Sunday, April 17, 2016
Womens wealth: Tabitha/Dorcas missiology of economic justice
Acts 9:36, the story of Tabitha (Dorcas in the Greek), preached at Knox Church, Dunedin, in which I suggest economic justice is a fourth mark of the church and wonder if Dorcas is the first female Deacon of the church, and thus the patron saint of diaconal ministry.
Last weekend my sister-in-law from Christchurch came to visit. We’ve brought a house at St Leonards. It has some very dated curtains and so with winter approaching, last weekend was set aside and the words written in the calendar – curtain making. I needed to spend Saturday morning working on a conference presentation, for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture. So I found myself on Saturday morning reading about “women’s wealth.” It’s a term used to reference the making of bark cloth into woven mats amongst Pacifica cultures.
“Women’s wealth” thus refers first, to the skills of making. Second, to the knowledge sharing that occurs across generations as the mats are made. Third, to the value of the actual mats. They’re gorgeous. Fourth, to the ability of these women to adapt their skills when times change, when they move to Australia or New Zealand and lose homegrown materials.
As I was working, I found myself pondering the irony. I’m upstairs thinking, writing about “women’s wealth.” At the same time, downstairs, my wife and sister-in-law are making “women’s wealth” – curtains. As they do they’re sharing stories, learning across generations and improvising with different window shapes and lengths of material. In this “curtain economy” of “women’s wealth” I‘m reduced to driver. Steve, drive to Spotlight for more thread, please. Steve, drive to Spotlight for 60 metres of calico please.
“Women’s wealth” – the ability to make, the communal pooling of skill, the knowledge as story that’s shared, the ability to improvise in different contexts.
Acts 9, the lectionary text for today, is about “women’s wealth.” About the role and significance of “women’s wealth” in the mission of God. “In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha (in the Greek her name is Dorcas), she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room … and then in verse 39 – all the widow’s stood around [Peter], crying and showing the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made.” So “women’s wealth” is how this church in Joppa does mission. The ability to make (robes and other clothing), the willingness to share (with the widows), is how the Gospel has come alive in this community. It’s the materiality of the resurrection.
The Presbyterian Church of Aoteoaroa New Zealand has five faces of mission. They’re named are in your newsletter under my sermon title. To make Jesus Christ known:
• in nurture and teaching
• in loving service
• in proclaiming the gospel
• in transforming society
• in caring for creation
Let’s see if we can bring together the world of Acts 9 and the world of the PCANZ. How many of these five faces do we find in Tabitha’s church in Joppa? Ask the person beside you.
I wondered if there were three faces
• In nurture and teaching of people – and nurture is certainly what Tabitha is offering to the widows; and teaching is there in the sharing across generations
• in loving service – and the robes and clothes offered to widows are a wonderful example of practical ministry
• in transforming society – and in New Testament times, widows are poor. They’re on the bottom rung of society. They have no protector, no advocate. So here in this text, they find one – Tabitha.
As I read the Acts 9 lectionary text during the week, thinking about “women’s wealth”, I was struck by how quickly the church in Acts, after the resurrection, settles into such practical, such material, ministries of mercy and justice.
In Acts 2, property and possessions are shared with those in need. In Acts 4, we hear of the willingness to share everything. In Acts 6, the widows are being fed but economic injustice is occurring, some ethnic groups get less, and so the role of Deacons is created to ensure there is just distribution of resources in the church.
Now here, in Acts 9, 65 kilometres from Jerusalem, this economic pattern continues. Women’s wealth is used to cloth widows.
It’s not named, but isn’t Tabitha a Deacon? Serving the church, ensuring justice, that the poor and marginalised are taken care of. She doesn’t need a title, like the church in Jerusalem. It’s just what happens after the resurrection.
Presbyterians talk about the marks of the church. Three Marks of a Reformed Church
• Preach the Word of God
• Administer the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion
• Godly Discipline
Here in Acts, perhaps there is a fourth mark, the doing of economic justice.
What I also find fascinating about this Acts 9 lectionary text, is that all this happens, all this ministry, all this economic justice, all this “women’s wealth,” it all happens before Peter arrives. Peter, as we heard last week, is commissioned by Jesus to Feed the sheep. Peter is the preacher at Pentecost at Jerusalem. Peter speaks in court before the Sanhedrin. Peter, Peter, Peter.
Yet before Peter ever arrives at Joppa, Tabitha has got on with feeding sheep, practising mercy and justice among the poor and marginalised of her community. There’s a church in mission well before Peter, coming from head office in Jerusalem, ever arrives.
This pattern is repeated time and again in mission history. In 1287, Kublai Khan sent a Chinese Christian bishop as his ambassador to Rome, with instructions to ask the Pope if the Pope was a Christian (The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died)
When the missionaries arrived in top end of Australia, indigenous Aborigines had already heard the gospel from fisherman working down from Indonesia (Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal elder in Arnhem Land).
In Aoteaoroa New Zealand, it was Ripahau who carried the pages from the matyred body of Tarore’s Gospel of Luke to Otaki, which resulted Katu Te Rauparaha converted, which causes him to visit enemies of his father Te Rauparaha up and down the South Island, long before any missionaries from head office in London arrive.
In the middle of last century, the world of mission was tipped on its head by a German mission administrator who gave us the term Missio Dei – God’s mission. God is a missionary God. Mission starts with God, and we’re simply playing catching up.
Just like Peter. He arrives from head office, with some great Pentecost stories, only to find women’s wealth and a mission of economic justice is already happening. This is missio dei – starts with God and Peter’s playing catchup.
Will Willimon writes of this Acts 9 lectionary text – “Every community, every family, every congregation exists within certain settled, fixed arrangements of power … Tabitha is to stay home and let the men devise an affordable welfare system … But [God] comes …. These miraculous events announce a new age … and nothing is quite the same.” (Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 85-6). Such is women’s wealth, in the mission Dei, mission of God.
Let me finish with a contemporary story that helps me understand the role and significance of “women’s wealth” in the mission of God today. The story of a church in the UK called Knit and Natter.
In 2008 four women in a small Methodist Church in the middle of a housing estate near Liverpool, arranged to met and knit prayer shawls for the bereaved and those in hospital. Then they moved to blankets for the local women’s refuge. Then hats for shoebox appeals overseas. Everything they knitted, they would lay hands and pray for those who would receive the finished items. Called Prayers for Others.
Three years later, that initial group of four women had grown to sixty, meeting weekly to knit and pray, many with no previous church connection. Calling Knit Natter their church.
Women’s wealth. Used in mission. Four women who make, sharing across generations, integrated their knitting with their prayer life, formed a community of economic justice and spiritual practice, that folk from the wider community now call church. It’s just what happens after the resurrection.
A friend who researched this community for her PhD, noted three things. First, the importance of what she called “Casting On” – the role of knitting as a practical entry point of – hand’s on making – which allowed these four woman to establish connections with the local community.
Second, the power of giving people ways to care. Here’s what one woman, Emma, said:
It feels part of something bigger because the things that people make here are going off into the wider world to be appreciated. So you’re not just part of something local, you’re part of something world- wide really. I think, for me anyway that re-enforces your faith. I think it is lovely to be part of something global, that people can appreciate.
Third, the possibilities of knitting as prayerful practice – how knitting enabled the women to begin or develop a rhythm of prayer and reflection. “ Many of the women interviewed talked about the relaxation and calm frame of mind which knitting brings. They spoke of using their knitting time to create space to be quiet and pray for others.” Knitting is an act of prayer. It’s how the Gospel has come alive in a housing estate in Liverpool.
In conclusion: women’s wealth is often overlooked within societies and cultures. So when I see it in the Biblical text, I want to make that my focus, to major in this sermon on Tabitha. On making, sharing, in the mission of God. And as I did, I was struck by how the church in Acts is marked by economic justice. And that mission starts with God, and that we’re often simply playing catching up. And that mission is can be as simple as making, sharing, integrating our faith with our life. Such is the value of “women’s wealth.” The gifts of Tabitha and Knit and Natter.
It’s just what happens after the resurrection.
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