Resurrecting Tabitha

I’m moving to Glen Ridge, New Jersey in three weeks. It’s a little shocking to say it because if you were to come and visit my apartment, it wouldn’t look like I was moving anytime soon. Well, we do have boxes. We just haven’t put everything we own into those boxes yet. It’s hard, sometimes, to know where to start.

So, as a sort of warmup I’ve been binge watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix. If you don’t know of Kondo, she’s a Japanese tidying guru who helps people with cluttered homes to let go of the stuff that doesn’t “spark joy” in their lives and organize the stuff that does “spark joy.”

Kondo always starts the tidying process with clothes. Each member of the household has to take every piece of clothing they own and make a pile of it. When Kondo tells people to do this, many of them visibly pale or start sweating on camera. And it sometimes takes a long time to make that pile—multiple closets, and chests, and wardrobes, and laundry baskets are all emptied out onto one bed. And usually it’s astounding—one person’s clothes piled from the bed to the ceiling with lots of little piles falling down onto the floor. Kondo tells her clients that she does it this way in order to shock them. When you see just how much clothing you really have, you suddenly feel like you don’t want that much clothing. Now they have to go through the piles. They hold each piece of clothing in their hands and look at it to see if it still “sparks joy” in their life. If it doesn’t, they get rid of it. If it does, they keep it.

When our Bibles tell us to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, and welcome the strangers, we get it. But I think it strikes us as a bit strange when the Bible commands us to clothe the naked. Hunger, homelessness, and poverty are as much problems in our world as they were in Biblical times, but nakedness is not something we encounter as a problem much in a world that cheaply, easily, and disposably produces 80 billion new garment items each year. Most of our used clothing—millions of tons a year—ends up in landfills. But some of it gets passed along charitably. Clothing is cheap and ubiquitous and there aren’t many people who go without a winter coat in New York, let alone go around naked.

But in the time of the Acts of the Apostles, there was not a global industry providing all kinds of cheap clothing to people. Instead, clothing production was mostly done in the household and it was the highest skill and most labor intensive of the household chores. So, it wasn’t cheap. There are laws recorded in the Bible that say you can’t seize someone’s coat in order to repay a debt. Or that if you do, you have to return it to the person you seized it from at night—the implication being that they only had one coat. In fact, the average person probably only had one set of clothes—loincloths, an undergarment (or shirt) and an overgarment (or coat), maybe a belt and some sandals. If you fell into a bad way, and you didn’t have the money, the equipment, the skills, or the strength to make yourself clothes, as they wore out, having to go naked was a real possibility—a possibility which could cut you off from the rest of the world.

In Joppa, the widows who were too old or too sick or too poor to make their own clothes had clothes made for them by a Palestinian Christ-following Jewish woman named Tabitha. In Greek she was called Dorcas probably because she interacted with people who spoke both Aramaic and Greek, both Jews and gentiles. We don’t know much about Tabitha, but we know how respected, beloved, and important she was in her community. We know she was renowned for her good works and her charity. She was important enough to bring the Apostle Peter to town. She was important enough to be called a “disciple.” Tabitha, believe it or not, is the only woman who is specifically named as a disciple in the whole New Testament. We don’t know, but we can hypothesize that she might have been a widow herself, and maybe a woman of some independent means who has the resources to support others. But Tabitha doesn’t just donate money, she’s a hands-on kind of disciple. She makes the widows in her community clothing with her own hands—a labor-intensive, high-skill, time-consuming process.

She didn’t throw her hand-me-downs into a bin at Goodwill the way we might. Tabitha made individual people individual pieces of clothing. To me that’s the only explanation for why the women mourning her death are holding o to pieces of clothing that Tabitha made them. That piece of clothing must have been beautiful and individually tailored and designed to the woman it was given to. Tabitha’s clothes were intimate. She got to know a woman. She got to know her tastes, her style, her needs, her personality. She measured out her body. And then she crafted a garment with love for a woman who probably had very few people who could show her that kind of love and intimacy. These clothes that these women are showing to Peter are not just shirts and coats. These clothes are Tabitha’s love, her good works, her relationships. That’s why, when she was gone, the women held onto these pieces of clothing. After she was gone, they continued to “spark joy.” After she was gone, he clothes were a testament to her life.

In the first century, in Palestine, this is what the early Church looked like. It looked like Tabitha, who called herself Dorcas with gentiles to make it easier to get to know them, who had resources and skills, who didn’t just give to charity but worked with her own hands to build intimate relationships with those who needed community and clothing and joy the most.

This past week I announced that Sunday, June 16th would be my last day as your interim pastor. Of course, it’s all in the natural course of things. We knew that I’d be moving on relatively quickly when I started working here 16 months ago. And now is the right time to go. You’ve called Rev. Piazza to be your next settled pastor. And Glen Ridge has called me to be their next settled pastor. To be honest, everything is working out really well for all of us. And, still, I started to feel a little nostalgic this week, thinking back on all the good times we’ve had together.

I remember when I first arrived, I thought this was a pretty quirky congregation, and I wondered how it was that such an interesting bunch of people would come together week after week and make community. Everyone I know—family or friends— who has ever visited this church on a Sunday have told me how genuinely nice and welcoming everybody was. That’s not the case everywhere you go. But that’s true about you, Broadway: You are gen-u-ine. You don’t have ulterior motives. You’re legitimately nice people.

And your welcome is wide. Take a look around the room. Not everybody looks like you, right? There’s diversity here. And there’s tolerance here for folks who are a little different. And no church is worth it’s salt if it doesn’t have at least a few folks who are a little different. And what seems to hold it all together is that everyone who is here needs this place in some fundamental way—we need God, we need community, and we need to be a part of a place that welcomes everyone—even people who aren’t always welcomed elsewhere—in a genuinely friendly way. Broadway is here for anyone who needs it.

I know I’ve done a good job as your interim pastor. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together. And I’m thrilled for Broadway’s future. But I don’t know if I’m leaving any clothing behind as I head away. Tabitha left clothing behind. What am I leaving behind that can be held onto and “spark joy”? I didn’t plant a tree or anything like that. but I hope that a little bit of my spiritual and ministerial DNA has gotten mixed up in Broadway’s DNA and made a little mutation here or there that might resemble me. Maybe some joy I gave. Some love. Some fun we had. Some good advice that was taken or remembered. Some push I made on a key program that opened it up to new possibilities. Maybe that’s my clothing that I’m leaving behind—a few threads here and there that have helped to hold the outfit together.

And as I prepare to go, I feel like I’m also wearing clothes that have been stitched up a bit. You’ve also given me some thread, Beloved. It’s the thread that holds this community together as a congregation—that genuine and sacred desire to be with one another without any ulterior motives. As that thread has woven its way into my garments, I’ve really learned a lot from it:

 I think I’m more patient now than when I first arrived at Broadway. I’m less likely to sweat the small stuff. I go with the flow a little better. And most of all, you’ve expanded my definition of “room for everybody.” “Room for everybody” doesn’t just mean that the congregation has room for all kinds. “Room for everybody” means that the members of the church are actively welcoming in real-life, living, breathing human beings in all their quirky, diverse beauty. That’s a great gift that will serve me well as I head out to Jersey.

I have no doubt that your genuine, loving, room-for-everybody attitude is going to lead to great things in your future, Beloved. And I’m excited to think that tens or maybe even hundreds of new folks will get to wear this garment that I have worn and learn to ease into a place that accepts them just as they are. This is a great gift, a great ministry to offer to others.

If I were to offer you one last little push or needle prick (hopefully with a good bit of pretty thread attached to the other end) that could lead to new growth and service, Beloved, I’d say it might have something to do with Tabitha’s resurrection. Tabitha led a worthy and beautiful life. Just as Broadway has. She made community and served others, just as Broadway has. And when she got ill and died, God decided to do something amazing. Peter prayed. And God—she brought Tabitha back.

We barely know anything about Tabitha’s life before she died. And we know nothing about her life after she was resurrected. What was it like being resurrected? How did she feel—physically, psychologically? Was she able to go right back to her old ministry or was her rebirth a call into a new kind of life? All we know about Tabitha’s resurrected life is that her miracle, her defeat of death, her return into the heart of her community had a profound impact on her city. In Joppa, people saw and people heard, and it helped them to believe.

I have no doubt that this congregation, similarly to Tabitha, can open its eyes, sit up, take the hand of God being offered, and show itself to be alive to the whole city. I tell my friends and colleagues, as I’m sure many of you do, “Broadway UCC is the best kept church secret in New York City!” It’s true. This is a terrific community! And those who stumble upon us, discover what I have discovered—a diverse community of love and acceptance worshiping with vibrant energy.

But I predict that there is a time coming in the near future, when Broadway UCC will show itself off to the city again and tell the secret that has been kept so well. Broadway will begin to go out into the world in new ways, not just to give charity, but work with its resources and hands to make justice and love—and not just within the church walls, but beyond them in the whole city. And that will be something to rejoice over! That will spark joy. That will be something that causes people to believe.

Amen.