Get up, Tabitha, and claim your place at the center

Rev. Joe Agne

April 25, 2010

Memorial UMC, White Plains, NY

Acts 9: 36-43

I start with two questions.

  1. Who said, “You don’t need to be a LGBT person to feel welcome in a church that flies a rainbow flag out front everyday”?
  2. Who is Tabitha? I don’t mean someone’s favorite cat or a character on Bewitched who changes history by wiggling her nose. 

The Biblical Story of Tabitha

Here is the Biblical story of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). She is a leader in one of the earliest congregations of Christianity. There isn’t even Christianity yet. People were trying to follow in the Way of Jesus. They gathered together and Tabitha played an important role in their life. She wasn’t chair of the administrative council. She wasn’t the preacher. She wasn’t the treasurer. She wasn’t the president of the trustees. She was a disciple of Jesus. This is the only time in scripture that the word, “disciple” is used in the feminine. Tabitha was not known for her position. What was she known for? – her good works and her love for others.

She was a widow, which meant she was of the lowest estate of her society. Status of women depended on their relationship to a man – so much so that if a man died it was incumbent on his brother to marry the widow so that the bereaved wife would have a home and a way to support herself and her family. Tabitha was a woman unattached to a man. There were other women in the congregation in the same situation. Here is something we can learn about the earliest church – widows lived on the margins of the society but at the heart of earliest congregations.

Tabitha dies. She is bathed and anointed by the other widows and it is important to the story teller to inform us what they are wearing – tunics and other clothing made by Tabitha. It is known that Peter is close by and some people run for Peter to come and help. He comes and speaks, “Tabitha, cum.,” which means “Tabitha, get up.” She opens her eyes and sees Peter. She sits up. He gives her his hand and helps her up. The word spreads that Tabitha is alive.

Tabitha lives

We live on this side of the Enlightenment. What interests many of us is whether or not this really happened. We are often scoffers about such things. There were many Biblical accounts of people being raised from the dead. Jesus did it. Elisha and Elijah did it. Many people in the society, but not of the Biblical story, had the ability to bring people back alive. When we try to figure out why Luke tells this story we have to look beyond the Enlightenment question of just how did this happen. In fact in this week’s Bible Study three people knew folks who had been dead and came back alive. I have a friend this who died twice this year and felt brought back to life both times. Yet, this is not what the story is about.

I have a witness to make. Tabitha is alive in every one of the 10 congregations of my life. All of them have within them, people who are marginalized in the society but at the heart of the congregation and, like Tabitha, they are known for their good works and their love for everyone. Their notoriety is not based on their leadership positions but on how they relate to all the people. Tabitha lives and claims her place at the heart of congregations, still today.

Tabithas of today might still be widows. They might be day laborers, waiting each morning on Post Road for work. They might be people who are marginalized in the society, without all the human rights of the society and its institutions. They might be LGBT persons or immigrants or undocumented persons. The measure of a country is it how it treats these persons. The measure of a congregation is related to whether these persons are at the heart of the congregation just as they were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Think of how Jesus relates to widows, the woman at the well, tax collectors, the woman forced into isolation as she couldn’t stop bleeding, those with leprosy, foreigners and people not considered clean. You know so many of the stories.

A rainbow flag as a sign of commitment to Tabitha

As many of you know we have raised a rainbow flag in front of this church seven times. Seven times it has disappeared. Either it blew away unexplainably or someone just wanted one or it was taken by someone angry about what it means. Today we raise it up again. The correlation for me is that the flag represents Tabitha or people who are marginalized in the society and tells the world all are welcome in the center of this congregation. Our flag has been down for awhile. People call to ask what happened? People are letting us know if it disappears again they will buy a new one for us. It matters to many that the rainbow flag is out front here.

There are some things that threaten the life of Tabitha, within United Methodist churches:

  • Our General Conference declares, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • Our Judicial Council allows a pastor to keep a person from membership, because he is gay.
  • Most of our Boards of Ordained ministry won’t ordain LGBT people even those called by God t.
  • Few of our Bishops will appoint out-LGBT even to churches who ask for out-LGBT persons.
  • Persons who love each other and are ready to make public their commitment to each other have to find venues other than most United Methodist Churches to do so.

Here is our situation. We baptized Tabitha. We make promises to her that we will support her journey of faith. Then we act in ways that indicate we lied to her in her baptism:We love you Tabitha but you cannot respond to your call to ordained ministry.

  • We love you Tabitha but you can’t be in a church-celebrated service marking your love for your beloved.
  • We love you Tabitha but some pastor can keep you from being a member of a church in our denomination, just because of the way God made you.
  • We love you Tabitha but you can’t pastor our church, even if you are ordained, in good standing in our conference and a congregation asks for you knowing your being and gifts.

This is all a sin. Our General Conference, our Judicial Council, most of our Board of Ordained Ministries, our Cabinets, and our Bishops participate in and perpetuate sin. They don’t have the courage to extricate themselves from this web of sin. We hear today how the Roman Catholic Church turns its back on the abuse of its children. Their families are leaving. Our church abuses our LGBT children and they are leaving along with their families, partners, children and allies.

As a congregation we are not sin-free. But we do want Tabitha to live. Along with other congregations, MIND (Methodists in New Directions) in the New York Annual Conerence, RMN (Reconciling Ministries Network), The Church Within a Church Network and helped by the LOFT: An LGBT Community Services Center, we look for the spaces and find the ways to celebrate that Tabitha can be called to preach, to love and to serve at the heart of our congregation. Our rainbow flag is not a sign that tells the world we are sinless. It does say we resist the sin of exclusion. Tabitha is welcome here. We will keep the baptism vows made to Tabitha. We want and need her at the heart of our congregation.

So, lets go and hang the rainbow flag out front. It is like a prayer, a prologue to our living. It expresses our commitment to Tabitha and to all LGBT persons, to all excluded persons, actually to all persons. As Julie Carran says, “You don’t need to be a LGBT person to feel welcome in a church that flies a rainbow flag out front everyday”?

We are saying, “Tabitha, get up and claim you place at the heart of our congregation. We will accompany you as you claim your place in the center of the world. We are letting the world know that if anyone takes our flag again we will report in to the police as a hate crime. Tabitha, it is not just that earliest congregation that wants you to live. It is not just Peter that wants you to live. We do too. So Tabitha, here is our hand. Please get up and help us re-hang the rainbow flag out front.