I bet when they were old women, they wore purple: Tabitha, Priscilla and Phoebe

Acts 9:36-42; 18:1-3, 18, 24-26; Romans 16:1-4

We find ourselves in the world of the early church this morning—
the world of Peter, Paul—and Mary.
Sorry—couldn’t resist!
The world of Peter and Paul and Tabitha and Priscilla and Phoebe.
And we heard read the stories from the Acts of the Apostles
about Peter and his encounter with Tabitha (her Aramaic name,
or Dorcas, in Greek) in Joppa,
about Paul and his encounter with Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth—
their journey together to Ephesus,
and an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans
that introduces Phoebe and mentions Priscilla again.

We read, in Joppa, about the grief of a community of faith
lamenting the death of one of their own—
Tabitha, named a disciple.
She was a disciple.
Tabitha in Aramaic and Dorcas in Greek both mean gazelle.
And as physically graceful as is the animal,
so too, Tabitha, full of grace—
devoted to good works and acts of charity.
Not a bad epitaph.

And the disciples—the other disciples—
sent word to Peter, “Please come without delay.”
Now maybe they had hopes he could do something.
Maybe there were thinking miracle in the back of their mind—
thinking of the life that comes to death
more concretely than we tend to.
Maybe. It doesn’t say that.
It doesn’t say anything about why they sent for Peter.
Just “Please come to us without delay.”

Maybe they needed a pastor.
Needed someone to be with them in their grief—
to honor their grief—
to understand it and them in it—
someone who could also help them
place that grief in a larger context—
maintaining an assurance of hope
in the celebration of a faith and a life well-lived.

It was the widows of that community of faith in Joppa, we read,
the most vulnerable, in other words,
who were in that upper room with Tabitha’s body—
with Peter.
They were crying—weeping—
and holding tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made for them.

Some of you were at Yee Mon Lew’s funeral
(Sue Carson’s mom’s funeral).
During the remembrance of Yee Mon Lew’s living,
one of her daughters-in-law held up scarves she had knit.
And Diana Chen remembered in her words of remembering
how her Mom had sewed matching outfits for her and Sue.

If we put two and two together—
if we put acts of charity and Tabitha
together with widows and tunics and other articles of clothing,
the image I get
is of Tabitha ever so sensitive to times of grief
making soft, personal items of intimacy to give to those in grief—
for literally and tangibly wrapping them in love.
Like prayer shawls and quilts wrap people in love and prayer.

We were in Staunton, Virginia yesterday for a concert.
We actually went to see and hear Ellis Paul—
whose music we’ve been listening to in worship these weeks.
It’s why your bulletins aren’t colored purple, by the way!
And after the concert, we wandered around
historic downtown Staunton a little bit—lovely place.
And knowing us, as you might expect,
we found a bookstore, an ice cream store, an art gallery, a coffeeshop!

But Susie also found a flyer for the one year anniversary celebration
of Appalachia Piecework’s current location.
So we found and visited the Old Train Station
and Laurie Gunderson, the owner’s, fascinating textile studio.
She kindly showed the girls (and us)
how she took sheep’s wool and alpaca and llama,
how she would card it on this machine here,
and spin it on this wheel or that one,
how she would dye it with wood chips,
how she would weave it on this loom or that one.
And she created rugs and bags and clothes of marvelous beauty.
We got this rug. Isn’t it lovely?

Maybe the widows in that upper room
displayed tunics and articles of clothing of marvelous beauty.
Maybe Tabitha was an extremely talented artist.
But, it occurred to me, on the other hand,
maybe it was (amongst the widows in that upper room)
a motley collection of ugly:
mismatched colors that clashed,
patterns that didn’t line up,
uneven cutting and stitching
that poofed where they were supposed to lay flat
that frayed where they hadn’t been hemmed.

I really like that idea!
Because you see, there’s still no doubt,
but that Tabitha was a great artist,
just a practitioner of the art of compassion
so much more so than of the fabric arts!

She then serves as a reminder
that the art of compassion
the doing of good works and acts of charity
takes just as much practice as any other art form.
If it’s something you want to get good at,
you practice!
In the words of Martha Graham,
“Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
And in the words of Laurie Gunderson,
“The fabrics of our culture create memories for us to pass on.”

And in words Tabitha stitched
(poorly or masterfully)
on a linen cloth she kept with her always:
“If I knit and purl with the skill of the master, but have not love,
it all unravels (as beautiful as it may yet be).
If I sew with the greatest of expertise, but have not love,
the stitching will not hold (though the clothes might).
If I quilt with all the confidence of a virtuoso, but have not love,
it will never be more than a patchwork quilt
of only accomplishment (however impressive).
Love wears all things well,
and when love is worn, makes all things well.”

In Corinth, Paul encountered a couple,
Priscilla and Aquila.
They’re the power-couple of the New Testament—
mentioned, anyone care to hazard a guess?
Mentioned seven times in Scripture—
in four different books of the New Testament
(Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy).
They’re always mentioned together,
and five of the seven times, Priscilla is mentioned first.
Now that might not mean anything.

Priscilla and Aquila had been in Rome we read,
but Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome,
and they left Italy and settled in Corinth.
When Paul arrived, he ended up staying with them
and working with them.
They were tentmakers, we read, like Paul.

Now we don’t know, from our texts, when they became Christians.
As they worked on tents together,
for 18 months in Corinth,
did they learn the stories from Paul?
We don’t know.

Or were they a part of the church in Rome?
They may have actually predated the church in Rome.
There is a suggestion that Claudius expelled Jews
because of a ruckus being raised in Rome amongst the Jews
about “Chrestos”—
close enough to “Christos” that it could have been Christian Jews,
still part of the Jewish community, raising the so-called ruckus.

So it’s possible that Priscilla and Aquila were Christians
before Paul met them—
possible that they were among those
who first brought Christianity to Rome to begin with.
We don’t know.

Based in the house of Priscilla and Aquila,
working their trade together,
every sabbath Paul went to the synagogue
and argued there—
trying to convince Jews and Greeks,
testifying that Jesus was the Messiah.

After the conflict got too intense,
when they opposed and reviled him,
he said, “From now on I go to the Gentiles!”
And he moved to a house church—
right next to the synagogue!
And he probably made sure he was outside
right in front, every time the Jews gathered—
waving (“oh, are y’all here today? how ’bout that!”)
and talking—loudly (“now, about Jesus, the Messiah”)!

When Paul left for Syria, Priscilla and Aquila went with him—
friends and colleagues,
by now, if not from the beginning
both in tent making and disciple making.

Paul didn’t stay long (we don’t know how long) in Ephesus.
He had enough time for some conversation in the synagogue,
and he planned to return.
So, note this, obviously when Paul said, “From now on I go to the Gentiles,”
that wasn’t to the exclusion of all Jews and all synagogues—
or the front yard of the house in Corinth next to the synagogue!

In our reverence of Scripture, we sometimes forget,
that these are the stories of particular people in particular places,
letters to particular communities dealing with particular issues
and maybe not meant to be received and applied
as broadly and as generally as we do.

When Paul moved on from Ephesus, his friends stayed.
And when Apollos arrived from Alexandria,
that sophisticated, highly cultured seat of learning,
eloquent, well-versed in the scriptures,
instructed in the Way of the Lord,
speaking with burning enthusiasm,
teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus—
when this hunk of burning preacher man
was speaking boldly in the synagogue,
it was Priscilla and Aquila who pulled him aside
and instructed him in the way of God more accurately.
They were teachers. Priscilla was a teacher.

They had obviously continued to work within the synagogue.
And had not just the initiative,
but also the authority,
to together instruct someone like Apollos.
This a text, by the way, that speaks well not only of Priscilla and Aquila,
but also of Apollos.
And this would be the Apollos, mind you, thought by Martin Luther
to have written the book of Hebrews!
Though, interestingly enough, some scholars suggest
Priscilla actually wrote it—Hebrews!

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he introduces us to more women
from the world of the early church—the life of the early church.
Initially and specifically to Phoebe,
who is named deacon.
She was a deacon.
It says so.
In the Bible.
That’s the Greek word—
though it’s not always translated that way into English—
go figure!
Now, to be fair, it’s not translated deacon across the board,
it can also mean and be translated “servant,”
but in Paul’s usage of the term,
it’s almost everywhere else translated deacon or minister—
except when it come to Phoebe!

Now that’s presumably because translators
were thinking about 1 Timothy 3:12:
“let deacons be the husbands of one wife.”
So some make 1 Timothy authoritative for church organization.
Others suggest that verse is more a comment on polygamy than anything else.
All I’ll say, is in our reverence of Scripture, we sometimes forget,
that these are the stories of particular people in particular places—
letters to particular communities dealing with particular issues
not meant to be received and applied
as broadly and generally as we do.
I thought that was worth repeating!

Phoebe, by the way—the name,
comes to us from the same root from which we get “phosphorous.”
Phoebe means bright … and she shines.

Paul commends her to the saints in Rome—
names her one of his own benefactors—
a word having significantly more social and financial
connotations than it does now—
especially noting she was not just Paul’s patron,
but the benefactor of many.

Origen of Alexandria, one of the so-called Church Fathers
wrote in his Commentary on Romans,
“This passage teaches us that there were women ordained
in the church’s ministry by the apostles’ authority….
Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry,
because they helped in many ways
and by their good service deserved the praise even of the apostle”
(quoted in Charles H. Talbert, Romans
in The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002] 333).

After commending Phoebe,
Paul goes on to ask the recipients of this letter in Rome
to greet Priscilla and Aquila “who worked with me
and risked their necks for my life.”
We don’t know specifically what that means, but wow!
It’s also an interesting suggestion that Priscilla and Aquila
went back to Rome when they could
and continued their work among the Christians there.
They were leaders in the life of whatever church they were a part of.

We didn’t keep reading in Romans,
but if we had, there’s then a list of other people Paul greets.
“Please greet Priscilla and Aquila.” They’re first,
but there are twenty-four names and two other people mentioned, unnamed.
It’s an unusually long greeting for Paul
and it presumably includes reference
to a number of the various house churches in Rome.
Within the twenty-four, nine women are listed:
one named an apostle (Junia).
She was an apostle.
John Chrysostom of Constantinople, another Church Father,
the Archbishop of Costantinople,
writes: “Think how great the devotion of this women Junia must have been,
that she should be worthy to be called an apostle”
(quoted in Talbert, 335).
Mary, Paul writes, “worked very hard among you.”
Tryphaena and Tryphosa are “workers in the Lord,”
and Persis has “worked hard in the Lord.”

So what do we take from all this?
That women were active and integral to the early church.
That women were honored and valued in the early church.
That women had positions of authority in the early church.
And that if you emphasize Scripture you interpret
to deny women their place,
then you ignore other Scripture.

I will always choose to err, if err I do, on the side of grace.
I’d so much rather stand before God saying,
“As best I could, I loved and graced and blessed and included
and celebrated every instance I was privy to witness
and be a part of devotion to good works, and acts of charity—
lives lived wrapped in love,”
rather than “As best I could, I assessed and judged and critiqued
and excluded on the basis of my understanding of what you want—
never mind the justice and humility part of what you want.”

In Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith.
As many of us as are baptized into Christ
have clothed ourselves with Christ
(wrapped ourselves in love!
practice the art of the way of God).
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of us are one in Christ Jesus
(Galatians 3:26-28).

Teachers and deacons,
preachers and prophets,
leaders now and followers then,
practitioners of the art of compassion—
the art of love.
For if I teach and deac,
preach and prophesy like wonderboy from Alexandria,
but have not love,
it’s nothing.
And so we practice
(practice practice practice)
the art of the way of God in Christ Jesus.

For our faith, I believe,
is one to be marked never by the rigidity with which people are excluded,
but by the surprise of all who are.

After all, we are.


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