“Why do we thank Christians for practicing their Christianity?”, an aggravated seminary professor asked. The gold medallion certificates presented to the teenagers after completing their first mission trip; the fellowship hall naming ceremony for the lay leader who mowed the parsonage grass; the standing ovation in worship for the decades-long Sunday school teacher retiring. As if recognition is an expectation of discipleship rendered.
No one was applauding Dorcas when she began the first Christian welfare program. Her ministry was among the widows, the most vulnerable who had lost both husband and father-in-law and bore no son. She refilled their oil lamps before the lights went out, left baskets of figs, pomegranates, and loaves of barley bread by the back door, and expressed her care and concern most tenderly through fabric. Handmade garments to cover the women still trembling with grief from a family no more, women left out in the cold.
After decades of threading the needle, she died with her thimble still on as a devoted servant. Although the focus of today’s scripture is often on Peter’s miraculous resuscitation, I would call our attention back to the only woman named a disciple in the entire New Testament. Taking seriously her place in the inner circle, what is Dorcas’ legacy as a follower of Jesus?
Acts 9:36-43 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
After experiencing death once, she dedicated herself to service even more.
You are what you make for others.
At the death bed, people remember most how you loved them.
In 1912, Bayard Rustin was born in rural West Chester, PA. Raised by his Quaker grandparents, he grew up with social justice and pacifism as family values. After moving to Harlem for college, he advocated for interned Japanese Americans, desegregating the military, and unionizing black workers. In 1942, thirteen years before Rosa Parks did the same, he refused to give up his seat, defying Jim Crow laws. Conscientiously objecting to the draft, he served time for refusing to register for WWII. Behind bars, he organized fellow inmates around integrating the dining hall. After being released, Bayard traveled south. In North Carolina, following a string of arrests, he served on a chain gang with fellow protesters, a forerunner of the freedom rides. Having studied Gandhi’s resistance, he convinced a young Martin Luther King Jr., who at the time kept firearms in-house, to champion non-violence, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott. Eight years later, in 1963, trusted for his brilliant mind and keen strategy, he organized the march on Washington, DC. Over his career in activism, he, according to many historians, was directly responsible for over half of the victories in the civil rights movement. Still, he remains a mere footnote of history. According to Time magazine, “In the struggle for African American dignity, [Bayard] was perhaps the most critical figure that many people have never heard of.”
While Rustin’s open homosexuality certainly marginalized him even beyond his black skin, his biography reveals a pattern of standing stage left outside the spotlight in the drama for human rights, of rarely being the focused headshot in a photograph. Instead of chairman, he was the advisor; instead of occupying the first chair, he located on the second row.
Two thousand years prior, Dorcas emptied her purse into the collection plate and gathered textiles for the next stitch out of public view, her head down and heart open to the dependent widows scraping by to survive. After her second death, she leaves us with this remarkable legacy: faithful obscurity.
I’d never heard of Dorcas until seminary, never gazed at her image in stained glass, never read a book about her life, never attended a United Methodist Church bearing her name. And yet, her witness is profound because kingdom work is ultimately done for an audience of One beyond the glow of adulation, where the holiest work is the work that often goes most unnoticed.
Of course, it feels good to be recognized. But let us remain vigilant of our motivations. Discipleship is finally a lifetime exercise in radical ego-reduction, a spiritual discipline of supplanting our ambitions with the indwelling of a Savior far more interested in devotion over distinction.
The next time you’re at the sewing machine, be encouraged, you’re sharing saintly company with those who believe one of God’s greatest blessings is the gift of anonymity.