Tabitha’s a Hero We Can Be – May 8

A sermon based on Acts 9:36-43 Inclusive Bible
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 8, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am hoping, especially on this secular holiday that lifts up some very important women– mothers– that we all noticed that Tabitha, the woman at the center of the Lectionary text for today is called a “disciple. She is called that before we even learn her name “Now in Joppa there was a DISCIPLE, a woman named Tabitha . . .” We need to notice that because there’s a lot of misinformation out there that women were not, and could not, and even to this day should not, be leaders of the church. But by golly guess what? It’s not true. We just heard the Bible literally name Tabitha a disciple.

After we learn she is a disciple and that her name is Tabitha, the very next thing we learn is that Tabitha “never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity.” Tabitha was a follower of Christ who did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk. Males in the early church may have been out there talking about Jesus’ Way, but Tabitha was out there walking Jesus’ Way. Nineteenth Century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it like this, “What men teach in their high places, such women as [Tabitha] illustrate with their lives.” 1

Tabitha walked the walk by dedicating her time, her talent and her resources toward the well-being of others. And it was large quantities of time, talent and resources too. For all Christians, male and female alike, Tabitha remains a model disciple and leader and Follower of Jesus. She did all of that as a woman. I say that because women are often unheralded in history, in the Bible, in the church and in the culture. (How many of us have heard of the disciple Tabitha much . . . if at all?)

Tabitha may have been under our radar all these years but she was heralded in early Christianity and in the Book of Acts if we take time to notice. Part of what has put her under the radar is that the way the story is now told Peter seems to be the intended hero. Sort of like how Paul seemed to outshine Ananias in our Lectionary lesson last week, Peter seems to outshine Tabitha in our Lectionary lesson this week. Peter is said to have raised Tabitha from the dead, a hard act to best. Except that it’s not a feat any of us can do. It’s actually questionable for a lot of us whether Peter could even do it since it not only seems improbable, but appears to echo the genre of stories in the Bible where heroes (like Elijah, Elisha, Jesus and Paul) bring someone back to life. This suggests that the story was set out with a primary intent to show that Peter, as a patriarch of the church, has the same sort of stature as those other major heroes of the faith. It may even have been designed to make sure that looking back men in the early church seem to outshine women.

There was, and is, a lot for men to outshine when it comes to women in the very earliest days of the Jesus Following. Women were the last to see Jesus die on the cross and set in the tomb before Easter and the first to see him and speak to him on Easter. AND Women were the ones charged with informing the others that Jesus lives! Only because of women Jesus was reported as resurrected, and has been known ever since to have lived on and Jesus’ Way survived and grew to be Christianity.

Many men seem to have had a lot of trouble with the fact that women were crucial to the survival of the faith, and with the fact that Jesus and the earliest church treated women as equals. To borrow from Paul, the early church understood that there was no longer Jew or Greek, there was no longer slave or free, there was no longer male and female– for all were to be considered one in Christ Jesus. Just like today, back then some men appear to have not bought into to that, and they wanted to reinstate full blown patriarchy in the Church as it became a force in the culture. They may have placed Tabitha’s sterling reputation as a model Christian against a miracle by Peter to shore up male leadership by diminishing this lauded familiar female hero.

Whatever the reason, Peter is portrayed as a hero in a supernatural sense. While there are a lot of wonderful people in the church, I feel pretty confident claiming none of us can do supernatural deeds. It’s questionable any person ever could. And that’s the thing, that’s where any patriarchal effort to outshine Tabitha fails. We cannot do what they tell us Peter did. We can, however, do as Tabitha did. There’s no supernatural improbable sense to Tabitha’s acts, just human kindness and love and dedication to Jesus’ Way. It’s not questionable whether a person could ever do what she did. Tabitha’s heroic acts are those we could all do– we should all do. She’s our practical model– not Peter. She does not rely on the supernatural to accomplish Jesus’ teachings. She relies on her very own resources and Christ within to put herself in action outwardly as the hands and feet and voice of Christ. Arguably Tabitha outshines Peter when it comes to Holy acts and ways of being, because she uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary.
Peter may be the hero the patriarchal storyteller wants us to focus on, but Tabitha’s the hero we can be. She is actually the one we are challenged to try and be. She is who we can be like. No one is asking us to raise the dead, but Jesus asks us to make sure the poor get clothed and fed Tabitha does that in the Christ-centered life she led. Her down to earth real-life work and donations made her so important to the early church that we have this story of Peter, considered the head of the church, leaving without delay to personally tend to her. When Peter arrived, we are told that there were widows in need gathered to honor Tabitha and display how she helped them with new clothes she personally sewed.

Tabitha was no ordinary disciple, she did not just heroically work hard and give generously, she made it her mission work to work with a very poor and outcast demographic of her day, widows. The patriarchal culture treated women poorly in general, but widows were outcast and oppressed – women without husbands were, as a rule, expendable nobodies to the culture. But not to Tabitha, not to Jesus. So, Tabitha acting as Christ’ hands and feet and voice in Joppa, treated them with love. She did good works and charity for them and with them. She didn’t just send money in and let others do the work; she made them clothes and let them in her home. The outcasts were cared for, the expendables were treated as worthy and felt worthy.

Although there were many women followers of Jesus at this time, Tabitha is the only woman literally called a disciple in the New Testament. She is the one Peter drops everything to go help with a supernatural miracle– because the truth is, Tabitha and her work are too important to die. They must live on. 2. We can take that literally in the story– many do– but we can also take it metaphorically. Jesus’ Way and the Church itself have not survived because patriarchs of the church pulled off supernatural miracles back in the day. Even if they really did such acts back then, they have not done them for millennia. They cannot help the church now. You know what has and always will help the church survive? People like Tabitha? Christians who “never tire[] of doing kind things or giving to charity.”

Christians who heroically work hard and give generously, and make their mission work to work with those who are the poor and the outcast demographics of their day– the widows, orphans, lepers, blind, oppressed, hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and the other least among the culture. Those are the people Jesus worked with. Those are the people Tabitha worked with.

Tabitha walked the walk by dedicating her time, her talent and her resources toward the well-being of others– especially the least among her culture. It was large quantities of time, talent and resources. For all Christians Tabitha remains a model disciple, leader and Follower of Jesus. She needs to live on in churches and she does. Here’s how the Reverend Joseph Harvard puts it in the Feasting on the Word commentary on our lesson (Year C, vol 2, p 430)

“Have you ever met Tabitha? I have known her in every church I have ever served. She has no wealth or power except her deep and abiding commitment to give expression to God’s compassion for those in need. She is tenacious about practicing her faith by serving others. She prays a simple prayer: ‘Lord, help us to help those in need, and make us sensitive to what they really need.’ Tabitha’s work is too important to die and I am grateful that the story records God’s agreement as well by empowering Peter to keep her alive. Tabitha is still alive in most every church I know.”
Tabitha is alive! She is here in many ways and in many faith communities and in many people old and young, male and female, and non-binary. Long live our Tabithas and the Tabithas of every faith community! May we, like them, find a deep and abiding commitment to give expression to God’s compassion for those in need. May we be tenacious about practicing our faith by serving others with our hands and our feet and our voices acting as Christ’s. May we pray the simple prayer: “Lord, help us to help those in need, and make us sensitive to what they really need.” AMEN. Long live Tabitha!

1. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, The Woman’s Bible, p 146, cited to in Levine Amy-Jill (ed), A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles, p 34, (article by Janice Capel Anderson called “ Reading Tabitha: A Feminist Reception History”)
2. Harvard, Joseph, Feasting on the Word commentary, Year C, vol 2, p 430.