Sunday, April 17, 2016
I have a six-month old daughter named Erin, and before she was born I was over at my parents’ house going through old children’s toys and books with my mom that she had saved for grandchildren. We came across this stuffed sheep, and I as I was preparing for this sermon today, I realized that this sheep, which we had received from a dear family friend and that my daughter now plays with, this sheep I had named “Tabitha.” Truth be told, when I was four or five years old and named this sheep, I was not thinking of the Tabitha from first reading from Acts – I was thinking of Tabitha, Samantha’s daughter from the old TV show Bewitched…my dad watched a lot of Nick at Nite! But it struck me as I asked the question to myself about what this first reading has to do with sheep or shepherds for this Good Shepherd Sunday, that Tabitha is a sheep.
Tabitha is a sheep. We are sheep – Jesus reminds us. He is the shepherd. Here in Nebraska, the name Tabitha as one of the first faithful Christian disciples is celebrated with the social service organization Tabitha Elder Care providing hospice care, in-home support, and senior living communities across Nebraska. Some of our women of the ELCA circles may still be named after Tabitha, in honor of her faithful good works and acts of charity which included the clothing she had made for others, as Acts tells us. Certainly as we gather this weekend to talk about being relevant in our communities and turning our congregations around to be more service-oriented, outward focused, we can hold Tabitha up as a faithful example of a disciple of Jesus who served people not just in a church building but out among her neighbors. But Tabitha’s story in Acts is not just about all the good stuff she did – it’s about how she died. And how the power of the resurrection was so real for that early Christian community that Tabitha did not stay dead, but was raised to new life. The story is about Tabitha, and Peter, and the widows, and the other disciples who participated in God’s kingdom work as they were able to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. But notice the end of the story: When people catch wind of what the disciples are up to…how Tabitha has experienced the resurrection first hand…it became known throughout the town of Joppa and MANY believed in the LORD. Tabitha was the sheep…the Lord Jesus Christ is the great shepherd of the sheep.
I wonder if the disciples were tempted to forget this after Tabitha was raised from the dead, that Jesus is our shepherd and we are sheep? I mean, Peter must have felt pretty good about himself after Tabitha sat up. No need to wonder about who would replace Tabitha and take over her responsibilities caring for her neighbors through her clothing ministry and other acts of charity after her death…cuz she’s back! In our congregations, too, I wonder if we are sometimes tempted to forget that we are the sheep and Jesus is our shepherd, the Lord, the giver of life. How many women (and men) do we have like Tabitha, who work hard every single day in our churches and in our communities to share the gospel in word and deed whom we would have a hard time replacing if they died? How many women (and men) do we rely on to do most of the work of being the church and forget to train up and raise up new leaders? And how many times if we DO have a new leader step in and volunteer to help, especially a newer member of a congregation, we expect them to be and act just like Tabitha and do exactly what she did, trying to replicate rather than adapt and change to the gifts and ideas that the new person brings to our community? How many times do our congregations become more like the Church of Tabitha, the Sheep, than the Church of the Good Shepherd, a Church that looks to Jesus Christ and his leadership as the source of our life and the guide for our journey?
My guess is that Tabitha, Peter, and the rest of those disciples in Joppa were changed after Tabitha was raised. Ministry didn’t happen in the same way after that event. And we know that eventually Peter, Tabitha, and the other disciples eventually died and experienced a different kind of resurrection on the other side of the grave. The Church, however, did not die. The Church is still alive! The Church is still alive because Jesus Christ the great shepherd of the sheep continues to call new disciples to believe in him and to do good works in their communities in Joppa, in Lydda, in Omaha, in Council Bluffs…wherever there are sheep ready and willing to follow. These ministries certainly look different from the way Peter and Tabitha did it. But the message remains the same. When we are willing to die: die to our way of doing things, to let ministries that are no longer effective or relevant die, to let hardworking volunteers die so that a new generation can inspire and lead, to even let the church as we know it die, that’s when Jesus’ resurrection becomes real for us. New people, new places, new ways of doing ministry, new life enters in…not because of Tabitha, not because of you or me, but because of our Lord Jesus Christ and the God who gives us all life. We can strategize, and plan, and try new things as we listen to Jesus’ voice calling us to venture out into the new life that he gives. Ultimately, though, all that we do, all that we say is for this purpose: so that what God has done for us might become known throughout our communities, so that many will believe in the Lord and follow. Amen.