The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

DORCAS

Delivered 5/3/98
Text: Acts 9:36-43
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Women have always been uniquely important in the life of the church. It started with Mary. Women were accorded special status during Jesus' ministry; in fact, it was probably women who were major financial supporters of the itinerant rabbi and his friends. Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. This is not a feminist statement but a factual statement: from the first day to THIS day, if it were not for the women, there would be no church. It is that simple.

Have there been any women important in your Christian experience? What's that? FOOLISH QUESTION, you say. I guess. I can think of some. My mom. It was at her urging that I knelt down by my bed one night at the age of seven and asked Jesus to be my Savior. There was Iris - Iris was our youth leader... always there, dependable as the day is long. Christie, of course. Her love over these past twenty years has taught me what grace is all about - she loves me no matter what. No, I cannot explain it, but no one CAN explain grace. There was Naomi, a feisty eighty-year-old redhead who offered her preacher unfailing encouragement through difficult days. Speaking of feisty, I could never forget Mildred, who lived and breathed her church and would have eviscerated anyone who would do it harm. Judy, whose wonderful faith through difficult days is a continuing beacon of inspiration to me. Joan, who knows and shows that being a Christian is a JOY - she makes it a pleasure to come to church just to be around her. I could go on and on and ON...but I'd better quit. Get the message?

Needless to say, no one is especially startled at such statements these days, but they would have been almost scandalous in New Testament times. Women's place in society was not much more than property, and Jesus' willingness to speak to women in public and even include women in his entourage was just a bit outrageous.

Now we are introduced to another woman. What? A woman role model? Precisely. She must have been a special lady, this Tabitha...Dorcas. I am not even sure if either of those was actually her given name, because both, in Aramaic or Greek, mean "Gazelle." A nickname? Was she swift? Fleet of foot? We have no idea. Perhaps the "gazelle" moniker applied because she was so quick to respond when someone needed help. "Devoted to good works and acts of charity," says scripture. Good for her. A role model. A woman! Hmm.

Now, suddenly, she is gone. And the little congregation of First Church, Joppa, is devastated. They faced a task that none of them relished. Saints in the church and widows she had befriended made their way to her home. In the custom of the day, they washed her body and laid her in the upper room that was reached by the stairs outside the small house. Probably surrounded by the bolts of cloth, sewing needles, and thread of which she had made such loving use, Dorcas lay in state. The ceremonial ablutions and anointings complete, her friends stood around her...and wept.

A funeral service? Of course. WAIT! Word had come that one of the Twelve, Peter, was only about ten miles away - a preaching mission in the town of Lydda. What could be more fitting for the funeral of such an outstanding lady to have such an outstanding preacher! Two men were dispatched to request his presence. Whether the Big Fisherman had known of Dorcas before or was just now learning of her life and ministry, Peter did not hesitate to respond. This was one funeral any preacher worth his pulpit would be proud to handle. He dropped what he was doing and came right away.

As was the custom then (and is still today), the preacher was ushered in and found himself among family and friends. The lifeless body lay at the periphery, but the center of attention was life...HER life. This was a time for remembering. Tear-stained faces would be forced into shy smiles as the memories would flood back. A kind word here, a generous gift there. As the text describes it, "All the widows stood beside [Peter], weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them."

That sharing is therapeutic. You see, those trips that we all take through that valley of dark shadows are made so much more bearable when we share the journey with caring friends. And know this too: preachers are grateful to be included in that sharing. It helps us personalize our remarks as we prepare for the funeral.

I am certain that Peter was grateful for the sharing. No doubt, he had been wondering what would be most appropriately said at the service. I doubt that he had too much experience with this sort of event at this point in his life. After all, his background was fishing, not funerals. He was old enough to have attended his share, but attending and officiating are not the same. What to do?

Appropriate scripture? Absolutely. The Shepherd's Psalm(1) is always a favorite: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...green pastures...still waters...Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me." What a wonderful word of comfort in the midst of pain and distress! The passage speaking of preparing a table in the presence of enemies would lead perfectly into the theme of Peter's recent preaching, the terrible crucifixion and subsequent miraculous resurrection of Jesus. That could lead equally well into Jesus' promise that Peter had heard with his own ears: "Because I live, you also will live."(2) Here lay Dorcas, dead now, but still a child of Jesus' promise - new life for her and all who believe. A glorious word of hope. A good funeral...not simply focused on Joppa's loss, but rather on Dorcas' gain.

It was getting near time for the service now. Peter needed some quiet moments to finalize his thoughts. The scriptural account simply says that, after the friends and family had left, Peter knelt in prayer. Somehow, in the midst of that prayer, Peter got the message that there would not be a funeral here today. Instead, there would be something beyond anyone's imagining. Peter "turned to the body and said, 'Tabitha, get up.' Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up." Wow!

Can you imagine what was going through Peter's mind? Yes, he had seen Jesus do miraculous things, even raise the dead. He had heard Jesus say that these same things would also be done by his disciples, and indeed Peter HAD been an instrument of miraculous healing. There was the lame man at the Temple who had asked for alms, but instead of silver or gold had received the ability to walk.(3) He had even been hauled before the authorities because of the healing (just as Jesus had been), but he was released when no charges were brought. Now THIS! Wow!

No doubt that was a night of incredible celebration at First Church, Joppa. Dorcas' friends felt the exhilaration of Mary and Martha when Lazarus stumbled from the tomb. God granted to the widows of that seaside city an experience like the disciples had on Easter morning. Dorcas was alive!

What happened to her? We never hear of her again in scripture. I suspect that she continued her charitable works. Joppa would never NOT need help, for in this seaport lived many families who depended upon the sea for their living. Those who had faced the ravages of the winds and water, especially those widowed and orphaned, had known they could rely on the assistance of Dorcas when needed. Now they could again. Dorcas was alive.

History records that Joppa was an important city in the spread of Christianity. It was only about 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem, a seaport from which were launched trading vessels to every port in the known world. No doubt, the wonderful ministry of Dorcas became the subject of conversation, both on shore and in the ships - her reputation became the reputation of her church. No wonder Christianity grew! Who would NOT want to be part of something as special, as loving, as caring, as that?

A moment ago I said that we never hear of Dorcas again in scripture. True. But we DO hear more of Dorcas. This wonderful, kind lady has been memorialized in countless congregations where we find women's groups, charitable organizations, sewing circles and the like all named DORCAS. What a tribute!

What will you be remembered for? Interesting question. Scary question. One that always brings to mind the story of Alfred Nobel, the one after whom those prestigious annual prizes is named. Nobel made his fortune as the result of an invention of his - dynamite. One morning he awoke to read his own obituary in the paper. You see, his brother had died, but a careless reporter had published the obituary of the wrong Nobel. It described him as "the dynamite king, the industrialist who became rich from explosives." It made Alfred Nobel sound like nothing more than a merchant of death. Needless to say, Nobel was more than a little upset by what he saw...not simply that the wrong person was being remembered, but the horrible portrait it painted. Alfred Nobel resolved that day to change the course of his life and do something positive for society. He left his entire fortune to be awarded to individuals who have done the most to benefit humanity, and the result was those five Nobel Prizes that are awarded with such fanfare each year.

What will you be remembered for when you die? What do you want to be noted for as you live in the church? Remember Dorcas. World-famous Dorcas. Famous for what? "Good works and acts of charity," according to the Bible. You, too, can leave a legacy of Christian love. Go ahead. You have my permission. Be the Dorcas of St. Paul Presbyterian.

Let us pray.

Lord, we are glad for good role models like Dorcas. Help us to make good use of them. In the name of Jesus. Amen!


1. Psalm 23

2. John 14:19

3. Acts 3:1-10

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