There’s an odd little detail in today’s first reading which I really love. It’s the reaction of those weeping widows in Joppa, when their friend Tabitha dies. Peter gets an urgent summons to come to her house, and when he gets there, he is met by her friends, clutching the clothes she has made. That’s the bit that gets me. The first thing they want to do is show him her needlework. We aren’t told what they said, but I can imagine it. “She can’t be dead – look at the beautiful clothes she makes!! Who’s going to knit baby clothes for the children without parents to care for them? Who’s going to make warm blankets for those who are living rough? Who’s going to rustle up something new, or mend something old for someone that only has rags to wear? Who’s going to do all that if Tabitha isn’t here?”
Tabitha is their go-to person for “make do and mend”, and in a society where there was no such thing as fast fashion, that mattered. It’s no surprise that all sorts of crafts have had a resurgence during the pandemic, and that desire to recycle, repair and reuse will be even more important as the cost of living and environmental crises really start to bite. We need our Tabithas, people who can make and remake things not just for themselves but for others who may be more in need. We need our Tabithas to pass on those skills to the next generation too. We need our Tabithas – and so did her first century friends.
Maybe it’s because I like to sew and knit, and make a lot of my own clothes, that Tabitha has a special place in my heart. I can understand how precious those clothes she had made would have been to those who’d received them, and how they would, in a sense, have felt like an extension of Tabitha herself, a sign of her love. Whether we make things for ourselves or not, though, clothing can carry powerful memories, reminding us of special people, places and times. We may remember something we wore many years ago. We may even have clothes tucked away somewhere which we don’t want to throw away, even when they are well beyond wearing or we have no chance of fitting into anymore; the clothes we dressed our new-born children in – yes, I still have the little Babygro I brought both of mine home from hospital in – or an old jumper, knitted with love, and worn for comfort even when it’s grown baggy and the moths have been at it; or the ancestral Christening Gown, or the wedding dress that we only wore for a few hours. Clothes speak to us and of us. People often keep clothes belonging to those they’ve loved who have died too. They hold the smell and the shape of the person who wore them.
This week there’s been a furore over Kim Kardashian wearing to the Met Gala the evening gown Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy 60 years ago. Conservators of historical clothing were appalled at the potential damage this historical artefact might suffer, but whether it was a good idea or not, it showed the power of a piece of cloth to stir up memories and debate. Would it have mattered if it was just a replica? It would seem so, at least to Kim Kardashian.
The clothes Tabitha made were, I suspect, far less costly than that dress, but they were priceless to those who received them. The Bible tells us that Tabitha “was devoted to good works and charity” and clothing people was obviously at the heart of this for her. This is what she was famous for, if only among her friends. It was unthinkable that she was gone.
They don’t actually ask for her to be restored to life, and I am sure they are as surprised as we would be when that happens, and of course, one day Tabitha will die again; death is a part of life, and this story isn’t about avoiding it. But in restoring Tabitha to life, even if only for a while, God affirms the value of an apparently ordinary woman, who would otherwise have been forgotten by history. He brings her into the spotlight for probably the first and only time in her life.
The early Christian community was disproportionately made up of people who were marginalised – enslaved or poor people, women and children, people without status or value in the eyes of their society, people who would normally expect to live largely anonymous, unrecorded lives. Most would have no memorial, other than in the hearts of those who they loved and who loved them. But the message this story gives us is that we are all known and loved by God, of infinite value to him. Tabitha may be invisible to the world, but God sees her, knows her, and values her. She stands for all those who, like most of us, will never do great things, but are called to do small things with great love. Tabitha’s gift to the world was to pay attention to that call, to hear the voice of God and to recognise his presence in those who needed the kind of undramatic everyday help that came in the form of a length of fabric, a needle and thread.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus also celebrates those who listen to God faithfully. He uses the imagery of sheep and shepherds. In his world, sheep weren’t penned in fields. They roamed free across the wilderness. It was easy for them to get lost. But the shepherds – often young children like the shepherd boy, David, who grew up from obscurity to become a great king – roamed with them, looking out for good pasture and water, as well as guarding them against danger. The shepherds knew the sheep and cared for them. And because of that the sheep came to know and trust their shepherds too. They might not have known where they were going, but they knew who they were going with, whose voice they needed to listen out for, and that was what really mattered.
There’s a lovely verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, (3.3), which says “your life is hid with Christ in God.” I’ve always rather treasured that. Whether anyone else see or notices us, God does. If everyone else forgets us God will not. We may even forget ourselves, if dementia takes hold of us, but God won’t lose track of us or value us any less. I suspect that this was what Tabitha’s friends most needed to know, that she mattered to God as much as she mattered to them, that she was loved by the shepherd who had always known her, named her and called her. And that if she mattered, so do we all.