A sermon for Breathing Space Holy Communion
Today’s first reading is one of my favourites from the book of Acts, the story of Tabitha – Dorcas in Greek. Here is someone who might never have featured in any history book, whose life would have passed entirely unnoticed if it weren’t for this story. She was evidently just a kind woman, a good neighbour, who simply wanted to do what she could to help others, the kind of person I have met many, many times, not showy, not looking for praise, but always there when you needed her. Dorcas’s particular skill, it seems, was needlework – perhaps that’s why I have always had a soft spot for her, since that’s something I do a lot of too. Dorcas made clothing for those in need, by the sound of it – this seems to be the “acts of charity” the story refers to, and clearly it was something that others valued so much they just couldn’t imagine a world without Dorcas and her needle.
I recall many years ago, before I was ordained, a young couple had started coming to the little church I was a member of, which was on a very poor council estate in Bridgwater. They were still in their teens, both estranged from their families, very poor, not married, and she was heavily pregnant. It was a pretty chaotic situation, but they were doing their best, and they had decided, that, with the baby coming, they wanted to get married. So a date was fixed for a small, simple wedding, just them and their friends, and some of the church community. We all said we’d bring some food and put on a little do in the church hall afterwards.
Everything was set until about a week before the wedding, when a friend of mine in the church suddenly wondered to herself what this girl was going to wear on her big day. We’d never seen her in anything other than jeans and t-shirts or baggy, shabby, borrowed maternity clothes. So she asked her. The girl just looked blank and shrugged her shoulders. “Just my normal clothes” she said. “I haven’t got anything else”. I don’t think she had even allowed herself to think about it. But it didn’t seem right. Of course she could perfectly legally get married in jeans if she wanted to, but not to be able to dress up on what was supposed to be one of the most important days of your life seemed like a pretty sad thing to my friend. So she decided to do something about it. She roped in a few of the rest of us and the word went out. Did anyone have a wedding dress stored in the attic that might fit this girl? A few were produced, but she was seven months pregnant – none of them stood a chance of fitting her. There was only one that came near, a dress which had been worn by one of our number who was, shall we say, generously proportioned. It would be too big in many dimensions, but at least we thought it might go round the bump. The bride to be tried it on, and sure enough it did go round the bump. Unfortunately that was about the only place it fitted though. She might as well have been wearing a marquee. We were all very glad there was no mirror in the room so she couldn’t see the true scale of the problem. “Hmm, “ we said as cheerfully as we could manage, “it just needs a few alterations here and there, and it will be fine, “
I don’t think any of us were convinced, though, and by this stage we only had about two days before the wedding. I think we virtually took that dress entirely to pieces. We might as well have started from scratch in the end. I remember working late into the nights, attaching bits of lace here and there to cover the more obvious alterations. But we finished just in the nick of time, on the morning of the wedding. There were moments when I’d wondered whether this was really worth it. But when “our” bride walked up the aisle, all those questions faded to nothing. It didn’t look like an expensive designer creation, but it did look like a wedding dress, and she looked like a bride, a real, proper bride, which was something she had never imagined she would be. She was utterly transformed. It wasn’t really the dress that did that, but the fact that she now knew there were people in the world who cared enough to have done such a crazy thing for her.
I wonder whether that is why Dorcas’ death seemed so terrible a loss to those who wept so noisily for her and waved the garments she had made in Peter’s face until he just had to do something about it. They hadn’t just lost a companion. They’d lost someone who’d shown them what love really looked like. Sometimes – perhaps often - love isn’t a matter of great dramatic gestures. It comes in the shape of something as small as a needle and thread, or a bag of groceries from the Loaves and Fishes foodbank, or a quick phone call to check someone is ok, or a steady commitment to some unseen, unsung task which is nonetheless vital.
Not everyone who loves like this will be brought back to life as Dorcas is, but there is a sense in which that kind of love can never really die. It is life-giving in itself, transforming those it touches, bringing them to life, giving them new opportunities, new vision, and maybe that’s enough.
In the silence tonight, perhaps we could give thanks for the Dorcases we have known, and pray for the grace to be a Dorcas to others too, paying attention to those small things that make the big difference to others.