It was a hot and humid morning in August of 1967 which is why I was sleeping in an air conditioned bedroom with the door closed and didn’t hear anything that was transpiring outside of my door. My mother woke to find that my father had died sometime during the night, without distress. She did what she had to do that was to call Mr. Muchow, who was our friend from church and the funeral director to retrieve his body. She called our minister Pastor Duburkee, my two uncles, and my father’s best friend Rolf who came along with his wife, Vera my mother’s best friend. They all came to the house and still I heard nothing.
I’m not sure if it was God’s providence that I remained asleep or that I was just a tired teenager because I never did, nor still so I sleep late. But that day I did. Mom and Vera came gently into the room to wake me. Vera stood by the window just gazing out and mom came over to my bedside and told me that Daddy had died during the night. She hugged me long and Vera came over too and we cried together. Why my 53 year old father had died that night, well I couldn’t comprehend any of this.
Mom told me that a few people were here so come downstairs. I got dressed and as I came into the kitchen where everyone was seated in a circle, a heavy silence fell upon the room. And that was ok because there were no words that could have assuaged our grief, my grief at the moment. We all sat in silence and allowed each other the space to mourn on that hot and humid day in August. And that’s all I remember until the next night.
In St. Louis people are ‘laid out’ not ‘waked’ and my father was laid out for three nights. He was a successful baker, a loved, honest and kind employer, a business man, a beloved member of the church and of the community. We needed those three nights for everyone to come to the funeral home to pay their respects; lines were out the door waiting to come inside to greet us. It was demanding and exhausting. But they showed up.
And the food started coming. Casseroles and chickens, you name it we had food enough to feed an army as they say. And after he was buried an aunt stayed on to help mom and me adjust to our new world order. That’s all I remember but that’s enough. It was this caring group of individuals who came to be with us at the time when we needed to feel God’s love the most.
We are moving on from the Gospel of John to the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us of the beginning of the Christian community. As we enter this story we find a community who is wracked with grief.
Hear again the story of Tabitha, the only named woman disciple in the New Testament……
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since 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.” So 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. Peter 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
This congregation has just lost its pillar, a beloved saint who was devoted to charity and good works. Tabitha or Dorcas in Greek is a figure that doesn’t get that much attention in the Bible but it’s a memorable one. What we have is an endearing snapshot of her life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. She’s the only woman named as a disciple in the New Testament even though we know that there were others. It’s clear that she has a solid reputation in the early church and that her loss was keenly felt by the widows, the ones who were lucky enough to have a tunic or two handcrafted by Tabitha. Unlike today, widows in the first century were the forgotten ones of society so for them to be so involved in this passage highlights Tabitha’s outreach to them.
All of the women with whom she worked were at her bedside crying over the loss of their charitable leader. Weeping as they washed her body, they showed one another the beautiful fabric and tunics that Tabitha had made for them. You see she had made a visible difference in their lives. She was their ‘shepherd’ who tended to their needs and helped them deal with the grief and loss of their husbands. Tabitha worked endlessly for the welfare of the women through her extraordinary sewing skills. There were other disciples around her bedside too and when they saw the impact that Tabitha’s death was having upon their church community they sent for Peter because he was not far from where they were and they knew he could help them.
When he arrived, Peter entered a room full of weeping widows so he asked to be alone with Tabitha. After the room was cleared he knelt down and prayed. He invoked God’s name through Jesus and asked for the strength he himself would need to heal in God’s name. When he was finished praying he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes. She sat up. In that moment resurrection again became real. Hope alive. And many believed, all because Peter let the healing powers of Jesus flow through him, he let Christ accomplish through him that which he could not possibly do on his own. Remember how Peter loved Jesus.
I’d like to talk with you today about the role of a healing community and in particular four marks that when applied can make all the difference in the world for someone who has lost a loved one or friend. They are prayer, presence, sustenance, and accompaniment. There might be more but these are the ones that were critical to my healing when my father died and I think what we see in today’s passage.
The initial days after you lose someone are hard, we know that. You’re shocked, saddened, broken and you go through the motions of what needs to be done as word filters through your community. It’s so important to have that community there to help you negotiate those days of sadness. You think you might want to be alone but to be surrounded by persons you love who can thoughtfully and not intrusively hold your grief with you is a true gift.
Peter prayed over Tabitha, no doubt the women prayed among the tears they were shedding too because we know that this was a caring community who followed Christ. Prayer whether silent or spoken can put into words the deepest desires and fears, if prayer is for healing it can open you up to so many different ways in which God heals. Praying for specific outcomes can limit the creative power of God. Offering up prayers on the behalf of someone or the community is a way to give thought and voice to that which is unable to be spoken. When faced with a loss it is others who can pray for you when you cannot even muster up any cogent thought.
The women were by Tabitha. They didn’t flee from her side, they stuck it out and was there to watch her take her last breath upon this earth. That is such a compassionate gift to give another human being. It was Henri Nouwen who said in his book, ‘Bread for the Journey’, “One of the greatest gifts we can give others is ourselves. We offer consolation and comfort, especially in moments of crisis, when we say: "Do not be afraid, I know what you are living and I am living it with you. You are not alone." Thus we become Christ-like shepherds.”[i] The gift of presence, still and silent presence is sometimes all that is needed to console a friend in need.
One of the things I remember from when my father died and also thirty years later when my mother died was the food that people so generously brought over. Meatloaf never tasted so good! It was comfort without words, it nourished us and gave us sustenance way beyond a physical feeding. To know that it was prepared by hands specifically for us to bring us comfort was so wonderful and consoling. But there are so many other ways in which we can nourish a friend in need if you really think about it.
And then there is accompaniment. That means you are in it for the long haul. Tabitha was brought back to life and so she lived out her life, we can assume, by continuing her acts of charity and kindness. And you can bet your bottom dollar that she was not alone. As the weeping widows were with her in her death they were with her in her living, probably with a renewed commitment to their friendship and love. To have someone accompany life with you, that is someone who will walk with you through the valleys of the shadows of death and beside the still waters, is remarkable. That is friendship in its purest form.
Healing is never easy but it is essential to our living and how much better it is to heal within a community of friends who are willing to carry your burdens, your pain, your suffering and eventually your healing like Tabitha’s? How can we be a community of healing that practices prayer, presence, sustenance and accompaniment in a more intentional way? I think a lot of this happens already but maybe there is more that could be done. Let’s think this through together. No one should have to suffer alone.
That hot and humid day in the kitchen way back in 1967 was the beginning of my healing. And I am ever so grateful for that loving church community who exemplified Christ’s love and shepherding care.