Dorcas

Dorcas, or Tabitha, means gazelle.  She is named, unlike so many other female characters in the Bible.  She is the second female that was raised from the dead in the New Testament.  The only other one was Jairus’ daughter who is not named.

Last week, we heard about Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church. The early church recognized and took on the responsibility of caring for the widows in their midst.  The care for widows was an important function of the leadership in the church even with its patriarchal form.  This was true in Jerusalem.  It was also true in Lydda and Joppa by the time Peter traveled to those coastal cities.

The whole incident is sketched with few words.  It is an important story because it moves the early church into inclusiveness.  In this case it recognizes the great contribution women like Dorcas made to the society of the time.   At a time when there was no social security, no organized charities, and no safety net for the marginalized, the work of people like Dorcas was sometimes the only thing that kept the poor alive.

We do not know much about Dorcas.  Apparently she was important enough for some disciples to travel to the nearby town of Lydda and entreat Peter to come to her.  She had already died.  What they hoped Peter would do is unclear.

When Peter arrives, the widows who had benefitted from what Dorcas did were around her dead body.  They showed Peter the proof of the kind of person Dorcas was.  She had made clothes for many of them.

Peter knelt to pray, then spoke directly to Dorcas, “Get up.”  She did.  Peter presented her to the “saints and widows”.  That widows are listed separately from saints is an important part of the telling of this story.

As Luke tells the story of the early Christian church he uses Peter as a central figure for the growth of the church in Judea.  Later he will switch to Paul as Christianity branches out to the rest of the Roman Empire.  It is in this early Peter-centered time that the church has to deal with issues of inclusion.  In this case, it is the place of women in the church.

When we look at this story of Dorcas carefully, we can see that Peter made some progress toward inclusivity of women, even if it does not seem like much in our day.  In the next incident, where Peter is called to a Roman Centurion, he first has to deal with the old ideas of clean and unclean.  His struggle with that starts here as he deals with Dorcas.

Male disciples were sent to get Peter.  They did not say why they were asking him to come to Joppa, only that he was needed quickly.  Would he have come if he knew he was to minister to a woman?  Maybe not.  The status of women in the culture of this time was not very high.

When he arrived he was taken to a room, a private upper room, and surrounded by women.  The writer of the story uses the term widows, not women, for a reason.  It was scandalous enough for a pious Jewish male to be alone in a room with women that were not relatives.  If any of them happened to be “in that time of month” they would be considered unclean.  Touching them would also make him unclean.

In the next chapter of Acts, Peter will need to have a vision from God telling him to no longer call something unclean that God has called clean.  But at this point he has not had that vision.  What compelled him then to listen to this group of grieving widows and minister to Dorcas?  Apparently, he did so because the evidence of her goodness was overwhelming.

Why this story is told is more important than any discussion about whether or not it was truly a miracle or how the reviving of Dorcas took place.  To the hearers of this story the message was clear.  It was not just Peter who prayed for a woman.  It was God who brought that woman back from the dead. Women were also called by the Spirit and gifted by God.  There is “no longer male or female, for all are one in Christ” as Paul would put it later.

We can look back at the story of Dorcas and conclude that the early church was inclusive, giving women full status in the church.  However, history reveals that such status has not been consistent.  Even Peter, in the first epistle attributed to him, tells women to be submissive to their husbands, to call their husbands “lord”, to not make themselves more attractive by using fashionable clothes, jewelry or hairstyles; and then he calls women “the weaker sex”  (all this in only seven verses).  The idea of true equality was only beginning to evolve, and it would sometimes go in reverse.

There is some argument about whether women had more of a leadership role in the church early on.  The catacombs under Rome have a female figure next to all the tombs that were Christian.  Some scholars think this was used because Christians were known to be move inclusive of women in the first centuries of the church.

Today, as a church that follows the teaching of Jesus, we proclaim and try to practice full equality of the sexes.  We need to be aware that this is not a realized value in some instances.  For instance, here at Pioneer women have served as interim ministers and assistant minsters, but never as the senior minister.  Is that revealing?  The Church Council is more evenly balanced, and that speaks well to the idea that we as a congregation live up to our ideals.  However, as long as we live in a society that does not practice true gender equality we will need to be ever mindful of subconsciously accepting the biases of those around us.  We are called, after all, to be those who influence society for good, not to conform to its prejudices.

In the evolution of a more just society there will be times when protests, petitions and legal actions are required.  With this story of Dorcas, however, we see only the first step that is needed to advance the idea of greater inclusion.  It is winning the PR battle, as we would say today.

A few decades ago when AIDS was seen as a curse from God on the gay community, members of an LGBT church asked their pastor how they could get other people to see them in a different light and accept them also as children of God.  That pastor told them, “If you want to be seen as good, you have to do good.”  So the church began serving the greater community.  While they attended funerals every week for one of their members who had succumbed to AIDS, they also gathered backpacks for needy children, teddy bears for the police to give to children they encountered who were caught in a traumatic situation and donated goods and labor in countless ways in their city.  Gradually the image of gay people changed in that area.

Today there are groups who struggle to be seen as worthy of inclusion in our society. When the only people from certain ethnic groups we hear about in the news are terrorists or gang members, it is hard to see how anyone from that group can be included in the beloved community.  More positive examples need to be put forth.

Despite all the sentimentality associated with mothers, women have also suffered on the PR front, even in the church.  Women like the evil queen Jezebel and the conniving seductress Delilah are better known than the business woman Lydia or the scholar Priscilla.  The women held up as role models are those who were submissive.  Those who were leaders are often left unknown in the pages of scripture.

So, let us start with Dorcas.  She is recognized for her goodness and generosity.  Her goodness was attested to by the widows Peter met in that upper room.  However, she would not be known as generous if she did not have some wealth to manage.  Male members of the local community would not have run to Lydda to fetch Peter if she was not respected by all in the community.  The norms of society and church may have been against her, but her charisma, generosity and acumen could not be denied.

Now let us continue with role models in our current time. We need to let it be known that there are great female theologians like Sister Joan Chittister, Dr. Margaret Farley and Dr. Karen Armstrong. There are women who are great congregational pastors and church leaders like Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson and Rev. Dr. Susan Hamilton.  Many more can be named. Let their good work speak for itself.

Let the roll call of honor truly include all through whom God has blessed us.

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