Sermon May 8 2022 Raising of Tabitha                                           Rev. Betsy Hogan

So, this week I've found myself thinking a lot about the word 'legacy'.

This may not surprise you, in view of the number of times I've heard and said and typed the word 'legacy' this week, in relation to our public invitation for development proposals –

But what SHOULD surprise you, in the sense of manifesting that weird Holy Spirit synchronicity that never ceases to amaze me, is that the story of the Raising of Tabitha that we just heard together – a story utterly grounded in the nature and importance of someone's 'legacy' –

Was just the passage from the book of Acts that was scheduled for this Sunday, in the assigned lectionary of readings followed by most mainline churches!

In other words, I didn't choose it. It was already there. One of the best stories in the Christian Bible about 'legacy' as crystallization of the 'meaning' of someone's life, as gift bestowed and shared, and as BOTH: intertwined together so that that meaning continues to live.

The story of Tabitha. That's her name in Aramaic, the sort of Hebrew-adjacent language that Jesus and the disciples would have spoken, while the same name in Greek is 'Dorcas'. 

Which may seem like a sort of throwaway line in this passage from Acts, but in fact what it tells us is that she's connected with – and moves in – both the Jewish-Christian community and the non-Jewish or Gentile Greek-speaking community in Lydda, which is the place where she lives.

Which suggests she's a person of some importance in her community, Tabitha. She's called in this passage a 'disciple' – it's the only place in the Bible where the female version of the Greek word is used. So her faithfulness and her discipleship are important in the early Church and in her wider community, but we can also tell that she's a person of some importance in her community quite literally because the house where she lives has an 'upper room'.

We learn that because that's where her body is laid out when she dies, but just the fact of having an upper room – living in a place with two storeys – is a mark at this time of a certain degree of affluence. However this happened, whether by birth or by marriage or – less likely but still possible – her own initiative or enterprise, Tabitha's a woman whose life has been shaped by the experience of comfort and some wealth.

But she's also a woman whose life has been deeply shaped by her faith and the call to care and service that faith inspires. "Love one another as I have loved you," is how Jesus puts it, and for Tabitha that's real. It's her essential guiding principle, it's the shape of how she lives. 

And we know that not because SHE tells us that, and not even because the writer of the Book of Acts tells us that, but because the women of her community who crowd into her house when she dies tell us that. In fact, they tell the Apostle Peter that, when they've summoned him to her deathbed.

And not just with words, but with things. 

All these widows, pressed together and weeping because Tabitha has died – they've brought with them as precious, as a kind of embodiment of Tabitha's care and the concern she's shown them when they've been in need, they've brought with them all the pieces of clothing she's made for them. 

Just ordinary clothing, tunics and other garments is what it says in this passage, but every single piece of that ordinary clothing was a gift. Quite literally a gift, a legacy bestowed, that Tabitha has given to them to meet a particular need, but at the same time also representative of her gift of just... caring about them. Wanting their needs to be met, wanting for them well-being as children of God. Wanting to help.  

In effect, what greets the Apostle Peter when he arrives at Tabitha's house at the behest of the women who love her is Tabitha's 'legacy' in all its layers.

There are the things, the gifts, that for these women are just like the things, the gifts, that we cherish ourselves because of who gave them to us, because of who they remind us of, who we think of when we see them. 

In our house, because we began our married life in what I can only describe as the 1990s Nova Scotian Kingdom of Tole Painting, our Christmas tree is literally a Christmas ornament manifestation of the first congregations I served down near Keji, with almost every ornament reminding us every year of those who made them, and made them a gift. 

So there are those things, those reminders, the gifts, the clothing that Tabitha made and gave them, that the women carry with them that day and show in their grief to the Apostle Peter. That aren't just pieces of clothing, but they're pieces of clothing that TABITHA made. And as precious for that reason as a pink baby sweater that still lives in my house, that's the pink baby sweater that a beloved Isabelle made – and told me to keep in case the abundance of sons eventually led to a granddaughter. Things get filled with meaning.

So "Look," the widows say to Peter. "Here are the things that Tabitha made for us and gave us." But what they expect and what they assume is that Peter will recognize that these aren't Tabitha's 'legacy' solely in the sense of 'what's been given', but that he'll also recognize that these are Tabitha's 'legacy' in the sense of crystallizing and representing for them the heart of what her life has been about. 

Because for Tabitha, the meaning of "love one another as I have loved you" was translated into the 'direct action', as it were, of good works and acts of charity. Like making and giving clothing when clothing was needed.

"When I was naked, you clothed me," is how Jesus puts it, in his teaching to the disciples, and for Tabitha, that's been at the heart of her faithfulness and the faithful living she embraced and also modelled for others. 

And that's also her legacy: the meaning she manifested and by manifesting it she shared it. Because she's identified by the author of Acts with the name of 'disciple' for a reason – her living was itself a sermon about Christian love in good works and acts of charity. And that sermon was "heard" by those around her and in that way must have snowballed, been extended, spread. She'd not have been named a 'disciple' otherwise – there's an acknowledgement in that of the wider import of what might otherwise simply have been what she did with her one wild and precious life. As the poet Mary Oliver would put it.

But that's not to set Tabitha apart or to subside into humility or even discouragement in relation to the 'legacy' that was hers because of its import or its breadth  Because at the heart of our faith is the notion of literal incarnation, Godness in humanness, this life MATTERING deeply. For all of us. In our own little ways.

How each of us lives, being our own little selves, doing our own little thing -- how can we ever know the fullness of our own legacy? What we've gifted others, what we've manifested? I mean, just stop and consider all the legacies that WE'VE experienced and received from others in ways not just large but small!

I often tell the story of one of the first airplane rides I took as an adult, having made the ill-advised decision to go to school in Vancouver, when I was basically catatonic with fear while we were waiting for the plane to take off. And I felt a little pat on my hand, and the little boy next to me said "Don't worry, lady. Everything will be just fine."

He's presumably a grown man now. Even approaching middle age! And I'm sure he has no memory of this at all. But I'll never forget it – it was such a gentle act of kindness. And part of his legacy that's still getting shared... because I just shared it.

I never pretend to "understand" intellectually the science-defying miracles we read about in the Bible. Invariably there are explanations floated that seek to cast them as 'rational in reality' and only miraculous if somehow that reality's not been noticed. 

Like, the feeding of the 5000 was really just everyone sharing – but if that's not noticed, it's a miracle. Or Jesus was really walking on a sandbar, not water – but if that's not noticed, it's a miracle. Or Tabitha wasn't really dead but just unconscious – but if that's not noticed, then we call it a miracle when she's raised. 

I have to admit, I don't find those explanations terrifically interesting. But I also don't consider them necessary. Because these aren't stories that are told simply to communicate FACTS. The Bible is revelation: it's meant to reveal. These are stories that are told to reveal and communicate MEANING. 

And sometimes LOTS of meaning, and layers of meaning, and varieties of meaning. Because that's how stories work, and that's their point.

I could have told you that very same story about the little boy on the plane in the very same words, but in order to convey the 'meaning' of 'not only adults but also children can be wise'. Rather than the 'meaning' of how we never know what small kindness we've shown someone randomly that they'll never forget.

So the story from Acts – it begins as a story that's pretty much a funeral. It begins as a story of the layers of meaning of Tabitha's legacy: not only the love of God and neighbour she's embodied in her life through 'good works and acts of charity', but also the literal gifts she's given others in the shape of all those pieces of clothing the women have literally brought with them in their grief.  

It begins as a story of pretty much a funeral. Of Tabitha's 'legacy', as though it's something she's left behind.

But then the story continues. And that's not what it is at all. Because Peter reaches his hand out to her, and speaks to her, and helps her up, and shows her to all those who've gathered – with all their memories and experiences of Tabithaness and the gifts that for each of them mean "Tabitha" – and that legacy's not dead at all. 

It's alive in the midst of them. The Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit does, and the goodness and the meaning, they still live and can't be lost. Not for Tabitha's community, and not for us either, held as we are too in the power of the Spirit. And inspired as we try to be too, by the power of the Spirit. 

"For I received what I've also handed on," is how the Apostle Paul puts it in one of his letters to the early church. Thanks be to God, by whose Spirit legacies of goodness abide. Amen.