Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 17, 2016
“A Humpty Dumpty Kind of Faith”
Acts 9: 36-43 – Common English Bible
“In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37 About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” 39 Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.
40 Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42 The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon.
Tabitha is probably is one of those “Do I really have to believe this?” stories. I mean, I love parts of it. It starts great. She is the first woman who was given the same designation as the 12 – she was a disciple. Clear and simple with no asterisk. Not a “woman” disciple. She was a disciple in an otherwise male dominated arena. And it speaks volumes about her importance that Peter would drop everything and rush to her side. She was a well-known disciple because of her good works and charity.
Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us about her ministry with widows and orphans and strangers. The very ones now standing around her body grieving. They depended on her. As they cried they held up the clothing that Tabitha had made for them. These were not the professional mourners brought in when someone died – like in the story of Lazarus and others in the Bible.
Hiring professional mourners was a common practice in Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. It never really made sense to me. Why would you have to hire someone to cry? Although, if you can believe it, you can go to rentamourner.com in England and hire one for only $68 an hour. Why would you do that? To “increase the appearance of one’s popularity.” If you’re concerned with a low turnout, you can also hire professionals to cry in Taiwan and India. You can watch a YouTube video of hired mourners in Kenya creating a spectacle. I did a google search for Denver and found no one offering such services and thought maybe it’s a good business idea for someone.
But the point in Tabitha’s case is that these were real people surrounding her dead body. The ones who depended on her. When Peter arrived he asked them all to leave while he stayed with her. With the door closed, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” Jesus had done the same thing with the daughter of Jairus, saying, “Daughter, get up.” And they both did.
Amazing. Miraculous. But precisely the kind of stories that sometimes make it difficult for Christians in the modern world. “Do I really have to believe this?” But it’s not my place to say this did or didn’t really happen. Or to offer explanations that she probably wasn’t really dead. To speculate that she was simply asleep or maybe she was in a diabetic coma or something “logical” like that.
But that’s about as helpful or hurtful as reciting Humpty Dumpty. Do you remember it?
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again
Why do we teach that nursery rhyme to children? What are we trying to tell them? Life’s tough and you better get used to it? Suck it up. What’s the purpose of Humpty Dumpty? The story paints an awfully bleak picture and it leads me to the conclusion that there is no hope. Nothing can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Or as it was in a version in 1797: “Fourscore men and fourscore more / couldn’t make Humpty Dumpty what he was before.” Hence, get over it.
Of course I had to find out what the story actually means. And then I was scolded for thinking it’s a story. At least according to one source, it’s not a story, it’s a riddle. And, yes, of course, that only makes sense. Here I was trying to make a riddle into something literal.
So sufficiently chastised, I went back to the story of Tabitha which, of course, was certainly not meant as a riddle. I have no doubt that those present believed it actually happened. But from our place in history, it’s hard not to question whether it’s true. Yet our job is not to ask whether it’s true but how it is true. And therefore what does the raising of Tabitha teach?
First, that women were disciples. Maybe also:
That life is in God’s hands. We don’t control it.
Never lose hope even in the midst of death.
That life is a mystery not to be taken for granted.
That God will stop at nothing to care for widows and orphans and strangers – in unbelievable ways, to a greater extent than we believe is even possible.
Or that the power of Jesus Christ can raise us from the dead too.
Is ours a Humpty Dumpty faith or a Tabitha kind of faith? I believe God can put our lives back together again. I believe God can make us again what we once were. So that we too can get back up and minister to the needs of others again. However, perhaps Humpty Dumpty ultimately teaches us that life is fragile, not that life is hopeless. And the point is to be careful, not dejected.
Remember the story of Osceola McCarty. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw. She quit school in the sixth grade to go to work so she could take care of her sick grandmother. She never married, never had children and never learned to drive because there was never any place in particular she wanted to go. All she ever had was the work, which she saw as a blessing because too many other black people in rural Mississippi did not have even that. She worked and saved and worked and pinched the few pennies she made, never buying a newspaper because it cost too much, content with her old black and white TV with one channel because she never watched it much anyway, living in what most of us would call dire poverty. And when she died, she left $150,000 to a scholarship fund at the University of Mississippi so that other young black men and women could go to college. Impossible.
The story of Tabitha reminds me of Mama Carmen. My god-son Caleb went to Guatemala to work with orphans – a topic close to his heart since he is one of 8 adopted children in his family – from China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Youngstown. Somehow in the course of his trip, Caleb was introduced to Mama Carmen.
During the early 1990s, when the civil war in Guatemala was coming to an end, soldiers came to Mama Carmen’s house one day and took her son away. They didn't tell her why or where they were taking him. She knew he hadn’t been made a soldier, so she searched every prison in Guatemala. She searched everywhere and vowed to never give up.
One day a stranger came to her door and told Carmen she had nowhere to go, asking to stay with her. Carmen had never seen this woman before and wasn’t inclined to just let a stranger in, but she felt sorry for her. A few days later, the woman asked about the pictures of Carmen's son all around the house. Carmen told her the story and the woman said, I think I’ve seen him. Carmen thought she was just messing with her, hoping she could stay longer, but she was so convincing. She said she saw him in a prison in El Salvador. Carmen decided to go and check it out.
And sure enough, when she got to the prison, Carmen saw him behind the fences. She was able to get him released and brought him back home, but he was in very poor health. He was, in fact, dying. Carmen told her son about the stranger who had come to their house, and he asked his mother to promise that if anyone ever came to her door again, she would never turn them away.
Carmen kept her promise and today she has 95 children living in her home. She receives no government aid because she’s not technically an orphanage. She has only her adult sons to help. Some of the children who find their way to her have been thrown out onto the streets with nowhere to go, some have been brought to her by birthmothers who cannot care for them, some have physical disabilities that their family cannot care for. And some of the children have run away from abuse. She makes sure they’re all fed and clothed and that they go to school if possible. And no one is ever turned away.
Osceola’s and Carmen’s was not a literal Humpty Dumpty kind of faith – oh well, you’re broken. Too bad. They lived a Tabitha kind of faith, believing they could be instruments of God’s care for widows and orphans and strangers. And to such an extent that we say – that’s not possible. I can’t believe it.
But that’s the kind of faith I want. That’s what I want to believe when I feel broken. When we are grieving, I want us to know that the power of Christ’s love is so strong it can break through barriers as strong as even death. To make us alive again. Yes, we may be fragile, but we are never forever broken. A Tabitha kind of faith – that when we are made whole again, we can get back to serving one another. Forever grateful for the power of Jesus Christ to raise us up from the dead too.