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.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I might share with you just a few things that many of us learned from our mothers, as evidenced by some of the timeless, classic quotes we often heard from them while growing up:
- Our mothers taught us about RELIGION. “You’d better pray that will come out of the carpet.”
- Our mothers taught us about TIME TRAVEL. “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to smack you into the middle of next week!”
- Our mothers taught us about FORESIGHT. “Make sure you wear clean underwear, in case you’re in an accident.”
- Our mothers taught us about IRONY. “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”
- Our mothers taught us about CONTORTIONISM. “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!”
- Our mothers taught us about WEATHER. “This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it.”
- Our mothers taught us about ENVY. “There are millions of starving children in the world who’d love to eat that asparagus.”
- Our mothers taught us about ANTICIPATION. “Just wait until we get home.”
- Our mothers taught us about GIVING and RECEIVING. “You are going to get it when you get home!”
- Our mothers taught us about HUMOR. “When that lawn mower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me.”
- Our mothers taught us about WISDOM. “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”
- Our mothers taught us about JUSTICE. “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”
Seriously though, our mothers have taught us much, and for that we are truly grateful.
St. Augustine once famously compared the church to a mother, saying “He who does not have the church as his mother does not have God as his Father.” Just as a mother gives birth to her children, so the church gives birth to the spiritual lives of its children. Just as a mother nurtures and cares for her children, raising them and teaching them, so too the church as mother nurtures and cares for us, raising us and teaching us in the faith.
And so this month we are taking a look at the early church, the first church in the Book of Acts, to see what we can learn about being the church today, and being faithful Christians within a church community.
In today’s scripture passage, we come to the story of Peter and Tabitha. Most of us are pretty familiar with the character of St. Peter, but who is this Tabitha? Her story occupies only seven short verses in the New Testament, but from those brief passages, there’s a lot we can learn, especially if we’re willing to read between the lines.
The surface level description in verse 36 gives us a few details: “Now 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.”
Joppa was a coastal city in Israel, just a few miles south of the modern day city of Tel-Aviv. In the first century, it was a thriving sea-port, a center of commerce and trade, and a melting pot of different cultures, traditions, and languages.
Notice that Tabitha’s name is given in two different languages: Hebrew and Greek. Both communities were likely present in the early church community at Joppa. It’s possible that Tabitha/Dorcas may have had a foot in each world, and may have been a bridge builder in the growing rift between these two factions.
Tabitha is described as a “disciple,” one who is committed to studying and following the teachings of Jesus. She is devoted to good works, or good deeds, and acts of charity. The Greek word translated here as charity is ἐλεημοσυνῶν (ele-emo-sunon), which usually means the giving of alms or money to the poor as an act of mercy and compassion.
Her ability to give financially may also explain her importance: Reading between the lines, Tabitha is clearly an important woman. So far in the Book of Acts, most of our stories have been about men. And while women played an important role in the early church, it’s still a pretty male-dominated culture (both Hebrew and Greek). So it’s significant that when this woman gets sick and dies, two men are quickly dispatched to go find Peter—the leader and most important person in the life of the early church. In other words, Tabitha’s death is a crisis of the highest order! And when they find Peter, in a different city several hours away, we read in verse 39 that “Peter got up and went with them.” Immediately, no questions asked. Tabitha is important.
But I don’t think it’s just her money that makes Tabitha important. Remember, she is known for her charity AND her good works. Perhaps those good works have something to do with the tunics and clothing that she made for the widows, which they show Peter upon his arrival. In any case, all the money in the world, while appreciated, would not generate the outpouring of genuine love and grief we see from the widows who are gathered, weeping, around her body.
There’s something else quite telling about who is mourning for Tabitha—or rather, who isn’t mourning for her. In other places in the Bible where someone dies, we find family members, especially sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, leading the mourning. There are none mentioned here, which is a pretty good indication that Tabitha had no children, no family to speak of. The widows mourn for her loss, and were probably her closest friends, indicating that she may have been one of them, herself a widow. No particular explanation or type of sickness is given for her death, which hints that it may have been quite normal. She may have been advanced in years.
Most of this is in the category of “informed speculation” or “educated guess” but when you put it all together, you get a pretty reasonable picture of an early church matriarch, respected across cultural boundaries, an older woman with no family of her own who adopts others with no family and cares for them as a mother, through acts of generosity and love. It’s a reasonable picture, because it’s a familiar one. If you’ve spent any time in a church, you probably know a few Tabithas. Much has changed in the life of the church in the past two thousand years, but something, thankfully, have not.
This church has certainly had its share of faithful matriarchs through the years, but today I want to share with you the story of a Tabitha in our community you’ve probably never heard of, because the thousands she loved and cared for have no voice with which to thank her, or tell her story.
Mary Thompson Speer came to First Presbyterian Church in 1985, although she was an El Paso native and graduated from UTEP back when it was Texas Western College. She was 52 when she came to us, divorced with no children, and caring for her elderly mother, who passed away in 1998. Mary served this church as a deacon and then as an elder, and had served as church organist at a previous church. But her real ministry, her real calling, was her love for cats. Long before the term became popular in our culture, she was known throughout El Paso as “The cat lady.” I found several newspaper articles in her membership folder about Mary and the foundation she organized and ran, Friends of Animals.
The main purpose of her foundation was to find homes for homeless cats and kittens, and to cover the costs of having them spayed and neutered for owners who could not afford to do so. Her foundation accepted donations, but most of its costs were funded out of her own pocket, often as much as $1,000 each month. She did this for over 50 years.
I visited Mary Speer last year when she was in the last days of her journey here on earth. Her house was nearly empty of all furniture, possessions, and the comforts most of us cling to, but there were plenty of cats. I read to her, and prayed with her, but I don’t know if she heard me. By that time, she was mostly gone already. When she passed away, her attorney informed us of her wishes not to have a memorial service, and to have her earthly remains donated to UTEP for medical research. There was no obituary for her in the El Paso Times, which had run so many stories about her during her life. In her will, she left two bequests: One to the Humane Society (I don’t know how much), and a gift to the Foundation of First Presbyterian Church in the amount of $100,000.
One of the last articles about Mary Speer to run in the El Paso Times, back in 2003 when she was 70 years old, was titled “A Saint for Cats.” It’s a full page article, but I want to read to you the last paragraph:
“Speer works with local veterinary clinics to find homes for cats and kittens, and can often be found at any one of them, happily watching families and individuals find a new family member. After 40 years, Speer has become many things to many people. She’s the definition of charity, says Dr. Jim Wentworth, of the El Paso Veterinary Hospital. When she’s gone, she’ll be missed and she won’t be replaced.”
Coming back to our scripture passage, and the biblical story of Tabitha, or Dorcas, some of you may be wondering why up to this point, I have not mentioned the most obvious feature of the story: Tabitha dies, and Peter brings her back to life, with a prayer and the words, “Tabitha, get up.”
It’s not that I’ve been ignoring this miracle. It’s just that I don’t quite know what to do with it. Luke’s purpose in writing Acts is not exactly to provide an accurate, factual, historical account of what happened in the early church, although it is probably the best one we have. In fact, Luke wasn’t even around for most of the story he’s telling. He wrote Acts decades after the events described, on the basis of stories that had been passed down from person to person, sometimes (like all stories do) growing in the retelling.
Part of Luke’s agenda is to show his audience of later church-goers that amazing things can happen in a faithful community. Part of his agenda is to connect Peter and the early apostles with the heritage of Jesus and before that, the prophet Elijah, both of whom performed great miracles including raising people from the dead.
But even if (unlike me) you take this story literally, as reliable historical fact, Tabitha is raised from the dead only to die another day. If she is already advanced in years, already a faithful disciple who believed in God’s promise of eternal life beyond this one, we might ask “What exactly was the point in that? To comfort some today, only to disappoint them again tomorrow?”
I think there’s another point to the story. In raising Tabitha from the dead, Luke (not Peter) is also raising her life, her work, her faithfulness, her example of generosity and love from obscurity into a place of honor in the story of the church. And here we are remembering Tabitha 2,000 years later.
To re-member is to make someone a member again. Literally to RE + MEMBER. From time to time we, as a church family, lose the most valuable asset we have, the thing that makes us the church: One of our members. And in the case of one like Tabitha, or like Mary Speer, who loved, and nurtured and mothered so many, but left behind no direct descendants, it falls especially to us, the church family, to remember and to honor, to raise her story from obscurity and death into light and life.
A few of you may remember Mary Speer. Most of us do not.
But in her life and in her death, she remembered us.
She loved her cats, and she loved her church (probably in that order!).
May the story of her faithfulness, her charity, her good works, and her mothering love for all God’s creatures live on, in our hearts and in our church, for years and years to come.