“DORCAS” - Acts 9:36-43

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor,

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, August 13, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 58:6-14; Acts 9:36-43


When certain momentous events happen in life, especially on a Saturday, the preacher is presented with a challenge: drop the planned sermon and re-group, or continue on as planned.

The events yesterday – the vitriol and violence in Charlottesville – certainly present a challenge. But I am not sure another text is better than those words from Isaiah today. I am deeply moved by the anthem that Nathan offered. And the story of Dorcas – the window – also calls us appropriately today to discipleship. Se we carry on.

Across the last 15 weeks, as we have worshipped in this Chapel, we have had the privilege of gazing at this wonderful window. 

In 1844, the members of First Presbyterian Church, then in Church Hill, out of which Second Presbyterian was organized, erected the original chapel right here where we are today, also called Lecture Room. That would be one year before Second Presbyterian was organized in 1845. So Second Presbyterian essentially came into being in the space where we have been worshipping this summer.

This room looked very different in that first phase; it was mostly a plain, low-ceilinged room, with a parlor on the south end. Moreover, the floor of this room was about four feet lower than it is now.

For the first three years, as Second church was organizing and then chartered in 1845, the congregation met in the original Lecture Room, right here. The historic church building, what we call the Sanctuary, was completed in 1848.

In July, 1899, 55 years after this building was built, a plan was presented to the Session for the re-modeling of this room. One man, Mr. S. H. Hawes, offered to pay the full costs of the renovations of the chapel. We still celebrate the wonderful and contagious generosity of members of Second who support so very well this church, these buildings, and God’s faithful ministry here!

The renovation plans for this space in 1899 called for extensive changes to this building – not only to construct a larger room but to make it conform to the Gothic style of the church building – which had changed the skyline of Richmond since 1848.  It was that renovation in 1899 that gave us these high vaulted ceilings in this Chapel, these beautiful Gothic windows, this rostrum, . . .and the beautiful stained glass window.

The stained-glass window was given in memory of Martha Crane Hawes – by her husband, S. H. Hawes and their children, Horace and Katherine Hawes. The Tiffany Company in New York, one of the most famous and spectacular stained-glass window designers of that era, designed and crafted this window.

Upon first glance at the window, we might assume this is Jesus: Jesus with the children, Jesus saying “let the children come to me.” But the face is very feminine.

The window represents Dorcas standing in the garden among flowers, a young woman holding close two trusting children. (see W. Blanton, The Making of A Downtown Church, p. 90f.)

Now, who is Dorcas?

Here is the story from Acts, chapter 9:

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Stay with me on this passage for a moment.

The setting for this passage is Joppa. Joppa is a coastal town with a prominent port on the Mediterranean just south of what is now Tel Aviv. The modern name is Jaffa. But if you know some Bible stories, Joppa is mentioned as the town where the large cedars were brought in by boat to be used by Solomon to build the first temple. Joppa is the port city from which Jonah found a ship going to Tarshish, as he tried to flee from God, only to be swallowed up by a whale. Joppa/Jaffa remains a thriving town in Israel.

Then, the passage says “there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.” We need to pay close attention to this word “disciple.” As Christians, we have become familiar with this word. It means, literally, “learner,” namely those who learn from Jesus and seek to follow in the way of Jesus. It means one who is seeking to grow in the ways of faith and life, trusting God and serving God. This is what Jesus calls us to be about. Jesus calls and nurtures “disciples.”

But THIS word – “disciple” - here in this passage is peculiar. It is the ONLY feminine form of the word used in the whole Bible. It is feminine because it goes along with the next word, “Tabitha,” the name of this woman from Joppa. She is the only woman in the Bible that gets labeled a DISCIPLE.

Ah ha! Now we can perhaps appreciate this window more! And then the word, “disciple,” and “Tabitha, also called Dorcas,” gets another qualifier, another elaboration, as if the word “disciple” gets more clearly defined: “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

So there she is – Tabitha, also called Dorcas – a DISICPLE, a woman - and one devoted to good works and acts of charity.

The passage continues – Tabitha/Dorcas – has died. She is lying in a room upstairs. They hear that Peter is preaching in a nearby town. They send word: “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter made his way to Joppa (about 10 miles) and into the room upstairs. What did he find there? All the widows – weeping!

Think about this. How might you depict, in a story, the depth of SADNESS? Widows, all through the Bible, are the poorest of the poor. When women lost their husbands in ancient times, they lost their status. When they lost their status in society, they became the most vulnerable, forgotten, desolate. This is why – all through the Scriptures – God is especially attentive to widows, and why widows are always on the list of those people to whom God’s people are to be most attentive. God expects/exhorts us to welcome widows, care for them. Widows need compassion and care.

This continues to be pertinent today, especially in the poorest countries. Women and widows continue to struggle from hunger, from disease, from economic hardships. We know this from our partnerships in Malawi and Guatemala especially. And when you add the word “weeping” to “widows,” this depicts a very troubling, desolate scene.

Why are they weeping? Because Dorcas, the disciple of Jesus who is devoted to good works and acts of charity FOR THE WIDOWS – the poorest of the poor in Joppa – has died. They are weeping and holding the tunics and other clothing that Dorcas has made for them. They are inconsolable. Dorcas was the amazing woman who headed a welfare and compassion ministry in Joppa, sharing her love, assisting with care, supporting the widows, giving them life and hope. She did this, not because she ran a business or even a helping agency. She did this because she was a DISCIPLE. And now she has died and everyone in Joppa is falling apart, especially those widows who are the most needy.

But this story about Dorcas, the disciple, is not just a story about her. Like every story in the Bible, the real subject is God. And God is not finished here, . . . or anywhere else for that matter.

We often function and carry on as if God is not even present. We look at the events around us and we assume it is what it is. In this case, Dorcas has died and the widows are weeping. But GOD is NOT FINISHED here or anywhere else. The story says Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, asks the people to leave the room, and then he knelt and prayed by the bedside. Then he said, “Tabitha, get up.”

The Bible uses simple words to show this dramatic moment: “she opened her eyes; she saw Peter, and she sat up.”

This became known throughout Joppa – and many believed.

There is something else very fascinating about this passage about Dorcas. In Mark 5:35f, there is a story of Jesus healing a woman. And that story – almost word for word, incident by incident – parallels this one in Acts. A girl has died, and the people call out Jesus; like this one, the people call out to Peter. In both stories, the women are weeping. In both stories, the people are asked to go outside. In both stories, Jesus in one story and Peter in the other, take the woman by the hand and say almost the same thing – “Talitha cum” – which means “little girl, get up,” and in Acts, “Tabitha cum,” which means “Tabitha, get up.” There is only one letter difference in what Jesus said and what Peter said. In both stories, the people marveled and many believed in God.

Here is the point: when God is on the scene, there is life.

We often wonder if God is indeed on the scene!

Is God on the scene in the recent mess with North Korea?

Is God on the scene with the increasing tensions and hateful speech around our city, our state, our world?

Is God on the scene with personal issues that haunt our lives?

 This story in Acts about Dorcas wants to confirm what the gospels confirm: God IS on the scene; God is ALWAYS on the scene. And when God is on the scene, weeping and loss may be present but they are not the last word. Sadness and desperation may be real, but that does not hold the day. Tensions and confusions set us back, but God has other plans.

Light and life emerge.

God reigns!

God is our help and strength, a present help in times of weeping and trouble. That is the message all through the Scriptures. Page after page we are reminded that, despite the harsh realities of life, the crazy circumstances of the world, the unknown anxieties that haunt us, God is present. God is at work. God brings life! We are God’s people. Nothing can separate us from God. That is the promise!

Can I get an AMEN? AMEN!

Now, let’s get back to Dorcas. Dorcas is NOT remembered because she was raised from the dead! Did you even know that a woman in Acts named Dorcas was raised from the dead?

Dorcas is remembered because of what it says at the beginning of this passage: “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

In fact, at Second Presbyterian Church, in 1874, 25 years before this window was made, Dr. Moses Hoge, the 1st pastor of Second, called the ladies of the church together for the organization of a new society, known as the Ladies Benevolent Society. One of the officers was Martha Hawes, the wife of S.H. Hawes, whose name is on this window. During the first year, the Ladies society collected $4,143.02. Of that amount, $3584 went for the purchase of new carpet and cushions for the church. (I think those were the same cushions that we finally replaced this summer - J - just kidding!) But the Ladies Society raised $4000!  In today’s dollars, that would be something like $75,000 for God’s work in the church. Imagine.

But in that same year, 1874, here’s the interesting part, a branch of the Ladies Benevolent Society was set up and known as the DORCAS  Society, through which the membership proposed to “give a portion of time and labor to . . .  THE CARE OF THE POOR, . . . to those who needed sympathy and aid” (see W. Blanton, p. 196). Throughout the following decades, the Dorcas Society in this church gave significant funds, and love, and food, and provisions, and fuel, and help to the poor and less fortunate. The Dorcas Society, supported originally by the love and generosity of Second Presbyterian women, following the example of Dorcas (in the window), became the foundation of so many of the missions and outreach to the poor and needy in this city – these missions and outreach that give us such identity, joy, and purpose still.

Dorcas – a disciple - she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.

Nothing is recorded of Dorcas after her healing. But what do you think? I think her service only increased. I think all those who were weeping so loudly when she died were now fueled with hope and life – trusting more in God, in God’s presence and promises, in God’s ability to bring life and hope. For if God could lift Dorcas from the dead, God could also lift those weeping widows from poverty and squalor to redemption, possibility, and life.

Then there is OUR response.

We cannot just say – wow, nice window, . . . and nice story about a nice woman.  We are meant to let the realities of the story take root and give shape to our lives, ESPECIALLY IN THESE DAYS. We have work to do!

Dorcas was a disciple - devoted to good works and acts of charity. That is certainly our calling too – we are called to be disciples!

Listen to this quote from Henri Nouwen: “Our lives as we live them seem like lives that anticipate questions that never will be asked. It seems as if we are getting ourselves ready for the question, “How much did you earn during your lifetime?” or “How many friends did you make?” or “How much progress did you make in your career?” or “How much influence did you have on people?”  . . .

“Were any of those the question Christ will ask when he comes in glory, many of us could approach . . . with great confidence. But nobody is going to hear those questions. The question we all are going to face is the question we are least prepared for. It is: “What have you done for the least of mine?” (Daily Dig, July 30, 2017, Plough.com)

We are ALL called to be DISCIPLES. Disciples are devoted to good works and acts of charity. What might that look like for you in these days? How can you – like Dorcas – contribute to the healing and hope of the world?

So many places in our community, so many issues, so many tensions in these days, so many bullies are calling us to stand up as disciples with good works and acts of charity. These tensions, these bullies seem to be growing. They are not just on kindergarten playgrounds – they are leading rallies. Devoted to good works and acts of charity – that is our calling. What does that look like for you, for me, in the coming days? 

Maybewe will get the question from Jesus – “did you speak out against hatred?” or “did you reach out to work for a more wholesome society?”  We are called to be DISCIPLES.

I came upon this week a Franciscan Benediction that really gets my attention in light of life’s complexities and the challenges that surround us. Listen carefully with me to these words:

            May God bless you with discomfort

at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships

so that you may live deep in your heart.

May God bless you with anger

at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,

so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears

to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness

to believe that you can make a difference in the world,

so that you can do what others claim cannot be done

to bring justice and kindness to all our children and to the poor.

Amen(from P. Yancey, Prayer, p. 105)

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, thank you for Dorcas, another example of faithful discipleship, and the legacy of the Dorcas Society. Keep calling us to make a difference in the world, to address hatred, to help the hurting, to bring justice and life toward the promised reign Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on August 13, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans