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This Became Known Throughout Austin
April 17, 2016
A reading from 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 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.
Our interim pastor, Bruce and I are in constant conversation about the lectionary. The lectionary is a group of passages chosen many moons ago by a group of people to ensure that many Christian denominations were literally on the same page of the Bible each week. I am a lectionary preacher and our interim pastor is not. Thus, hilarity ensues around our office.
For instance, when in the season of Advent, Bruce was already wishing people Merry Christmas with a banner on his door. I wrote a note saying “Happy Advent” and placed it on the banner in big purple letters. Because in the lectionary during Advent are stories preparing us for the birth of Jesus: prophets like Isaiah talking about the one who will come. These stories of faith were picked for a reason during different times of the year, and some pastors, well, they just choose to ignore them. So, as I tend to say, I did not pick the passage this week, it picked me. I could choose from a group of four passages, but this one in particular, during this Eastertide, picked me.
Yes, I do have a special place in my heart for stories of women in the Bible, since they are few and far between, but this passage is more than just a story about Tabitha, also know as Dorcas. It is an important part of our liturgical life together, these lectionary texts. So you can understand my surprise, when in a commentary I read in preparation for this sermon, this passage in Acts has “little theological significance.” So, maybe Pastor Bruce has a point. Maybe I should have picked from Psalm 23 or the gospel passage that we just heard. Maybe I could have riffed about how we are all God’s sheep, and how sheep respond to the Shepherd’s voice. But I didn’t. This woman with two names chose me to tell her story today, even if it is of little theological significance.
I guess my only question then is, who’s the Dorcas now?
Tabitha could attend UPC. Tabitha is among us constantly. When I think about the women and men of this congregation who work with fabric to make this place beautiful, I think of Tabitha. When I think about the women and men who bought clothing for my own child, I think of Tabitha. When I think of the Needleworkers that gather each month to “crochet and pray,” as they say, I think of how Tabitha could be sitting right there, giggling and elbowing Debbie Russ in the ribs. Pulling together fabric with string, making something beautiful from scraps, creating a whole garment from something that seemed like nothing. Tabitha is the best at making clothes.
I could see her working at UPLift, doing good works and charity, counseling with clients, listening to their stories, and offering them a piece of cinnamon toast. I can see her laughing in the kitchen and playing the piano. Perhaps she would even give away some of her clothes that she had made. I could see her at Micah 6, handing an orange to a little boy or unloading the truck at 6:00 a.m. on Thursdays. I could see her cooking for UKirk on Sunday evenings, sitting with the college students and laughing when they showed her an Instagram page. She is at the Welcome Wagon. She helps with Fair Trade coffee. She is a volunteer in our front office. She goes on the border mission trip. She tithes 10 percent. She tends the landscaping in our front lawn. She is a deacon. She is an elder. She is a disciple. Tabitha, member extraordinaire, beloved by all.
And she loves Jesus. Compelled by his story of his death, burial, and resurrection, she considers her works to be in service to Christ alone. Serving this church is service to God, and she worships regularly, sings in the choir, and even has time to teach children’s Sunday school.
How she gets it all done is a miracle in and of itself, but she loves the stories of Christ working in the world and she got caught up in this story. She weaves fabric together and thinks about how God wove together the heavens and the earth. She weaves and thinks about how children are knit together in their mother’s womb. She weaves and thinks about the burial cloth of Christ or the hem of God’s garment or the woman who touched the back of Jesus’ cloak. She knows these stories. They are in her heart. And I like to think that she even preaches from the lectionary! She is a disciple of Jesus Christ.
And when we get a phone call that Tabitha is sick, her name goes out on our prayer chain. She’s at Seton Breckenridge. The pastors visit her and as one of her fellow deacons sits by her bedside, she opens her eyes just for a moment to remind us that the Easter lilies will be delivered on Friday and someone needs to be there to receive them. A few days go by and things are not looking good. And in the midst of the world hustling and bustling, Tabitha dies.
A person dying in our community means something. Even if we only had a passing relationship with them, one of our own dying is like a tear in our UPC fabric.
In my role here at UPC, I have feet in two worlds. This congregation, yes, but I also stand at the University of Texas as a pastoral presence. And two weeks ago, I stood on that campus in silence as I watched a press conference with the Theatre and Dance department of UT. I watched as they stared at the television screen, tears streaming down their faces. I watched as the story began to unfold about what happened to Haruka Weiser. People ran to the bathroom in tears as they talked about her murder. Students held one another close as they talked about her family. Faculty members watched over their flock of students. And I just stood there with my Methodist and Episcopal counterparts, and we just waited to see who needed help. There was a pall over the room as the police chief spoke, and I felt that anxiety mounting. There were just scared little lambs. A sheep had been pulled from their flock.
And in that moment, I realized that I missed Haruka. I didn’t know this woman. I didn’t know anything about her, other than she was connected to the UT Dance department, but I missed her. She could have been any one of the students that I interact with on a daily basis. They could have been the one coming home late from a practice or a class. In this sense, this was one of our girls. This act of violence happened less than a mile away from this place, a 20-minute walk away from us. And I wish that we could have been a place of refuge for her. I wish we could have done something. I wish our historical mission of being in service to the University of Texas could have helped somehow. But she died. And she died at the hands of someone else who also needed help.
I keep thinking that if Haruka was one of our own, if Haruka was our Tabitha, what would happen? Like the people of Joppa, we would honor her. We would speak her name and we would mourn. We would ask for a miracle. Because people in Joppa ask for miracles. They ask for Peter to come and to do something. The ask for healing and resurrection. Because of their faith, they ask for help. They show him the things she wove together. They ask him to change things. And so, Peter arrives and asks everyone to step out of the room, and I have to wonder, what that prayer was that he prayed? I wonder what words he used. I wonder how he was able to beg God for the miracle of restoration. And how he was able to say, “Tabitha, get up,” and she obeyed. His prayer did something. There was some power behind it. He prayed and God heard and God acted. And I realized that so often we pray with silence as a response. So often we pray, and it seems like our stories are of little theological significance.
Standing in the theatre department on UT’s campus, I wanted God to break the silence. I wanted to hear more about Haruka. I wanted her to get up. And I stood on the fringes of that group, and just watched as all of a sudden, dozens of pizzas were brought in. And the theatre students grabbed a slice of pizza and a bottle of water and began to talk with one another. And I saw them laugh with one another and offer hugs and smiles. And I kept thinking that there must have been something special, there must be something powerful about the food that brought them together. And I realized that the faculty were the ones who showed this act of kindness, the ones that led their flock to streams of water that restored them.
I witnessed a miracle two weeks ago. A community torn apart by violence was taking their first steps towards healing. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit was moving through the campus at the University of Texas. And I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit was not just moving, but she was dancing and weaving and holding us close. And I saw God work through pizza and water bottles just as God works through still waters and fabric. In the valley of the shadow of death, in the shadows of Waller Creek, we are called to witness to the resurrection. And we honor Haruka just as we honor Tabitha. Haruka’s parents speak to how they wanted her daughter to be honored in their press release: “We remain steadfast in our desire to honor Haruka’s memory through kindness and love, not violence. To the police officers, the UT community and all who have been impacted by this, we just ask that you hug your children, hug your parents TWICE, one from you and one from us.”
We continue to weave our fabric together here, and we will continue to sew garments of community, and our fabric will be sewn together by the Spirit that moves through all of our interactions with one another. As we hug our children and parents and all of our family members, as we choose love and kindness rather than violence. And as we are knitted together with one another, I pray that we continue to show off the cloth that we make as a community: the wool that forms the fabric of who we are. And that fabric will be a covering for our city, a place of refuge on a cold night. So that this becomes known around Austin, that we are a resurrected people and the story of this community is of great theological significance because God is not done with us yet.
In the name of the one who was resurrected so that we too might get up. Amen.