“Tabitha: A True Disciple”
4th Sunday in Easter C
Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda - St. Matthew’s, Savannah
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 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." 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. 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
On this Fourth Sunday in Easter, we read a story about resurrection in the book of Acts. By chance, the way the calendar falls this year, today is also Mother’s Day. And this resurrection story very appropriately focuses on a woman who receives new life from God.
The woman in question is named Tabitha (also called Dorcas; Tabitha is Aramaic and Dorcas is Greek; both names mean “gazelle”). She is a devout servant of God, a mother to all the saints in the church. Tabitha is admittedly a minor character in the Bible. This is the only biblical story about her. But she is not an afterthought.
Tabitha is important to the life of her local church. When she died, the whole church community of women and men crowded around her to mourn. When the visiting apostle Peter arrives, the widows surrounded Tabitha’s body. Through their tears, they showed off her artisanship as a tailor. “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” It says she created “tunics and other clothing”, which in my holy imagination means church vestments, like the kind I’m wearing.
She was getting the priest’s and bishop’s clothes ready for the liturgy. She served on the altar guild. She ministered to the poor and widowed in her community. Tabitha was pretty awesome. In fact, she is the only woman in the whole New Testament who is honored with the title “disciple.” She’s not just some nice lady who was remembered as a saint by later generations. In her lifetime, the church looked to Tabitha and knew she was a true disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is a follower of Jesus, dedicated to living as he lived and leading others toward God’s love and grace. Being called a disciple is a huge deal!
And consider this: St. Peter, the great apostle, bishop, and preacher -- the companion and friend of our Lord Jesus Christ -- honors her with a visit. This is significant in a patriarchal culture. Women aren’t typically the focus of Bible stories. But Tabitha is special. She is a representative of all the dedicated women who have carried the church on their backs throughout history.
The Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings puts it this way: “Tabitha, a woman, is a disciple of Jesus. … [The author of Acts has] given us a plateau from which to view a new future in which men and women in Christ have a different way of seeing themselves -- as disciples” (Jennings, Acts, 100).
In ancient times, women weren’t allowed full access to the ministries of the church. They could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and decorate the church, but there was a pretty low ceiling on their leadership. Even so, Tabitha rose the ranks and became an influential disciple in the early church. The Holy Spirit moved so powerfully within her that she transcended the cultural barriers placed on her. Tabitha was what we might call a proto-feminist. She showed the church how to we might overcome our prejudices and see ourselves as equal before God and before one another.
And that’s really important, because, as we know, women have come a long way in our society but there’s still not really full gender equality. And it’s worth addressing that inequity on Mother’s Day, one day out of 365 that we set aside to honor some of the influential women in our lives. We celebrate women with only this fraction of our time, and we typically only celebrate the ones who have been mothers, foster mothers, and grandmothers. Obviously, motherhood is an honorable vocation that deserves our respect. But it still lies within the traditional domestic sphere. Women have many more gifts to contribute to both the Church and to the broader world than reproduction and childrearing. Women are disciples!
Professor Jennings writes again about Tabitha: “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widows matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word. … This is a disciple raised from the dead. Tabitha is not finished in life or service. … Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows; God has heard your weeping and returned her to you. More importantly, she is alive” (Jennings, Acts, 100-101).
Being a woman and a mother is still quite dangerous. Our State of Georgia has the highest rate of maternal mortality (i.e. mothers who die during childbirth) of any state in the USA (AJC, WABE). That rate is even higher for black women. Despite all the advances of modern medicine, access to health care is still very uneven and unequal in this country. The health care industry is often more concerned with profit margins than saving lives, and our politicians allow them to behave accordingly. But even if the powers of this world don’t care about the lives of women and mothers, God does. Disciples of Jesus know that God raised our Lord from the dead and God even raised the disciple Tabitha from untimely death.
God cares about women and mothers in all their forms. God values their lives, their work, and their ministries. In The Episcopal Church today, women are eligible to lead the church on committees, on vestries, and as ordained deacons, priests, and bishops. By the grace of God, the Church has finally woken up formally to God’s call on women’s lives.
But women still aren’t always treated with the love and respect they deserve. Women are too often expected to pull double duty -- on the altar and in the kitchen; at work and at home. Men may have opened doors of opportunity but we haven’t changed our hearts and our work ethics to match. Elevating women means that men have to humble themselves, roll up their sleeves, and do some of the things that we might not be used to doing. We’re off to a decent start today with the Men’s Club providing breakfast in honor of all mothers, but there is more we need to change.
Through Tabitha, God calls the church to look on women, not as servants, not as less than men, but as true disciples. So ladies, whether you are a mother or not, today we honor you. And my prayer is that we honor you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Because Peter honored Tabitha and God raised her from the dead. If we lift up the voices, experiences, and ministries of women in our Church today, imagine what God will do with us. Amen.
A Collect for St. Tabitha (Dorcas) of Joppa - October 25
“Most Holy God, whose servant Tabitha you raised from the dead to display your power and confirm your message that your Son is Lord; grant unto us your grace, that aided by her prayers and example, we may be given a new life in your Spirit to do works pleasing in your sight; Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (LFF 2018, 542).
Hart, Ariel. “Georgia maternal death rate, once worst in U.S., worse now.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Published 28 September 2018. Accessed 11 May 2019. https://www.ajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/georgia-maternal-death-rate-once-ranked-worst-worse-now/qG8xWYMufoW2OEiiZNDRmM/.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. A Volume in Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
Lewis, Kaitlyn. “Graphic: Georgia Leads U.S. in Maternal Death Rate, Report Shows.” WABE. Published 26 February 2018. Accessed 11 May 2019. https://www.wabe.org/maternal-mortality-georgia/.
The Episcopal Church. Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018. New York: Church Publishing, 2019.