A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday), 2022. The readings include the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and the comforting words from Revelation 7:17. In the news this week was the leak of a Supreme Court draft decision that would end the legal precedent of Roe vs Wade.
I hope that Peter saw more in Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, than what she had made. I know that the display that her companions made of her sewing and stuff was done out of deep love and admiration for their friend and all that she had been to them; but I also know that there is a tendency to judge a person by what they produce, and for all of her works of charity, the women knew that Peter would be impressed if they could show him Tabitha’s material value to the community.
And, I hope that Peter saw through it.
We hear the refrain time and again, appealing to the unique status, vulnerability, and gifts of women: she was somebody’s mother, sister, wife, daughter. But what if she were an only child, or an orphan, one way or another? What if she were widowed, or never chose to marry; what if she missed motherhood, and was grieved by it, or what if she never missed it at all?
What if she had made different decisions, suffered different accidents, chosen different paths than we would have, given her body? Well, that we will never know, since we are not privy to the process which formed clay, dust, and ashes into human form and gave it life, the gift of our common Creator, whose imagination and compassion never run dry.
What if she had no one, or no one left, to grieve her, to display the items she didn’t produce: wouldn’t God still love her, she who was made in his image? Shouldn’t we?
The women, the widows interpreted Dorcas to Peter in the way that they thought he would best understand, but I hope that after all his time with Jesus, Peter knew better. I know that her companions knew her better than that.
The women had come together to wash her body and commiserate, because there are always those spaces in time and culture where those who bear the title or burdens of womanhood need to come together for mutual support, encouragement, commiseration, wisdom, laughter, and tears.
This may be one of those spaces in our time and culture, for those of us who bear the title or carry the (often blessed, sometimes heavy) burdens of womanhood.
You’ve all seen the news, you know where I am going with this. What you may or may not know is that the Episcopal Church, our Episcopal Church, has considered the ethics of abortion and the relationship especially of women to reproductive healthcare many times across the past fifty years and more, and rightly so. This is not a theoretical subject divorced from the lived reality of our pews. Nearly one in four women in America experiences abortion, one way or another, for one reason or another, by the time she is forty-five years old.
Now, to some of you, that is a shocking statistic. To at least one in four of us, it is not a surprise. I am one. The surgery that I underwent during the failure of my first pregnancy was no different just because I had deeply wanted and still grieve that foetus than the procedure undergone by the very, very young woman in the next bed, nor do I know what was in her heart at that moment. I know that we suffered and recovered side by side, and each went home alive and intact, grateful for that, if bereft. I know that God, by the way, who gives life and who welcomes us into eternal life, has charge of both of the beings lost that day, and cares for them.
At successive General Conventions, the Episcopal Church has affirmed that human life “is sacred from its inception until death. … Human life, therefore, should be initiated only advisedly and in full accord with this understanding of the power to conceive and give birth which is bestowed by God.” As such, the Church grieves with those who want but struggle to become pregnant or give birth and opposes what it calls “abortion for convenience.” But that is a phrase wide open to interpretation, and the Church recognizes that there are many issues that impinge upon a person’s ability or advisement to fulfil a pregnancy. Where there is doubt, the Church would like people to know that they can safely come here to pray. The Episcopal Church, since before I was born, and before Roe vs Wade became law, has maintained without wavering its “unequivocal opposition to any legislation … which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.”
As I have described, my personal experience of abortion care, as painful as it was, was that of necessary, compassionate, and healing medicine. At our most recent General Convention, the Episcopal Church called for “women’s reproductive health and reproductive health procedures to be treated as all other medical procedures,” and declared “that equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care, is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being,” all of which, I might add, we understand to apply equally to trans and nonbinary people who may become pregnant.
Which brings me back to Tabitha. The woman’s struggle (the person’s struggle) to assert her dignity and worth as a human being should not be dependent upon anything other than the integral value that she has as a child of God herself, made in the image of her Creator. I hope that Peter understood that, when Tabitha’s friends were struggling to assert her worth and value to their community through what she had produced, what she had made. I hope that it was the pure and self-giving love of God that caused him to raise her up.
But most of all, in this week, and on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I want to remind each of us, and especially those of us who need to hear it most this day, that Jesus loves more than ninety-nine out of every hundred sheep; that God loves more than three out of every four women; that God loves you, without qualification or exception. That whenever we are in need, sorrow, or any other kind of adversity, there are those who will gather with us, to weep and to pray, to heal, and to bring resurrection to hand. That God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
“Do you love me?” Jesus asked Peter in last week’s Gospel. “Then tend my sheep.” No exceptions.