The Book of Acts is the history of the early church told as stories of two of the prominent followers of Jesus—Peter and Paul. Last week’s reading from Acts chronicled the dramatic conversion of Paul, from someone who was hunting down Jesus followers, into one of the most influential Jesus followers himself. And that is often how history is told—stories of major players and critical events, snap-shots which tell only a part, maybe even a small part, of what actually happened.
Today we get to focus on one of the usually left-out parts of history, one of the “lesser known” people of the Bible. Her name is Tabitha, or maybe we should call her Dorcas. Already we see that she is a woman who straddles two worlds—as many people who are a minority of one kind or another do. Tabitha is a name from the Jewish tradition—linking her to her foremothers in the faith—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Miriam, Ruth, Esther and Deborah. Dorcas is a Greek name, appropriate for a woman involved in a Greek society, maybe even having to buy and sell her handiwork. The name Dorcas may have been her way of fitting the cloth of her life into the fabric of the world in which she lived. Dorcas is what the women who she has ministered to call her. Tabitha is what Peter whispers into the Spirit’s ear to have her live again.
What should we call her? To pick one of the names seems a diminution of who she was. To use both “Tabitha/backslash/Dorcas” seems somewhat dehumanizing. So I am anointing her with a nickname—TD. What do we know about TD? Well she is identified as a disciple who lives in Joppa. She is “devoted to good works and works of charity.” She got ill and died. But somewhere in this impressive (for a woman) but sketchy bio—the writer has forgotten to mention that her good works, her charity, deeply touched people, especially women, in her community. We know this, not because we are told, but because of what they did. After the woman they knew as Dorcas died, they, the women she ministered to, the women she made things for, sent to Peter was in the town of Lydda where he had just healed a bed-ridden man named Aeneas. And Peter came.
So not only did our writer forget to tell us that TD was beloved—so much so that people wanted to show off the handicrafts she had made for them—our writer didn’t bother to mention that she must also have been fairly vocal about her faith—otherwise how would the women have known to send for Peter of all people? And the fact that Peter came, and subsequently used her Jewish name to call her back to life, kind of points to the fact that TD was known not just to the women in Joppa, but to the wider Christian community.
TD is a stand-in for so many disciples, in so many towns, in so many periods of history. The fact that we know her name is wonderful. But she calls us to remember all those whose names we do not know, but who lived lives, in faith, that made a difference to somebody.
I was struck by how often we forget to lift up the “lesser known” people in a movement—although if we think about it for a single moment, we know they have to have been there. “Cape Up with Jonathan Capehart,” podcast’s episode 5 of “Voices of the Movement” (and the Washington Post oped that speaks about it)—makes this point clearly.
--Andrew Young remembers that it was Dorothy Height that basically kept the peace amongst the six civil rights organizations (who were led by young men who each had a different approach to civil rights).
--There was Septima Clark (called the “Mother of the Movement” by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who taught literacy on the ferry boats going back and forth between John’s Island and Charleston—every morning and every night. So on the 1hr and 15min ferry ride she taught anyone willing to listen to read, to write, and how to register to vote.
--There was Dorothy Cotton, director of the Citizenship Education Program, who with Septima Clark trained a generation of civil rights volunteers between 1961 and 1966.
--There was Amelia Boynton who went to Selma, AL as a 19 year old girl in 1929. She worked in voter registration and community organizing her whole life, leading a get-out-the-vote caravan for Obama’s reelection to his second term!
--There is the story Coretta Scott told of coming home from choir practice (at 15) to find her house burned down. Her father gathered her and her sister and her brother and her mother and had them kneel down and pray. First to thank God that no one had been hurt. Then, he asked them to pray for the sick people who felt, for some reason, that [it was] necessary to burn their home down. Then, he asked them to pray that they never feel any bitterness or hatred in their heart (for we are to forgive our enemies).
--There is the story of Representative Barbara Lee of CA who was a member of the Black Panther Party as a young activist, but who knew first-hand how the issues of race and infant mortality have been intertwined. Lee’s mother needed a C-section and went to the hospital in El Paso TX, but they wouldn’t let her in because she was black. But Lee’s grandmother was the product of a domestic worker and the Irish male head of her household, and looked white. So Lee’s grandmother came to the hospital to insist that her daughter be admitted. And looking at this beautiful green-eyed, fair skinned woman, they shook their heads, but admitted Lee’s mother, and so Barbara Lee was able to be born.
We know these stories (of Dorothy Height, and Septima Cotton, and Dorothy Clarke, and Amelia Boynton, and Coretta Scott King, and Rep. Barbara Lee) are just a drop in the ocean of experiences that made up one movement in one era of history in our country. And like our sister in the faith, TD, they remind us that what we do, whether we are recognized or not, has impact on our world.
For whether we call her Tabitha or Dorcas, her story was so memorable that it wormed its way into the Bible. Her identity is truly not only about how she lived her life, how she touched her community, how many people she helped, but more so about her resurrection identity. Yes, Peter called her name. Yes, the Bible tells us she stopped being “a body” and rose again to be a part of the saints and widows of Joppa. But through the telling of her story, through the inspiration she gives to each one of us, to find our community, to share of ourselves, to embrace resurrection life, TD lives on, even today.
As the writers of Seasons of the Spirit comment, “There is no magic at work, but rather the simple power of resurrection life that refuses to be snuffed out by circumstances or oppressive systems.” That is a legacy we are called to follow. To find and claim our piece of resurrection life, and make sure that we allow nothing to snuff it out.
I know this particular time in history is one that can easily sap one’s energy, or even rot one’s soul. But that is when we need the TD’s of today to make connections all the more. That is when we need the community of today to raise our voices calling for help. That is when we need the healers of today to pour their balm on our sin-sick world. That is when we need the Spirit of resurrection life to fill us anew, and give us what we need to make this place, this time better for all.
On this day when we honor our mothers, all those women who have carried us biologically, or pushed us to be our best intellectually, or invited us into spiritual depths, or walked beside us through thick and thin, we remember that not all stories get written in the history books.
But we place our faith in a God who knows all the stars by name, who numbers the hairs on our head, who counts the grains of sand on the shore. In that God, our tiny squares of existence are quilted together into the beautiful tapestry of resurrection life. May we craft lives worthy of such an honor.