Being the Body: Lessons from Tabitha, Rachel, and Ilene (a sermon)

*This sermon was originally preached at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, CA on May 12, 2019*

Acts 9:36-43

When I first read this passage a little over a month ago, it left me with a question: What does it mean that Peter is given the power to resurrect? What does it mean for us?

There are six resurrections in the New Testament. Three of them are performed by Jesus during his ministry, one of them is Jesus himself, and then two occur in the book of Acts, this one by Peter, and another by Paul.

I’m a writer and English major and so, on a literary level, I get that these 2 miracles validate Peter and Paul as inheritors of Christ’s church, as the pillars upon which it would be built. But theologically, I wonder what it means for us that these men, some of the first to live out the command to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world can literally resurrect the dead.

It makes me consider the command to be the body of Christ is a whole new and daunting way. It makes me think that maybe we have more capability – and more responsibility – as Jesus’ hands and feet in this world than we’re willing to accept.

That’s the sermon I decided to preach a month ago. And as it turns out, it’s still the sermon I feel called to preach this morning.

But I have to tell you that I spent this past week wrestling with this text in a way that I never saw coming.

Monday morning I texted Pastor Hardy and said, “Heck of week to be preaching on a strong woman of faith who falls ill and dies and is resurrected.”

Because that’s who Tabitha – also known as Dorcas – was. We learn of her in the context of her untimely death, but what we learn is that she lived a life of profound faith. A life she spent helping others, especially other women, and giving of herself. She’s referred to in this passage as “disciple” – the Greek word “mathetria” – and she’s the only woman in the Bible afforded this title. She was a woman of strong faith. And then she fell ill suddenly and died. And all of those who knew of her faith, all those whom she helped were bereft and they cried out in grief that something be done, and they sent for Peter who was conveniently nearby and apparently had access to Jesus’ own miracle power and so he says to Tabitha “Get up” and there she is again. Alive, whole, returned to those who loved her.

Last Saturday, as I was just beginning to turn my thoughts to the writing of this sermon, I received word from one of my seminary friends that another dear friend of ours had died. Ilene Dunn was a retired Presbyterian pastor in Texas, who’d spent the vast majority of her active ministry years and her retirement fighting fiercely and faithfully for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church and society. People like me. Several years ago she was diagnosed with a cancer that we knew would ultimately kill her, but she remained active and upbeat and healthy, relatively speaking. And then rather suddenly, she contracted an illness that her immuno-compromised body could not fend off, and she died on Saturday morning.

My friend and I wept over her death and over the sudden and irrevocable absence of her in the world. I was still reeling from that news, when I received word from another friend—halfway around the world—that the prolific, well-known, and much-beloved Christian author, Rachel Held Evans had also died that morning in the wake of several sudden medical issues that led to fatal swelling of her brain. She was 37 years old. Her daughter turns one later this week.

I didn’t know Rachel the way I knew Ilene, but we’d met, shared conversation, had beloved friends in common. More significantly, I loved her the way so many others did and do. Rachel had written 4 books on faith and had 4 more planned. She wrote earnestly and honestly in books and blogs and tweets and talks about her struggles to follow the way of Jesus, about her departure from her Evangelical upbringing and her ongoing criticism of the shortcomings of the Episcopal church and mainline Protestantism even as she made a new home for herself there. She wasn’t just a critic or even primarily a critic. She loved God, she owned her doubts, and she comforted others that they weren’t alone in their doubts. She was imperfect, like anyone, but she knew it and was humble.

Rachel had encouraged me as a writer and a woman faith leader. When she fell ill, thousands of us participated in a virtual prayer chain, asking God for comfort and healing. And when she died, tens of thousands shared their shock and grief. There were politicians and celebrities, journalists, other writers, even some of Rachel’s well-known detractors. But above all, there were women. Countless women who told stories, like mine, of how Rachel had encouraged them, given them hope, given them home. It became clear that she’d made a point to center those who had less of a platform and less privilege than her, women of color in particular. Rachel had no seminary degree, no ordination, but she was a pastor to a quirky, unwieldy, global community.

And then she was gone.

So it was hard to return to this passage about Tabitha and trusty Peter with his magic touch. It was hard to read about a woman of strong faith known for her good works who fell ill and died and was resurrected. In one day, this world lost two strong women of faith whom I loved, known for their good works and their service to others and especially those in need. They fell ill and they died. And there was no Peter to bring them back.

The question remains: What does it mean for us that Peter is given this power to resurrect Tabitha?

But there are other questions too:

Why Tabitha and not Rachel or Ilene? We prayed. We cried out. How many thousands of us said to Rachel, as Peter did to Tabitha, “Sister, get up!” Why Peter and not us? What is the point of stories like this other than to remind us of the power we don’t have?

I know many of you may have never heard of Rachel Held Evans before today. It’s even less likely that you’ve heard of Ilene Dunn. But I’m willing to bet that most of you have experienced a loss that felt profoundly unfair, have known the death of someone you would give anything to have back. And even if that sense of unfairness doesn’t feel too close to home, I suspect that for many of us—sometimes resurrection, central as it is to our faith, feels more like a fairytale than something real that we can hold onto.

I think that’s one of the hardest parts of Easter season. We proclaim resurrection and joyfully shout “He is Risen, He is Risen indeed” in the midst of a world where those we’ve lost do not rise. Where children risk their lives by showing up to school—and worshippers by going to pray. Wherein the earth itself is dying at our hands, and we still can’t agree on doing what we can to save it. Why is Peter’s world one where death isn’t always final—even in this lifetime—and ours sometimes seems overrun with death, pain, and loss?

Easter morning we rise early and we put on our best clothes and we relish a moment of hope. But the world turns, and we are supposed to keep proclaiming resurrection? How?

I don’t have an answer. To that question or why Tabitha or even my first question about the implications of Peter’s miracle. I don’t think our faith always promises answers, honestly, but I don’t believe it leaves us empty-handed and grasping. In her most recent book—her last book—called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel writes: “We may wish for answers, but God rarely gives us answers. Instead, God gathers us up on soft, familiar arms and says, ‘Let me tell you a story.’”

Thinking about those words, it occurred to me that our scripture for today isn’t really Peter’s story. It’s Tabitha’s. If we let it be her story, then maybe what matters most isn’t so much what Peter does after she dies—as all that Tabitha has done before she died. And maybe somehow, the moral of this story is still that we have more capability, and responsibility to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world than we dare to believe.

Because look at Tabitha. Some scholars say that Tabitha’s proximity to widows and the absence of any mention of a husband may indicate that she was a widow herself—squarely placing her in the margins of her society, likely limited in means, voice, social capital, and financial security. And yet, look at what she does with her life. Look at what she makes of her story. She gives endlessly, doing good wherever and whenever she can. She lives out her faith so ardently that when she dies everyone around her is bereft. Peter may have the gift of divine miraculous power, but look how Tabitha does the work of Christ with hardly any power at all, miraculous or otherwise. She does these good works not to earn resurrection or salvation but because she can, and it’s needed, and she knows what Jesus would do.

Even as full as the world is of hard things these days, it is also full of stories like Tabitha’s. Like Rachel’s and Ilene’s. Like Jean Vanier who also died this week at age 90. Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, “an International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities”. And so many others whose names we’ll never know who are quietly but powerfully being the hands and feet of Jesus.

And of course each of these stories inspires others to dare boldly of what good they might do in the name of faith. The text tells us that many heard of Peter’s miracle and came to believe, but I wonder how many others were inspired by Tabitha’s living.

I think sometimes we look at such people and conclude that they’re unique, made of stronger stuff, specially imbued with a particular brand of good heartedness and courageous faith. But they’re not. They have the same invitation to bold faith that we do. And when that faith demands that we step up to serve others with all we can and then some, to speak out and take action for justice and love, to give generously of ourselves—but fear tells us that we’re not good enough, not brave enough, that we don’t have enough—we can look to these others and know that we do. The proclamation that we are the hands and feet of Christ isn’t just a command—it’s also a promise.

Even when our faith cannot give us divine miraculous power, or the answers we want, it does give us stories. Some ancient and some even now unfolding. And winding through all these stories are certain unshakeable truths: that even in our deep grief, our rage, our unanswered questions, and death itself, God is with us. That being a resurrection people may not mean resurrection today even when our hearts beg for it, but it does mean resurrection someday and forever. And that in the meantime, we have it within us to do the work of Jesus in this world, to be Christ’s very body, alive and on the move. And when we do that well, we honor the legacies of those who have come before us and taught us what it means to do that well—and we practice tiny resurrections of their spirits—all the saints: St. Tabitha, St. Rachel, St. Ilene, and all the many others we have known and loved and learned from. And above all, the one who came to show us the way.

So they are here with us, even now, encouraging us as they ever did, inspiring us and reminding us of the good that we can do, of the stories we can live. So let us live them, and perhaps one day our stories will be the ones that teach someone else that a better world is possible, and they have within them the power and capability to help bring it to life.

May it be so. Amen.

One thought on “Being the Body: Lessons from Tabitha, Rachel, and Ilene (a sermon)

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  1. This message scratches a really deep itch. I thought about Rachel Held Evans this morning during the sermon that was all about Tabitha and was struck by a sense of unfairness that all it took to reverse a tragedy was a simple word, when that is not our experience most of the time. Thanks for putting the groans into words.

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