Tabitha's Tunics -- and what they teach us about the purpose and the resurrection of the church in our times
Stories of Hope Clothing, Episode 3:
Hespeler, 3 April 2016 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 58:1-10, Acts 9:36-43, Matthew 25:31-40
id you notice that nobody asked Peter to do anything? Peter was in Lydda when a highly respected and well-loved woman named Tabitha died in the nearby town of Joppa. And people had obviously heard something about Peter. He had a certain reputation for healing and for miracles, so they sent for him with an urgent request that he come, but that was the whole content of the message. They didn’t tell him that he was supposed to heal her (it was kind of too late for that anyways). They didn’t ask him to come and do anything – just come, please, as soon as you can.
And when he came, even then, they didn’t actually ask anything of him. They just took him to an upper room where they had laid out Tabitha’s body but they don’t even seem to have pointed her out to him. No, what Peter actually saw and noticed was not her body but a room full of weeping widows. They didn’t say anything, they just wept and showed him their clothes. And that is why they didn’t need to ask him to do anything. The clothes actually spoke much louder than any words ever could have.
The story of Tabitha in the Book of Acts, makes me ask, first of all, one immediate and very important question. If you were Tabitha, what would the widows show to Peter?
I am often called upon, as you would expect, to speak at the funerals of people who have passed away. I have always found it to be true that every person’s life has something profound and beautiful to say to us at such times and I do see it as a great honour and a privilege to be the one who gets to point out some of those profound and beautiful things.
But I have also noticed that there are often things that are deeper and stronger than words at times like that. They are objects or actions that hold special symbolic meaning and they often will prove far more enduring than the words we say about someone who has died. People will cling to something that the deceased gave to them or did for them and find great comfort in that. That was what those widows were doing when Peter arrived.
Widows are, in the Bible, kind of the stereotypical poor person. They were seen as the most helpless and needy people in all of society. Of course, there are problems with that stereotype. I would never be so foolish as to think of a widow (or any woman unattached to a man) in such terms today! In fact, some of the strongest and most capable people I have ever known have been widows or other women who, by choice or by circumstance, navigate this world without a husband.
And even the ancient perception that widows were helpless actually had nothing to do with the capabilities of individual women. It was just that, in that society, women were not permitted to make their way in the world without a dominant male controlling them. They were not allowed to participate in the economy in any honourable way and so they were forced to be utterly dependant on charity.
So these women in Joppa may have been very strong and confident women. They may have even been practicing the freedom of the Christian gospel by choosing not to be married. But they lived in a society that did not allow them to make their own way apart from a dominant man. These women, because they broke the conventions of society, became dependent on the community of the church.
And Tabitha, had been particularly generous to them. But it obviously wasn’t just the fact that she was generous that had moved them. She had made these clothes with her own hands. Her generosity to them had been personal, caring and individual. That’s what made the common, everyday tunics and dresses and robes they were showing to Peter absolutely priceless in their minds. These tunics represent to them everything that summed up Tabitha’s kindness, goodness and love shown to them.
And I don’t know about you, but if that were me and I had died or moved on in some other way, I just think it would be really nice if, after I was gone, someone could just hold up something and point to it and say, “This is something that tells me that Scott was here and that his presence in this place mattered.” So it is a really good question to ask, “what tunics would people show to Peter after you were gone?”
But actually, I have a much more urgent question to ask here today. The story of Peter and Tabitha is a terrific story to read just after Easter because it is a story of resurrection. Maybe I should have said, “spoiler alert,” before bringing that up, but we did actually read the story and you heard how it ended. Tabitha didn’t stay dead. So it would be very easy to take this story and apply it to our post-resurrection hope as followers of Christ.
Certainly one of the reasons why the early Christians remembered and repeated this story was because it reminded them of their Easter hope in a life after death. The life after death that we hope for is not exactly what happens to Tabitha. We don’t expect Jesus to restore us to this life again after we die, but rather to a different kind of life in a new place that we can scarcely even imagine. But what Peter does for Tabitha is a symbolic reminder of that hope for life after death.
But there is, I think, another way to read this story as a story of resurrection. After all, it is not just people who die. Groups and organizations and institutions, they can die too. And, as a matter of fact, we are living in an age when institutions are passing away more quickly than ever before. Churches and congregations, in particular are affected by this and they are passing away (or amalgamating or changing to such a degree that they are unrecognizable) at an unprecedented rate today. So would it not be a good question to ask, as believers in the power of resurrection, what is the hope for resurrection for our churches and Christian institutions?
If your church were to die (or go through a radical change that might feel like death) what would you like to leave behind from its life right now that would tell the world that it was worth being here? Now, I know that when we think of our churches and the things that make them special to us, we tend to focus on the things that have been meaningful to us personally. We talk about our beautiful buildings and sanctuaries. We talk about memorable moments in worship services and about the things we have done there with our friends. We also have a certain tendency to go on and on about past glories and to celebrate the way that things used to be.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with loving these things about our churches. But the story of Tabitha makes me wonder, when our congregations are dead (or when they are transformed in coming years) what will make people remember them as they were and believe that they were important? This story makes me think that it may not be the buildings or the activities or the musical moments. What if, in the end, what really matters are the pieces of clothing.
I can think of this quite literally because we have, in this congregation, a clothing ministry called Hope Clothing where we are regularly handing out really good quality used clothing to people simply because they need it and can make good use of it. So I do know just how meaningful such a simple act can be. I am in the church often enough when people come in and bring their donations of clothing. Just knowing that it is our intention to give it all away according to need means a great deal to people in the world today – a world where used clothing has become a big business that creates large profits for some.
I also get to hear the stories that they tell me as they bring the clothes in. Not too long ago, I had a woman come in bearing the clothes of her mother who had passed away recently. She joyfully and sorrowfully (it’s amazing how the two of them can go together sometimes) told me very sacred and holy things about her mother and her sense of style and how she dressed and some of the things she had struggled with over recent years. I know without a doubt that it was a healing moment for her to be able to share her mother’s clothes and her stories in that way. And providing that opportunity is absolutely something that will last long beyond the present state of this congregation.
Of course, I also get to be part of it when people come to take the clothes that they need. We could tell you so many stories of people finding just the right piece of clothing at the right time in order to go to a job interview or a wedding or some other really important event. We could tell you stories of the right piece of clothing showing up as a donation only minutes before someone comes looking for that very thing. It is a little shop where minor miracles happen every week. Sometimes you know you’re participating in a miracle when you are just there and ready to respond when someone comes up against an emergency – a house fire, a situation of abuse or whatever it might be.
And let me tell you, if someday our congregation should cease to exist and the Apostle Peter were to drop by and ask me what really mattered about St. Andrew’s Hespeler, I think we could do a lot worse than to show him those pieces of clothing that were shared and the impacts they had on people’s lives. I know he would be moved by that. And of course, it is not always literally clothing but it is the acts of kindness that manifest themselves in concrete things that are shared with others.
For example, last week I preached this sermon at St. Andrew’s Church in Guelph and they don’t have a clothing ministry. They are, however working diligently towards welcoming a refugee family into Canada. I promised them that the concrete things that they do for that family will be of eternal value and will indeed endure beyond the present life of their congregation.
So I hope that this story of Tabitha might make us re-evaluate the things that we feel are really important about our churches and ask ourselves what we really need to spend our time and energy investing in as congregation. Maybe it is time for some of those priorities to change.
But remember that I said that this is a post Easter story. It is a story of the power of Christ’s resurrection and what it can do for us in our churches today. And I do see us living in an age where death is a real possibility for our congregations. Please understand, however, that I am not, in any way, predicting the death of St. Andrew’s Guelph or St. Andrew’s Hespeler. In neither case do I see that as a likely possibility and I am not here as a prophet of doom today.
But I will tell you this: we are living in days of great change for the church. We have a Lord who will not abandon his church in these days. Christ will be with his church through whatever change may come. That’s the good news. The somewhat more troubling news is this: Christ has a particular strategy for renewal in his church and in his people’s lives. And it is not a strategy of incremental change that never makes us feel uncomfortable. Christ’s favourite strategy for change is death and resurrection.
For me that means that maybe even many of our strongest and liveliest churches may be heading for a Tabitha moment – for a time when it may just feel like we have been washed and laid out in a room upstairs and that we are done. I fully expect many of our congregations to deal with moments like that in coming years.
Why would God allow us to go through such painful moments of loss? Not because he has abandoned us. He will send for Peter to come and raise us up again to new life and new beginnings. Christ will not abandon his church. So why would he put us through that?
Well maybe, just maybe, it’s because he wants us – like those widows in Joppa – to realize what really matters about who we are and what we do as a church together.
#TodaysTweetableTruth The widows showed Peter Tabitha’s tunics proving she had mattered. What would they show him after yr church was gone?