Acts 9:36-43; Hebrews 10:23-25; 12:1-2
“The history of our church would be incomplete and much less wonderful were it not for the untiring work with their hands and the sacrificial living of the women. Out of their hearts have arisen the sweetest prayers that ever reached the Throne of Heaven. Some have gone to their reward. You who knew them will remember them in your quiet moments and thank God for their consecrated lives. Much of the work of any church is carried on by the women, and Mount Tabor Church has been no exception.”
So begins the history of the women of Mt. Tabor written for the 50th anniversary of the church’s founding.
Just a few weeks after the church’s formal organization, two women’s organizations formed – a Ladies Aid Society and a Women’s Missionary Society. Later, these two organizations merged to form the Women’s Association. They met monthly for all-day activities. But there was a group of business women and young mothers who could not leave their children all day, yet still wanted to gather as women to study and to help the world. They formed their own group in 1921 with the help of the pastor’s wife, after whom the society was named – the Pearl McHenry Society. In 1925, yet a younger group of women, who felt out of step with the Women’s Association, formed another society call the Dorcas World Service Group. The name was suggested by Margaret Copeland (after whom Copeland Chapel is named), who wanted to model Dorcas of the Bible who is described as being “full of good works.” Then came a younger group around 1934, the Mary Marthas, and another younger group in 1944, the Daughters of Lydia. This group gave support and fellowship during the war years when many of their dear ones were gone and at the same time kept them busy giving service to the Church.
In 1982 all the women’s groups merged into the Women’s Association – one group with multiple circles – meeting once a month as a whole body and as scheduled between times as circles. Throughout the years each group has committed itself to nurturing the faith through prayer and Bible study as well as supporting the mission of the Church worldwide. Their friendship with each other provided a network of connection for the congregation, as well. They were known for generosity. They contributed toward the Grace Collins Center, Transworld Radio, Warm Springs Presbyterian Church, Whitworth College, Piedmont Church, missionaries Al Reasoner in Brazil and Laura Raab in Africa, and the Salvation Army’s Greenhouse for youth of the streets. But this only takes us to 1982, the 100th anniversary of the church. So much more could be said of those who have been our great cloud of witnesses, leading the way in faith and service until now.
Our Women’s Association still meets for Bible Study, prayer and fellowship – second Tuesday of each month – a group of disciples, devoted to good works and acts of charity. That is, after all, why disciples gather – to encourage each other to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
That is what the disciples in Joppa were doing. Dorcas’ particular ministry seems to have been to make clothes for those who needed them, especially the widows. Dorcas may have been the first organizer of a sewing circle, and that is why her name is remembered in so may church women’s groups. In a day of Social Security survivor benefits, it is easy to forget that widows in those days were often left with no means of support – no income, no ability to work. Making clothes for the town’s widows was clearly a highlight of Dorcas’ good works and acts of charity. The business of making and distributing clothing has been a feature of women’s charity throughout time. How many of you know someone who makes lap blankets for people recovering from illness? Or knits hats for new babies? Or makes quilts for a new homeowner?
We only know Dorcas’ story because of her death. Too often we only value the good works and gifts of others after they have died. It reminds me of one of Margaret Anderson’s quips: “I don’t ever want to be perfect because when you become perfect, you die. I know that from reading the obituaries. Everyone there is perfect.”
Dorcas may not have been perfect, but she was a disciple. She is the first woman given the title of a female disciple – mathetria – the feminine form of mathetes, disciple. There are other times when women are included in a group of disciples, but a plural noun includes masculine and feminine, so it does not have different forms.
When women’s groups take the name of Dorcas, they are also saying that they are disciples, that what they do is an act of following Jesus. They are gatherings of women disciples.
Another legacy of Dorcas is the financial support she gave. Clearly she was critical to the lives of the community of widows, providing clothing, friendship and who knows what else! In the first volume of Luke’s work, the Gospel of Luke, he records a little tribute to a group of women who traveled with Jesus in his ministry, providing for him out of their own means (Luke 8:1-3). I wonder if Dorcas may have been one of these women, and so, known to Peter.
I appreciate how the story of the Mt. Tabor Women’s Association notes: “Much of the work of any church is carried on by the women, and Mount Tabor Church has been no exception.” Nor was Joppa, or Jerusalem or Galilee. Perhaps one great purpose of Mothering Sunday is to remember this great cloud of Matriarchs who have made us who we are, especially today, those who were disciples who showed us how to be disciples.
Back to the story. Dorcas’ fellow disciples in Joppa were distraught over her death. When they heard Peter was nearby, they called for him to come. When he first arrives, it’s your average pastoral care call. A friend dies and they call the pastor. He arrives in haste. I’m sure he was greeted with solemn faces, many tears. There were hugs and loving touches for all who were grieving. The house is full of mourners.
Once Peter makes his way through the crowd, the widows begin telling stories. Isn’t that what we do? We tell stories of our loved ones when they are gone. We remember together. These stories become the legacy they give us to take with us for the rest of our lives. It is so important to tell the stories! Remembering Dorcas meant remembering her craft. “The widows stood beside Peter, weeping and showing him tunics and other clothing that she made while she was with them.” I imagine many were wearing those tunics and clothing.
It seems a wonderful tribute to Dorcas – a living fashion show. The work of her hands walking around while stories are told of her love and compassion. It was the fashion show of her life. They were showing her off by showing off her handiwork.
But then Peter “put them outside” and, alone, entered the room where Dorcas was. The last time he had done something like this, he wasn’t alone. He was with their friend Jesus. They entered the room of a daughter who had died. Jesus told her to get up and she did.
On this day, Peter imitated what he saw Jesus do. He told her to get up. And she did.
And then calling the saints and widows – Peter showed them Dorcas, alive. The work of God, once more breathing life into creation.
Why Dorcas? Hard to say. She may have been one of the women who accompanied Jesus’ ministry. She may have been one of the disciples in the upper room with Jesus. She may have been one of the first to die in that early group of disciples. This may have been a shock to the whole community of disciples. What happens now? The community has to face the possibility of death before welcoming Jesus back to his kingdom on earth.
Or, it may be a reminder that Easter is still around. The breath of life is and always has been the gift, the work of God. And it is still here among us. Mysterious.
On this Mothering Sunday, we see God taking on the mothering role, giving birth – a second birth – to one of the disciples. And Peter gets to play mid-wife.
I was encouraged to re-read the stories of the women of this church and all they did to keep this place full of life. I was reminded of our rose garden, in honor of the great cloud of witnesses, who have gone before us as disciples. Each rose that blooms is another life lived in beauty to give glory to God. As that garden comes to life this spring, may it be a reminder that life breathes again, even when breath has left the body. Each season those brown stalks are resurrected, because that is how they were created to live.
Today we honor our matriarchs – the women in our lives who have been full of good work and generosity. A matriarch is someone who has been part of a community or family for a long time and has power and wisdom for the group. When I hear the stories of Mt. Tabor, I hear of many matriarchs. This week we will honor one of our matriarchs, Margaret Anderson, with a celebration of her life. One thing we know, and this may be part of the point of Dorcas’ story, is that the life of the matriarch will rise again. Another life will rise up to take the role of leadership, wisdom and generosity. It has always happened. It will happen again. There is a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. And there will be a growing cloud coming behind us as well. It is how God works. Resurrection is God’s business. True of the community of disciples, as well as the individual.
On this Mothering Sunday we have the opportunity, like the widows in their fashion show, to tell the story of the great women disciples who have encouraged us to love and good works. Turn to one person near you and tell each other a story about a woman who was a matriarch for you. How has this person encouraged you to love and good works?
God is in the business of resurrection. The legacy of our Matriarchs will rise to new life. Count on it!