SCRIPTURE – Acts 9:36-43
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
Life at a Funeral
April 25, 2010
I’ve preached a lot of funeral sermons in my career so far. Some of them have been incredibly difficult, like the funeral sermon for the little Emma Hope Short, a two-year-old who died of a brain tumor. Others have been moments of celebration, like the funeral sermon for Jeanne Austin, a pillar in the church I served. But the most difficult funeral sermon I ever preached was for a man named Stan.
Stan’s funeral sermon was challenging for two reasons. First, Stan was an ornery son-of-a-gun. It was hard to find a lot of people who had something nice to say about Stan. Stan lived by the motto, “The more people that hate me, the less people I have to get along with.” And many people who knew Stan echoed Mark Twain, who said, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” As I started to write about Stan, I realized that I may just have to make stuff up. The second reason that Stan’s funeral sermon was so difficult was that Stan wasn’t dead yet. This was an assignment in my preaching class, to preach a sermon on someone who we would find difficult eulogizing.
As I was working on this assignment, a thought struck me that still nags at me to this day. What if this assignment is given 50 years from now to a seminary student? The student is told to write a funeral sermon about a person for whom it would be difficult to come up with five minutes of positive material, and the person the student chooses to kill is…me? What if I’m Stan for someone else? Am I living my life and following my Savior in such a way that when I die, the preacher won’t have to make stuff up?
In our story from Acts this morning, we’re presented with a eulogy for Tabitha, which translates into Greek as “Dorcas.” In this short six-verse eulogy, we learn that Tabitha wasn’t a Stan. First, Luke, who is the author of Acts, calls her a disciple. We might be tempted to gloss over this description, but to the early readers it would have revelatory. The word Luke chooses here for “disciple” is a word that is used exclusively in the New Testament for men, except for here. Tabitha is the only female who is called by the male form of “disciple.” This is a woman who was exemplary in her faith.
In the next part of the eulogy, Luke tells us Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She didn’t do these in her spare time or when she had a free moment. She was devoted to it. Her specific ministry was sewing. She made tunics and other clothing for the poor and widowed in Joppa. You don’t hear of many people sewing tunics anymore. We had a lady in our last church who had a similar ministry. Each year during Vacation Bible School the kids would each make a quilt square and then Nancy would take all the squares and fashion them into a beautiful quilt to be auction off, with the proceeds benefiting the church’s outreach ministries. Each stitch of that quilt was saturated with Nancy’s dedication, just as the widows’ tunics were held together, not only with seams and threads, but with Tabitha’s Christ-like love and commitment to serving others.
Her handiwork was her outreach and she was invested in it. I’m sure she did other things in her life, had other pursuits and interests, but she was dedicated to this work. When we look at our lives, to what are we dedicated? We can talk a good game, for sure, but to what would the evidence point? I imagine we are dedicated to a lot of things: our families, our jobs, our hobbies, our sports teams. Would the evidence show that our faith is a part of that list? Are we invested in living out our faith by serving others? Tabitha was.
Until she got sick and died. That’s all we know. No explanation, no excuses. Life happens. People get sick and die. Tabitha’s body is cleaned up and prepared for burial. Word had spread that Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, was in the area, so some of Tabitha’s friends ask if Peter could come over without delay. Now, I’m not sure why the urgency here. Tabitha is already dead; what can Peter do? Peter had performed some healings but never a resurrection, so surely her friends weren’t expecting that.
Peter comes and surveys the situation and what he finds is evidence of Tabitha’s impact. A group of widows that she has served through her ministry are gathered around her, mourning her loss. They are weeping and showing Peter the tunics Tabitha had made them. This scene takes me back to Stan’s hypothetical funeral. I couldn’t imagine anyone crying because Stan was gone. The only void Stan’s death would leave would be filled with negative energy. When we die, will people cry because of the void we have left? I’m not talking about our family, they are supposed to miss us, even the Stans among us. Our family will grieve our loss, if for no other reasons, than simply because of the longevity and intensity of our relationships with them. But what about other folks? Will the poor and the widows gather to mourn our loss? Will the community acknowledge the impact we have made?
Peter experiences the widows’ testimony to Tabitha’s ministry and takes action. From this point forward, this story calls to mind several other resurrections in the scriptures, including the time when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, one of the synagogue rulers. When Jesus arrived at the girl’s house, he cleared the room of all the mourners, then says to her, “Little girl, get up!” and she does. Guess who was there to witness this miracle? One of Jesus’ disciples named Peter.
So when faced with a similar situation as Jairus’ daughter, Peter simply follows Jesus. He clears the room, prays to God, then says, “Tabitha, get up!” And she opens her eyes and sits up. And Luke tells us that “this became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Luke doesn’t say, “and many people believed in Peter,” although he was seemingly the one who did the heavy lifting. Instead, they see the work that Peter did as pointing to beyond himself to someone greater.
That’s an important distinction here and the place where this story can create friction for our faith. We are called to serve God, as Tabitha did, and to make an impact, but ultimately all we do should not point toward ourselves but to the Lord, as Peter did. As we serve others, as we live out our faith, we are going to be tempted to believe that it’s all about us: our generosity, our benevolence, our sacrifice of time. Our humility stops being sincere as soon as we draw attention to it. We are not called to make a name for ourselves; that’s what got the people at the Tower of Babel in trouble. We are called to speak God’s name through what we say and do, just as Tabitha and Peter did.
This point of friction makes me step back and ask big-picture questions, like why is this story even in here? Surely Luke wasn’t trying to show us what a great person Tabitha was or what a miracle worker Peter was. That would go against the idea that we are to glorify God only. This story seems out of place, tucked in between the conversion of Saul, which its supernatural elements and special effects, and Peter’s momentous visit with the gentile Cornelius, which will open up the Gospel to all non-Jews. In between these two spiritual spectacles you have this little shanty of a story.
I think the reason Luke includes it is that people needed to hear it. We need to be reminded of the resurrection power of faith. We’re only a few weeks removed from Easter and yet things have happened in our lives that cause us to forget that Jesus isn’t dead anymore. So we need to hear Tabitha’s story because every time it’s told, the power of paralysis and death is rendered null and void.
We also need to hear this story because the responsibility for resurrection has been passed down for Jesus to Peter to us. We have observed what they have done and now are called to carry on that work. We may think we don’t have the power to do what Peter has done, but scripture tells us otherwise. Do we know a friend who is downtrodden or disheartened? Do we have a hope that has been beaten and battered? Have we witnessed a faith that has been disillusioned or distracted? To all these things, we have the power to say, “Get up!” We have a story to tell about resurrection that fundamentally changes our understanding of this world. The things that keep us down are now null and void. We hear this story so we can go out and tell it, so we say, “Get up!”
Those words may even need to be spoken to the mirror because there may be a part of us that is still sealed up in the tomb of despair or busyness or selfishness. Are we living our lives in such a way that God is glorified and people are seeing the resurrection power of Christ through us? If not, then this passage says to us, “Get up!” We are followers of Christ, so we better get following.
There’s a lot to say about Tabitha in these six verses. It makes for a great eulogy. If someone had six verses in which to write about us, what would they say? I hope they would say something about the lives we touched and the witness we gave. I hope they would say we had such a positive impact on others that we would be missed. I hope they would say the way we lived inspired others to serve and the way we died inspired others to believe. And if they wouldn’t say those things about us, if we’re worried that our lives are passing us by, if we’re afraid of becoming the subject of a seminary student’s funeral sermon, today is the day to start glorifying God through the way we live. Today is the day to get up and do something about it.