“A disciple called Tabitha, or in Greek, Dorcas,who never tired of doing good or giving to those in need”
Reflection 28 June 2020
“A disciple called Tabitha, or in Greek, Dorcas, who never tired of doing good
or giving to those in need.”
Rev. Dr Niki Francis
The French artist Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010, often worked with
fabric. She said this:
I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the
needle. The needle is used to repair the damage.1
I have reflected on this during the week, keeping in mind the damage and pain
Covid-19 is causing in the world, as well as other painful experiences that
damage us emotionally and psychologically. We have all experienced some
form or forms of damage and pain in our lives. We all respond in our own
ways. Damage and pain also occurs on a systemic level. We can never know
the full or even partial truths of what others have experienced, what hurts
they carry. And that is a reason to be kind. Surely.
Back to the power of the sewing needle. My reflections led me to the story of
Dorcas that Gavin just read for us.
Scholars generally accept that the author of Luke’s gospel also wrote Acts.
Luke translated Dorcas’s Aramaic name into the Greek Tabitha to reach his
Greek audience. In some translations she is called Dorcas, in others Tabitha. I
will call her Dorcas because that is her original name. Plus, for me the name
Tabitha is tainted by memories of the 1960s US sitcom ‘Bewitched’ in which
the young woman Tabitha is a witch who makes magic by wiggling her nose!
Dorcas lived in Joppa, which is now the suburb Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel. All we
know of Dorcas is in the Acts story. Yet it tells us a lot about her. “She filled
her days with acts of kindness and charity….” (New English Bible). Charity
implies almsgiving or financial support. She was so loved and revered and her
ministry so valued that when she died the ‘disciples’ send for Peter who they
had heard was nearby in Lydda — 16 kilometres away. Having rushed to
Joppa, Peter meets the women in Dorcas’s community – the widows, who are
bereft over her death. Through their tears, they show Peter the tunics and
other clothes Dorcas made for them. Peter sends them away from the upper
room, kneels beside Dorcas, prays and brings her back to life.
Dorcas’s story is preceded by a much shorter and less detailed story of Peter’s
healing of Aeneas, a paralysed man who has been bedridden for eight years.
But Dorcas’s story is more powerful. Peter heals Aeneas but restores life to
Dorcas. Such interventions are designed to encourage converts and
demonstrate how women are valued in the emerging church.
There are three aspects of Dorcas’s story I want to talk about.
First, its relationship to other biblical stories:
This story about Dorcas sits in a tradition of healing and resurrection stories told
to emphasise God’s power in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’s power via God in the
It has parallels in First Kings (1 Kings 17:8-24) where Elijah resurrects the
widow of Zarephath’s son, and Second Kings (2 Kings 4:8-37) where Elisha
restores to life the Shunnamite woman’s son. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus
resurrects the widow of Nain’s son.
Thus, in the stories about Dorcas and Anaeas, the author demonstrates that
the emerging church continues the Hebrew bible tradition of God’s power to
intervene and reverse disability and death. Luke gives Peter the same power
as Jesus to heal the sick and give new life to the dead. In modern terms, we
would say Luke markets his claims of Peter’s miraculous gifts to win converts
Second, Luke describes Dorcas as a disciple. This is the only time the feminine
form of the word mathetria, Greek for disciple, occurs in the Christian Bible.
In both his Gospel and in Acts, Luke tends to give more prominence to women
than men, perhaps to emphasise how the new church differs from wider
society of the time in which women have little voice.
Dorcas’s work of sewing and financial support is shown as an ongoing concern
relevant to a particular group – the widows. Widows were among the most
vulnerable people in first century Palestinian society. Their situation began to
change in the early church, which recognised the truth of the prophet Joel’s
declaration that ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ (Joel 2:28) … and in
Acts the declaration that ‘both men and women will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17,18).
By the time Luke wrote Acts in the late first century, the widows were a
recognised group with standing in the community.
But they were not only a group that received charity. According to the letters
to Timothy and Titus, the community in turn expected the widows to serve the
community. This led to the establishment of an order which many scholars
suggest was the forerunner of monastic orders for women. The widows
referred to in Dorcas’s circle are likely to have been part of this early church
group, and it is likely they met at Dorcas’s house, because she had some sort of
leadership role and she had the space and the means to offer hospitality and
However, the relative equality of women in the early church did not last. It
threatened Roman social order. To maintain social acceptance the church
assumed the patterns of the Roman Empire. We sold out to power early on and
the roles and details of women’s stories were lost for centuries.
The third aspect of the story I want to touch on, is the fact that Dorcas was a
seamstress. She sewed for the poor widows and they loved her for it. Imagine
having no means to buy cloth to make your own clothes. Your garments are
fraying and the fabric wears thin. Your tunic no longer keeps out the cold and
you feel shame at having to appear ragged in public. For the poor, their tunics
were all they had to keep the cold out when sleeping. Imagine how much it
would mean if someone cared enough to stitch clothes for you, so that you
could resurrect some self-respect. Dorcas did this for the disadvantaged
widows – the women who had no means of support.
And so, as Louise Bourgeois said, “the needle is used to repair the damage.” Or
it can be.
I have friends here in Wellington who knit, sew and crochet for charitable
organisations that need clothing and equipment for babies and children,
clothing for adults, beanies for cancer patients. You can read more about that
in this week’s newsletter.
Dorcas used the magic power of the needle of which Louise Bourgeois spoke.
As do my friends who sew for Crafty Volunteers. Sewing for the widows and
the giving of alms was Dorcas’s way of love, her way of living the values of the
man Jesus who lived not long before her. There are many ways – Dorcas’s way
was one and 20 centuries on, we remember her for it.
What does this mean for us now? In this reading from Acts we see an attempt
to attract people to the church with the performance of miracles. And we see a
woman who lives the love Jesus called for.
I imagine that the St Andrews community is reflecting on who you are and
your place here in Aotearoa, as you explore the directions you wish to take in
your search for a new minister or new leadership model. I have no idea of the
process you are engaged in, but I know that some of the questions I would be
asking are ‘what keeps people in the church?’, what keeps you coming
regularly to St Andrews on The Terrace?’ I know some of you travel distances
to reach here each Sunday. What entices you here? Community? Music?
Habit? Biblical tradition and story? All the above? The message of love and
challenging call to action for justice? That is the uncomfortable one on the list!
They are all good reasons! But I wonder what church is if it doesn’t harness
the loving energy of community to question what kind of country we want for
our children and grandchildren and future generations.
Can our community here be the needle and thread that helps repair some of
the damage, that sets about doing what we can to achieve a kinder, more
equitable society by responding to concerns about the environment, racism
and inequality that threaten our very being?
The magic power Louise Bourgeois spoke of, the healing power of needle and
thread, is not the miraculous intervention of biblical stories. It relies on the
practical, down-to-earth commitment to action from people like us.
1 Louise Bourgeois in Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the
Feminine. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010: xix
Audio of selected readings and reflections
Audio of the complete service