36Now 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. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since 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.” 39So 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. 40Peter 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. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
I apologize in advance to anyone named Dorcas, with a middle name of Dorcas, or with a friend or family member named Dorcas. As immature children, my brothers and I used to call people dorcas. It was meant as an insult because it is close to the word dork. “You’re such a dorcas. No, you are. I know you are but what am I.” Like I said, we were very mature little boysJ.
Also as little boys we sang a song that perhaps many of you sang as well. The song was called “Dare to be a Daniel.” The refrain goes, “Dare to be a Daniel/Dare to stand alone!/Dare to have a purpose firm!/Dare to make it known.”
Today I am changing the song that I sing because I would be pleased to be called a dorcas. After studying this woman, I believe that being called a dorcas is a compliment. Dorcas was a follower of Jesus Christ. Dorcas was someone that cared about other people. Dorcas was someone that people missed when she was gone. Though I don’t believe that it has the same ring to it as “Dare to be a Daniel,” I believe we should all dare to be a Dorcas.
Our scripture begins by telling us about a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas. These are just different translations of the same name. One is Aramaic, the other is Greek, and they both mean gazelle. I guess that she must have been graceful or maybe she had long pointy horns at birth, I don’t know. But we are told that she was a disciple, that is, she was a follower of Jesus, and that she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Those are obviously two very broad terms. Good works could be anything from mowing your yard well, getting the lines nice and straight, and doing your homework without being told to. These are works and they are good. But “acts of charity” is a little more specific. Acts of charity are something that you do for others. Acts of charity are good works that you do on behalf of another person with no expectation that they will be able to pay you back.
One of Dorcas’ acts of charity is revealed to us as we read through this scripture. She had made tunics and other pieces of clothing for widows.
Remember that widows were considered to be among the poorest of the poor in the first century. We see time and time again throughout the scriptures that God’s people are to care for the widows. Today we might expect a widow to be able to live a comfortable life by working, on her husband’s life insurance, their combined 401k’s, Social Security, or other provisions that had been made. But in the first century, a widow would have been at the mercy of those around her. She would have needed family, friends, and her church to help her financially. She may have needed assistance with housing, food, and clothing. So God made it a part of the teaching of the Bible to take care of the widows, to take care of those that can’t help themselves.
I hope that I don’t need to spend a lot of time convincing you all that as followers of Jesus Christ that we are all called to take care of those that can’t help themselves, or as Jesus calls them “The least of these.” If you have ever read the Bible, you know that there is some very clear teaching on how we are to reach out and serve “the least of these”.
There is no teaching clearer on this subject than what is found in Matthew 25:31-46, a passage commonly referred to as “The Sheep and the Goats”:
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
And if that isn’t enough, read on and see what happens to those that do not care for the least of these. The ones that don’t serve the least of these are sent away to eternal punishment.
So by serving those around us, we are serving God. And Dorcas was the kind of person that saw a need in her community and she did something to help alleviate that need. And I use that word “alleviate” with purpose. Surely Dorcas knew that there was no way in the world that she could clothe all of the widows in her community. Surely she knew that she could not begin to solve the problem of poverty in her own back yard, yet alone around the entire world. But what Dorcas knew was that as a follower of Jesus Christ she was called to serve those around her in whatever capacity she was able to.
Some of you know a little bit about our families. Sonya’s parents live just down the road from mine in rural Wayne County, Ohio. Sonya’s parents live in a nice three bedroom home in the city of Orrville. They are making a comfortable living, paying their bills, eating well, and so on.
Just over a week ago Sonya’s father announced his resignation from his job. They are planning to do some type of volunteer service work. They are considering a number of overseas options and a few within the United States. Two of the best options right now seem to be an opportunity in Zambia and one in Colorado.
These are the kinds of things that we think of when we think of Christian service. We often think of relief work, education, building projects, and the likes. These are acts of charity. Sonya’s parents are leaving a comfortable life to live on a small stipend where they are not going to be able to enjoy the finer things of life. They won’t be able to go out to eat every week. There might not even be a restaurant in the area that they settle. They won’t be able to buy clothes that they like when they see them at the local Wal-mart, if there is a Wal-mart. They are making financial sacrifices to serve people that they have never met before, people that will never be able to pay them back. They are being a couple of Dorcases.
But let me ask you a question. Would Sonya’s parents have to move to Zambia to be doing Christian service? Absolutely not! They are doing Christian service in their current jobs, in their current location, in their current home. Sonya’s dad was serving as a pastor. Her mother a school teacher. That is service. Just because it is your job doesn’t mean that you are not doing service! In fact, I would say that if you find a job where you enjoy what you are doing and you are serving people, then you have found the perfect job for you.
In our congregation we have people that are teachers, nurses, social workers, therapists, and so on. There is nothing wrong with being paid to do service to people. I would encourage you to do this if it is something that you feel called to do.
But what if you are not in a real service oriented kind of job? I believe that we are all called to serve God by serving others, so I would encourage you to volunteer time after work, on weekends and holidays. My mother helps to run a food pantry at her church where they serve hundreds of people every month. And there are no paid staff that work at the food pantry. The staff is made up of volunteers that want to serve God by serving others.
If you are not working in a service-oriented job, I would encourage you to take the skills that are required for you to succeed in your job and apply them toward serving others in your free time. In our congregation we have a financial adviser, well it isn’t too hard to see how he could be providing debt counseling to those in need. We have a general contractor that has frequently taken part in relief trips to places like New Orleans and has done a fair amount of pro bono work in his local community.
Sometimes it takes a little creativity but the point that I want to make is this: Whether service is a part of your occupation or something that you do in your free time is less important than that you actually serve others. When we serve others, we are serving Jesus.
Up to this point I seem to have skipped over the biggest event that took place in the scripture for this morning. We read in our text that Dorcas had died. She had fallen ill and she passed away because of her illness. Our scripture tells us that Dorcas was in the city of Joppa, which is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Peter, who was one of the twelve disciples, was just a hop, skip, and a jump away in the city of Lydda, so they sent for him. The scripture doesn’t say why they sent for him, but we can probably assume that their every intention was for Peter to bring Dorcas back from the dead. Anyone could have done the funeral, but they sent for the one that they knew could bring her back to life.
So it is while Peter is there at the side of the recently deceased Dorcas that the widows surround him and weep. It is there that they show Peter the things that Dorcas has made for them and given to them. It is there in that room that they mourn the loss of a good friend, the loss of an unselfish giver, the loss of a follower of Jesus Christ.
Last Wednesday (April 21st) marked 100 years since the death of a great American writer who went by the name of Mark Twain. Twain was known for his humor and his ability to capture the essence of his life growing up on the Mississippi River through the fictional characters in his writings. As I read through today’s scripture, I thought of the book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. I had the opportunity to read this classic when I was in school, and to be honest, I probably skimmed much of it. But one part of the story sticks out in my mind. If you read the book, you might recall that Tom Sawyer and his friends Huckleberry Finn and Joe Harper had a raft and decided to become pirates, camping out on a small island in the river. But when they wake up the next day they find that their raft has been swept away. Later they find out that the town people believe that the three boys have all drown.
These three boys are given an opportunity that most people never experience. They are able to attend their own funeral. During their funeral they witness their loved ones crying for them and they witness the pastor telling these wonderful stories about them and about the love and grace of God. Then as the service is coming to an end, the boys walk in the door where they are greeted with hugs and kisses. The choir sings “Old Hundred” from the hymnals.
Tom, Huck, and Joe get to witness their own funeral. They get to hear what people really thought about them. They get to see who really cared about them. They get to see who really misses them when they are gone.
Dorcas probably didn’t get to hear what people were saying about her, but when God used Peter to bring Dorcas back to life, she saw the friends that were gathered around her and I don’t know if they would have hugged her, but surely they would have done what ever the culturally equivalent would have been. Tears of sorrow turn to tears of joy. How great is our God!
Have you ever wondered what people would say and do at your funeral? Will people say, “He was a rich so and so who never cared to give a dime or a minute of his time.” Or will they cry and talk about how unselfish you were? Will they say, “She was a true servant of God!”? I hope that at my funeral someone will want to call me a dorcas.
There might be a few of us here that are saying, “How can I serve others? I am too poor” or “I am too old” or “I am too young” or “I am the one that needs to be served.” We can all find excuses for why we should not be serving others. But as I walk through this world, I am becoming more and more convinced that we all need to serve and we will all at some point need to be served.
There is a story in the Talmud that I think really hits at this point. The Talmud is a Jewish book, kind of like a commentary on the Hebrew Bible, written around the year 200 AD. It was written by the Priests and the scholars as they try to better understand what God is calling his people to. So the story in the Talmud goes like this:
A certain Rabbi encounters the prophet Elijah, and he asks him, “When will the Messiah come?”
The prophet answers him, “Go and ask him yourself.”
The Rabbi replies, “Where is he, and how will I know him?”
Elijah says to him, “He is at the gates of the city, sitting among the poor, covered in wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
The Messiah himself is wounded among the wounded. He has been hurt just as the others have been hurt. He sits at the gates of the city among the poor and the needy. But when it comes time to replace the dressings on his wounds, he does not remove all of his bandages at once because he might get called to help another person with their bandages. If he was to tend to all of his own wounds at once, he might not be able to help someone else with theirs.
My friends, if we wait until we have everything together to serve God by serving others, we will be waiting forever. We can always make excuses for why we are not doing more, and some might be really good excuses. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to serve God by serving others. As followers of the man who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples, we too are called to serve the least of these.
Look at Dorcas. She gave of her time and her resources to help the widows in need. But it is believed by many scholars that Dorcas herself would have been a widow. When Peter brought her back to life, our text says that he called the saints and the widows to see her. It is possible that her husband was one of the saints, but I would like to think that he would be mentioned. Something like, “Peter called her husband in to see that she had been brought back to life.”
Dorcas didn’t give out of her vast wealth, she gave out of what she had to help other people that she knew could never pay her back. That’s an act of charitable giving. Like the story of the Messiah in the Talmud helping others while he himself was hurting, we too are called to serve others, to serve the least of these. We are called to serve professionally, we are called to serve voluntarily, we are called to serve God by serving others.