NRSV ACTS 9:36-43
36 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. 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.
Someone – I’m not sure who, but I know it has been since I was ordained some time ago – someone has ordained that the fourth Sunday in the Easter season is Good Shepherd Sunday. Maybe it received that title once people saw that the Gospel lesson for this day in all three cycles is from the tenth chapter of John, the part where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.
It’s great that we do this, and I have enjoyed preaching on Jesus as the Good Shepherd over the years. It gives me a chance to connect with my friends who have experience taking care of sheep, and learning about those animals who are oh so cute, and oh so dumb. It’s a lesson in remembering who we are and who Jesus is, and not confusing the two.
But I don’t know anything about being a shepherd. I grew up in metro New York, where any kind of animal outside of dogs and cats were rare. I’ve never had to herd sheep, even on one of those touristy farms. I just know what other people have told me, so I really don’t know where to go with this.
But the other title of this day – Mother’s Day – I do have some knowledge about that, if only from the perspective of an observer. I have seen my own Mother at work; she wasn’t perfect and I’m not going to blubber sentimentally about her; we had our issues, but what mother and child don’t? But she was a very good mother. And I have seen a really, really good mother at work for the last 34 years in my wife, whom I can say with no small amount of bias is the best mother I have ever seen at work in that much valued role.
But before I go on and on about the importance of the mothering role in the life of children – well documented and certainly true – or about how virtuous are the women who take on that role, I think we need to chill. And in that chilling we need to remember that there are other women who could not give birth, other women who did not marry, other women who did not experience the joy and wonder of mothering a child either biologically or through adoption or through the foster parent process. These women, just as much as anyone else, have been mothers in their own rights as they have nurtured other people, as they have brought forth new life for other people. Sometimes we in the church get a little too carried away with this day – like giving out flowers only to mothers, recognizing only those women who had children and especially reward those who had the most children – that we forget other women who deserve to be applauded and thanked. I have known too many women who dread this day because they feel their own personhood neglected and trashed because they never had a child. Perhaps they mothered other people more than they realize. They, too, need to be thanked and reminded that they are valued.
But there is something else about this day. Something not as cheerful. Something the New Testament lesson gives to us on this day of all days. It is the intrusion of death upon our celebrations of those who have shepherded us, those who have mothered us, those who have given us life or new life, or both. I know about that, too. I remember walking into the parlor of Posey’s Funeral Home in North Augusta, South Carolina and giving my Mom one last kiss, her skin cold from death. And I know that many of you have experienced that reality, too. It’s there, too, whether we like it or not.
It’s not just this story from Acts that brought this to mind. It was the way that death came for special people for me over the last week, one after the other. One I knew well, the others I only knew from their work, but theirs was a work that had touched me deeply. And that work had touched many other people as well. We like, the widows in the story of those Tabitha, or Dorcas, left behind were left only with tears, memories and evidences of a life of grace well lived.
I mention them mainly because I think they, regardless of gender, lived out the calling to be a shepherd, to be a mother, to be someone who brings forth life in others. A Dorcas, a Tabitha, a person whose legacy of love and faith outlives them and is part and parcel of their resurrection.
One was a man named Jean Vanier, a Frenchmen who founded L’Arche communities, an organization that embraced and empowered people with special needs. Vanier was doing this before it became the thing to do. He was tremendously insightful into the needs of people whom the rest of society would rather institutionalize and not see. Vanier called forth on all of us to see these people. When asked his definition of love, Vanier said:
“Love is to reveal to someone: ‘you are beautiful and you have value.’ That is the secret of love. It’s not primarily to do things for people, because then we find our glory in doing things. The secret of love is to reveal to someone that ‘you are precious,’ that, ‘you are beautiful.’”
And when asked why he gave up a prestigious teaching position at a university for serving those who are often seen as outcasts, Vanier said, “I thought Jesus wanted me to.”
The second one – and this one is the most personal one so I will make it quick – was Dr. Zane Moore. Zane was a pastor for 50 years – a few of those as my pastor. He came to my home church in Greenville two years after my Dad died and the year before I went to seminary. He came at a time when I deeply needed a pastor, a shepherd, and he filled that role wonderfully. But his passing came about the time this church heard of the death of the wife of one of your former pastors – Susan Thompson, whose husband John served here in the late 70’s. These saints of the church were those people who called forth new life in all of us. I know my life was enriched by Zane’s ministry and presence, and I am sure your lives were enriched by Susan’s.
The third one was a writer of church life and spirituality I never had the chance to meet. But it would be hard for me to think of someone whose work touched many of us more deeply than Rachel Held Evans. She was only 37 years old, a wife and a mother of two young children, when she died a little over a week ago. Her death to a raging infection came so fast that it blew so many of us out of our spiritual and emotional water. The internet this past week has been filled with accolades of her, and admissions from many of us who are having a really hard time with this death.
But like Dorcas, Rachel leaves behind evidences of grace and faith for all to see and be enriched by. When writing one time about the dangers of preaching a text like Proverbs 31 on Mother’s Day, with all of its unrealistic expectations of women, she noted: “So pastors, don’t be afraid of looking to Scripture for examples of strong and capable women. But be careful of focusing on marriage, motherhood and domesticity, when it is not our roles that define us, but the integrity and bravery we bring to those roles.
“You don’t have to turn to Proverbs 31 to find women of valor. You can turn to Sarah, Deborah, Esther, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, Martha, the apostle Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Tabitha, too (the Tabitha of our Acts story this morning). And you can turn to the women of valor in your life and around the world who are bringing their unique gifts, insights, passions and callings to bring hope and healing to the world.”
From what we can see from the Acts account, Tabitha was one of those women whose gifts of love and compassion for others outlived her. Even if she was no longer breathing she lived on in the tears of those she left behind, and in the work of her hands that blessed those she loved. I can’t think of a better definition of motherhood – or faithful living for that matter – than that.
You could say the same for Rachel Held Evans, who leaves behind a legacy of honesty and faithfulness and speaking the truth that touched so many people; or Zane Moore and Susan Thompson whose ministries outlive them; or the work of Jean Vanier who continues to inspire us to reach out to those most folks want to marginalize. The beauty of Tabitha and all of these other folks is that they all extended themselves out beyond themselves. They were not content with being self-absorbed, with being wrapped up in themselves; they passed on what they knew and what they valued, so that others would be blessed.
But of course, this is not a story of death having the last word. Peter kneels – an unusual posture of prayer in that culture, when prayers were usually done standing up with hands outstretched. But Peter kneels, a posture that shows submission to God and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Peter cannot raise Tabitha from the dead, so Peter kneels before the only One who can – and does.
This is not a story about death; this is a story about life – and those who have helped us to live more fully. But Tabitha’s story – and those of the others I mentioned, as well as the ones you have in your minds – cause us to reflect on another question: What are the deaths we need to rise from? The death of a relationship, whether by physical death or alienation or a careless word. The death of a dream. The death of a bad memory of something we did or said that we have carried for way too long. The death of an unrealistic expectation that we still hang onto, thinking if we can be super person for someone else that will make everything okay.
There are all kinds of things we need to rise from. And there are those who serve as our shepherds, calling for us to rise from those things, those memories, those burdens we dump onto ourselves, so that we can live into the new life God has for us.
I don’t know what Tabitha did with her resurrected life. My guess is that she probably did what she did before – make tunics and other clothing for those who most needed them; stood up for widows and other vulnerable people; gave a listening ear to someone else; be there actively and presently to show the love of Christ by the simple, ordinary things she did and said.
That’s what she would have done, until death – and resurrection – claimed her again. Because that is the call for all of us – to live lives filled with hope and joy and wonder, witnessing to God’s love in Jesus Christ by the ways we show our love for others. To be human evidences of grace every day we live. By the little things as well as the big things, by all the ways we show, as Jean Vanier said, that others are beautiful and valued. That is how we live into resurrection. That is how we reach out beyond ourselves. That is how we mother each other into the new life the Resurrected One gives us every day. Amen.