Tabitha, Get Up!

Tabitha (aka Dorcas) is not the ONLY woman in the Gospels who was a disciple of Jesus, but her story IS the only one in the entire New Testament in which we find the feminine form for the Greek word that means disciple. It is in the book of Acts, Chapter 9, and it begins this way:

In the city of Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha…

Tabitha was widely known and loved for her good works and acts of compassion shown to those in need and in particular, the widows in her community. She was a seamstress; she made their clothes.

Now lest you be thinking that her fashion generosity and mad skills with fabric were not a particularly noteworthy mention, let me put this into context for you.

Imagine, if, instead of our ridiculously abundant access to clothing that enables us to bring 30 gallon trash bags filled with our spare clothes, every twelve months, enough to fill the surface of tables throughout this sanctuary, and pile them up at least 6” deep for our annual garage sale… INSTEAD of this reality in which we live, imagine that all of Ann Arbor had ONE tailor.  And this tailor made clothes for anyone in need, out of the goodness of her heart.

And she became ill. And died.

That’s what happened to the community of Joppa when Tabitha died. Talk about complicated grief. She was kind. She was known for her acts of charity. And…she was a rare seamstress who made clothes for the poor before the invention of bolts of fabric, polyester thread, or sewing machines. She likely made clothes, in fact, out of heavy woolen materials or animal skins, that were worn in multiple layers, and held up by a clasp or a belt. And now, the people who loved her and were looking at a future without her abundant presence in their midst, were also facing, clothing insecurity.

Still, beloved as she was, they dutifully had prepared her body for burial, and laid her in an upstairs room.

Now Jesus’ disciples were working their way through this area on their mission to be active witnesses of the resurrection, and Peter, a disciple like Tabitha, was just one town over, in Lydda (think, Ypsilanti), where most recently, he had healed a man who had been paralyzed for 8 years. So, they sent for Peter to visit those grieving the death of Tabitha in Joppa. Peter, recently commissioned with feeding Jesus’ sheep (aka people) came with haste! And when he gets to the visiting hours of Tabitha, the first thing the grieving widows do is show him all the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made them when she was alive. Peter, clearly empathized with the depth of the women’s mourning. And this is what he does: he sends them all out of the room, kneels down and prays, then turns to where Tabitha is laid out and says, “Tabitha, get up!”

And Tabitha, opens her eyes, sees Peter, sits up, takes his outstretched hand, and stands on her own two feet. Then Peter called all of God’s beloved people back in, and presents to them: Tabitha, Live!

And that’s the extent of what we know about Tabitha. We don’t know if she was married or if she had children. But we do know that she was a disciple of Jesus Christ, and she cared for, you might even say she mothered, the poor widows in Joppa by making their clothes.

It would be a lesson pretty easily overlooked by the church…if it didn’t fall on Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day, a day founded by three women whose shared passion, and overriding sense of call, was to the cause of peace.

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as she reflected on the evils of war, wanted to create a day where women would come together to make change in the world. Juliet Calhoun Blakely took the pulpit in her Methodist Church in Michigan, because the pastor was too drunk to continue. She finished his sermon by preaching about temperance.

Anna Jarvis began each week as a Sunday school teacher at a Methodist Church in West Virginia, before continuing her work six days a week as an advocate for children’s health and welfare, and promoting peace in her  community which was suffering from being divided — by politics. The first Mother’s Day was recognized in her state in 1908.

On Mother’s Day we stand in the shadow of these mighty women, whose faith moved them into the world to witness to the living God through their acts of compassion toward those in need.

And without wanting to put a damper on all the lovely remembrances you can buy at any Hallmark store for this occasion, it’s important to remember the way we have been sold to celebrate Mother’s Day is not what the three women who founded it had in mind.

Pastor Rob McCoy (aka Fat Pastor) wrote about this in his essay, What Would They Think:

“These were women had a strong sense for the pain in the world, in ways that were personal and specific to being mothers. Their sons’ bodies were sacrificed on the altar of war. Their sons had missing limbs, broken bodies and shattered spirits. Their sons abused alcohol, wasted their income, their time, and their energy on the promise of an empty bottle. Their daughters lived with terror of domestic violence. Their sons and daughters died slowly of disease. They were mothers – not just of the offspring they raised – but of all children.

It was in the midst of this pain that they stood.  Out of the ashes of war, out of the shadow of abuse and alcohol, out of the despair of disease, the mothers stood.  They were angry with the state of the world, and wanted a day to recognize the power of mercy and love.  They wanted a day to recognize the power of those who mothered to make a change in the world.”

I believe that, were they alive today, it would not necessarily be the gifts and brunches and poetic cards gifted to mothers on this day that would most please these three founding women. Instead, it would be the long line of women who have since joined them, moved by both compassion and outrage, in working to make this world a better, safer place not just for their own children, but for all children, whether they had borne any themselves or not.

I think they also would have been delighted, and maybe a bit surprised at all the men who today stand with these women as allies, colleagues, friends, and advocates for change.

It is easy for us to notice the men who are working against women today. It is easy to see men who are threatened by women whose compassion is leading them into risky arenas to be catalysts of change.

But on this Mother’s Day I want to give a shout out to all the faithful men who stand in real solidarity with women, treating them as co-equals, trusting them as colleagues, acting as allies, and holding space for them at the table, and time for them at the mic.

Men who take following Jesus seriously. Because  we know that Jesus was an ally to women long before it was trending. Based on the way Jesus treated women throughout his time on earth, he would have been well pleased not just with Tabitha, but with women throughout the ages whose acts of charity and courage have translated into care for God’s beloved people. Women like:

Rani Iakshmibai, who led a war for independence against the English with a baby strapped to her back.

And Ada Lovelace, the mother of the computer algorithm and specialized in what today we call: STEM education. She died in 1852.

And Mary Fields, a 6’ tall, hard-drinking black woman who was a postmaster, an expert sharpshooter, and the town’s babysitter keeping every child in her charge safe.

And let’s not forget Lucy McBath, the newly-elected Congresswoman for Georgia’s 6th District.

Lucy is a mother, wife, businesswoman and activist for social justice. Lucy is the mother of Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012 by a man objecting to the music Jordan was playing in his car. The shooter used Florida’s stand-your-ground law as his defense. He was not found guilty of murder in his first trial. In an October 2014 retrial, the shooter was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Losing her son in such a senseless way has fueled her lifelong commitment to community activism and the importance of political engagement. 

And then there is our own, Sonya Belaya, University of Michigan graduate and former accompanist here, who is composing and performing music that gives voice to her own grief, speaking to the experience of loss when a mother goes missing. Sonya, a mesmerizing musician still in her early 20s. Her first album, Songs My Mother Taught Me was just released Friday.

It is noteworthy that although Sonya’s mother was born and raised in Russia, Sonya’s story is coming to light at a time when Indigenous women are being murdered and disappearing all the time, and few are addressing it or even speaking about it.

Mother’s Day is about women and men, who pool their talent and time and resources to make sure the least of these are cared for, injustices are exposed, and unnecessary suffering is addressed.

Mother’s Day is about doing the hard work of changing systems that favor the wealthiest, and confrontIng those who are threatened by anyone who does not look like, speak like, love like, or have the same priorities as they do.

The garage sale this church has every year is serious ministry. It not only provides for those in need in this community, giving them access to affordable clothing and household goods, but the proceeds enable us to send our youth on mission trips that help them develop deep compassion so that they will be well-equipped to create a more just and compassionate world when they take their place in the long line of disciples whom Jesus calls to follow his example of:

Listening to women.

Working with women.

Valuing women.

And together men and women who are inspired by their faith and moved to act with both strength and mercy, allow us all to experience moments when the Peace this world cannot give interrupts us as we stand grieving at all we have lost, calling to us each by name, and enabling us to hear, as so many have heard in moments when they thought they had surely died:

Beloved child of God, Get Up!