The First Lesson: Acts (9:36-43)
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.
The Response: Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The Epistle: Revelation (7:9-17)
I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The Gospel: John (10:22-30)
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Henry van Dyke was a late-19th and early-20th century American author, diplomat educator, and clergyman. During his long and varied lifetime, he inspired a number of influential people and, along with them, many more ordinary ones. He used to encourage especially those who thought they had little to offer to others, telling them, “Use what talents you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.”
His words would have found a ready audience in Tabitha, a character who appears briefly in today’s first reading. We don’t hear of her anywhere else in the New Testament, but that’s not surprising. She wasn’t a Saul, or St. Paul, about whose conversion and vocation we heard in last Sunday’s first reading, one taken from earlier in the same chapter of Acts. And she wasn’t a Simon Peter, about whose bold actions we will be hearing next Sunday, in a passage that comes immediately after today’s reading. She was seemingly a fairly ordinary woman, but one who used a gift that she had in order to serve those who were in need.
In her time, as was common in the ancient world, widows were among those who were always most at risk. Long before there were pension plans and 401(k)s, Medicare and Medicaid, widows often had no income and, all too often, no support at all. That is why the people of ancient Israel and the members of the early church made taking care of orphans and widows a top priority.
One of those who did take care of widows was Tabitha, also known by her Greek name, Dorcas. We don’t know very much about Tabitha, about her background or about whatever resources she might have had available. The one thing that we do know is that she had at least one valuable skill: she could sew. And our reading makes it apparent that she used that ability in order to make tunics and other types of clothing for the widows of her community.
Everybody would agree that that was a nice thing to do, but the author of Acts – we usually call him “Luke” — sees much more in her seemingly simple work. In describing her, he uses the feminine form of the word “disciple”: the only time it is used in the entire New Testament. And, in the context of the story, he places her right in the middle of a trio of disciples: Paul, Tabitha, and Peter. That is obviously some illustrious company! But why? Why would Luke enshrine her in the very center of this triptych, flanked by two others who were probably the most dynamic and prominent leaders of the early church?
Maybe Luke was trying to remind us of something that we tend to forget. Maybe he was trying to remind us that the work of the church, that the work of being a disciple, is not just for the Pauls and Peters of the world. Maybe he was trying to remind us that all of us are called to be disciples and to act like disciples: not trying to pass off our responsibilities to those who might be blessed with extraordinary talents, but taking a closer look at our own talents, at what we can do, and then figuring out how we can use those talents in serving those who are in need. And maybe he is trying to tell us that those seemingly ordinary gifts are just are valuable, just as crucial, in doing the work of the church as those rare gifts on which we sometimes tend to focus.
All too often, what churches and individuals in churches sometimes provide for people are not the things that people really need. We offer grand programs that are supposedly designed to serve others’ needs, but that often seem intended more to serve our needs: to make us feel good that we are doing something. But we fail to follow the example of people like Tabitha, who asked herself what ability she had and how she could use that ability to help those in her community who were in need.
What can you do? What ability, what gift, has God given you? And how can you use it to serve others and, in doing so, live out your faith? Can you stock shelves in a food pantry or serve lunch in a feeding program? Can you sort and hang up clothes to make them available for those in need? Can you read and use that ability to help children or adults learn to read? Can you cut the grass or clean up the yard for somebody who can no longer do those tasks? Can you go to the grocery for, or simply visit, somebody who is house-bound? Can you pick up the phone and call and simply listen to someone who has reached a time in life when he or she is mostly left alone and isolated from the wider community? What can you do, however small and simple it might seem, to help someone else and make the world a little bit better place?
One of Henry van Dyke’s friends was Helen Keller. In reflecting on his approach to life, she wrote (Midstream, p. 233-234): “Dr. van Dyke is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in. ‘I’m not an optimist,’ says Dr. van Dyke, ‘there’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist [one who believes that things can be better], believing that [God] wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more.'”
If we are willing to use whatever gifts we have in order to make peoples’ lives and in order to make the world better, then we, too, will be living the life of a disciple of Jesus. And we, too, can take our place in that triptych with Peter and Paul and Tabitha.