Acts | On widows, women, and resurrection life

Not your usual Mothers’ Day sermon. (My mother would be proud!) (Listen.)

My mother loved beautiful clothes. She wore designer silk dresses and an embroidered purple velvet kaftan; she tripped around in Spanish platform sandals. But perhaps her most precious garment was a simple blue bomber jacket, given to her by some Cambodian widows.

These women were outworkers, which means they worked on sewing machines at their kitchen tables with no worker protections and no holiday pay, making mass market clothes for a pittance. They sewed the jacket as a gift for her, their pastor, for they were also members of the congregation.

Today is Mothers’ Day, and the lectionary has thrown us a reading about a woman who, like those Cambodian women, was good and generous and engaged in traditional women’s work: for Tabitha, too, was a seamstress. As the story goes, she sewed clothes for the widows of her community; she got sick; she died; and Peter raised her to new life. And so I have no doubt that, in many churches around our nation today, we’ll get a sentimental Proverbs 31-style sermon which will praise traditional mothers and women’s work, and which will incidentally make a whole lot of women feel patronised, coerced, miserable, excluded or ashamed. But I think we can do better than this. So, drawing both on the story and on my own history, there are two other themes which I’d like to draw out.

The first is the role of women in the church which, to be clear, has never been limited to ‘womanly’ duties or motherhood. Throughout the New Testament, women are described as disciples, ministers, co-workers in the gospel, and hosts of house churches. Here in Acts, we meet Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. She’s a disciple so important to the life of a multicultural community that she is named in two languages. Why? She sews clothes for people, a vital activity before the invention of mass production; and we are told that she is generous and does good work.

Then we meet the widows, who are like the background chorus. Sure, they send men along dangerous bandit-ridden roads to fetch Peter: but it is the widows who are gathered around Tabitha; it is the widows who are caring for her body; it is the widows who are praying for healing; and it is the widows who witness to her ministry. These women are the people most burdened by loss, grief, poverty, and low social status, yet here they are seen caring, praying, seeking healing, and witnessing. In other words, they are doing the fundamental work of the church.

Perhaps I notice the widows because, in the church in which I grew up, a woman—my mother—occasionally preached. But more often I watched as she and other women helped settle recently arrived refugees. They rustled up furniture and clothing and children’s toys, and told their menfolk to keep Saturdays free to move people into public housing. I watched women act as advocates at Centrelink, and meet with the local MP, and run a drop in centre for unemployed street kids, and organise a casserole bank. They wrote letters and folded bulletins and organized prayer circles; they washed countless dishes and made endless cups of tea. They worked long hours to make ends meet, then sewed generous gifts and cooked up huge batches of spring rolls and sausage rolls for church lunches.

Women knitted warm jumpers; arranged homegrown flowers; fostered kids; cooked for church camps; and remembered birthdays and deathdays. It’s not that men didn’t participate in the life of the church—and they did plenty—but from my child’s eye view, I always seemed to be surrounded by bustling, organizing, giving women who made sure that everyone had something to wear and something to eat and somewhere to live, and a hug and a chat and a prayer when they needed it.

And it seems to me that this is the way it has always been: that is, women have always formed the beating heart of the church. It’s evident in the New Testament, and it’s been the reality of every church I’ve been part of. For in every healthy congregation, there is a Tabitha or three: she lives on in every person who turns up with soup, or a warm coat, or fifty bucks, or a listening ear. No faith community can survive without her. This is why she was so important to the disciples at Joppa, and this is why the widows gathered around her body and prayed and sought healing: because without Tabithas, without women, the church withers and dies.

Of course, I don’t necessarily mean Proverbs 31-style women, although some women, like those Cambodian outworkers, sometimes look a bit like that. Instead, whether single, married, widowed or divorced; straight, gay or trans; citizen, migrant or refugee; old or young; volunteer or professional, women have always formed the backbone of the church. Some of them are mothers; some are not. Some engage in traditional women’s roles; some do not. Some are recognized as ministers; others are not. But one way or another, without women’s participation and prayer, there would be no church; so today let’s name and honour that.

The second thing I want to draw out is new life. We are told that Peter, following the pattern of Jesus, raises Tabitha out of death. Now, I don’t know how, and I don’t know why we don’t see such dramatic events in this day and age; but I do recognise echoes with my childhood church: for it wasn’t always bicultural.

It began as a white congregation in the middle suburbs: and when I was five, it was quite literally dying. By this I mean that, over the course of two years, a third of the congregation died. Some folk simply reached their three score years and ten, but many others were much younger. Between cancer, car accidents, and coronaries, parents in their thirties, forties and fifties were struck down, leaving spouses, children and a community reeling.

One day, everything changed: one day, a Cambodian widow turned up. She sat through the service in silence and left straight afterwards, speaking to no one: for she had no English. But the next week she returned, bringing forty or so Cambodian friends and relatives. Recent boat arrivals from a Thai border camp, they were living at a refugee hostel and looking for a church. They came, they stayed, and they showered us with gifts. My mother’s jacket, tube socks, spring rolls, digital watches, and chocolate from the local factory, where many of the women who weren’t outworkers had found a job.

Sometime after their arrival, someone asked what had prompted them to join the church. The answer was simple: the woman who first visited had gone back to the hostel and told them, I’ve found people who know grief. Without a word, without a shared language, she had read the faces and recognised the pain. Given the brutal regime from which she and the others had fled, given the terrible losses they had suffered, she was looking for a place to belong, and she found it in a church full of widows and widowers.

Now, I am sure that nobody in the congregation anticipated this. Like the widows at Joppa, they were gathering regularly and praying desperately, perhaps in terrible wordless groans, perhaps in the silence of forsakenness and despair, perhaps begging for new life and healing. I’m just guessing at their prayers—I was a child at the time—but I’m sure they weren’t asking to become a bicultural church. Yet that is what happened; that is how God responded to their prayer.

For nothing could bring back all the people who had died in the eastern suburbs, not Lance or Soula or Roy or Barbara or anybody else. And nothing could bring back all the people who had been murdered in the Cambodian killing fields, or who had died of starvation and disease under the Khmer Rouge. The grief remained, but new life, new love, new relationships, even new marriages, emerged. In gathering together and being drawn into community, Anglos and Cambodians became a new family in God; and with this came resurrection and healing.

Today might be Mothers’ Day, but more importantly it’s the season of Pascha, when we celebrate the resurrection life of our risen Lord Jesus. This is the life which death could not hold, and which pours from Jesus into every faith community ever since.

The church at Joppa, which in a patriarchal society took women seriously, which cared for its most vulnerable members, which included people from multiple language groups, and which loved beyond biological families, showed that Jesus is alive as it witnessed to a new way of being community.

And Jesus is alive now when, like the community at Joppa and like the church of my childhood, we join with people from different backgrounds to form communities of faith. When our love transcends age, race, class, culture, physical and intellectual capability, sexuality, gender, personality type and any other obstacle that we place in front of relationship, that is, when we choose to share our lives and worship with people across human boundaries not just in the abstract but in the flesh: then Jesus is alive!

Jesus is alive when, like the disciples at Joppa, we honour those who care for others as greatly as we honour those who engage in more public ministries. When we raise up those who make soup and sew clothes and care for kids and tend the sick and sit with the dying and come alongside people in their need and pray, and when we recognize and name such activities as ministry even and especially when done by women: then Jesus is alive!

Jesus is alive when, like Tabitha, we use our gifts to serve the most vulnerable. And when our serving witnesses to a life so radiant and abundant that death cannot stop us and others come to faith: then Jesus is alive!

My friends, as you reflect on tonight’s story, and our life together, and our post-lockdown fragmentation and sadness, I invite you to wonder with me now: What are we praying for? Are we praying for new life? Is newness emerging among us, or are we still in the waiting time? And if we do glimpse resurrection life—is it what we expected? Ω

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Acts 9:36-43 on 8 May 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Pascha 4). Photo  ‘of grandma with her Bible’ by Pisit Heng on Unsplash, taken in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia. Sections of this reflection first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 126 (2016), under the title A New Family. I have been writing a column for this magazine for nearly twenty years. Subscribe here.


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