Acts of Wonder and the Last Word

Acts 9:36–43
Psalm 23
John 10:22–30
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

9: 36 “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. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 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.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” (Acts 9:36-43, NRSV)

Let us pray: Great God, creator of the universe, you made the world in beauty, and you restore all things in glory of the risen Christ on Easter. We pray that, wherever your image is still disfigured by poverty, sickness, selfishness, war and greed, the new creation in Jesus Christ may appear in justice, love, and peace, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Dorcas has died. Everyone is stunned. She is one of those people who is the salt of the earth. She is a pillar of the local community, kind, generous and very giving. If you’ve got a problem, Dorcas will help you out. Every church has people like this – this church included.

In my first church in South Carolina, it was city Dot. You see there were two matriarchs named Dot McIntyre, so the church had to distinguish between them by where they lived which was kind of funny because even though city Dot lived in the city, but it was hardly “city living,” while country Dot, really lived in the country. Anyway, city Dot was the type of good old soul who genuinely cared about people, she was supportive and helpful and honest. If she died then the church would be devastated. That is what I imagine was the scene we read about in our passage from Acts.

Dorcas has died. Everyone is shocked – they can’t bear to think what has happened. So, they send for Peter. They don’t really say what they expect him to do about it, but they want him there anyway. When Peter arrives he is quickly taken upstairs, to the room where her body has been laid out. The wake was under way. We get the image of this room where Dorcas’ dead body has been laid. We can imagine it was filled with friends, mostly women, mainly widows, who stood weeping as they passed around afghans, sweaters, blankets and shawls — all knitted and or crocheted by Dorcas. It is as if they are saying, “How can she be dead?” “No not her!” “She takes such good care of us!” “Who else is going to care for us now?” “Look at her beautiful handiwork!” They are offering these words of disbelief as they search for answers and desperately cling to these mementos of Dorcas’ handiwork, her life and her love. Everyone in the room that day had a story about how her life had touched theirs, some selfless act of devotion that she had performed for them.

Dorcas, whose name means gazelle, was a tireless disciple whose devotion to others was the foundation for this community. You can almost see her looking after others, taking food, dropping by with flowers or spending an afternoon babysitting.

Death is such a shocking, unbelievable interruption of the normal order of things. It is abrupt end to life, to love, to presence….that often our first reactions are not very logical. I contend, that shock and disbelief tells us something important, about what it means to be human – just as the widows’ reaction to Dorcas’ death does. Something like 150,000 people die every day in the world – a little over 100 people a minute, probably 1500 people in the time it takes to preach this sermon. Yet each of those deaths is a real person, with a life story, with friends, with family, children, parents, hopes and dreams, achievements and failures. Each one of those 150,000 is unique. They may not be famous, they may never have done anything on a grand scale, but to their friends and families they matter. Their death leaves a hole in the world that can’t be filled. Anyone who has lost someone close to them will know how that feels. Your reaction to their death may not have been rational.

You may have been just like Dorcas’s friends. Who gathered together and held on to the things that Dorcas made and the memories and the stories of her love and her care for them. Then they called for Peter.

Why did they do that?
Did they want him to witness and verify her death?
Did they want the high ranking church official to come and offer a prayer for their beloved friend?
Did they want the memory and the life of their beloved Dorcas to be shared with the leader of the early church?
Did they hope for a miracle beyond miracles?
Did they dare to imagine, to dream that perhaps, just maybe, somehow God could work through Peter and bring life from death?

Throughout scripture, we read stories that about miracles and stories of God bringing the dead back to life. Stories like Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37) praying for God to bring the dead back to life. Jesus himself brings back and the Widow’s Son, he also brings back Jairus’ daughter (Luke 7:11-17; 8:41-42, 49-56) and when he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-46). But the story doesn’t tell us that that is what this group of mourners wanted or what they expected when they called for Peter. But they must have had some sort of hope.

Peter prays, and Dorcas is restored to life. I don’t know how that happens, I don’t know why it happens and I can’t explain it and in a way it doesn’t matter. This may just be a fable, a story to make God look good, and more ammunition for people to say “well God did not help me when I needed it so I can’t believe in God.” The point I want to make is the same whether Dorcas lives or dies. We don’t know anything else about Dorcas beyond this story, but it’s clear that those who knew her she was irreplaceable. She took seriously what Jesus had said, “whenever you clothed the least of one of my brothers and sisters you clothed me.” It may not seem like the most dramatic of ministries – no public acclaim, no clever words – but because of her people who had nothing but rags were given the dignity of clothes made with care, the naked and the cold were wrapped in love. Her ministry made a difference. It mattered, and so did she.

In these weeks after Easter, it may be that we have lost our joy and our wonder. That our lives and the world have fallen back in to the same old routine and seem lost and broken. Perhaps the message of hope and love and joy we find in the resurrection has been lost. Lazarus and Dorcas are just bible stories and don’t really affect us, here today or do they?

But any of us who have tasted the power of illness and the bitterness of the death of a friend or a loved one can never lose sight of this dazzling miracle. This is the good news of this and all of God’s stories that God looks out over a world characterized by death, illness, and loss and dares to declare that Jesus lives! God proclaims and promises that life can come from death and that Jesus himself embodies and assures us that death will not have the last word.

Let us pray:

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