She was like a favorite aunt or a big sister to all of us. Tabitha glimmered with joy and energy; you couldn’t help but want her to love you. When the Good News about Jesus came to us in Joppa, she shined even brighter. Looking for her in the market was as important as looking for food. She just offered a different kind of nourishment. She could be quiet, but mostly that was because she was listening so intently. Sometimes you’d say an off-handed thing like “Joshua has torn up another tunic” or “Elizabeth is growing so quickly,” but Tabitha always saw that as an opportunity to remind you that she loved you and your family. She’d show up in a day or two with something she’d made up for the kids. She didn’t want money for it, she just took pride in seeing that the kids had what they needed. When she noticed that the hands of the older women were swollen and painful from arthritis, Tabitha would quietly just start making their clothes too. She clothed so many in love. And ohh, that girl was talented! I sew because I have to; Tabitha sews because her fingers make art.
And living here in Joppa- well, there were plenty of people in need. Port cities can be that way- people were always coming and going and a lot of them didn’t have what they need. I’m not a betting kind of lady, but I’d wager there is someone wearing something Tabitha sewed in just about every corner of the world. It didn’t matter to her where someone came from or where they were going, if she saw someone in need, she found a way. I’m telling you, that woman could move mountains. She had more than she needed, especially since she had such a hard time having a baby, and she never let an opportunity to share get past her.
When our church was forming, after Peter and the others came and told us about the Messiah and what he had done, who he was, well, it was just so natural that Tabitha would be one of the leaders. She rose to the top without doing anything other than being her beautiful self. She was faithful and good. She showed us the way of Christ.
So, when she died in childbirth… well, we were all just heartbroken. All I could think about was how that sweet baby was going to grow up never knowing who his mama was- she was the best of us. I was one they asked to wash her body and prepare her for burial. It was the worst thing I’d ever done. Every whimper from her baby boy set me crying again. We all needed her leadership and her love, none more than that child whose mama loved him and wanted to be his mama so badly.
My husband and Epaphrus went to Lydda to tell Peter about Tabitha’s death. I don’t really know why they went all that way, but they did. Truly, I don’t know what they expected Peter to do. Tabitha was gone. Peter came though. He was a good man. Kind. When he got to her house, we gave him time to wash his feet and offered him a snack and something to drink. I remember thinking that it honored Tabitha for us to welcome Peter as she would have. No one ever went thirsty or hungry in her home. Junia showed Peter some of Tabitha’s handiwork. She had a basket full of clothing she had made to share and Junia wondered if Peter would want to take it with him to give it away. After a little while, Peter clapped his hands on his knees and asked Epaphrus if he could go see Tabitha. We ended up all going upstairs where her body was. The baby was getting fussy again- his newborn squawk told us he was getting hungry.
Peter wasn’t rude, but he asked to be alone with Tabitha. He wanted all of us to leave. I thought it was strange, to be honest, but someone needed to feed the baby anyway. We scattered through the house and out into the road. Junia and I were in the house. I was bouncing and sushing the baby when I heard a shriek from upstairs. Junia and I looked at each other and quickly started moving back upstairs. We came back into the upper room and Tabitha was, well, she was just standing there. Eyes open, color in her cheeks, skin still shiny from the anointing oils. She was just standing there. Alive. My whole body was shaking when she walked over to me. She took the baby, her baby, from me with one arm, and wrapped the other around my neck and pulled me close. She kissed my cheek- I can still feel her warm breath. “I’m back,” she said.
Tabitha. What a story! The only woman in the New Testament given the title of “disciple” specifically was so beloved in her community, so valued for who she was and what she did, so missed, even minutes after her death that her people went to find Peter in a nearby town on the off chance that maybe, just maybe Peter could do something about it. You may remember that Luke and Acts share an author and are written as a part 1 and 2 of the same story. So, in Luke’s books, there have been 2 resuscitations so far- Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter. Goodness only knows why the men from Joppa sought Peter, but it was a gamble that paid off. Tabitha becomes the 3rd person in Luke’s narrative raised from the dead. (If you’re wondering about Lazarus, his story is only in the Gospel of John.) Later on in Acts, Paul will raise a young man named Eutychus, the fourth and final resuscitation in Luke/Acts.
So we can’t say what the faith community in Joppa expected, but we can say this- Tabitha was adored. It’s such a small detail, but the fact that her friends took the time to show Peter the clothing Tabitha made is so beautiful to me. It signals that these women valued her and were proud of her. It reminded me this week of the ways we at Pocket might show off Bernard’s wooden toys, tell about the clothes Robena sewed, point out the furniture Bob made, repot plants from Jean’s garden, and so on. When someone we love dies, it’s so natural, so human, to want others to see how valuable your beloved was. Those who live with a spirit of generosity, joy, and love like Tabitha did cannot help but create around them a beautiful community. In giving of themselves, in giving of themselves in the name of Jesus, they give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
Many of us hear this story and wonder or wish that someone we loved and lost could not be brought back to life. It’s tough to wrap our heads around. After yet another brutal week of racist, evil violence in this country, we may especially be wishing we could undo death. We cannot undo death, no matter how we may wish it. But instead of lamenting death, I want us to approach this story from a slightly different angle this morning. I wonder… have you ever felt dead, felt removed, or burned out? Have you ever been stretched so thin, wound so tightly, so spent that you were no longer able to give of yourself? It happens all the time, especially in church- we become a version of Tabitha- one who has given ourselves to the work of the church, given and given until we don’t have anything left to give.
If you are that person today, if you are burned out and need a break, I want you to notice a few things today in Tabitha’s story. First, she really was so loved, so valued. Her death was heartbreaking to her community. Two thousand years later, we can see in this short passage the love that comes through in the details. The commentary on her life, giving her Aramaic and Greek names, the men going to get Peter, the women showing off her sewing- her death rippled out through the community in grief. Tabitha’s work mattered. She mattered- she was important to these people. When you’re tired and burned out, it can be hard to remember that what you’re doing is important. Your work at CUOC, the Navigation Center, as an elder, a deacon, a Sunday school teacher, VBS volunteer, nursery worker, all of it matters. All of it is a gift to God given to your faith community. It is all valuable, even when you can’t see it.
Second, and perhaps this part is even more important, to you who are weary and worn down: if and when you stop, you will still be loved. No one mourns Tabitha because they are mad or sad she won’t be there to take care of them anymore. They mourn Tabitha because they loved her. The same is true for you. You are not loved because of what you do; you are loved because of who you are. You are valuable not because of what you can do for others; you are valuable because you are a beloved child of God. You are worthy not because you have worked for it; you are worthy because your name is written on God’s own heart. If Tabitha had not been resuscitated, she would still have been loved. You are loved.
This story of Tabitha’s beautifully encapsulates the life with God. I find her story to be prose version of what we as Presbyterians believe. Allow me to share our PCUSA “Brief Statement of Faith,” my personal favorite of all our confessions of faith:
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.
We trust in Jesus Christ,
Fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.
We trust in God,
whom Jesus called Abba, Father.
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God’s image
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.
But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator.
Ignoring God’s commandments,
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
We deserve God’s condemnation.
Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
Hearing their cry,
God delivered the children of Israel
from the house of bondage.
Loving us still,
God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,
praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tabitha’s life followed the pattern set forth by Jesus. She abided in God’s beloved community, held up by God’s irresistible grace, bound by the Holy Spirit who renewed her life, and called to a life of love and service. And perhaps most importantly, both in life and in death, Tabitha belonged to God and nothing, nothing in life or in death could ever separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Friends, this is the good news of Jesus- in life and in death, you belong to God. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God. So “get up!” life awaits. “Get up!” God is calling you. Get up, beloved child of God! Amen.