First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
May 12, 2019
“Our Name is ‘Live’”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Acts 9:36-43 (CEB)
36In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room.
38Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!”
39Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.
40Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord.
43Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon.
It’s not often that we get the names of women in the scripture stories, especially those in the Gospels. We have wonderful stories about wonderful women but we often don’t know their names. We know them as some certain other women that encountered Jesus but, someone forgot to write down those certain women’s names: Jairus’ daughter, whose resurrection was interrupted by the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years; The woman who broke the alabaster jar to anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume … we know what the jar was made of and how much the perfume was worth but we don’t know this woman’s name; The Syrophoenician woman to whom Jesus utters a sideways insult, referring to her and her dying child as dogs; and the Samaritan woman at the well. So, when we have a story of the a woman in the early church and we not only get her name in Aramaic – Dorcas, but we get it Greek – Tabitha, it’s worth celebrating. Scholars tell us her name in either language means “gazelle.” She must have really been something.
And we know more about Tabitha Dorcas Gazelle. We know that she had a rather charitable heart and that she was quite the seamstress and had touched quite a few people. She apparently was known for the clothing she made and gave to people. So at her death, there was a considerable amount of grief. They couldn’t bear to let her go. In the midst of their grief, the work of the Holy Spirit did it’s thing and gave her a new name: “Live.”
This is a story of the early church, a story of the continuation of the work of the Holy Spirit, the continuation of the work of Jesus. As if the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t enough, there was more. And not just more in the sense that the telling of his resurrection inspired people and gave them hope and assurance but in the sense that these things just kept happening. All of the things that people experienced about Jesus kept happening. The hungry were fed; the sick and lame continued to be made well; restrictive boundaries continued to be broken down; people were brought back to life when they were clearly dead. And not just any people… people who exemplified the realm of God as Jesus taught and lived it. And Dorcas was just one of those who just couldn’t let the ways of Jesus go and so she lived into them.
Back in the day when churches had several women’s fellowship circles, chances are, one of them was named after Dorcas and it was typically the Dorcas Circles across the land that always seemed to be working on a quilt or layettes or mending this or that for charity and homeless shelters. It was the church of the 60’s and 70’s that carried Dorcas Tabitha Gazelle into life in their time as they lived out the example of her discipleship. For many of us, the story of Dorcas was the story of the church we grew up in. For others, it’s the story of the church that we often hear about … back in the day when the Sunday School rooms and sanctuary were full. As the church universal seems to slimming down more and more, we find ourselves clinging to the garments that it has given us and wailing in grief, longing to get back what we once had.
And that’s where we need to turn our attention to Peter and what we can learn from his actions. This is a Peter that is different than the one we often shake our head at in disbelief from the other stories about him. He’s calm. He’s level-headed. He’s assured. Not like the guy who impulsively dropped his fish nets to run after the stranger who came along and invited him to come fish for people. Not like the guy who tried walking on water only to end up learning how to swim when his faith faltered. Definitely not like the guy who denied having known Jesus when things got a bit tense. No, this Peter was all together different. I guess that’s what happens after you’ve walked around in resurrection for a while.
When Peter shows up in the midst of the wake underway for Dorcas, he doesn’t join in the weeping and wailing. He calms things down, gets everyone to catch their breath, he prays and then tells Dorcas to get up. Dorcas’ world had been turned upside down. Once Peter gets everyone to take a breath or two, the Holy Spirit can go to work and turn things right side up again. When confronted with death and the loss of discipleship, what was needed was time to breathe and to let the Holy Spirit do likewise.
The question we have to ask ourselves today is how is the story of Dorcas and Peter still the church’s story? How is the story of Dorcas still a story of exemplary discipleship, discipleship not just to be admired but emulated? How is the story of Dorcas still living and begging to be lived out in today’s church, in our own lives? How is the story of this new Peter still the church’s story? How do we emulate this way of calm faithfulness in challenging times?
We no longer have churches full of Dorcas Circles making quilts for raffles and layettes for newborns or mending coats for the homeless. But that’s not all that Dorcas and the circles that emerged in her name were about. At the heart of her discipleship was compassion and commitment. It’s what we’re often told was underneath the miracles that Jesus performed: compassion. Moved with compassion, Jesus healed the blind (MT 20:32-34). Moved with compassion, Jesus cured a man with leprosy (MK 1:40-42); Jesus was moved with compassion when he looked out upon crowds of hungry people and fed them.
But it doesn’t end with compassion. That’s where it starts. From compassion is where Dorcas drew her charitable works and gave life to others. From compassion is where Peter claimed his authority and called Dorcas back to life. From compassion is where the church has been at its best as it’s given life and meaning to the broken, the lost, the grieving. From compassion is where new life itself arises. It is from compassion that we will be given a new name, a new way of being, not just as individuals but as a church… not something that defines who we once were but what we are to be about in faithful discipleship. Something that the Holy Spirit is seeking to have us do: “Live.”