Two years ago I received a letter. It was from a relative of one of our members, a gentleman who lives out of town. He had been diagnosed with cancer and came to Duke for care. We had spent some time with him, Betty took him a prayer shawl early on. He gave me permission this week to share his letter with you:
Please deliver the enclosed letter to your prayer shawl ministry team. My shawl is "still at work" two years after "coming on duty." It continues to be a blessing and a comfort. It is cared for lovingly and holds a special place in my heart being the first shawl that I received while at Duke. I find myself frequently referring to a part of the script from the movie Open Range where Annette Benning tells Kevin Costner: "I believe that each of us is given two lives – the one we learn with and the one we live with." Cancer for me has been the demarcation between the two. I am now trying to express to people how they have blessed my life and brought joy to my being. Westminster Church and its church family are truly a part of that blessing. Knowing that you have a strong outreach to the Durham community, please find a place where the enclosed check can make a difference… I send it in honor of the prayer shawl ministry. My small attempt to say thank you. (I don’t know how to knit!)… With Love to all,
I always think of our prayer shawl ministry when I read this text. After the early church began to move, after they started living and worshipping in common, proclaiming the gospel to all. After they began distributing food to nearby widows, we get stories of Stephen – the church’s first martyr, and of Philip. Then Saul, at the beginning of chapter nine, a Pharisee breathing threats against the disciples, gets knocked off a horse by the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, a dramatic conversion, and begins to preach. Abruptly, the scene shifts back to Peter, the lead disciple, always in the thick of it. Peter is visiting, Luke says, "all the believers," and comes to Lydda, a small town 25 miles south of Jerusalem, on the way to Joppa.1 He heals a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years.
In Joppa, 9 more miles south, there was a disciple named Tabitha. We don’t know anything about her other than what Luke says – she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. The Greek says she is literally "filled up" with good works. Her name means gazelle, and she merits the only use of the feminine form of the Greek word for "disciple" in the New Testament.2 Somehow she becomes ill and dies. Her body was washed and laid in a room upstairs. Someone said, "We need to get Peter." It’s not clear what they wanted him to do, if anything, to be with them in their grief, or come grieve himself.
Peter travels those 9 miles in sadness. They take him right to the room upstairs where her body lay. All the women, Luke says, stood beside him, poor widows for whom Tabitha had provided clothing. THIS is the moment I find so moving, and always makes me think of the power of things like prayer shawls, symbols of love given in hard times. The women stood there wearing the clothes the woman who had just died had made for them, tangible signs of her love. Their friend had died, and as Peter got there I imagine one by one they would walk over – here, see this robe, she made it for me, isn’t it beautiful? Peter, look at this tunic, made of fine fabric she got from a friend. Look, here, isn’t this shawl well made? I had nothing, Peter. Things were so hard, and she gave of herself for me. This beautiful woman who is now dead, I imagine one would say, spent her life for others. Making these things. For us.
In a scene that feels familiar in this post-Easter world, but is also still surprising, Peter puts everyone else outside. He knelt down and he prayed. I imagine it wasn’t a polite, God, it sure would be helpful if you would comfort us in this sadness, respectful kind of prayer. Peter’s never been one to hold back. God, what have you done? Look at this saint! Look at these women here, this grief. I don’t know whether Peter had some sense before he prayed of what was going to happen, if he had an outcome in mind. He laid himself before God, not like when we’re reading a nice devotion online or in a neat little book. But when we pray, with our guts, when we don’t have much left. GOD. I don’t know if I have anything more in me. I need you. Please.
Peter turned and said, Tabitha. Get up. Luke reports so matter-of-factly, she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand. Then, calling the saints and widows, those waiting breathlessly outside the door. Come …and Peter didn’t have to say anything. Surprise! Willimon writes again, Death will not have the final say! There is a power on the loose. In this new community the old order will not stand. In this new community widows will not be left to perish. Tabitha is restored to them by Peter’s bold word and act of solidarity, he writes. The name of Jesus Christ bears the same life and death giving power as the creator of the universe. All the boundaries of life, the highest heavens, the breath of life obey his command.3
It has been a couple of weeks since Easter, that big, beautiful, triumphant day in which we celebrate God’s love come to earth in Jesus Christ, first dead – shut up in the grave, crushed by all the evil the powers of this world could muster. We celebrate how he was raised three days later, his love loose on all creation.
Easter was fun, especially with the trumpets, and we have a nice brunch and head back to our lives. But I do wonder, as my friend Meg asked in one of her papers with my preaching group week before last, if we leave Jesus in the category of people we want around, but don’t find wholly necessary. "He is a nice conversation partner, an excuse for holidays, a good measure for social ethics, and a clever teacher." She quotes Michael Lindvall, who wonders if, like many then and now, many of us aren’t interested in Jesus as Messiah or Savior, we’re just interested in what he’ll say. Then it becomes, as usual, about our own personal and spiritual interests. Our society, indeed our churches and our seminaries, are populated with more than a few [of us]…for whom Jesus, Lindvall writes, is mostly, well, interesting.4
But Peter and Tabitha were not looking for a Jesus who was interesting. The Jesus with whom Peter had walked, who had transformed Tabitha’s life to make her a relentless servant, was still at work. That first Easter morning was not the end of resurrection. Resurrection continued as the disciples huddled in fear and the Spirit SHOVED them into the world. It was resurrection that led those first disciples to do ridiculous things like share their stuff with each other and the poor, take care of those in need, worship, and pray. Resurrection called to Tabitha as she sat, day after patient day, knitting tunics and coats and shawls for widows who didn’t have anyone else on their side.
When Peter raised her from the dead we were reminded that resurrection was the supreme act of a God who is far more than interesting, but who calls to us, to you, whose power over death is everywhere. It is this power that is at work when people gather and make prayer shawls or blankets to warm little babies in the NICU at Duke. It is this power that compels dresses for Haiti, paper towels and cleaner for the Denson apartments to welcome formerly homeless veterans. It is this power that nudges us to get up on a Saturday morning and plant flowers at Hope Valley Elementary. It is this power that pushes us to go deeper together into the text, into who God is challenging and calling us to be. It is this God who has journeyed with us as we have prayed and spoken and wrestled with questions about the nature of Christian marriage – conversations of which you have been such a rich and important part. Resurrection keeps unfolding among us, over and over and over again.
Peter let go of Tabitha’s hand, her friends rejoicing. Many came to believe, Luke says, because they heard about this. Because of Peter’s work, to be sure, but also because of the prayer shawls. Because of small thing after small thing done with intentionality and care and love, things that, stitched together, form a life. Peter decides to stick around for a while with Simon, today’s text ends. The risen Christ had done something there in Joppa, and there was work to do.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Justo Gonzalez, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), page 129.
2. William H Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1988), 84.
3. Willimon, 85.
4. From the Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin’s paper at The Well, 2016, Birmingham. Lindvall quote from Michael Lindvall, Scandalous Behavior, in The Christian Century, June 1, 2004.