Unexpected Heroes

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

Acts 9:36-43

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.

Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon.

There are two miracles in this story: first, that a person is raised from the dead, and second, that we know her name. 

Her names, actually. 

It’s pretty rare that we get stories about women in scripture. Even rarer when they get their own names. And here, we have a story about a whole community of women, all revolving around their beloved Tabitha, also called Dorcas. 

Tabitha lived in the multilingual, multicultural city of Joppa, what we now know as Tel Aviv. Tabitha herself was probably bilingual in Hebrew and Greek. Tabitha was her Hebrew name. Dorcas was her Greek name, the name she used with people of all backgrounds who came to Joppa. Joppa was and is a sea port, a hub of trade, of people coming and going, of people slipping through the cracks. 

Tabitha wouldn’t let that happen. 

Somehow, she had become one of Jesus’ disciples.

Tabitha is the only woman given that title in the New Testament. It may suggest that she literally sat at Jesus’ feet at some point, his pupil. Or maybe she had learned his teachings second hand. Either way, she—perhaps more than any other disciple on record—put Jesus’ preaching into practice. She loved her neighbor with a vengeance. 

The thing about loving your neighbors—your literal, actual neighbors—is that it isn’t likely to bring you a lot of fame. Unlike Peter and Paul, who went trotting around the Roman world preaching in theaters and doing miracles, Tabitha stays put. She loves the people God has planted her among. She makes soup. She pays bills. She sews clothes. 

If she hadn’t found herself the subject of a miracle, we’d never have known her at all. She’d just be one of the thousand thousand nameless disciples who take care of their people, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

This week I asked some clergywomen friends to share the stories of the Tabithas in their lives—women who, without notoriety or glamor—simply put in the work to care for others. Women who pour out life into others. I started by sharing with them the story of our own Merilyn Reinhardt, core member of the Tabitha Guild, who has sewn over 1500 pillowcases for hospice families, making something tangible to help them grieve, and remember. From that, the stories started pouring in. Here are a few of my favorite.

  • From Sara: There was a woman named Marilyn in my last church and she was truly, genuine a peace MAKER. Not someone who shoved down feelings or pretended conflict wasn’t happening, I mean she had the spiritual gift of making peace. And she did it in this very quiet, behind the scenes way, in a little church that was literally split down the middle on everything–from politics to opinions about the church landscaping. She was the only one who operated as fully herself in both groups, was beloved by both groups and her word and opinions were held in high regard by both sides of the congregation. She was a huge asset to me in that church and when she died I did tell them this in her eulogy but what I didn’t say is I don’t think they realized just how much they lost when they lost her, bc she was doing such good work among them, quietly and locally and effectively
  • From Erin: Elaine is the most dedicated, kind hearted, and generous person I know. In fact, she’s so generous that she’s been audited multiple times by the IRS with them saying there’s no way she can give away as much as she does when she turns in her charitable donations each year. She cared for her husband after a really bad TBI (car accident) and the cared for her mother until she passed at almost 101 years old. Now she continues to care for everyone else. When I read the Tabitha text this morning, I literally said, “OMG this is Elaine!”
  • From Adrienne: Every day at 6pm, my MIL goes to a neighbor’s home to feed her via her feeding tube. I could set my watch by it.
  • From Sarah: My aunt Vonda was often underestimated or overlooked because she had significant physical disabilities which got progressively worse through her adult life and left her largely “homebound,” but she was a fierce advocate for disability rights, gave generously out of her meager funds, and since knitting was one task she was able to do regularly, she knitted tons of things for charity, including lots of warm caps for homeless folks. She was always looking for dark/drab colors of yarn because the homeless veteran men preferred those colors for their hats or scarves. Her funeral was really packed considering she hardly left her home in the years preceding her death.  
  • From Abigail: Connie, whose whole family lived far more frugally than they have to because they give so much away. She especially worked to not make people feel embarrassed. One day, she handed me a new backpack for a kid at church. The kid went to school with her daughter and she noticed the backpack that desperately needed to be replaced. She didn’t want the kid to know it was from her, so could it just be “from the church?” She did something like that countless times during the three years I was as that church, and never wanted any credit for it.
  • From Elizabeth: My late-grandmother was a pen-pal to men in prison, and helped to proctor their educational courses by mail. While she was still actively teaching a high school special Ed class.
  • From Erin: In this part of Canada, a lot of Northern communities are fly-in communities (except in winter when there’s an ice-road). The women from these communities travel to Sioux Lookout in order to give birth – it’s the nearest hospital. One woman from this town is currently in her 90s, and over the years knitted baby hats for all the babies that were born in that hospital (it’s currently about 500/year). This translates to the fact that just about everyone in the North for a couple generations have been given baby hats knit by Peggy. It’s a rare person who hasn’t received one. In recent years, Peggy’s no longer able to knit very much, and it now takes a group of knitters to keep up the number of baby hats donated to the hospital. I can’t help but think that’s a beautiful legacy to leave.

And now, I’m going to ask you to turn to a neighbor and share a story of your own. Who has been a Tabitha in your life? She doesn’t have to be a woman, although I’ve been focusing on women’s stories. Who in your life has, in a quiet, steady way, taken care of their neighbors? If you’re watching us online, you can put your Tabitha stories into the comments. 

Thank you for sharing those stories, for lifting up your Tabithas. So many saints whose names are unknown to the world, but precious to God. 

Scripture says that Tabitha’s life overflowed with good works. She gave her whole life to her community. And so I think it is a beautiful witness that when she was in need, her whole community came together to give her life back to her. The other disciples, the widows, even the famous Peter—they all gathered to bring their rock back to life. 

Most of us will never be famous for our Christianity. We’ll never engage in any great glamorous act of mission. We’ll never out-donate the billionaires. And yet there are unexpected heroes all around us, in these pews, in our neighborhoods, in our lives. Unexpected heroes who gain their life by giving it away, in quiet, steady, Christ-like love. 

For Tabitha and her legacy, we give thanks. Amen. 

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