Some would say that the story we just read together is about a miracle performed by Peter, the miracle of bringing the dead back to life. I wonder if there isn’t another miracle or two in the story as well.
I invite you to travel with me back in time to the first century of the Common Era. To the international seaport town of Joppa (today’s Jaffa, part of Israel’s Tel Aviv). The ancient town of Joppa flourishes on the trade route connecting Egypt to the south and Syria to the east. We are looking in on a home perched on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The windows of the home are flung open. Salty breezes waft in. The curtains of the windows flutter as if waving to and teasing the white-sailed ships below.
The home is filled and filling with women. If we had a bird’s eye view of Joppa, we would watch, curious, as news was whispered, woman to woman, throughout the town. We would see women stopping everything, halting in mid-stride, leaving off with whatever they were engaged in to begin to make their way to the home.
Through a window on an upper floor, we can see the body of woman laid out on a bed. Other women, performing ancient burial customs, tenderly wash the body.
The woman who has died was called Dorcas. Dorcas, if you spoke Greek. Tabitha if you spoke Aramaic. Dorcas, Tabitha, she answered to either.
What you need to know about her is what she had in common with all the women gathering in the home. She was a widow. All the women gathered and gathering there widows. Old widows. Middle-aged widows. Young widows.
Having lost their husbands, and living as they do in a firmly patriarchal society, these widows are left to operate outside of and apart from the social norms. Unlike wives, these widows are responsible to and for themselves.
But take heart. Hear this and take heart. In our Bible widows are grouped with two other vulnerable groups: orphans and aliens. It is because they are so vulnerable that by biblical law – law laid down by God – the people of God have certain obligations toward these vulnerable populations. First, they/we are to defend them; we are required by God to defend the orphan, the widow and the alien. Second, they/we are to take up collections to help to provide for these vulnerable ones. Third, if you are a farmer, you are to leave some of your crops unharvested, so that widows, orphans and aliens have a food source. (Deuteronomy)
You’ve got to love a God who makes laws to protect the most vulnerable, laws requiring God’s us to look out for vulnerable populations. Somebody say Amen!
However, although there are laws to protect the most vulnerable, as it happens not everyone obeys the law. Somebody say, Uh oh!
Back to the home. Dorcas or Tabitha, has just died. She took ill and died. It was sudden, unexpected. A wrenching loss. Dorcas was one of a kind, irreplaceable. The widows are undone. They are at sea. They are twisted with grief. You see, Dorcas was a force of nature.
It was Dorcas who had pulled the widows of Joppa together. Dorcas was their Den Mother, their coach and confidant, their mentor and friend, their North Star. It was Dorcas who first organized them, who empowered them. Who figured out how to purchase a home big enough for all the stray widows in Joppa. It was Dorcas who convinced them that they were stronger together than alone. Together they sewed clothing, both for themselves and to sell. They sewed fiercely, productively, entrepreneurially. Under Dorcas’ roof, the widows of Joppa were a force to be reckoned with!
In addition to sharing widowhood, these women have something else in common: they are Christian widows. Baptized. It was Dorcas who told them about Jesus, about baptism. She explained to them, one weepy widow at a time, that though they found themselves suddenly isolated, bereft of family and shorn of protection, they could bind themselves to a different kind of family: the family of Jesus. Dorcas explained to them that the waters of baptism, thicker sometimes than blood, would bind them together, make them family.
It is all because of Dorcas that these women, these widows, belong to each other. And, not only to each other: they are members of the small, tightknit family of Christians in Joppa.
There’s something else about Dorcas or Tabitha. The biblical story that tells of her, opens with this freighted line: “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha.” A disciple you say?
The word used, mathetria, is the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple, mathetes.
This is the first and only use in all of the New Testament, of the word for disciple in the feminine form. Dorcas was a disciple of Jesus. That’s not a small thing.
You may not know this, but there are vast, expansive, patriarchal incarnations of Christianity, and they are all firmly established on the premise that there were no female disciples. That Jesus’ disciples were exclusively male. Somebody say, Uh oh!
Biblical scholars point to Dorcas/Tabitha as part of the evidence (there is more) that in the early church, the church that grew up in the wake of Jesus’s death, women enjoyed leadership roles equal to that of men. In fact the church did not construct and solidify its patriarchal incarnations until the 3rd and 4th centuries… a construct severely challenged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.
Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (the 5th book of the New Testament, the book that follows Luke, the fourth gospel) chapter 9, verse 36: “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha.” That changes everything!
The Christian story is the story of how Jesus and baptism makes us all family, makes us all worthy, makes us all the same, makes us equal. It is the story of the stray widow and the abandoned orphan and the exposed alien (and the peculiar eunuch, and the heavy sinner, and the ailing leper, and the hopeless addict, and the all the rest of the outcasts) gathered up, welcomed in, embraced and invited in; invited in to family; invited into leadership, real and consequential leadership.
Today, here, we baptized five children and welcomed them into this Christian family.
Today, on Cape Cod, with some 60 members of this church on retreat, my colleague John Edgerton is baptizing another two people.
The Christian family is formed in baptism. Because it formed in baptism it is a family unlike other families. You don’t have to be born into this family. You can be adopted into it. You don’t have to look like anyone else, or talk like anyone else, or love like anyone else, or think or believe like anyone else, or hang out on the same side of the aisle. In this family you get to be who you are and how you are. Because that’s how God made you and loved you into being. In this family water is thicker than blood: the water of baptism is thicker than blood.
Most people will tell you that the point of the story is that Peter brought Dorcas back form death, brought her back to life. There’s a miracle to be sure. No denying that. The way the story is titled in most Bibles goes something like this: Peter’s Journey to Joppa. Or, Dorcas Restored to Life, or Peter Raises a Women from the Dead.
But I wonder if we look past Peter—Peter who looms so large, Peter who was Jesus’ own right hand man—if we squint to look past Peter we might ask if the real miracle is the cunning and courage and kindness of Dorcas. How about that for a title to the story: The Cunning, Courage and Kindness of Dorcas. Or, taking in a wide-angle view, we might ask if the real miracle is the power of baptism. Maybe it should be called: When Water Is Thicker than Blood.
In any case, I in invite you to rise, in body or in spirit, and to repeat after me.
Sister Dorcas, Sister Tabitha:
We remember you.
Disciples of Jesus,
We remember you.
Organizer of widows,
We remember you.
We tell your story.
We carry on your work.
You are a miracle.
We bless you.
We thank you.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
Rest in peace.
NOTE 1. In looking over the membership and baptismal records of Old South Church in Boston, there were a great many female members named Dorcas in the late 1600s and throughout the 1700s (e.g. Dorcas Andrew, Dorcas Bow, Dorcas Davenport, Dorcas Fellows, Dorcas Grecian, Dorcas Halse, Dorcas Hull, Dorcas Hacket, Dorcas Marsh, Dorcas Marshall, Dorcas Mill, Dorcas Warren, Dorcas Whiteham). There were fewer Tabitha’s (Tabitha Butler, Tabitha Peck, Tabitha Wormal).
NOTE 2. On June 22, 1688 Old South member Dorcas Grecian—no doubt emboldened by the biblical Dorcas for whom she was named—strode into the office of the royally appointed (and much despised) Governor, Sir Edmund Andros, and thereto expostulated at some length and with some passion as to why he should remove himself and his dreaded Anglican worship forthwith from our Meetinghouse which he had unceremoniously and high-handedly seized. So says Samuel Sewall in his diary. (OSC Historical Catalogue, p.300)
NOTE 3. Dorcas Societies, named after the biblical Dorcas sprang up in a great many churches all around the world. They were at their height in the 1800s, though many exist today. Founded and run by women, and most often church-based, Dorcas Society’s undertake the mission of providing clothing to the poor and often meeting other physical needs. Old South Church once had a flourishing and productive Dorcas Society.