Text: Acts 9:36-42
A Christmas tradition in the Charles household is watching a version of or reading Dickins’, A Christmas Carol. The ghostly story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens with these words:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial
was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it.
And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead
about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece
of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my
unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me
to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were
partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his
sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was
not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellen man of business on the very
day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that
Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I
am going to relate.
Long before Dickins walked the earth, the author of Luke’s Gospel just as
easily could have written:
Dorcas was dead. There is no doubt that Dorcus was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or
nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Luke give us few details about Dorcas while she is living and little more when she dies. We don’t know if she went by the Greek name Dorcas, meaning “gazelle” or by her Aramaic name, Tabitha. What little detail Luke does share, though, is enough to establish her as a remarkable saint.
In a patriarchal world and in an emerging church that was led by a male cadre of followers, Luke introduces us to Dorcas. She is a remarkable saint not only for her acts of benevolence which are significant, but because she bears the distinction of being the only person in the New Testament specifically designated as a female disciple of Jesus.
For Luke, a disciple is a person, male and female, who follows Jesus out of the waters of baptism into a life of healing, reconciliation, justice-seeking, a person with the courage to confront religious and political leaders, a person who is empowered by love of God and love of neighbor.
What little we know of Dorcas is mostly about how she lived her life, how she tended to the needs of the neediest around her, when others were content to pass them by. In the newly born church and in the Roman public square, Dorcas confronted prevailing patriarchal tradition by modeling discipleship not defined by gender.
“Here in this new community no one stays in his or her place,” writes Will Willimon. “Common fishermen are preaching to the temple authorities, paralyzed old men are up and walking about and changing lives, and a woman . . . heads a welfare program among the poor at Joppa. In her work Tabitha is busy making a new configuration of power in which God uses what is lowly and despised in the world to bring to nought the things that are (I. Cor. 1:26-31)”
As the story opens, Dorcas is alive and well. Soon, though, she falls ill, terminally ill, and then dies. We do not know the nature of her illness, but we do know that being a compassionate disciple of Jesus does not immunize her to human vulnerability, no matter how meritorious her service. As Luke tells the story, Dorcas is “dead as a doornail.” She does not have a near death experience in which she sees a great, bright, light at the end of the hallway. Dorcas is certifiably dead. As with Dickins, so with Luke, “the rest of the story depends on it.”
The death of Dorcas is not simply a personal or family loss. In her living, Dorcas was a woman of means who used those means to relieve the suffering of those around her. She especially addressed the needs of widows, easily among the most vulnerable citizens of her society. Dorcas provided security to those whose status in life rendered them insecure. No doubt that her death not only elicited their sorrow, it heightened their insecurity.
When Dorcas dies, the disciples send for the Apostle Peter who is in nearby Lydda and he comes quickly. The story that follows reminds us of when Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to tend to the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5. Just as Jesus sends all but his closest cadre of followers outside then, so now in Joppa Peter sends everyone in the “death house” outside, so he can get on with God’s work of restoring life. First Mark and now Luke, first Jesus and now Peter, enter dramatically into the resurrection realm of God’s new age.
At first glance, Dorcas and then Peter seem to be the headliners in this story. Look more closely and the true headliner of this story is neither Peter nor Dorcas, it is God who uses Peter to restore Dorcas to life, and who inspires Dorcas to a life dedicated to Christian discipleship.
When the story of the rising of Dorcas is told by the church, “the social system of paralysis and death is rendered null and void. The church comes out and speaks the evangelical and prophetic ‘Rise!’ and nothing is ever quite the same.” This story is told in the Easter season not simply because death is defied and God’s will for life prevails, but because when Dorcas rises to new life, her Easter life leads disciples – female and male, then and now – to attend to the ones who are most often neglected or forgotten by society, but who are never forgotten by God.
Surrounded by a continuing, lingering patriarchal patina to society in the West and across the world, despairing at the obscene number of God’s children living in abject poverty today, grieving over the restricted rights of women to make informed reproductive choices in too many states, this brief story in Luke is a herald call to action for the Easter community who must never tire in proclaiming, RISE UP, even when others shout out for us to STAY DOWN.
When I read the story of Dorcas, I hear Maya Angelou’s words in her poem, “Still I Rise.”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
For too long, too many Christians have tagged Easter as the celebration of the afterlife, rejoicing in someday boarding God’s A train to heaven. Surely, Easter is a celebration that God raised Jesus to new life even though he was “dead as a doornail.” For Luke, though, Easter is not only a celebration of the new life that God calls forth after this life, it is a celebration of the new life God calls forth when women like Dorcas and reformed men like Peter defy death-dealing policies, death-dealing situations, death-dealing poverty and “RISE UP,” no matter the cost.
Be still for a moment. Listen with all your heart. There is a voice calling that cannot be missed. It is an Easter voice and it is not whispering, it is shouting to all who would hear:
“People of God, RISE UP!”
“People of God, RISE UP!”
“People of God, RISE UP!