It was just a few months ago that I delivered the homily at the funeral of Fred Kohl, a faithful servant of Jesus Christ for many years. And now, just a matter of weeks later, I am doing the same thing for his beloved wife Mertie.
“Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity.” (Acts 9:36, ESV)
“So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them.” (Acts 9:39, ESV)
Tabitha was this woman’s Aramaic name, which meant gazelle, and Dorcas was the Greek equivalent. The Scripture is drawing our attention to the meaning of her name because in the original it says that Dorcas was the interpretation of Tabitha. Tabitha was apparently graceful, gentle, kind, like a gazelle—and this is also made plain by the description of her. It says that she was full of good works and various acts of charity. After she died, the apostle Peter was taken where her body was, and he was shown all the things she had made.
Now Mertie Kohl was our Tabitha. As long as I knew her, which has been many decades, she was tirelessly and cheerfully devoted to good works.
And when I say good works, I am using the understanding of them that Luke uses here. When Peter was taken to where she was, the women laid before Peter, and Luke through the Holy Spirit laid before us, all the sewing projects she had accomplished. Look at the legacy of this gracious woman, they said. This was the sort of thing she was doing all the time.
For more Christmas breakfasts than I can count, our family has enjoyed a cinnamon pull-apart that Mertie would make for us. The only down side of it was the creation of a temptation for our family on what the true meaning of Christmas was.
When my daughters were little, Mertie ran a sewing class for little girls in our church, teaching them how to sew—once a week after school they would all go over to her house and she would instruct them in hand stitching. Those connected with the Kohls could not help catching glimpses of a fraction of the good works they were devoted to.
Now we have a temptation to confuse two things that we really ought not to confuse. The Scriptures do tell us not to be worldly. We are not to love the things of the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. But the Scriptures also call us to a very practical kind of earthy piety. Earthy, not worldly. Remember that Tabitha’s legacy included a number of tunics she had made, none of which are in existence any more. But there is a deeper reason that lies behind the apostolic injunction to work with our hands—it is so that we can bless others. We are material creatures, and the currency we use to bless others needs to have a material component.
The tunic will not last forever, but the individuals that Tabitha made them for are as alive as they ever were. The dolls that Mertie taught little girls to make are very likely pulled completely to pieces by now—but the girls she loved by doing this kindness are girls who will live forever.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, ESV).
There is a striking difference between what we invest and what we are investing in. Jesus tells us, for example, to use unrighteous mammon to make friends here in this life, not because the mammon lives forever but because the friends do. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9, ESV). It goes without saying, in other words, that it fails. But the eternal dwellings do not, and the friends do not.
Love the little girls, in other words, and use cloth as your medium. This is not because cloth is one of the permanent things. Scripture tells us plainly that the whole cosmos will wear out like a garment. Even though the heavens are the work of God’s hands, they will nevertheless perish. They will wear out, the way that garments do (Ps. 102:26). But those who make garments, and those who receive those same garments, will all live forever. We are immortals, and we live among immortals. While on the way there, we are told to love one another with our stuff.
So if we want to know what we should invest in, the answer from Scripture is plain. Good and godly investments are the forever things. And the two forever things we deal with every day are the Word of God and our neighbors. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord is forever. Scripture is forever. And Jesus tells us not to labor for the food that perishes, but rather the food which endures unto everlasting life. And the food that is eternal is for the people who are eternal. Your brother is forever, and your sister is forever.
This is a Christian funeral, and we have gathered here in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified for us, and who rose from the dead for our justification. We do this remembering Mertie Kohl, and her husband Fred, whose bodies wore out like everything else in this world will wear out. But they did not wear out. The last time Nancy and I visited with Mertie, just a few weeks ago, she told us her “bags were packed.” And you don’t pack your bags to vanish from existence. You pack them because you are going somewhere.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.