Shelter in the Port
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.[h] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 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.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
The Word of the Lord.
Good morning! Thank you for having me. It’s always such a gift to be able to share in worship with you. And, of course, Happy Mothers’ Day!
This is a day when we are reminded of and get to celebrate the precious gift of life that each one of us has received. As a friend of mine likes to say, every single life is a miracle, and we can all be grateful and honor the women who gave us that tremendous gift. Today we also get to celebrate the many ways we have received nurture throughout our lives and been mothered, even if not necessarily by our own biological mother. It’s a day to celebrate the guardians, the angels, and the aunties in our lives. And it’s a day to appreciate the opportunities that we have had to offer nurturing care to others, whether they are our biological children, children in our neighborhoods, classrooms, or communities.
Certainly, after a week like this past one, which can leave many of us feeling weary, we can be especially appreciative of the role that nurture and care play in shaping us, reviving us, and spurring us on. This week was hard for a lot of reasons. A week where we experienced, for example, a critical incident that resulted in shutting down our only freeway for several hours and occurring in an apartment complex where one of our families lives, along with many other families. This was happening just as another school shooting was unfolding in Colorado. This was also a week where our neighbors north and south of us marked six months since the Camp, Hill, and Woolsey Fires and the Borderline Bar shooting all occurred on November 8th. This also was a week when popular Christian author, Rachel Held Evans died, after thousands of people fervently prayed for her recovery, and then, sadly, rather than honoring the sacred space of the first hours and days of death, fellow Christians took to social media to begin critiquing her writings and stances, and in doing so deeply wounded some of Rachel’s closest family and friends in their thoughtlessness. And, of course, this was a week when we all went through our own personal, family, or work related stresses, too. It was quite a week, and one in which we could all use a good amount of care.
What are some of the ways that you get care, or extend care, during or after a hard week. How do you revive yourself, or help to encourage or inspire others who may be worn down by various stresses in life. What helps pick you and your neighbors back up? Perhaps, especially when you or the people around you are grieving?
Apparently, one of the ways that Tabitha, the disciple we heard about in our Acts passage today, inspired those around her were through various good deeds and acts of charity, including hand-making clothes for widows. Not just any garments, but robes they wanted to show off as a sign of the fact that this woman is needed in the world. This woman not only gets what we’re going through, but goes above and beyond to lift us up. Imagine what it must have been like for these widows, trying to help Peter understand what Tabitha meant to them. Women who, in their culture, were entirely dependent on the charity of others. And Tabitha, not only gave them hand-outs, but gave them dignity. And apparently, she did it with a spirit in which she was known for her faithfulness and dedication to goodness. Imagine Peter, a fisherman from a small town, listening to this gaggle of women and men, chattering away through their tears about the incredible, caring woman Tabitha was. A woman where in her wake people felt inspired and enriched by what she offered them.
Thinking about the widely ranging events of this week, as I approached our passages for today, I appreciated with fresh eyes what it might have meant to Peter to come into Tabitha’s community, especially after the many weeks that he had been having. See, when we meet Peter in this passage, he’s been having very challenging days for a while. His entire worldview has been shifting, over and over. The ways he understood who he was, what he was called to, how he should operate in the world, and why. As you may recall from the past few weeks, he suffered the pain of having Jesus prophesy and then witness him deny Jesus three times just before Jesus’ crucifixion. He suffered the pain and haunting of that being their final exchange before Jesus’ death. He grieved along with his family and friends throughout Holy Saturday. Then, he experienced the tremendous joyful stress – and joy is its own kind of stress – of the resurrection and Jesus’ appearances in the following days. Then, he experienced Saul’s murderous zeal directed at him, his family, and his friends, forcing them to live in hiding and to regularly move – the fear for their lives, and the heartache of watching his wife, children, and friends suffer. He experienced all eyes turning to him – the proclaimed rock on which the church would be built – for leadership and direction. And, then, to top it all off, just before this passage, still in chapter 9, one of the disciples, Barnabas, strolls into the elders’ circle with none other than Saul-now-Paul, testifying to Saul’s sincere conversion. Barnabas made a solid case, and, as we know, Paul was welcomed into the fold, but I can imagine, it may have been all a little too much for Peter. I can imagine he welcomed the chance to get out of town, tasked with visiting and connecting with believers in towns throughout the region.
As he went, he eventually came to the port town of Joppa, which is modern-day Tel Aviv.
And as we heard earlier, when he arrives in Joppa, several believers come to get him to say that one of their lead disciples, Tabitha, has died. Now, Tabitha as we were discussing just a moment ago, is special for many reasons. Many scholars believe that her name, which means Gazelle, may have represented who she was, too. That she would have been energetic, artful, and delivering her skill and strength in beautiful ways that captivated people and enlivened their spirits. Scripture says she was a devoted disciple, expressing her faith continuously through her generous good works and acts of charity.
So, even as Peter, too, is dedicated in his mission, and has been learning patience and kindness, nevertheless, there’s every likelihood that not far under the surface is a man who is very tired, is trying to hang on, and could use some nurture and care himself. And he suddenly finds himself surrounded by aunties and uncles – all the women and men under Tabitha’s care, who are grieving the loss of their beloved leader and friend.
As I read this passage, I couldn’t help wondering whether God brought Peter to Joppa, and allowed Peter to bring Tabitha to life, not necessarily in response to the community’s pleas, but possibly for Peter. The passage says that Peter went on to stay in Joppa for awhile, where he no doubt got the chance to luxuriate in the culture of care and blessing that Tabitha had be growing there.
I like to imagine Peter then begins a kind of spontaneous sabbatical in Joppa, in which he is nurtured and has opportunity to grow and learn even more. In fact, we’ll be discussing next week another huge lesson Peter learns while he’s staying in Joppa.
As good as all that sounds, heavens, I also really wrestled with this passage this week. I myself could not help wondering, Why does Tabitha get to get up and others don’t? Why not Rachel Held Evans, for example, a burgeoning theologian who was barely getting started, and was a mother whose second child is just turning one right now. Why does Tabitha get to get up, and not every child murdered at school in our country? Why not any of our loved ones who we are grieving? The list of people we wish could get up again, of course, goes on and on. Sadly, poor biblical scholarship through the ages has not helped us answer these really heartfelt and challenging questions. For example, in 2016, author for the Biblical Archeological Society blog, wrote that
Tabitha is so beloved and so essential to the life of her believing community in Joppa… that others cannot imagine life without her. Tabitha simply cannot stay dead. Her faithful community will not permit it.
That, of course, is not helpful interpretation. That certainly does not square with so many others’ experiences. Because, of course, communities throughout the world and throughout history all have felt that way about their beloved. It is not only our desire for healing or life that brings those things about, and not only our earnest prayers either. The pain we feel by what God allows or does not allow, chooses or does not choose, has been around throughout all of human history, and expressed throughout the Bible, including from the very first biblical accounts of Adam and Eve in the garden, and of how Cain felt about God choosing between his and his brother Abel’s gifts.
I know that for some Christians – or even former Christians – its incredibly difficult to stomach passages like this one and interpretations like the one I just shared. It feels to many like a tease. Especially, when the interpretation of the passage presumes it is the earnestness of the prayers that result in Tabitha’s resurrected life. And so, it’s important to clarify, it is not about whether they loved her enough or they asked in the right way.
What the Bible also says, throughout its entirety, is that us expressing our honest hearts to God in all circumstances matters. Us bringing these kinds of painful questions to God’s feet is good and faithful practice. This passage represents the tremendous complexity in life. That miracles go on, even while others around Joppa, throughout the region of Israel during that same time, and throughout our world today, were not receiving miracles, and instead were grieving. Not everyone in Joppa was rising again the way Tabitha did. And it’s good for us to wrestle with that tension.
And, really, that’s why I think this is a very meaningful passage for Mothers’ Day– a day when we are keenly aware of how some people are celebrating so much goodness today while others also are experiencing grief, sadness, anger, or sorrow.
Lastly, I want to share how, in the end, I find great hope in this passage. Not necessarily for how it may speak to resurrection, but in the truth that while going about his work – and maybe trying to avoid some of the difficult conflicts in his life – Peter encountered the hands and feet of Jesus in Joppa, through the men who first called for him, through the widows who greeted him and attended to him in the days following, through Tabitha and her inevitably sharing with him the caring and inspirational culture she was growing in Joppa, and through Simon the tanner who hosted him. God provided Peter with a community dedicated to goodness, in a time when he undoubtedly needed refreshment. May we trust that God will provide for each of us, with refreshment when we need it, and may we be inspired to continue joining in and creating a community that Tabitha modeled for us, one that is dedicated to goodness, generosity, and hospitality. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.