April 17, 2016

Doing Tabitha Justice

Passage: Acts 9:36-43

Acts 9:36-43 (NRSV)

36Now 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.

37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since 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.” 39So 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.

40Peter 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. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This 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.

Tabitha's handiwork[1]

Once again, today’s passage holds a paradox for us. Two things that are in tension. It is a paradox associated with many funeral services, like Tabitha’s. It is at once a time of mourning and a time of celebration.  Mourning her loss. Celebrating her life. In Tabitha’s case, the most concrete reminders of her life were the clothes she made.

I really don’t know anything about making clothes. There was that one season in my life a decade ago when I religiously watched "Project Runway" -- a reality show about aspiring fashion designers, all repeatedly given a task to create outfits for unusual occasions or out of unusual fabric. I’m aware this may seem strange, since someone reminded me recently that fashion doesn't appear to be something I give much attention.

Nonetheless I was hooked on the show not only because of its formulaic conflict and suspense, like most competitive reality shows, but also because each person on that show, even the least talented, could create these beautiful and complicated pieces of clothing in a limited amount of time, using a skill of which I had absolutely no experience and understanding. Send me to Ragtime Fabrics with the task of creating a new uniform for the US Postal Service in 24 hours, and the only thing in stitches will be anyone who sees whatever I tried to create.

I'd say the show gave me a new appreciation for that skill which many of you possess, and I assume belongs to the list of skills that, out of necessity, a lot more people possessed one or two hundred years ago than do today (in our culture anyway). It’s remarkable to me, though, how many of those skills are still very much a part of the pragmatic and resourceful culture of even the most mainstream of Mennonite communities.

Some of Emily’s college friends patched together a quilt for us when we were married, carrying on the tradition of their grandmothers. During the weeks when Emily's sister Lisl was visiting after Hannah's birth, she created these black and white animal figurines for a mobile. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this frog puppet, one of three that came over the mountain this week with Emily's mom, Rosemary. It’s another one of those magically appearing toys from the past that grandmas keep in reserve for special visits with young children. This one was made by Rosemary's sister, Dawn, after Emily was born in 1982.

Last year, on February 8, Dawn died at the age of 62. Because of her death, I have felt this week like maybe I identify with those who mourned Tabitha’s death. This week as Hannah has enjoyed these new puppets, I have felt that their threads are so much softer, the wool, so much warmer, and as with anything, altogether so much more meaningful, because we know it was made by the hands of someone who has died but lives on in these signs of her deep love for us.

This puppet is only one of Dawn's many, many good works. I wish you could have known her. She would have fit right in here at Shalom. In addition to her preference for less structured church, her faith was primarily made evident in what she did and how she lived, perhaps more so than in her words. Not because her words were not faithful, only that they were few. Dawn was a poet, and likewise seemed to choose quality over quantity in her economy of words, as she also did in her economies of friends, actions, and possessions. She lived a painstakingly simple life – evident in mundane things like the simple utensils and furnishings that she used her whole life, or things like the backlog of extra paper napkins rescued from being tossed clean into restaurant trash cans; things underlain by a commitment to justice and peace.  She earned a low income on purpose in order to not pay war taxes. She corresponded with a man on death row who was executed just a year or two before she died. And she spent much of her life caring for her aging mother and those around her. Mercy and Justice -- virtues that "kiss," the psalmist says; in a dance and celebration of holy love.

Dawn was a dancer, and also was a practitioner of these everyday kinds of justice and mercy that caused all of the widows around Tabitha to weep and to show off her good works -- sharing the robes and other clothing she had made with those who came to pay respects. The text does not indicate that Tabitha was a public speaker or proclaimer of the gospel, like many other disciples. It does not say that she risked her livelihood any more than any other disciple in order to speak truth to power or to challenge the authorities. It only says that she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. And that she was indeed a disciple.

I could really expand quite a bit here about the fact that Tabitha is the only woman ascribed the term “disciple” in the New Testament. Our history and sacred stories are indeed, like our lives today, riddled with the evidence of discrimination. But I also think to try to pin every missing or obstructed story to the character of Tabitha, risks tokenizing her, and pigeonholing her with some stereotype – the “faithful woman,” the “strong woman,” the “loving woman.” While it is some relief to the otherwise male-dominant bible scenes that Tabitha is a woman, what is more remarkable is that obviously her work made an impact on the community. Her faith consisted of what this whole book is about – acts. She was clearly not only a hearer, but also a doer.

Having said that, if you’ve ever read the book of James, (Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only), you know that to take seriously a living, doing faith is to also expose yourself to judgment – either someone else’s or your own. I notice sometimes how often praise of someone else for all they are doing can imply or be quickly followed by guilt for not doing enough ourselves. Growing up I’d heard about the 20th century “protestant work ethic” which had its roots in Calvinism and demonstrating that we are part of the elect. But I have observed that doesn’t hold a candle to an Anabaptist work ethic, based in a strong communal identity and also a desire to show the world outside non-resistant or pacifist communities that we are carrying our weight. In Anabaptist communities I see a lot of hard work, out of which has been come much innovation, much healing for the hurting, and much respect from other communities and leaders in the world. There is also exhaustion, burnout, shame, or guilt. What do we do with that?

The challenge of charity

One of the challenges of charity work, as Jim Wallis describes it, is feeling like you’re at the bottom end of a stream constantly pulling people out. Justice, on the other hand, he says, as is going upstream to the other end to stop whoever is throwing them in. I know that was part of the motivation behind the formation of Faith in Action – the desire to follow up on our local faith-based charity work with local faith-based justice work.

Clearly those two things are related and mutually dependent. But both can make us tired. At what point, will we all, like Tabitha, run out of life and energy in which to do that work? Who will be the Peter that shows up and brings the Tabitha’s of the world back to life when they need it?

One of our temptations in this story and many in our lives, is to put people up on pedestals so high that we blind ourselves to the fact that they are just humans, like us. Disciples are just ordinary humans. Dawn, like Tabitha, was a disciple. Not because she had signed anyone's covenant, or won awards for justice, or gotten her name on a roll that will be recorded and read 2,000 years from now, but because she lived as she saw Jesus lived. Simply, mercifully, and justly.  Peter, was just a human, the one who the folks wanted to show up when they were hurting. The one who they wanted to help them bridge the gap between the lifeless body and the new life that they needed.

Opening our eyes to God’s handiwork

The most important thing about this passage is not what Tabitha did. It’s not even what Peter did. It’s what God does. In the midst of the mourning, the grieving, the remembering, God brings back life. Tabitha opens her eyes and is shown to be alive.

God is the one through whom all things work together for good. God is the worker. In Psalm 23, “the Lord” is doing all of the work, and the Psalmist’s job is to lie down, rest, and fear no evil.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    You make me lie down in green pastures;
you lead me beside still waters;
    you restore my soul.
You lead me in right paths
for your name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.[2]

Even as the story of our faith after Easter shifts us toward being a people empowered to do God’s work -- to the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of Shalom Mennonite -- the main actor in the stories has remained the same. It’s one whose works are wonderful, who knit us together in our mother’s womb, as Psalm 139 says. We and all creation were intricately woven in the depths of the earth. God sewed every fiber of our being.

I propose that Tabitha – the gifted servant, craftswoman, who is also just human like everyone else – represents the Creator and the Christ in this story. And the clothing the she created represents us – beautiful works by skilled hands.

As I said at the start, threads are so much softer, wool, so much warmer, and anything, so much more meaningful, when we know they were made by the hands of one who has come before us who loved us deeply. We are such fine handiwork -- gifts to the world around us, crafted for this life which is part of God’s amazing and holy fashion show called reality.

May Christ open our eyes to the wonderful works that we are, so we can strut our stuff, celebrate, cry or mourn, or just laugh, and fondly remember the One who made us -- who died but lives again in and through us, as we show off her beautiful works of mercy and justice to the world.

[1] my inspiration for this interpretation came from this reflection by Beth Scibienski

[2] Adapted to 2nd person