FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER| Acts 9:36-43
Spring time in the upper midwest brings many good things back from the icy clutches of winter—including garage sales. As I was making my first couple stops of the season this week, I began to construct a kind of “Theology of Garage Sales.” I thought: What if the things stacked on folding tables at our garage sales is any reflection of the things we value in life? What might the things I leave behind at my post-mortem estate sale reveal about the person I was?”
These are sobering questions to ponder, and they also draw us in to one of our readings for this fourth week of Eastertide.
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. (Acts 9:36-43)
Before we get to old Tabitha, let us do some Garage Sale Theology. Browsing the garage sales of suburbia, plastic toys, mindless media and mountains of clothes seem to top the list. We invest in toys our kids grow bored of after 6 days, and move on to the next one. We escape our humdrum lives watching movies and playing video games. We clothe our bodies with the latest fashions, often neglecting to address our naked souls and fragile interiors.
All the while Jesus’ words are trying to get our attention but continually being pushed aside by our uneasy conscience. His words would expose our tendency to “store up treasures on earth” while neglecting to collect for ourselves inner riches and eternal treasures.
Estate sales are somber affairs if you really think about it. Usually family members of the dearly departed stand awkwardly in the background while contracted estate sale workers pawn off mom or dad’s lifetime collection of personal things. A leisurely stop at an estate sale on your way home from work can suddenly leave you philosophizing about that meaning of life and asking, “What will I leave behind on this earth, and what might it reveal about who I was and what I valued and pursued in my life?”
In Acts 9:36-43 we find family and friends grieving the death of a woman named Tabitha (called Dorcas in Greek). She also has the remarkable distinction of being the only person in the New Testament specifically designated as a female disciple. In the brief description of her, we learn she was the kind of person who touched many lives and would have had many people turn out for her funeral—if she would have remained dead! Luke gives us her epitaph in Acts 9:37:
“She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” (NRSV)
“She was always doing good and helping the poor.” (NIV)
That is, she spent her life investing in eternal treasures—pouring her time and money and energy into things that could not be stored in a cardboard box and sold at an estate sale when she left this earth. She seems to have had a powerful ministry to local widows and orphans. As for the material things she left behind, we are told that when Peter arrived at the house, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them” (v. 39). “In all probability, these weeping women were wearing the various articles of clothing that Dorcas had so lovingly made for them” (Acts: Life Application Commentary, 166).
When we die, what if instead of a bunch of strangers plundering our homes and combing through our stuff, we had a living room was filled with people whose lives we had touched, sharing stories and showing off tokens of our love? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). What does our “stuff” reveal about what our hearts truly treasure in this land of the living?
Someday my material treasures will be sorted through, boxed up and sold for pennies. After perusing my 90s CDs and 2000s DVDs, and snickering over my dated and very un-clergy like clothes, people will step into my study and marvel at my library of ancient writings and classical literature (and I pity the small army it will take to move them). People will hopefully conclude that I was a man who loved learning from the ancient sages, probing the mysteries of God, and helping others learn to read and cherish the riches of the Bible and theology.
Someday I will have to sort through my dads multiple garages and workshops. Each tool and machine will reinforce the fact that my dad was placed on this earth to build, engineer, and fix things. Many of those “things” were for the people he loved—blue collared acts of love performed with greasy fingers and leaving the sweet aroma of sawdust and steel in the air.
The physical limitations that come with aging often helps us begin the purging process as we move out of our home and into assisted living apartments. My grandma now inhabits a small apartment with very little storage for unnecessary freight. When we visit, she brings out one small bag with a few toys to entertain the kids. When I look around the room, I mostly see photo frames filled with the faces of her family—her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. Draped over the back of the chairs are some old quilts sown with love—from others and eventually for others when she no longer needs them. My grandma’s apartment is a humble little shrine of her simple yet enduring devotion to those she loves and holds dear to her heart.
So, let us remember today Tabitha’s legacy of love and compassion toward the poor. As we visit our next garage sale, let us remember Tabitha’s room full of widows talking about the clothes she made for the poor. Let us also think about the treasures we are storing up, and what our storage rooms reveal about our priorities and passions. The irony of this story is that the person who didn’t need a second chance at life got one anyway, while many others will go to their grave, leaving a legacy of selfish ambition and greed behind them, and possibly never get the second chance they need to get their priorities right.
I close with some of Benjamin Franklin’s wise and witty words about life and death:
“I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.”
“Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”
“Life’s Tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”
Or, my favorite, in 1728, aged 22, Franklin wrote what he hoped would be his own epitaph:
“The Body of B. Franklin Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.”
Let us each live out the kind of Story that will never go out of print, playing the role of humble characters like Tabitha who leave behind, not shoes and cookware, but a legacy of being “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” May we let the Author begin the editing process here and now, and be raised to a New Life in the Spirit even before we taste death. Amen.