffering. We can be like Peter, filled with the power of the Spirit and rushing in to lift up the marginalized, the lost, the lonely — reminding them that their gifts and their lives matter deeply. To tell them that they are loved. And bear witness to the resurrection so it is a real and present power in the life of this church and in our lives.
The story of Tabitha suggests that maybe we are asking the wrong question this week in particular, or any week. Maybe the serious question that must be central to our lives is not why bad things happen or why evil persists in the world. Maybe the question we need to be asking is this – why does goodness persist even in the face of enormous forces against it? Maybe the question we should ask is where is love and mercy persisting in the world and how can we — you and me, the church — rush in like Peter to get in on that action? Where is resurrection life threatening to burst out and take over at any moment?
I don’t know about you, but that’s where I want to be. And I am convinced that is where the Holy Spirit is calling us to be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.