From Sheep to Shepherd

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “From Sheep to Shepherd” Acts 9:36-43

The noise was deafening.  Widows of every age surrounded me.  Some cast back their heads in ululation.  Others sobbed in lament.  Some pressed upon me the work of her hands, pointing to a finely woven flax tunic, a weighty woolen shawl, or the fine tracery of crimson embroidery threaded along the cuff of a sleeve.  “Help us, help us! Who will help us?” they pleaded.  I looked over to the husband, who sat on a bench in the courtyard, nearly catatonic with grief.

I was still fairly new to this apostle thing.  In fact, I had considered giving up after the resurrection.  In all honesty, I had proven to be a fairly worthless disciple.  I thought I knew it all.  I slept when I should have been praying.  I ran when I was needed to stand my ground.  In the Chief Priest’s courtyard, I had cursed in fear and panic, insisting that I didn’t know the Lord, had never met him, had nothing to do with him.  If the resurrection had convinced me of anything, it was of the greatness of God, the holiness of my Lord Jesus, and my utter worthlessness as a disciple.

In fact, I had returned to my home in Galilee and the familiar work of fishing.  The waves on the water, the heft of the net in my hands, the rise and fall of the boat under sail.  But I had proven to be a failure even at what was my birthright.  Then, in the early morning on the rocky shore with the smoke of the charcoal fire in my eyes and the taste of grilled fish and fresh bread on my tongue, the risen Lord had restored me to my purpose.  “Do you love me?” he asked.  “Tend my flock,” he commanded.  For the love of Jesus, I was trying.

Now if ever there were sheep without a shepherd, these women were it.  Across the Great Sea, the Greeks and Romans do things differently, but here we live by the Old Ways. Our women do not have inheritance rights.  The death of a husband or a grown son leaves a woman at the mercy of a new patriarch, and some are by no means merciful.  That was obvious.  A toothless crone with two canes wailed at my elbow.  A cross-eyed woman with an addled brain babbled for my attention.  An emaciated young mother, with two small children clinging to her skirt, sobbed hopelessly.  A bald woman with a goiter the size of a pomegranate held up an intricately woven kerchief.

From their stories, it was clear that Tabitha – or I should say Dorcas – had been their shepherd.  She had clothed them, fed them, and provided for them from her own purse. Her death was a tragedy for all.  It started with a cough, followed by the spike of a fever.  Her breathing had grown labored, her breath fetid.  Within a few days, she was gone. Now these lost sheep surrounded me with their tears and the ridiculous expectation that I should raise the dead.  They pushed me up the stairs, shoved me into the upper room, closed the door, and continued their non-stop racket.

The room was dark.  I crossed to the window, parted the curtains, and opened the shutters, flooding the room with light and a sea breeze.  Near the window, where the light was the best, stood a loom, threaded with a work in progress. Across the room, the body lay on a bed, shrouded by a woolen pall.  I peeled back the cloth.  Dark curls, like soft clouds, surrounded a kind face with creases left behind by years of smiles.  She wore a simple linen tunic.  Her hands were folded on her chest above her heart and she held an olive-wood cross.  So natural and peaceful.  I placed my hand on hers and shrank back from the cold flesh, inert and lifeless.

I began to pace, as is often the case when I am worried, anxious, or angry.  What was I doing?  Who was I to raise the dead? What would happen when I failed, as I undoubtedly would? I had agreed to tend the flock, but I didn’t sign up for this.  All those expectations of the keening widows pressed in on me. I felt like I was the one wrapped in a pall, a shroud of their lament. I began to hyperventilate. “Feed my sheep?” I wheezed. “Thanks a lot, Jesus.”

“What seems to be the problem, Peter?” I knew that voice better than my own. He stood with his back to the window, his face in shadows. The sunshine, flooding into the room, seemed to shimmer and surge around his silhouette. I stopped hyperventilating.

“Jesus!” I shouted, half-angry, half-relieved. “C’mon. you don’t expect me to raise this woman.  Do you? I can’t do it!  I can’t!”  It may have been my imagination, but the wailing in the hallway outside the room seemed to escalate.

Jesus nodded, as he often did when I stated the obvious. “No, you can’t do it, Peter.”

This wasn’t helping my confidence at all.  I paced some more while he watched. I stopped and pointed at him accusingly, “You could do it!  You raised Jairus’s daughter.  I was there.  I saw her smile.  I saw her stretch her arms up to be held.  How about the widow of Nain’s son, hopping off his funeral byre as if her were embarrassed to be caught napping? Remember, Lazarus?  Three-days-dead and stinking, you called him out of the tomb.  You can do it!  You can do it!  But I’m not you.”

Jesus agreed, “No, you’re not.”

I paced some more.  I couldn’t do it, but Jesus could.  I shot a look at him where he was now leaning with an elbow on the window sill, and I swear, he raised his eyebrows like he does when he is waiting for me to draw an obvious conclusion.  I stopped.

“Are you really here, Lord?”

Now, he was smiling. “Didn’t I promise to be with you always, Peter, even to the end of the age?” 

He had made that promise.  He had even sent his Holy Spirit as a perpetual reminder.  As Jesus pushed away from the window and took a step closer to me, I felt the Spirit ripple within me. It was obvious. I turned away from Jesus and looked over at the peaceful and thoroughly dead Tabitha—or should I say Dorcas?  “I can’t do it,” I said again, “but you can.”

I moved toward the bed.  The sun warmed my back and moved along my limbs. I stepped closer still to the body and my shadow fell across her face.  I raised my arms with power and words of authority that were mine, but not mine, sounded loud.  “Tabitha!  Get up!”

The first thing I noticed was the slow throb of a vein, pulsing at her temple. Next, her chest began to gently rise and fall with the soft swell of her breath. Her mouth opened in an enormous yawn and a hand fluttered up to cover it.  Here eyelids blinked open, once, twice.  “O, Jesus!  You came!” she smiled.

I whirled around to see if the Lord was still behind me at the window. The room was empty.  The curtains fluttered in the sea breeze, the threads dangling from the loom danced in the shifting air.  Beyond the door, the keening of the women was undiminished and someone had broken out a shofar, blowing long, slow, mournful notes. 

I bent down and took the hand of the no-longer-dead woman. She was still clutching the olive wood cross but had kicked off the woolen shroud and was wiggling her toes.  I helped her up. “Sister,” I said to the puzzled Tabitha, “I know some people who will be happy to see you.” 

As I opened the door and guided her through, there was a moment of stunned silence.  Then, mourning shifted to joy.  There were glad shouts of recognition and fervent alleluias.  Tears of joy streamed down jubilant faces. The crone brandished her canes in celebration.  The fool sang a psalm of rejoicing.  The two children danced, hand-in-hand with their mother.  The woman with the goiter could only repeat, again and again, “Glory be to the great God of Israel, holy be His name!”  Arms reached out to Tabitha, touching, hugging, holding.  Tabitha was swept downstairs and out into the streets in a parade of rejoicing that they are still talking about in Joppa to this day.

I lingered in the upper room, leaning against the sill where the Lord’s elbow had rested, watching the celebration on the street below.  I still felt that I was not very good at this apostle thing. Thank goodness that no one had been in the room with me to witness my panic. But I learned that it is not so much about me as it is about Jesus.  Nine times out of ten, I can’t do what is asked of me.  I can’t rise to the expectations that they have for me.  But Jesus can, and even when I walk through the darkest valley, he is with me.

Acts of the Apostles 9:36-43

36 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. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 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.” 39 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. 40 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. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

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Sabbath Day Thoughts – 1 Kings 17:7-15

He toddled after me.  Bare feet kicked pebbles and stirred small storms of dust.  He was practicing his words.  “Deshe,” he said, handing over a tuft of dry grass, brittle with drought.  I added the grass to my basket. 

Giza etz?” he said tentatively, holding up a stick, just the right size for kindling.  Into the basket it went. 

Perach.” He smiled shyly, extending a tiny wilted bouquet of chamomile, clenched in his small fist. 

Such a good boy!  So generous!  I tucked the flowers behind my ear and scooped him up, holding him next to my heart.  I could feel his little ribs beneath his robe and see the delicate throb of a vein, pulsing at his temple.

It hadn’t always been like this.  My husband, like his father and his father’s father, had gone to sea.  We Phoenicians are a seafaring people, weaving a vast web of trade that spans the Great Sea from Sidon to Cyrene, Rome, Malta, and beyond.  We pluck fish from the ocean depths, harvest rare pearls from the Gulf of Arabia, and hew great ships from the cedars of Lebanon.  For men, it is an adventurous but dangerous life, always at the mercy of wind and wave.  For women, it brings loneliness.  Always the siren call of the water pulls our men back.  Always, there is the waiting.

They said my husband was killed by a lightning strike.  First the rigging caught, then the weathered decking.  When the fire reached the amphorae of olive oil in the hull, it launched a ball of fire into the sky, worthy of the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria.  I don’t know if he drowned or if he burned, but I do know the tight cage of fear that had held my heart ever since.

Our son was weeks old.  There was no patriarch to take us in, no kindly kinsman to offer protection.  In Zarephath, my neighbors made the sign of the evil eye behind my back, worried that my misfortune would rub off on them.  The large amphorae of flour, oil, and salt fish that my husband had left behind slowly emptied, despite every economy.  I had grown slight with hunger and my milk had eventually failed.

I was collecting wood for a final fire, a last loaf to be baked, a little oil to be poured out.  My child, perched on my hip, looked at me with enormous eyes set in wan cheeks that had once been chubby.  As my eyes filled with tears, he demanded to be put down, little arms pushing and legs kicking.  With both feet on the ground, he stretched up a hand for me to hold. 

Ezra, Ama!” (Help, Mama!) he said.  He tugged on my hand, pulling me homeward.  Help?  Whose help?

We saw him outside the city gate.  He looked like he had been sleeping rough for a long time.  His tunic was rumpled, the armpits stained with rings of sweat.  His beard was enormous and wild.  Bits of straw clung to his shaggy hair.  He held a long, sturdy, wooden staff, the sign of a patriarch or a . . .

Navi!” (prophet), my little boy said.  His hands clapped with delight and chuckles swelled his small, empty belly.

Hearing my child, the prophet turned with a sharp look, taking in our skinny forms.  “Shalom!” he greeted us, “Please, could I trouble you for some water?”

All the wadis had gone dry with drought, but within the walls of Zarephath, our deep well remained true.  It was a simple thing to fulfill his request, but as I nodded and turned to do so, he stopped me.

“And please, a little bread with that?  Surely, you have a little something to share with Yahweh’s messenger.”

I thought of the handful of flour and trickle of oil at the bottom of my jars, and the fear that clenched my heart held even tighter.  Of all the people in Zarephath to ask for help, why choose us?  Our poverty was obvious. 

Lechem?” (bread), my son said, pointing to the prophet.

I sighed.  “You do not know what you ask, my friend.  My cupboard is bare.  We are headed home to eat our final few morsels and call it quits.”

But the prophet wouldn’t take my no for an answer.  “Please!” he insisted, sounding both compassionate and authoritative, “Don’t be afraid.  Make me a small loaf, bring it here; then, bake for yourself and the boy.  Yahweh will bless you!”

It made no sense.  Why would I ever consider such a thing at the expense of my child?  Yet, my son seemed to have reached a different conclusion.

Lechem, AmaLechem!” (Bread, Mama!  Bread!).  He stomped his feet, pointed at the prophet, and pulled me toward home.

It was against my better judgment.  I stirred the coals from last night’s fire.  I fed it with tufts of grass, which caught with a soft chuff.  I carefully added our sticks and watched as tongues of flame leapt up.  I scooped out most of the last of our meal, mixed it with water, and kneaded it into a smooth cake.  I stretched it thin, rubbed it with the last of the oil and slapped it onto the baking stone, now so hot that it sizzled beneath the oiled dough.  The fragrance of baking bread made our stomachs roar as the little loaf puffed and turned golden.  With skilled fingers, I plucked an edge and flipped it over, revealing a well-browned bottom.

“What am I doing?” I asked my son.  His cheeks had pinked with the fire’s warmth.

Lechem, Ama!  Lechem!” he repeated, pointing back to the city gate.

I wrapped the loaf in a cloth and slipped it into my basket.  I filled a cup with water and stood swaying in the doorway, basket in one hand, cup in the other.  “Stay or go?” I wondered.  My son made the decision for me, stomping off on his short legs to the city gate where the prophet waited.  I followed, questioning my every step.

I don’t know what I was expecting.  A choir of angels?  The peal of thunder?  A heavenly affirmation?  What I got when we found the prophet, waiting outside the gate, was a thank you.  “Now, go and do the same thing for yourself,” the prophet instructed.  He dismissed us with a nod, said his blessing, and began to devour his loaf with grimy hands.

I picked up my boy, balancing him on my hip as I walked slowly home.  I had heard that Yahweh, the great God of Israel, is a generous god with unfailing love for the lost and the poor.  Yet here we were, the widow, the orphan, and a stranger, clinging to life by our fingernails, preparing to eat our last bread before returning to our ancestors.  Maybe my neighbors were right.  Maybe the gods Baal and Asherah had cursed me.  Maybe I deserved what was surely coming in the days ahead.

By now, we were home.  I set my child down and pushed the door open.  He walked over to the great flour jar, taller than he was, and patted it with both hands.  “Lechem, AmaLechem?”  He sounded hopeful.

“Yes, my love, bread.” I answered.  I tied an apron on and pushed back my sleeves.  I crossed the floor and pried the heavy clay top off the amphora. 

Below, my son was stamping his feet.  “Lechem, lechem, lechem!”

I was so shocked by what I saw within that I dropped the clay top.  It hit the hard earthen floor with a dull thud and split in two.  There, within the amphora, finely milled flour rose all the way to the top.  I plunged my hands in, and felt the silky dryness slipping through my fingers.

My son had moved to the oil jar.  Again, he placed his palms on the rounded sides.  He patted with his small hands and sang in a tattoo rhythm, “Shemen zayitShemen zayit!” (Olive oil! Olive oil!).

I pried off the top and gasped.  The oil jar was filled to the brim, the first pressing, fragrant, clear, and golden green.  A few bubbles rose to the top and rested on the surface, as if freshly filled.  My boy was laughing now, spinning with childish delight until he plopped down onto his bottom with a breathless thud.

I sat down next to my son, dizzy with hunger and mystery.  Perhaps Baal and Asherah had cursed me.  But Yahweh, the holy and almighty One of Israel, had blessed me.  In an instant, the certainty of our death had changed to the promise of life.  My heart felt funny, felt wild and free, felt like the cage that had bound it since the death of my husband had been sprung.  I put my hands to my head to stop the world from spinning.  As my son crawled into my lap, I laughed and cried until I felt empty and filled with a peace that I had not known since my husband’s death.

Perhaps it was the generosity of Yahweh that made me do it.  When God is so good, how can you keep it to yourself?  I picked up my son and went back to the city gate where we found the prophet dozing in the sun.  Crumbs from my little loaf dotted his beard.  A smear of oil had been wiped on the front of his tunic. 

I put down my boy and he nudged the prophet’s sandal with his little bare foot.  “Navi?”  I asked.

He opened an expectant eye.  “Call me Elijah.”

“Elijah, my son and I would like you to stay with us.  Will you come?”  The boy smiled.  He reached out one hand to the prophet and with the other pointed home.

The prophet rose and brushed the crumbs from his beard.  He balanced his staff against the city wall then reached down to pick up my son, who settled comfortably into his arms.  The Prophet Elijah smiled, “We thought you would never ask.”

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