“Sustained by Good Deeds”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 16, 2014
University Baptist Church
Throughout the country, this is the season that pastors are giving stewardship sermons. For those churches whose fiscal years begin on January 1, this is a stressful time. Talk about high-pressure preaching. Thank God that UBC had courageous and wise people at its helm 18 or so years ago (before my time) when we decided to shift our stewardship campaign to the spring and our fiscal year starting in July, when our program year begins as well. It just makes good sense. We can focus on something else in November.
And yet, we have a culture that celebrates good works so much more in the fall than in the spring. We’re gearing up for Thanksgiving, and Christmas is just around the corner. So it seems only fitting that we take the time to celebrate the transformative story of a disciple named Dorcas, or Tabitha—a good and faithful steward of her time and talent.
Tabitha means Gazelle. When we think of a Gazelle, we think of beauty and majesty. We think of being fleet footed and doe-eyed. A gazelle leaps through a snowy field and we say, “wow.” Tabitha lived in Joppa, a port city 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea. Joppa means beauty. Tabitha the beautiful gazelle, the free one that we long to be. She had her admirers, that’s for sure, and I am one of them. But her beauty had nothing to do with physical appearance. It had to do with her courage, generosity and grace.
Her reputation was so strong that she was known by both her Aramaic name (Tabitha) and her Greek name (Dorcas), straddling both cultures, like so many of us do. Unique to her was that she was not identified by her husband or even her family. This has led some scholars to wonder if she was a widow. She certainly spoke their language. I think of Adele Fadden, whom many call the matriarch of UBC. She was known, like Tabitha or Dorcas not for her wealth or her late husband’s position. She was known for her generosity. She was known for the way she made people feel at home and comfortable. She was known for the way that people could say anything around her and not worry about offending her. We could assume that she would be offended when anyone else was discounted or disregarded.
As today’s scripture opens, Luke describes her as woman known far and wide because of her good works, meaning she was known by her generosity, her discipline. She was known as a friend and a confidante. Do you know people like that?
The story goes that she got sick and died. The people called the Apostle Peter and she was brought back to life. While the emphasis of the text may be on Peter’s healing, I want to focus on the community surrounding the generous Dorcas/Tabitha. It seems that they were more willing to surround her because of her good works. Is that a prerequisite for solidarity? No, but it sure makes things easier. It’s easier and to support people who have been supportive. When generous people die, especially selfless generous people, we often experience people coming out of the woodwork to wax philosophical or poetic about the generosity of their dear sainted friend.
The beautiful Joppa community is torn apart in grief as their matriarch has died. They couldn’t see straight. They started pulling in all of the clothes made at Dorcas’ hands. They lined her bed chamber with the works of her hands. They wore their tunics proudly. Her intimate friends knew her by her Aramaic name, Tabitha. But she had a Greek name Dorcas, meaning that her famous acts of charity were known far and wide. That’s one serious disciple. The widows who mourned over her were not the usual paid mourners. The story says that they are the widows, the recipients of her generosity. The widows are the people on the community welfare rolls.
Tunics were often a certain bland color to show people that they were widows. What if she added some color to them? What if she sewed messages in to the seams? What if her solidarity extended the hope and the lives of the widows? What if their circle of widows became their support group, their circle of hope, their church?
Like Ruth who was devoted to Naomi, Tabitha was devoted to the other widows. So it was appropriate that they surrounded her at the time of her sickness, just as she had surrounded them—seeming nobodies, but Tabitha never forgot them. When Ruth’s child Obed was born, Ruth brought her to Naomi to name and the women surrounded them. Ruth redeemed Naomi in a way that official religion could not. She redeemed her by exposing her, by showing her that she wasn’t alone. She redeemed Naomi, changing her name back from Mara (bitter) to Naomi (pleasant).
One of the things that we notice about Tabitha is that when she gets up from her bed, Peter gathers the widows to tell of her health.
Tabitha redeemed the people not because of her good works, but because of her solidarity. Good works can be sterile, like giving and benevolence. But solidarity is like sharing and it sustains us. It upsets the power dynamic. It reorders the world. For Tabitha was not only a seamstress who specialized in women’s tunics, she was a sister in the struggle.
Now, what if the raising of Tabitha was a plant? A ruse to grant Peter legitimacy?
Here’s what we know: The raising of Tabitha established Peter as a leader of the early church, giving him power and authority. But maybe the church of Tabitha knew the Romans better than anyone and conspired to give Peter and the early church movement what it needed, credibility. After all, the Romans never understood that weird meal that they called the Eucharist or communion. The early church was accused of cannibalism. The leaders were being stoned and beheaded. But Tabitha and her community knew of a power stronger than death. Maybe she needed to remind Peter of that power.
I can just see the scene: Her body is laid out in an upper room, just like the last supper was in an upper room. Peter needs to travel about 12 miles to get from Lydda to Joppa. There’s that Biblical number, 12 again. As he gets closer, he moves farther away from Jerusalem, the center of the old religion. The new religion will not be so tied to that old city.
It had been women who needed to teach Peter about that power on Easter Sunday, after all. Peter cowered in the shadows, hiding for his life after falling asleep on Jesus, denying him three times and abandoning him at the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene had to tell Peter and the rest to get over themselves and get on with the work. These daughters and sisters of Mary Magdalene were doing the same thing with Peter. “Here’s an opportunity for you do redeem yourself and maybe the rest of us while you’re at it. We’ll say you raised Tabitha from the dead. You make sure that her story gets told. You make sure that people realize that Christianity is about more than believing certain doctrines. It is about doing things that will bring hope and a sense of solidarity to a people in need. Live into the words of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. We’ll even clear out of the room so you can have a private moment with her. When you come out, we’ll call it a miracle. Deal?”
When Tabitha is raised, she is restored to life and she is returned to her community. Life happens in community. The body’s healing is one thing. The soul’s healing can only happen in community.
And just to bring it home how Peter has changed, there is an off-hand comment in verse 43. Peter is said to stay with a tanner named Simon. Simon is Peter’s old name. Being a tanner, Simon is unclean and that makes Peter unclean. But Peter doesn’t seem to mind. In the 10th chapter of Acts, Peter will have a vision where he will say that God is doing away with all of the laws that made objects and people clean and unclean. God will no longer show any partiality. And it comes on the heels of his visit with Tabitha, the doer of good works, the solidarity sustaining sewer of widows tunics. And Peter’s world is turned upside down. And so is ours.
It’s no accident that Tabitha is the only woman in the entire Bible to be called a disciple. Because of her good works. It’s the natural result of discipleship.
I’ve met Tabitha. Haven’t you? She’s been in every church I’ve served. She doesn’t make a fuss about her goodness. She just does it.
I think of Janet Condit, a great grandmother from the Asylum Avenue Baptist Church who crocheted large afghans. She gave them to people in need and refused to take any money for them. They were like prayer shawls, except they were more like blankets.
Then there is Vivian Girven from the same church who decided that people needed to be fed in the poor neighborhood and so she helped start a soup kitchen that exists to this day, serving free meals on the second and last Saturdays of every month, just as the bi-weekly checks have run out.
Jose Hernandez and Michael Pugh were members of Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco. They received food from Operation Open Hands for people living with HIV. They brought the leftovers to church to share with some of the poorer members of the congregation.
We have great sewers who created this great art that adorns our sanctuary. We have knitters who selflessly create prayer shawls, often anonymously. We have gardeners who bring beauty to the community and offer a welcoming lawn on which to rest and reflect.
A few weeks ago, we had most of the UBC Shalom Award recipients sit in one pew for a photo op. They were all Tabitha—groundbreaking disciples who befriend the forgotten.
So who is sustained by good deeds? Is it the good deed doer? Sometimes, that’s the case. One can find the meaning in their lives by doing for others.
Is it the recipient? Sometimes. The recipients of the Tabitha Tunics wore them with dignity. When we are wrapped with prayer shawls, we feel surrounded by the love of God and community and we remember that we are not alone.
I think what is really sustained by good deeds is the community. Good deeds, generosity, sharing, all of those are evidence of grace. They are symbols of God’s presence. And it changes us. It sustains us. It makes it possible to pick ourselves off the floor and imagine a new future.
So take a cue from Tabitha, Dorcas: the subversive sewer of solidarity, the daring disciple whose deeds were not just because of generosity. They were evidence of her changed life and they were given in the hope that another life would be changed. And through it, we might be sustained by good deeds. It’s how we know God these days.
So be a son or daughter of Tabitha, a disciple. Be a generous recipient and giver of grace. It will change you, it will change the recipient and most important, it will build a redemptive community. Rooted in courage and sustained by grace.