May 8th, 2022 homily on Acts 9:36-43 by Pastor Galen Zook
Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we celebrate motherly love. And today we want to especially express our gratitude for all of the mothers and grandmothers and women of faith in our midst who love us and demonstrate God’s love to us.
In addition to our biological mothers, I’m sure all of us have people in our lives who loved us in motherly ways. Perhaps it was a grandmother, or aunt, or teacher, a mentor, or a friend.
Many times the way we experienced love from our mothers and grandmothers and the women of faith in our lives was not just through words, but through actions and deeds. They cared for us, nurtured us, supported us, encouraged us, and served us in practical ways – day in and day out. In fact, so often it’s those everyday acts of love that we so often take for granted, and yet impact us the most.
Of course, on a day such as today, we also think of those whose mothers and grandmothers are no longer with us. The pain of loss and separation is often felt that much more strongly on a day such as today when we celebrate motherly love, and so we are especially thinking of all of you who are missing your mothers and grandmothers on this day as well.
I imagine that many of the people of Joppa thought of Tabitha, or Dorcas, as a motherly figure. Here in Acts 9 we see that she was “devoted to good words and acts of charity” (Acts. 9:36). In particular, one of the ways she cared for others was by making clothing for widows in the town – many of whom probably could not have afforded the cloth to make their own clothes, or who were so busy trying to put food on the table for their families that they didn’t have time to make clothes for themselves or their children.
And that’s where Tabitha had stepped in, sewing clothes for the widows of Joppa and their family. Making sure the children had nice tunics to wear for school, and warm cloaks to wear in the winter.
I imagine that the Tabitha didn’t just mass produce the clothing for the widows and their children. I picture her sitting there at her loom, weaving each and every article of clothing with unique patterns and fabrics. She probably took the time to get to know each of the children of the village – not only their names and ages, but their favorite subjects in school, the games they liked to play in the town square. Their favorite colors. She handcrafted each article of clothing with love, smiling to herself as she pictured the children running around the marketplace wearing the various articles of clothing she was making for them.
Whether or not Tabitha had ever been a mother herself, she certainly was like a mom to all of the younger widows and a grandmother to all of the children in the village.
And that’s why everyone took it so hard when she suddenly became ill and passed away. The widows were in a state of shock. How could they go on without Tabitha in their lives? It wasn’t just the clothes that she made for them and the other acts of charity that she carried out. It was her spirit, her love, her personality that they would miss the most.
And so they sent word for the Apostle Peter, one of the twelve Apostles who carried on Christ’s mission now that Jesus had risen and ascended in heaven. They called Peter to come and see what he could do to help them. The Apostle Peter speaks the same words Jesus spoke when he encountered the widow’s son of Nain who had passed away in Luke 7, and to Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8 – “Get up.” And sure enough, Tabitha, although she had been dead, got up! She was raised back to life through the power of Jesus Christ. And her life once more became a living testimony to the power and wonder of God.
The Witness of Deeds
There are many of us here today who may wish we could bring our mothers, or grandmothers, or others who have impacted our lives back to life. But while we may not be able to raise the dead as Jesus and Peter did, the witness and testimony of these godly women of faith lives on in the people they loved and cared for, and in the acts of love they carried out for others. Each of us are in many ways an extension of the people who have loved us and poured into us. And as we follow their example and walk in the way of love and compassion, we keep their legacy alive.
The reality is, though, that often acts of love and charity go overlooked in our world and society and even in the Church. People who serve those in need day in and day out usually don’t get buildings named after them. People who care for children, or tend to those who are sick, or visit those who are in prison, or who serve at Food Pantries, usually don’t get their names in lights. Their good deeds so often go unrecognized. They may spend their whole lives serving others and rarely receive gratitude.
And yet often it’s those acts of love and charity that lead many people to Christ. It did so in the case of the widow’s in Tabitha’s day, and it often does so today in the case of so many people who are drawn to Christ through humble acts of love and service and prayer.
So often we hear stories of people who wandered away from the faith or stopped attending church, as in the case of my colleague Donna, who I shared about last week. And often they will say that it was the prayers and love and compassion and prayers of their mother or grandmother or another woman of faith that drew them back.
A couple of weeks ago, I was called to the bedside of our dear sister in Christ, Margaret “Peggy” Corbin, who passed away last week. Like Tabitha in the Bible, Peggy was known for her good works and charitable deeds. Peggy was married to her husband Michael for 55 years. She was the mother of three sons, the grandmother of four grandchildren, and she was survived by many nieces, nephews, extended relatives and dear friends.
The last couple of years were extremely difficult for Peggy and her family as Peggy’s onset of Alzheimer’s coincided with the COVID pandemic. It was difficult for her to understand why she couldn’t come out to church or visit with friends and family. The past year was especially difficult for Peggy and her family as her alzheimers grew increasingly worse, and she had a number of other health-related issues as well.
As I shared with her friends and family at her memorial service this past week, although Peggy will be dearly missed, we can take comfort in the fact that she is now at peace and in the presence of Jesus, that her body and mind are fully restored, and that one day we will be reunited with her and all of our friends and loved ones who have gone on before us.
But something that struck me as I talked with Peggy’s family over these past few weeks is that each and everyone one of her family members told me that Peggy was always thinking of others, always putting their needs before her own. In many ways, her family were her life. And she didn’t serve others to get attention or to receive gratitude. Her acts of love and service were always done in love. Peggy’s friends and family shared how her humility and acts of love exemplified the love of Jesus to them and drew them closer to Christ.
In a time in our society in which so many people care only about themselves, the love that Peggy had for her family and even those outside of her immediate family will stand as a living and enduring testimony to the love of Jesus Christ. Even though Peggy has gone on to be with Jesus, her witness and testimony will live on in and through her family and our church.
The Lord is Our Shepherd
The way that Peggy and Tabitha loved and cared for others throughout their lives reminds us of the image of the Lord as our Shepherd, as we see in Psalm 23.
The Psalmist says that the Lord is like a shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. And the psalmist says that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still the Lord is right there beside us, leading us and guiding us. His rod and his staff comfort us.
Although in this image the shepherd no doubt uses words to speak to the sheep, it’s interesting to note that it is the physical actions of leading the sheep to water and making the sheep to lie down in green pastures that gives tangible expression to the shepherd’s care and concern for the sheep.
Even if and when it is sometimes difficult for us to recognize our Shepherd’s voice, we can know that Jesus is right there beside us, leading us, guiding us, looking out for us. And even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest in the assurance that Jesus will be there to lead us safely to the other side.
Many of us have probably heard the quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” And while words are often necessary, the point stands that we can preach the Gospel not only through the words we speak, but also, and maybe even more importantly, through our actions. In fact, often we are not given the opportunity to speak – either because our friends or neighbors or coworkers or family members don’t want to hear what we have to say about Jesus or because they have closed themself off to the message of the Gospel. But no matter what, we can always share the love of Christ through our actions – and through the love and care and concern that we demonstrate to others.
People may forget or misinterpret or misremember the things we say, but they will more often remember the things we do. This is one reason why acts of love and compassion can be such powerful forms of witness. And this is why Tabitha’s form of Gospel proclamation as seen here in Acts was an especially powerful form of witness.
A Living Testimony
So let us not overlook or downplay the power of acts of love and charity when it comes to being a witness for Jesus Christ.
Let us remember those who have witnessed to us through their acts of care and compassion. And let us keep their memory alive, not only through sharing the memories we have of them, but also through picking up their mantle, and carrying on those acts of love and compassion for others.
As we do this – as we love others in the same way those who have gone before us have loved and cared for us – their witness and testimony – and ours as well – will live on.