Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas...
They say that you can’t tell much about a person based on their looks, but you can certainly tell a thing or two based on their names.
Song Teng, for example, is my neighbor. You may not know that his name means Strong Pine Tree, but you can easily guess that it’s Chinese, or maybe Korean. Song is popular in both countries.
After the earthquake in Myanmar last week my friends in Yangon began checking in. I heard from Myat Moe Aung, Moe Myant Myat, Su Myat Mon, Su Mon Yadanar, and Moe Myant Khine. You can see that they all have distinctly Burman names.
In the text appointed for this morning we are told that Tabitha, is also called Dorcas. It may seem like a small thing, but we have seen how names can be a clue about culture and location. You may remember that Peter also has two names: Simon, or Shimon, was a Hebrew name; Peter was a Greek name. Thus, we can tell from this story that Peter and Dorcas may have something in common. For one thing, they are both bridging cultures with their names, and with their religions too.
The story goes like this:
Peter, like Jonah about 800 years earlier, was called to go to Joppa, modern Tel Aviv. Joppa was outside his usual territory, just on the edge of his comfort zone, but he went anyway.
He had been called because, Dorcas, a beloved member of the widow community had died. The messengers did not say that they wanted Peter to bring her back to life, but there was precedent for such things. Whether or not they had heard about Lazarus, they surely knew that both Elijah and Elisha had prayed for people to be brought back to life. We can’t know what they were hoping for. But, like Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days, and Jesus in the tomb for three days, it seems like Dorcas would have been lying in the upper room for about three days by the time Peter arrived.
When he got there, Peter restored Dorcas to life and to her community. The Bible doesn’t say what happened to Dorcas and her friends after that. The Bible does, however, tell us what happened to Peter:
Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Jerusalem was becoming increasingly hostile to members of the Jesus movement — they had not yet been called Christians — so Peter might have had good reason to keep a fair distance, but to stay with a tanner is another move that would have been outside his comfort zone.
You probably remember that Simon Peter was a devout Jew. There were certain things he didn’t eat, certain things he didn’t touch, he had ways of doing things. Simon the Tanner, on the other hand, was probably a good guy but he was always ritually unclean because of his work with dead animals.
Later (in next week’s readings, in fact) we will read about a vision that Peter had which turned everything he’d ever believed about being ritually pure on its head. But in this story, lodging with a tanner was stepping over a line. Peter may have been wondering about the message to the gentiles, he may have questioned his own practices. We can’t know what he was thinking, but Peter has taken two big steps in this story: He has physically gone outside his comfort zone by traveling to Joppa, and he is exploring the ways in which his own faith tradition may be limiting his vision of Jesus’s mission.
Most Christians don’t keep kosher anymore, we don’t follow the purity code that Peter did, but I suspect that there are things which we believe set us apart, maybe even make us better than the other Christians.
Is there anybody you look down on just a little bit?
Maybe you feel that while you aren’t perfect at least you’re not… Simon the Tanner.
Maybe your creed is better, your liturgy more traditional, your incense smokier. You attend a cardinal parish. It’s your thrid time on the vestry. You do yoga. It could be anything, probably a good thing. But it might also separate you from those you perceive to be… let’s just say it, tanners. It might be hindering Jesus’s mission.
The task for this week is to find the ways that our very own faith traditions — the things that have formed us and sustain us — may, in fact, be limiting our vision, hindering the mission.
If you think that you’re a little bit better than someone, seek them out. Listen to their faith story. Get a glimpse of their vision. Get to know them as equals. Who knows, by next week you might have had a vision too!
Oh God, who sees us perfectly, teach us to look at ourselves and others through your eyes of compassion, knowing that regardless of our practices or statuses we are equally precious in your eyes. Amen.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai