One day a rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees, and started beating his chest, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by the rabbi’s passion, joined the rabbi on his knees. “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
The custodian, watching from the corner, couldn’t restrain himself, either. He joined the other two on their knees calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
At which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!” (“How Can I Help” by Ram Dass & Paul Gorman).
Who are the nobody’s? Who goes unseen?
At clergy conference this week, as part of the Diocesan year of Race and Diversity Reconciliation, we were invited to reflect on the book, “Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter,” written by Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Lindsay facilitated the conference, so it was extra special to be with the author. Here at the church our Tuesday Bible study group read this book and had many lively discussions because the women in the Bible are bold, sometimes outrageous, and take huge risks for their faith. That said, many of the women in the Bible were nobodies, often un-named. However, some of the women are named and a few have a voice. Ninety-three women speak in the Bible, for a total of 14,056 words. To put this in context, a typical state of the union address is 7000 words. Still, it’s remarkable that the words of women are recorded at all. No other religion records the words of nearly 100 women. By comparison, the Bible is quite amazing in lifting up the nobodies and giving them voice. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus tells us.
Our reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles names a woman, although she does not speak. Tabitha is an Aramaic name which is translated as Dorcas in Greek. Both names mean gazelle, strong, swift, graceful. Tabitha, Dorcas, is a strong, gifted woman. She makes clothes and serves the poor. She is loved by all and her death has caused tremendous grief in the community. Peter is summoned to help, and following other examples in the Bible, Peter raises Tabitha from the dead and brings her back to life. You’d think that getting her life back would cause Tabitha to say something. But if she did, no one thought to record it. She’s named, but voiceless.
The other area we reflected on at clergy conference was racism. We were asked, what do we need to do to address racism in our lives? One thing we said we need to do is recognize when racism is rearing up. In particular we need to learn how to recognize our prejudice - whether it’s in the words we use or the attitudes we hold or simply in our inability to see others for who they are. This discussion at clergy conference reminded me of a presentation that was made in the Trinity Institute’s Saturday morning session in January, which we broadcasted at St. Paul’s Lutheran here in Dearborn. The speaker, Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest and Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, talked about the systemic connection in this country of black bodies being seen as slaves to black bodies being seen as criminals - that people, including police officers do not see black bodies as human beings - they are just bodies, once dehumanized as slaves and now criminals. As just body’s they are essentially nobody, objectified as slaves or criminals. Think about it. Do you see other people as human beings with feelings and integrity or as body’s, as nobody? Turns our that most people have no idea, no awareness what so ever.
Someone at clergy conference mentioned that they struggle every time they see a woman in traditional Muslim attire - this person automatically wonders if there is a bomb hidden under the hijab and long robes. They recognize that this is not a rational thought, that it is racist, but it is the first thought they have. Others commented on locking their car doors when they approach certain intersections or when young black males are near by. Understanding the unconscious ways we have absorbed racism into our beings is crucial to learning how might come to see all people as fully human.
In today’s text we never hear Tabitha speak. We do not hear her experience through her words. Was she happy that people missed her so much that they wanted her to return to them? Was she pleased that Peter raised her from the dead? Or did she think, rats! I was finally getting some real rest, and now you’ve come and disturbed me…? Okay, I’m being a little silly, but the point remains, we don’t know what she would have said about this experience because she is voiceless.
Despite Tabitha’s silence, what one might take away from Peter raising Tabitha from the dead, is the assurance that whenever one is done in and feeling like a nobody, unable to see one’s self for who one really is, there is the real possibility of God’s presence. God comes when we least expect it and like a helping hand pulls one up, that one might live. For in being seen, heard, and loved, for who one really is, beloved of God, one cannot be a no-body, devoiced, dehumanized, objectified. Instead, made in God’s image, beloved of God, each person is fully human, a somebody, made whole and fully alive.
a reflection on Acts 9:36-43, for Easter 4C