The title of this blog will make sense after you read the sermon, I promise. Bonus points to everyone who got my RuPaul/Game of Thrones reference yesterday. This sermon focuses on Tabitha, a little known biblical woman from Acts 9. The title of the blog comes from my ruminations on baptism, where we publicly reject sin, death, and the devil. In ancient church rites, the person being baptized would literally spit in the face of death.
We reject the lies and the empty promises that these things offer, instead clinging to God’s promises which are true. We do this publicly at baptisms, but every day is a chance to say, “Not today, Satan!” A chance to reject the lies that sin tells us: we’re not good enough, we don’t deserve love, everybody’s judging me, etc. Some days we’ll do a better job of rejecting these lies than others. But every day God’s promises are new and reach out to us in love.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“She became ill and died.” Five simple words. And yet so, so much than that. So much sadness, so much grief and pain. So many lost hopes. So many tears shed in those five simple words. “She became ill and died.” Do those five words span days, weeks, or months? Time spent with friends and family, saying goodbye? Or did it happen suddenly? Was there no time? We just don’t know, because all we have are five words. “She became ill and died.”
What do we even know about Tabitha? She’s certainly not one of the better known characters in the Bible, so there’s no shame if you’ve never even heard of her before this morning. And we don’t actually know much about her. But we do know her name. Two of them actually. Which is rare information for us to know about women in the Bible, who are often referred to by their role or relationship to men, not their own names. But not Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. Her two names probably mean that she interacted with both the Jewish and Greek cultures regularly.
We know that she is probably a widow. In her day, widows didn’t have a lot of social capital. Few women did, but a widow was seen as a burden, not a valued part of the culture. And yet, the book of Acts doesn’t actually tell us Tabitha is a widow, we have to infer that. Instead, the book of Acts tells us that Tabitha is a disciple. She is a disciple.
This is the only time—the ONLY time, ONCE—in the whole New Testament, that the feminine form of the word disciple is used. Only once, and it’s about Tabitha. The culture might label her as someone unimportant, someone easily overlooked, but the Bible says that she is a disciple. A follower of the way.
We know that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She made clothes and gave them to other people, perhaps people who wouldn’t have been able to afford them. And we know that Tabitha was loved. All of the widows wept at her death, clinging to the things that she had made them.
Have you ever had the honor of meeting Tabitha? I have. Only this time, she wasn’t also called Dorcas, she was also called Betty Johnson. She was a widow, a member of my church growing up. She was a quiet woman who served on the altar guild. Her husband had been a pastor before he died. I didn’t know her well, or even interact with her much. But when I was ready to go to seminary, she told me she had something she wanted to give me.
It was a black clergy shirt, made by hand, just for me. My mom had snuck a shirt out of my closet to her, so she could get the right measurements. Clergy shirts are finicky things. There’s a row of buttons, but they have to be hidden by another piece of fabric down the front. There’s a collar, but it has to be open in the front, and closed the rest of the way around. And it has to be just the right size to hold a strip of white plastic in place. It must have taken her hours. And all for someone that she barely knew.
That was the first time I met Tabitha, but it certainly wasn’t the last. A woman of faith, perhaps overlooked and disregarded. Perhaps seen as too old, or too poor, or too…whatever you might say…to be important or useful. A woman who used what she had, her gifts, her ministry, her love, to do what she could for the good of others. And she was called a disciple.
The world gives us so many names…some of them we even give ourselves. Tabitha might have been called widow. A burden. Elderly. We all get called names that we haven’t asked for but if we hear them enough times, we might even start to believe them. Failure. Faker. Screw-up. Addict. Divorced. Sinner. Worthless. What names does the world try to give to you?
Maybe, even, they seem like good names at first: powerful, rich, important, pretty, accomplished. Do-gooder, like Tabitha. But these names have a way of defining us. Of making us feel like we are only worthy if…that we only matter when…we manage to beat the addiction, when we manage to get our act together, when we’re married, when we’re religious, when we’re good.
But when we read this story of Tabitha, of Dorcas, of this beloved widow, the very first thing we hear is this: there was a disciple. She is not to be known by any of the names that the world might give to her, but by the name that God gives: disciple.
No matter what the world might call us—rich, poor, deserving, undeserving, sinner, saint, hopeless, hopeful—God calls us by a more important name. Beloved. Child. Ryan Clifford is going to be baptized (at the second service/in just a few minutes), and we will hear the name that God has given him: child of God. No matter what other names or titles he might get throughout his life, this one will always be the most important: beloved child of God.
In the baptismal service, we start with something that seems kind of weird and antiquated. We start by renouncing the devil and all his works and all his empty promises. To put it in other words, we renounce those forces, whether they come from outside us or from inside that try to call us by other names.
When we renounce the devil, we are saying “no” to every name that the world might give us. We are saying “no” to the things that make us question our worth and our value. We defiantly stare evil, and sin, and death in the face and boldly say: not today. In baptism we declare loud and clear: I am a beloved child of God—Ryan is a beloved child of God—and we renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.
We’re all going to be given a lot of names in our life. Some of them we’ll surely like and cherish. And some of them we probably won’t. We are lucky to know Tabitha’s name and story. And we’re lucky to know the Tabitha’s in our lives. But even if we didn’t know her name, we would know this: she was a disciple. She was a beloved child of God. And so are you. Amen.