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Life Giving Acts

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 25, 2010.

Acts 9:36-45

Dorcas, or Tabitha, as she’s called in her Aramaic name (meaning, gazelle ), is called a disciple. Interestingly, no other woman throughout the New Testament is referred to as a disciple, and we know she was a woman of great respect because her name has been handed down to the church. How many churches have had a Dorcas Class over the years? Usually, the members of that class are living, walking reminders of the heritage that Dorcas left the church. They are good women, hard-working women who aren’t afraid to do the work of the church. While churches have a bad habit of talking things to death, these quiet women are the ones who make things happen by their faithful and dedicated service. Throughout the history of the church, the spirit of their giving and serving has kept the spirit of Dorcas alive.

This great story in Acts 9 breaks out into two distinct lessons. First and foremost, this story is about a dramatic resurrection from the dead. Dorcas died from some unmentioned cause and her body was prepared for burial. Peter, the apostle known for doing powerful things in the name of the Lord, was summoned. When Dorcas died, the whole community of women turned out in true grief because she had spent her quiet life caring for those whom no one else would care for, making them clothes and doing other acts of kindness.

Peter was not too far away when the word of her death came. But by the time he arrived, he was swamped by the widows who brought him things she had made and told him one after another about this wonderful woman. The women were weeping as they told him about her deeds of loving-kindness towards them:

Look at this dress; Dorcas made it for me for my son’s bar mitzvah because she knew that I couldn’t afford any of the usual things from the market.

Look at this shawl; Dorcas made it for me because she knew my blood was thin and I shivered all the time.

Look at this cloak; Dorcas made it for me because I didn’t have anything nice to wear to Synagogue and had quit going.

With no one else to protect them, to see to their needs, what would happen to these poor, vulnerable women? Dorcas, their protector, their advocate in poverty, was dead and perhaps they felt as good as dead themselves.

I occasionally find it uncomfortable to face death with you, the church. While we understand a different and hopeful perspective about death as believers in Jesus who rose from the grave, it’s still a great mystery and often we simply don’t know what to do or say about it. For the minister there’s the matter of what to say that will help and most of us don’t feel adequate for words, particularly for words that will matter. I guess it’s death’s most powerful effect in making us feel particularly helpless.

A Presbyterian minister who was asked to preach the funeral of a church member she didn’t really know. This man had joined the church years ago, hardly ever attended, and then moved to a neighboring town long before the new minister ever arrived. But since the man still called his old church, his church, his wife asked her to come speak at the funeral. The wife was now an active member of a Pentecostal church where they lived and so she invited her pastor to participate in the funeral too.

Turned out to be quite an event. The Presbyterian went first, offering the traditional funeral liturgy, words of hope from the scripture, a prayer for comfort, and sat down. The Pentecostal minister stood up and walked over to the casket, and first thing, he turned to the widow and asked, Mary, do you want him back? She sniffed and silently nodded her head and the place was deathly quiet in shock at the man’s blunt question. Then let’s see if we have enough faith to raise him. He stood over the dead body and shouted, Ted, get up!

Everyone in attendance, including the Presbyterian minister, leaned forward to see what would happen. Nothing happened. The Presbyterian couldn’t believe what she had just seen. The Pentecostal tried again, Ted, get up! Nobody even breathed. Unfortunately, neither did Ted, who was still dead … dead Ted. So the Pentecostal minister said to the widow, Mary, I think it must be God’s will to take him on home today.

Our fear as Christian ministers is not that we lack the faith to do what Peter did that day with dead Dorcas. More likely our fear is that we don’t even have the faith to say, Tabitha, get well! The Bible’s whole story of Dorcas centers on the devastation of death … death the great intruder … death the voracious destroyer of life and relationships.

In some ways, Dorcas’ story has been told every day for the two thousand years since she died. Poor people; people who don’t have access to adequate health care; people who are trapped by their poverty in an endless cycle of frustration and futility know the same feelings of loss that these poor widows knew when Dorcas died. And thus this story gets told in extraordinary terms that overshadow the mere ordinariness of her life. Peter orders them all to leave him alone with dead Dorcas. And he says to her lifeless body, Tabitha, get up! In some ways, her rising resembles the other resurrection stories that Peter remembered. There was Jairus’ daughter. Jesus said almost the same words to her, Talitha, koum. Little girl, get up! Something similar happened with dear old Lazarus. Peter knew something from his own experience of walking with Jesus about how these things were done.

The second lesson of this story is the ordinariness of her life and ministry among the believers in the sea coastal city of Joppa. Since no husband is mentioned here, some have assumed that she was unmarried. She may have even been single but she didn’t live as if she were alone because she understood what it meant to live in community with others. Dorcas had a wide ministry in the city with widows and others who were alone. And she used her seamstress talents to see that they had clothing and blankets to keep them warm. Can you imagine how important that was in her time? From what we know about the social margins, a widow went unprotected. If her family didn’t provide for her, she might live in the most poverty stricken conditions imaginable. And when the cold, biting winds of winter came blowing off the Mediterranean Sea, how could they survive without the loving gifts of a simple cloak or blanket be?

I grew up under the loving attention of a Dorcas. I spent the weekdays in my preschool years under the care of my maternal grandmother. She and my grandfather had left the farm to go to the big city of Dallas when the war broke out. She may have moved to the city but the farm never left her. She was a simple country girl that raised her own chickens in her backyard and made cotton shirts for us during the summer heat while my parents were at work. There were three of us in her care and we were quite a handful but she always won in the anarchy we carried because ultimately she was tougher than all of us (and smarter) … always staying a step ahead of our antics.

We grew up but we never outgrew our need to be loved and cared for even when we had children of our own. Over the years, she loved us all in simple ways. She absorbed our divorces and our mistakes in life with a steady love that knew forgiveness is a powerful medicine. In the last years of her life, she lived in a nursing home not far from where she grew up. Even though lived to the age of 96, she found a way to maintain her lifelong commitment to be a positive gift to the world wherever she is.

In the last decade of her life, my grandmother busied herself by making small quilts made of scraps of cloth that she collected. They were not the large elaborate quilts I remember watching her make as a child. There were no quilt frames that took up a whole room because she wasn’t able to get around like she could when she was younger. These were small quilts, small enough for someone like her to put over her lap to keep their legs warm when the weather was cooler.

One day I asked her why she made them and she mentioned she gave them to the old folks who lived in her nursing home so all her neighbors could enjoy them and stay warm as well. Isn’t that the spirit of Dorcas at work?

Lest you think I’m affirming this work as feminine work, let me remind you that this is gender free in nature. Remember our leader, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself and began washing the feet of the disciples. This kind of servant service is equally for men as it is for women we’re all to embody this kind of loving attention to the world. That’s why when I preached Bill King’s funeral, I chose Dorcas as an example of the kind of love and care Bill had left behind. Bill was a great example in our church of the kind of ministry Dorcas had in hers and we loved him in the same way by telling Bill King stories with one another. Even today, mention the name Bill King and we all nod our heads remembering his kind of servanthood.

Think of Dorcas as a symbol of things to come, a promissory note if you will, that one day our precious dead will be restored to us, or us to them, together in a place beyond pain. Those widow ladies did the only thing they could at the moment by grieving over her death. The story is a living testimony to the power of God to rule over death. But it’s also a testimony to the miracle of her living. We ooh and aah about the miracle of Peter raising her from the dead and stand a chance of missing the biggest miracle of all … the miracle of living a life of giving to those in need. The Bible doesn’t deny death, doesn’t cover over it and doesn’t claim to remove the sorrowful sting of death. In fact, in the Bible sorrow, suffering and death become a question juxtaposed against all our claims about God … God’s goodness, righteousness, justice, and power. At one level, our faith makes us suffer even deeper because we realize that God has the power to prevent or end it. And so, in the Bible, God is questioned about this in the Psalms, in the prophets, in Job, even in the apocalyptic books.

In John’s mysterious apocalypse he attempts to describe the answer to the question of suffering and death. In the Bible, death is the enemy Christ has overcome for himself and one day will defeat for us as well. Here’s how he describes this scene:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands … And the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:9, 15-17, NRSV)

That’s the answer we receive by faith: God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Every tear, the tears of the mother who has lost her child, the tears of the wife who has lost her husband, the tears of grief anticipated by those who hear bad news in the waiting room of the hospital, the tears of parents who cannot feed their children, the tears of the abused, the tears of the disappointed, the tears of the lonely, lost and forgotten. And as believers, we cling to the promise, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.