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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
May 12, 2019
A reading from the Book of Acts
Now 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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since 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.” So 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 still with them. Peter 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Resurrections are somewhat more common in the New Testament than our normal Easter storytelling would have you believe. There are in fact five accounts of resurrections beyond the one of Jesus of Nazareth himself. In Luke 7, Jesus encounters a funeral procession, the son of a local widow, and he brings the boy back. One chapter later, he meets the synagogue leader Jairus and brings back the man’s twelve-year-old daughter. Famously, of course, Jesus rushes to the graveside of his friend Lazarus in the eleventh chapter of John, calling him out of the tomb. Nor is Jesus the only figure who performs a resurrection: later on in Acts, famously, a young man named Eutychus will fall out of a second-story window while listening to Paul preach, and the apostle will call him back to life.
I have no such gifts, which is why this room includes no open second-story windows. But what these first four resurrections have in common, at a deep level, is this profound sense that for these people death had not come in its right time. I think this weekend — particularly as so many of us gathered here yesterday to give thanks for the life of David Phillips — I think we all have a sense of what it means to say that death sometimes comes too early, and robs us of what might have been, what should have been. Which means that resurrection, at least in these moments of scripture, resurrection becomes a kind of justice served for those so grievously wronged.
But there is a fifth resurrection in the New Testament, this morning’s text, which seems to come at an entirely different moment, a death that seems to come, if such a thing can ever be said, entirely on time. It’s the story of Tabitha, sometimes called Dorcas, a disciple living in the city of Joppa. The text offers us only the scantest details of her life. We don’t know her age or much about her situation. All we really know is that instead of lamenting what Tabitha might yet still do, the text eulogizes all the good that Tabitha has already contributed. She was known for her good works and charity. She weaves these tunics and gives them throughout the community of widows. There is some suspicion among scholars that Tabitha herself might be a widow just like the ones to whom she makes these gifts. But regardless of her marital status, the story the text tells is about a woman who has lived this helpful and productive life. Well done, good and faithful servant.
And yet Tabitha’s death is treated with no less urgency than any of the others whose stories are touched by resurrection. The widows rally to her bedside, and then, having apparently heard something already of what these new Apostles have been up to around Jerusalem, and having apparently heard that Peter himself is nearby, they send for him, urgently, our friend has died, come quickly. Let us show you all the beautiful tunics she made, here they are laid across her bedside, strewn around her house, and so Peter comes, right on time. He sends them out of the room. He prays. And then he calls Tabitha from the next world back to this one, and she opens her eyes, and she sits up in bed. And thus we have the fifth resurrection in the New Testament, this good and faithful life, this life lived in every way in its fullest, this death which seems in every way the best possible kind of death, and yet here are again.
So why this resurrection? Why the rush to this bedside, when so many others could have equally come calling? On the surface, of course, it is this community of widows who most directly benefits. They’re the ones most touched by her kindness and her goodness, and of course they have the tunics to show for it; that’s the sight that greets Peter when he makes into this upper room, Tabitha on the bed and her body surrounded by tunics, the display of her life’s work. It’s a testimony to her generosity, to be absolutely sure. But I have to admit that, to me, it also feels just a bit cold. We don’t hear the widows reminiscing about her warmth or her courage or her passion. We don’t hear the community lamenting her disease. Instead we get this implicit demand. Who will make these tunics for us now? Who will provide for us now? Who will take care of us now? There’s almost a hint of a utilitarianism that runs through this story, I think hiding not far underneath the surface. Everybody wants something from Tabitha. And Tabitha never gets to want anything for herself.
So why this resurrection? I think we end up with two interpretive options. One is to say that Tabitha, by virtue of her good works, by virtue of her faithfulness, by virtue of her virtue, that Tabitha somehow earned herself this extra time, this attention that could easily have gone elsewhere. In this version of the story, Tabitha’s death is a tragedy because it deprives the community of what they need from her without giving them an obvious alternative. But also in this version of the story, Tabitha herself doesn’t get much of a say; this version of the story imagines her sitting in up in bed and then going back immediately to the loom as if no time has passed. And so I wonder whether there’s a second option, where Tabitha gets extra time precisely because all the time she’s ever had has been beholden to this community and these good works. An option where Tabitha gets extra time precisely because all the time she’s ever had has been on the clock for the needs of the people around her. An option where Tabitha gets extra time specifically to remind her that she is, at the end of the day, more than the sum of her work.
I wonder if we need reminding, too. As a nationality, Americans are at work now more than they have been in living memory. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work 7.8% more hours than they did forty years ago. One third of us work 45 hours or more every week; about 10 million Americans work 60 hours or more; all in all, while we’re not the most at-work country in the world, we’re near the top. The average European works something like 7 to 19% fewer hours than we do, which actually translates to virtually no difference in productivity whatsoever. Study after study has found that working more only makes you more productive to a point — somewhere around 40 hours — and then you start to go backwards. Ironically, one of the countries with the lowest average number of working hours is Germany, which is normally everybody’s idea of economic productivity. Moreover, all of this extra work has a cost. We sleep less. Our health suffers. These extra hours correlate with an increase in stress, anxiety, and all sorts of related medical issues. We have a work problem.
And part of the reason we have a work problem is that for so many of us work is the place where we’re supposed to figure out who we are. We ask our kids “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we expect the range of answers will include astronaut, teacher, doctor, President, all of them jobs, all of them terms of employment, none of them offering those children the opportunity to say something broader about who they might truly become. What do you really want to be when you grow up? What answers do we never hear? I want to be an explorer. I want to be an artist. I want to be a builder. I want to be a healer. I want to enter into this world with this rich fullness that may not fit within the confines of some job description on some website. It is perhaps no coincidence that we are working longer and harder, not only because this generation has inherited an unstable unjust economy with mounting debts and fewer full-time jobs, but also because we have invested those jobs with a degree of existential weight that no Human Resources department in creation should be able to shoulder.
I suspect the church has done none of this any favors. I wonder how Tabitha would feel as a prospective member at University Presbyterian Church. I wonder how long it would be before she got tapped to weave her tunics to decorate the sanctuary or to donate a few of them for the youth group auction. I wonder whether we could allow her instead to be anybody else. I wonder whether we could allow her to sit in the pews simply and fully as a child of God. Truth be told we do this whole enterprise on a tightrope, where of course we want people to bring their own gifts here in the service of the church, and there’s no doubt that we benefit — if you walk in these doors as an accountant, we’re going to welcome you to the finance committee real quick, and if you walk in these doors as a caregiver, we’re going to nominate you for a spot on the Deacons, and if you walk in these doors as a musician you better believe we’re going to find a spot for you in the choir. But I also wonder whether church should be the one time within the constantly insufficient hours of the week where nobody should have to be anything just because some job says you are. I wonder whether we could all just be children of God first. Foremost. Last. Always. And none of the rest of it would really matter at all.
This is what we say we believe underneath, after all, underneath all of the career counseling masquerading as vocational theology, what we say we believe underneath, outlined in the famous first question of the Westminster Catechism, “What is the chief and highest end of humankind?” The answer of course, being to glorify God and fully to enjoy God forever, and it doesn’t say anything about needing proof of employment to carry it out. Which means that if we do church well, we have a Gospel that the over-worked, over-stressed, under-slept population of the world around us needs to hear, a Gospel about who you are sealed only in the waters of baptism and not in bound up in some job description. This is of course why it matters so much what Tabitha does now with her extra time. Or rather that it does not matter at all what she does, as long as she is the one who does it. As long as she is the one who gets to say, after all this time. I am not simply a doer of good these works and a weaver of tunics. I am a child of God, born into this new life, graced by God with this extra time. I do not have to be the weaver of tunics to be loved by my creator. I am loved by my creator no matter what.
This is the Gospel.
You are loved by your creator no matter what.
You are known by your creator no matter what. You are who you are in the waters of baptism no matter what, and nothing can take that away, not the first job nor the last, not the first hour of work nor the 75th. You are not the job you hate nor the job you love. You are not the worst job you will ever have. You are not the best, either. You are not made whole by writing one more late-night email, nor are you condemned by the act of cleaning out your desk. You are not made whole by working one extra shift, nor are you condemned by one more day of sending out applications. You are not made whole by joining a church committee, nor are you condemned by walking away. You are not even, on this Mother’s Day, you are not even made whole by being just exactly the mother or the child or the family unit that someone else told you you need to be. None of this work defines you. None of this work makes you. None of this work identifies you. None of this work becomes you. None of it, not the least of it, not any of it, not one moment of it matters in the eyes of the one who created you and formed you and called you into being. Instead, friends, remember who you are, and whose you are: at the first, and at the last, and in the in-between, a child of God, born into this new life, graced by God with this time.
All you have to do with it is glorify God and enjoy God, forever.
Thanks be to God,