Fourth sunday of easter - sermon
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I’ve always enjoyed the biblical story of Tabitha. I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to it is that Tabitha’s Greek name is Dorcas. She lived in Joppa, which is a coastal city of ancient Israel.
Any of these port-cities would have had a large number of foreigners, and Greek was the shared language among all of them. It’s like today you can go almost anywhere in the world and find someone who speaks English.
So Tabitha was also known by her Greek name of Dorcas. Her story is beautiful, but I don’t know of anyone today who is so impressed by it that they would dare name their daughter Dorcas. It would be brutal in elementary school with that name.
Tabitha was a saintly woman. It is said of her in the Bible that she “was devoted to good works and acts of charity,” and that she was a disciple, which means she was one of those first-generation followers of Jesus.
When she passed away, the community gathered around her and mourned her death wailing in sorrow. They send for Peter who is in a neighbouring town. They show him all of the clothes that Tabitha had made for them over the years. Peter is so moved by Tabitha’s Christian charity that he ushers everyone out of the room. Now it’s just Peter and the deceased Tabitha. And Peter prays to Jesus for a miracle. Peter prays that Tabitha may come back to life. The Bible then only tells us that this is exactly what happens, and Peter presents the re-animated Tabitha to all the mourners who rejoice. But the Bible leaves out the reaction of Tabitha when she was alone in that room with Peter, and this leaves an opening for our own imaginations.
Tabitha had been a tireless saint, constantly doing for others. She would be hot and sweaty, dirty and tired, but she found a way to help everyone around her. When she died, those who loved her washed her body clean and laid her comfortably to rest on a bed. On the other side, she met Jesus. She witnessed the wonders of heaven and felt the reward of rest and peace that comes after a life well led. She was so happy.
Then there’s an intrusion into all of this heavenly paradise. Peter’s voice can be heard booming through the tranquility of heaven’s streets. It’s a passionate prayer that Tabitha be returned to earth. Jesus looks at the startled woman with tenderness and a little regret, and the next thing she knows she opens her eyes and she’s back in Joppa.
There’s Peter smiling, but it’s not hard to imagine her closing her eyes tightly again and trying to fool Peter and maybe sneak back to heaven, but Peter knows. He waits, and eventually she peeks at him and then says something like, “Just let me lie here for a while, I’m exhausted. It’s so nice to be clean and the bed is so comfortable.”
But Peter takes the bewildered woman by the hand and leads her out to all of those she had served so tirelessly. It reminds me of when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s one of Jesus’ first miracles.
He heals the woman and then the Bible says she got up and served all of them. Peter’s mother-in-law was made well enough to cook and serve 13 guys dinner. I wonder if she was really happy about that.
I wonder if the same kind of thing is going on with Tabitha. She was in Paradise, rested, clean, time to herself. Now Peter brings her out to the people who always needed something. I wonder if Tabitha was grateful to Peter or maybe a little upset.
And with the Tabitha-story now firmly in our thoughts, let me transition to Mother’s Day. I saw a cartoon recently. Mom gets up to feed the baby at 9:30, 12:30 and 2AM. Dad gets up at 3AM. Mom gets up again at 4 and 6AM. The alarm goes off at 7AM and dad says to her, “I’m so tired.” Mothers are the Tabitha’s of the world. Mothers are asked to give of themselves for the ones they love. Today we hopefully give them at least one day of rest. But then mothers are back to being mothers again, which means doing for others.
This is why when some of the biblical writers tell us of God’s compassion, they choose to speak of God in terms of motherhood. Isaiah does so frequently, like when God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” But the imagery of motherhood can also be forcefully protective as when God says to Hosea the prophet: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder.” (13:8)
Jesus speaks at the end of His life of wanting to comfort and protect Jerusalem as a mother would (Lk 13:34). The oldest piece of Christian literature is the First Epistle to the Thessalonians and there Paul explains that the apostles are sent to care tenderly for the people like a nurse cares for her own children.
Christian mystics through the centuries trying to convey the feeling of deep love they experience in God speak of God as Mother, and many feminist theologians today do the same. They do so because the idea of the Holy Spirit reaches back to the vital breath of God that gave life to Adam, that gave birth to Adam. Ever since, the Holy Spirit has been associated with the mothering aspect of God. The Spirit creates, brings us together and holds us together.
Back to Tabitha. There are two ways of looking at religion and they are becoming quite distinct nowadays. There is the religion of law and there is the religion of love. Law emphasizes judgment. There are those who follow the laws and get into heaven and there are so many, many others who don’t and they face eternal torment.
Then there is the religion of love. This is the faith of Tabitha. She was a disciple of Christ, a follower. What defined her as a disciple? All we’re told is that she lived like Christ. She cared for others. She tried to provide for others.
And since her name is familiar in both languages, Tabitha and Dorcas, this means that she didn’t only care and provide for one group as opposed to another. She was known by the Jews and the Greeks. She didn’t care about such distinctions. She tried to help whoever was in need no matter who they were.
The story of Tabitha made it into the Bible so that every generation of Christians would know what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Christ. Every Christian won’t be a perfect Tabitha. Every mother won’t be a perfect mother. But our job is to try.
So for all the mothers of our church, of our families and our community, a blessed Mother’s Day. And for all of us trying to be better Christians, to be more like Tabitha, let us gather around the Communion Table so that we may be fed and nourished by a mothering Christ.
For all these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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