I need to say a word of explanation about today’s sermon: it is in the form of a first-person narrative. That is, when I preach, I will be speaking to you as a character in one of the scriptural texts. Today I will be Tabitha, a character whom you will meet in the reading from the book of Acts.
I’m guessing that maybe you’re heard sermons like this in the past. I certainly didn’t invent the form. But I do use this form with some regularity – probably a few times a year – so since this is the first, but won’t be the last, time I do it, I want to say a few things about my approach to first-person sermons.
You know that there are often frustratingly few details in the biblical narrative. So when I preach a first-person sermon, I call on my imagination – and yours – for the sake of better storytelling. That means I may take some liberties with the story and add some details that aren’t in the text itself. But I pledge to you that I will not add any detail that is not at least theoretically possible. I will attribute psychological motivations to my characters, even though the Bible never does. I may even add characters to the story that don’t exist – like Tabitha’s husband, for example. I don’t want to mislead you. But I do want to invite you into a Spirit-filled imaginative experience to nudge you toward deeper faith.
So don’t go telling either of my bishops I’m rewriting the Bible, okay? I’m not. I’m just trying to bring stories to life so that they can speak to you as they have spoken to me.
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My name is Tabitha. Joppa’s a fairly cosmopolitan place since we’re a port city, so my Greek friends and neighbors call me Dorcas. So call me Tabitha. Or call me Dorcas. Or better yet, just call me disciple. That’s actually the name I’m proudest of.
Did you know that I am the only woman in the entire New Testament that was actually called a disciple? Don’t misunderstand – Jesus had plenty of other women disciples – the ones who followed him since the early days in Galilee and who gave him assistance along the road, the ones who stood by him till the end and went to the tomb early Easter morning to prepare his body for a proper burial. Heck, it was actually the women who were first to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead. But I’m the only woman that scripture names a disciple. What makes me feel good, though, is not the title, but rather the good works I was able to do in the name of the Lord Jesus.
But let me back up a bit. I had always been well known in and around Joppa for my abilities as a seamstress. My friends and family were always giving me compliments, and were always grateful to receive clothes I had made. It came easily to me, and so did giving the clothes away because, you know, how many tunics does one person need? My husband would roll his eyes whenever he saw me coming from the marketplace, carrying a bolt of cloth: “Tabby, really? More fabric?” But I don’t think he really minded. I think he was actually sort of proud to have a wife with a reputation like mine. Making and giving away clothing was just sort of my thing, even before we became followers of Jesus.
Now let me be clear – we were followers of Jesus. But we never met Jesus in the flesh because he never came through Joppa. Nevertheless, word travelled all throughout Judea about the things he was saying and doing, from the very first time he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth, which is only about 70 miles away from Joppa, and where he quoted the words we all knew from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . ..“ As I recall, that got some of the hometown crowd in Nazareth upset because they thought he was a little too big for his britches. We sort of assumed that would be the last we heard about Jesus. But the news kept coming in – about the way he was healing people how he taught with such confidence and wisdom. My husband and I often talked about what we were hearing, wondering to ourselves whether or not Jesus might be God’s chosen one. Needless to say, we were so saddened to hear the news of Jesus’ execution. It seemed so senseless that this kind and gentle man who was devoted to helping people and spreading peace and love and stories about the kingdom of God would be put to death. But we didn’t have long to grieve because, in short order, we heard that he had risen from the dead. That’s when we knew, my husband and I, that Jesus was the real deal. We officially became followers of The Way.
It was around that time that I began to find new purpose in my sewing. It became more than just a way that people knew me. It became a way that helped others to know Jesus. I remembered the way Jesus had always paid attention to the poor. There was his first sermon in Nazareth, as I’ve already mentioned. Then there was the parable about giving a banquet and inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (Lk 14:13). We also heard that he told some rich guy that the way to inherit eternal life was to sell all he had and distribute the money to the poor (Lk 18). Jesus really cared about helping the poor. This got me thinking: Who are the poor people near us that I might be able to help? How can I follow in Jesus’ footsteps? And immediately, I thought about this group of widows here in Joppa. Because you know, in my time, widows were often the poorest of the poor. No husband meant no means of support, and we didn’t have Social Security and 401(k)s in our day. If you were a widow without children who would take you in, you were up a creek without a paddle. So I started handing out the clothes I made to those widows as my way of following Jesus, my contribution to the Jesus Movement. And those widows – they really appreciated the clothing. But even more, I think, they appreciated the caring and conversation I shared with them. We became friends, those widows and I. It’s amazing the kind of community that develops when you’re following Jesus! We had a good thing going!
But I got sick. Really sick and really fast. I remember lying one down one afternoon because I just felt so terrible . . . and the next thing I knew, I heard a strange man’s voice calling my name and telling me to get up. I sat up, more than a little bewildered to see a man, not my husband, kneeling next to my bed. But he just reached out his hand, helped me to get up, and took me downstairs. When we out into the courtyard, I saw my husband, and my friends and neighbors, and my widow group . . . and they were all crying! I didn’t know what in the world was going on. As soon as they saw me, some of them started jumping up and down, and some of them fell to their knees in prayer, and there was just such a general commotion that it took me awhile to piece together what had happened. They told me I had died . . . go figure! And the strange man was Peter, the chief disciple, who just happened to be nearby in Lydda. And Peter had raised me from the dead, just like Jesus did to Jairus’ daughter. It was a lot to take in, I’ll tell you. To this day, I still shake my head in wonder.
Why me? Was I just in the right place at the right time? Or did the Lord Jesus have more work for me to do because, you better believe that, after word got out about my experience, people wanted to talk to me about a whole lot more than tunics! I became a sign of Jesus’ resurrection power. So again I ask: why me? I was a nobody, really. The people of Joppa knew me, sure. But that people the whole world over should know my name is still mind-boggling to me. And maybe that’s the point. You don’t have to be anybody special to receive healing and power from the Holy Spirit. And you don’t have to have any special skills to love and serve your sisters and brothers in Jesus’ name. You just have to use what you have. For me, it was my sewing skills. Maybe for you it’s your cooking skills. Or your gift of hospitality – that you make everyone feel at home. Or maybe what you have to offer is simply your desire to help others in Jesus’ name. Jesus can use who you are (whoever you are) and what you have (no matter how much or little that is) to bring more healing and peace to this world. We have a habit of selling ourselves short, of discounting what we can contribute to the kingdom of God. It took me years to shake those habits. But take it from me, Tabitha: you and your gifts – they can and will have a huge impact through the power of the risen Christ!