Swanson, John August. Psalm 23, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56560. Original source: Estate of John August Swanson, https://www.johnaugustswanson.com/.
This church, on a late January weekend evening. The sanctuary is absolutely packed. There are words, in English and Haitian Creole, there is beautiful music, including by our own Adolfo and Donna Lane. There are absolute mournful wails, which if you’ve ever heard, you will never forget. The deceased had nine biological children- 7 boys and two girls, but even that bounty of a family was not enough to explain the size of the crowd. She was also known as a “mother to her community”, who as an immigrant, helped other Haitian immigrants find their bearings and get their feet.
On that night, I said a brief prayer at the beginning of the service, but most of the night, I worked the soundboard. So mostly I got to be a witness.
I witnessed an outpouring of loss put to voice, of grief and sadness, of an empty hole in the heart of a community and a family. The sort of loss that is only possible when what it mourns was love. I knew then that those who gathered: cousins and aunties, nieces and sons, business partners and neighbors- were her legacy of love.
Today, we will talk about our own legacies of love, of abundance, of a God who is faithful to us and wants us to change the world, one garment at a time.
In our second scripture reading, we have the story of Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. It’s a brief but powerful one, and like far too many women in the Bible, we know too little of her story. What we do know is that she was a follower of Jesus, and she dedicated her life to charity and good works. This meant that she was probably of some wealth or means to devote her time and labor to this- she may have been a wealthy widow or connected to a wealthy family in some way.
Indeed, we have some evidence, including biblical evidence that for the earliest followers for Jesus, , the primary financial and logistical backers of the church were women, and that women were the social base of the church.
Either way, she clearly had an impact on her community. The book of Acts tells us that after she died and they were preparing her body for burial, the widows in town arrayed all the clothes that she made around the room.
Let us remember that this is before the era of H&M and fast fashion, before the steam engine and the mechanical loom, even before the spinning wheel. A tunic was a valuable piece of clothing. There is a reason that Jesus, in his commands to us, tells us to feed the hungry, let the captives go free, and to clothe the naked.
Clothes were important then as now; they protected from sun, wind, and rain, and signaled social status. Only certain people were allowed to wear certain types of clothing, and the poor often had no clothing. As Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little influence on society.” Today, we see shops that will dryclean and tailor a suit for free if you have a job interview coming up, or barbers who donate their services, giving haircuts and shaves at community events for folks who might otherwise be called scraggly.
We can imagine those who had benefited from Tabitha’s clothes hearing about her death, and grieving the loss of someone who had helped them out when they needed it most, that although they couldn’t take a whole day off of work to mourn, they could, reunite her and those clothes. They could make it apparent to her family and friends that she had a legacy of love that was greater than they anyone could have imagined.
This is the same sort of legacy of love that I saw at that night in church at that funeral. Those hundreds gathered there, talking, crying, laughing, and eating were her legacy of love, much like the clothes that Tabitha made and gave to those who needed them most.
Both this story and our first one, the 23rd psalm, are associated most with funerals, but as our devotional notes, that is something of a minor tragedy.
The 23rd psalm is not just about our God who comforts, who guides us through places where we seem surrounded by death, but a God who is abundant and extravagant with love, who fills our cups past the point of fullness but overflowing love with the implication, that we are called to do and be the same for others.
Likewise, our story in Acts is not just about Tabitha and her clothes, although it is partly about that. It’s also about the power of our God to completely overturn our worlds, to make what we thought was impossible within our grasp. How else could our God set a table for us in the presence of our enemies? How else could a God send a man who had denied even knowing Jesus some months before, and bring her to life?
We live in a culture of scarcity; too often we are limited of our bank accounts- whether or not we can help someone out, open our minds, experience something new. Yet God’s disruptive power proves to us, in the story of Tabitha, and in the story of that funeral, that is not the case. God makes the impossible possible, and in providing us with the means of doing so, God calls us to provide in the same extravagant ways.
We should consider this not just in light of our individual lives, and callings as Christians, but as a church. What will we stand for? What will be our legacies of love? Where will our cups overflow, even in the presence of our enemies, the shadows in the valley of death; the specters of disease and poverty, racism and homophobia, misogyny and war?
If this all seems a little daunting, if we were doing it alone, apart from our communities, apart from our God, perhaps it would be. But let us remember that none of us does this work alone. No one weaves and sews the tunics like Tabitha did by herself. I believe that the widows of the city, that wept for her in the upper room were no mere recipients of charity to Tabitha, but her community, her people, su gente.
And if even that still feels daunting, remember that all of Tabitha’s work began with a single stitch, a single thread, and a desire to roll her sleeves up and to get to work. Like that famous mustard seed of faith, all it takes is the tiniest bit of hope, faith, and love, a little bit of water, and a little bit of elbow grease as fertilizer.
God has set us a place here for us in Miami Shores. When people think about us, about our church, what will they say? What will be our legacies of love?