May 8, 2022

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Bishop Patricia Lull

Acts 9:36-43, “The Church of St. Dorcas”

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. AMEN.

            In Joppa, she was called Dorcas. That is, among her Greek speaking friends. To others, who spoke Aramaic, she was called Tabitha. She was beloved by both names. If the Good Shepherd cares for the flock, this woman was a Good Shepherd.

            We know only a few details of her life from the seven verses in which she takes center stage in the Book of Acts. First and foremost, Dorcas was a disciple, a follower of Jesus, her Risen Lord. She lived out her discipleship with a spirit of generosity, giving away her time and money by sewing clothing for the widows in her community of faith.

            We don’t know if Dorcas, herself, was a widow, but we know that in the ancient world – as in today’s world – widows were often among the poorest and most vulnerable of all neighbors. When there was no one else to help, Dorcas was there with her big-hearted charity and concrete acts of mercy. Her death was a serious blow to those she had helped.

            For centuries, this story in Acts has primarily been read as a text about Peter. We know him, too. He is one of the original twelve, beckoned to come in a hurry to Joppa. Once there, in the name of Jesus and by the power of prayer, he raises Dorcas from the dead. Get this – Peter raised Dorcas from the dead. Read this way, the episode provides one more credential for Peter’s acclaimed leadership in the early church; his reputation among some as the singular rock on which Christ would build his church.

In the Book of Acts, Peter stars in many more verses than Dorcas. He is heroic; one of the non-anxious leaders the emergent Christian movement needs as it expands from a handful of disciples at the first Easter to the glorious, worldwide phenomena of Christianity today.

            Over time, tradition lifted up Peter as the first bishop of Rome, the city of his martyrdom. If you visit Rome today – as many of us have – you can’t avoid being awed by the splendor and magnificence of the Basilica that bears his name, the centerpiece of the Vatican where Peter’s own bones are thought to be buried.

            So, in Acts, we have both an ordinary disciple, beloved by those who knew her, and a world-famous disciple, remembered by millions to this day. Biblical scholar, Willie Jennings, reflects on Peter and Dorcas in this way– Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and is making a difference, is a bitter loss.” [1]

            On the East Side of St. Paul, she was called Annette; or Netti; or Granny. She was mother to four and grandmother to seventeen. Ten years ago, at her invitation, I sat in her living room in Dayton’s Bluff. Four of her grandbabies, as she called them, were in an afterschool program, sponsored by the Council of Churches, as Interfaith Action was called in those days. I was the executive director and whenever we were short-staffed at one of the after-school programs, I would get a phone call. If there was no one else to send, I would turn off the computer, get in my car, and go. Back in those days, I learned a lot about the nearly insuperable challenges some kids and families living in poverty face in our own city.

            Netti was raising these four young children on her own while her daughter was off in Chicago, trying to get off drugs. When I went to see her, she asked if I could help the family get more food. When I named all the public resources she could tap, she told me she would not apply for benefits for fear the agencies would take her four grandkids away. She admitted they were a lot for her to handle at her age, but she was clear that she would not give up on her daughter and she would not have her grandbabies living with someone else. Her needs were many. Her heart was large.

            She did not know the seed she was planting in my heart. A big part of the Planting Hope campaign in this synod goes right back to days like that, including the million dollars we are raising to start a therapeutic preschool. We are building it for Netti and her grandbabies and families like hers. Friends, talk about raising the dead. She removed the scales from my eyes. She turned my world upside down, though I didn’t know that just yet.

            Like Dorcas, here was woman who persisted in demanding a better way forward for her grandbabies. A woman bent toward charity and good works even in a political climate determined to crush and punish those who fall behind.

            Friends, I’ll be honest, most of us are really good at being the church of St. Peter – strong, magnificent, heroic, powerful – even bishops in fancy robes. But, I wonder, do we know how to be the church of St. Dorcas?

            The church of St. Dorcas is growing by leaps and bounds in Ukraine. You’ve seen the photos, watched the film clips. Ordinary people are stepping forward to defend their neighborhoods and to literally bind up the wounds of strangers on the street. Before busloads could be evacuated from the steel works in Mariupol, elderly men ventured out each evening to retrieve wooden pallets to make small fires to cook once-a-day meals that were shared with all who had taken refuge in the underground warrens and tunnels beneath the factory.

            In neighboring countries like Poland and Slovakia, ordinary women and men are opening their homes to refugees from the fighting. Car rides are offered. Respite and warm clothing given without cost. Housing and work offered until it is safe to return home again. So many know what it means to give beyond what is reasonable or expected.

            All across the globe, members of the church of St. Dorcas continue to practice the way of faith, modeled long ago in the city of Joppa. It is the way of faith in a Living, Risen Christ; faith of which we dare to sing– “Service be our sure vocation; courage be our daily breath; mercy be our destination, from this day and unto death … Rise, O church, a living faith” (ELW 548)[2] Thanks be to God. AMEN.

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2017, p. 100.

[2] “Rise, O Church” text by Susan Palo Cherwien, Music by Timothy J. Stand; Evangelical Lutheran Worship; Augsburg Fortress, 2006.