“A Weaver and a Tanner”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
May 12, 2019
When I was young and when many of us were young, there was this thing called church face. When you were in church, not only did you need to be dressed up (men in suits or at least sport coats and ties; women in dresses or at least a skirt), you also needed to erase your emotions, at least while sitting in the pew.
A smile might sneak out onto your face. A tear might fall, but it was quickly wiped away. My mom stopped coming to church for a while after her mom died because she was embarrassed about crying. If the minister told a joke, folks would dutifully laugh, but even as late as the 1980s, when I was just getting started as a student minister and an associate pastor, the default church face was as taciturn as could be. Straight line mouth. No emotions.
No wonder they called us the frozen
Now, things have changed. I am so happy that most of us feel much freer these days. People wear all sorts of clothing to church, which I love, because, frankly, I just want you to be here and to be comfortable; I want your kids here, in jeans and t-shirts if you like. I like to dress up for church and so do some of you, but not everybody does, and let’s be OK with that.
And I want to see every kind of emotion here. We are human and we get happy, curious, sad, angry. OK, so maybe let’s wait until after church to really express our anger,… But some things we talk about in church should make us angry! Injustice, for example. Environmental decay. Violence. It’s OK to feel anger in church. Even anger at God.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers have something to teach us when it comes to our relationship with the Divine. We Christians are often reluctant to be our authentic selves with God. It’s almost as if, when we go to church, we’re going to the principals’ office and we have to be polite and still, with our hands between our knees.
Our Jewish siblings feel very free to get into fist shaking disputes with God. We have a lot to learn from them. It’s a much more authentic way of relating to the Divine.
Where is all of this this leading? Today’s scripture reading.
What a beautifully messy collection of people and situations! The action takes place in ancient Joppa, which is now a part of the modern city of Tel Aviv in Israel.
We see a community in mourning over someone named Tabitha (or Dorcas, in Greek). I’m going to use Dorcas this morning because Tabitha is way too pretty a name for this sermon. Dorcas sounds earthy and awkward and… kind of weird. And I love it.
Dorcas was a woman of faith who acted out her convictions by caring for others. The scripture says that she was devoted to acts of charity, which means compassion. But it didn’t save her. She died, probably too young, and that messes with our minds and hearts. We don’t understand it when good people die young.
Her friends wash her body. Washing a dead body cannot be a comfortable process. But it is an act of love. I imagine there were lots of tears and perhaps even a bit of wailing as they prepared Dorcas’ body for burial.
The women who attend her are widows, the scripture says, which means that they had experienced extreme grief, as some of you have. Grieving is not a tidy process! You know that.
Dorcas was a weaver. It could be that she purchased wool that was all ready for weaving, but probably not. In those days, weavers mostly bought raw wool which needed sorting, washing (often with urine! Yuck.). Then it needed beating, dying, greasing, combing, and spinning.
Can you imagine what Dorcas’ hands must have looked and felt like after all of that?! Red and raw and calloused and painful.
At the end of the reading, the author of Acts feels that it is important to say, as part of his narrative, that Peter stays in town a while with someone named Simon, who was a tanner.
That’s right, a tanner. And if you think processing wool was bad, tanning was just as messy and smelly. But even Bible heroes had to make a living. The Apostle Paul made tents and probably poked himself with his needle and got blood on the fabric from time to time.
The point is that all of us live messy lives in one way or another. Even Jesus had his messy times, which means he related to his followers. And through him, God enters into our messy lives And that’s a blessing.
I can think of several eras in my own life that have been messy. There are aspects of my life that are still a little messy. I’m sure that you can think of ways that your life is messy, too.
Some parts of your body aren’t working. Your brain is betraying you. Your finances are in a tangle. Your marriage is a mess. You said the wrong thing. You broke a rule. You lost your concentration. You lost your patience. You acted impulsively. You treated a loved one or a business partner or an employee or a stranger in a way that you would definitely not want to be treated.
And yet… And yet, the Spirit of the Risen Christ… the Spirit of the Living God… lives within us, within you and me, and lives through us into the world, bringing light.
Yes, even these truly imperfect containers — our bodies, our lives — can receive the Holy Spirit… and can live in faith… and can share the compassion of God through our mucky, unkempt lives.
And how wonderful is that?! I’m so grateful that God chooses the likes of us, of you and me to share love with each other and with our neighbors.
You don’t have to be a great speaker or have perfect hair… OK so, some of you do have really good hair, but you know what I mean!
God chooses people who don’t always look their best, who stumble through life, stumble through prayers with lots of “ums,” stumble through relationships and school and work… But we get there. We get close to God and to each other. And we touch our neighbors’ lives with an inclusive, life-affirming message. God uses us to do the healing work of Christ in the world.
The author of Acts tells us that Peter raises Dorcas from the dead. What I’ll say in response to that part of the story is that we often write others off — and we write ourselves off. Too rumpled to be taken seriously… Too unorthodox to be in God’s family… Too disorderly to do God’s work… Too soiled… Too stained to represent the people of God… Too worn down to be fully alive and fully engaged in the work of helping others to experience life fully.
No! God does not write us off. Never. Never!
God doesn’t write us off and we shouldn’t write ourselves or others off, either, especially in community. In community, we help to bring one another to life. And we have two more folks this morning who have promised to join us in doing that. And I am thrilled.
I included Psalm 23 as one of our readings today, not just because it’s in our schedule of readings (which we call the lectionary), but because it’s often read at funerals. And death is one of the messiest parts of our lives.
When we are dying, during those last days (and sometimes last weeks or months or even years), we are often in an extremely undignified state, physically. I won’t say more. You know what I mean.
And, as I said earlier, grief is not an orderly process. It’s messy.
And yet, the psalm reminds us that God is with us all the way through dying and death, all the way through our grieving. Even when we doubt that God is there. God is there with us in our messiness.
And because of that, we can and will be transformed. God will bring us to new life, over and over again. Every day and into eternity. That is the promise of the gospel, Jesus’ good news.
So, let’s join the weaver and the tanner. Let’s join the weeping widows (who both received from Dorcas and gave of themselves to her). And let’s join the very imperfect head disciple, Peter, and shine a light into a world that needs light right now. Let’s trust that, as God used all of these people, God will use even us to transform the world around us.