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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Fed, Forgiven, Sent

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Fed, Forgiven, Sent” John 21:1-19

“Feed My Sheep”

—Mary Baker Eddy

Shepherd, show me how to go

“O’er the hillside steep,

How to gather, how to sow—

How to feed Thy sheep;

I will listen for Thy voice,

Lest my footsteps stray;

I will follow and rejoice

All the rugged way.

Thou wilt bind the stubborn will,

Wound the callous breast,

Make self-righteousness be still,

Break earth’s stupid rest.

Strangers on a barren shore,

Lab’ring long and lone,

We would enter by the door,

And Thou know’st Thine own;

So, when day grows dark and cold,

Tear or triumph harms,

Lead Thy lambkins to the fold,

Take them in Thine arms;

Feed the hungry, heal the heart,

Till the morning’s beam;

White as wool, ere they depart,

Shepherd, wash them clean.”

What’s next? It’s the question of the Easter season.  The sanctuary is still decked in Easter white, but the lilies are beginning to fade. The Easter crowd has ebbed and may not be seen again until Christmas Eve. Yet, we have rejoiced together and affirmed that Jesus has risen and God has won the victory over sin and death.  So, what are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? Our reading from John’s gospel suggests that Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in Christ’s purpose.

What’s next? That question must have been on Peter’s mind. After the disciples encountered the risen Lord on Easter evening, they had made their way back to the Galilee.  After the chaos and trauma of Good Friday, Peter must have felt the comforting pull of the familiar, and so he returned to the well-known rhythms of fishing.  With six of his friends, he climbed into a boat, pushed out into deep water, and spent a fruitless night casting his nets.

As the sun rose above the Golan Heights, Jesus stood on the beach and guided his friends to a surprisingly bountiful catch.  When the disciples returned to shore, Jesus knew that folks who have been out all night long, rowing and towing a drag net, need to be fed, so he invited them to a breakfast of bread and fish, grilled on a charcoal fire.  Have you ever noticed how good food tastes when it is fresh, simply prepared, and eaten outdoors?  As the disciples filled their bellies in Jesus’s good company, I suspect they felt “fed” in more ways than one.

We all need to be fed.  If life is a spiritual journey, then we need good food to sustain us along the Way.  In our Lenten Study this year, a dozen of us considered what sustains us along life’s spiritual journey.  We all need nourishment.  We all need ways in which we connect with God — because it is there that we find the refreshment and energy that are needed to live faithfully.  In fact, the class brainstormed a list of things that are bread for our journey.  On the list were worship, scripture, the Lord’s Supper, meditation and prayer, fellowship, nature, the arts, and more.  How are you fed for the spiritual journey?  This Easter season invites us to know the risen Lord and to deepen our relationship with him.  As we spend time with Jesus — in church, with others, or in nature — we are filled and energized.

I am certain that, as Peter enjoyed that fish breakfast on the beach with Jesus, the apostle was struggling with guilt and shame.  After all, he had promised to follow Jesus, even if the way led to suffering and death.  But on the night of Jesus’s arrest, fear had gotten the better of Peter.  The last time that Peter had warmed his hands at a charcoal fire, he had been in the courtyard of the high priest.  There he had repeatedly and vehemently denied even knowing Jesus.  Jesus, seeing his friend’s inner turmoil, gave Peter a second, third, and fourth chance—a Mulligan, a “do-over.”  Peter found much-needed grace and forgiveness as he affirmed his love for Jesus three times.  It was the perfect, poignant remedy to those three haunting denials.

We all need mercy and grace.  We may not have denied Jesus three times to save our own skin, but we all stumble and fall short in right living.  We have treated our relationship with Jesus as an after-thought to be sprinkled around the edges of our lives at our personal convenience.  We have made mistakes in our personal lives.  We have been impatient with our spouse, insensitive to our children, or unavailable for our friends.  We have remained silent at injustice, indifferent to suffering, and unwilling to share with those who need our help, compassion, and generosity.  Where do you need grace this morning?  In this Easter season, we remember the enormity of God’s love for us.  If Christ can forgive a repentant thief, his executioners, and the Apostle Peter, then we can trust that Jesus forgives us.  In this Easter season, we can trust that grace and forgiveness abound for us.

As Peter was fed and forgiven, he learned that Jesus had a purpose for him.  The Lord asked Peter to feed and tend the flock that was being entrusted to his care.  Through Peter, Jesus would continue to reach out, heal, and bless a world that was desperately hungry for good news.  When we read the Book of Acts, we note that Peter answered that calling.  Peter would heal a lame beggar on the doorstep of the Temple.  He would raise from the dead the beloved Dorcas, who had so generously cared for the widows of Joppa. Peter would venture into enemy territory, taking the gospel to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea.  Through Peter, and those other disciples who answered Jesus’s call, Christ’s love would be made known and shared from one side of the Roman Empire to the other.

Jesus continues to entrust his ministry to flawed people like Peter, to flawed people like us.  Jesus’s flock needs faithful people who will love and feed them, and the Lord trusts that we, too, will reach out with healing, help, and blessing for neighbors who hunger for good news.  When we plant the church garden and we bring food offerings to the pack basket at the side entrance, the flock gets fed.  And when we pray for others in the Prayers of the People or share concerns with the Prayer Chain, the flock is tended.  When the deacons reach out with calls and cards, or we invite a hurting friend to church, the flock is blessed.  In this Easter season, we find our purpose and fulfill our calling when we answer Christ’s call to love and serve the neighbors that he entrusts to us.

What’s next?  It’s the question of the Easter season. What are we to do and how are we to live in this post-resurrection world? According to Jesus, Eastertide is all about being fed, finding grace, and going forth in his purpose.  May it be so. 

“Shepherd, show me how to go

O’er the hillside steep,

How to gather, how to sow—

How to feed Thy sheep;

I will listen for Thy voice,

Lest my footsteps stray;

I will follow and rejoice

All the rugged way.”

Resources:

Thomas Troeger. “Homiletical Perspective on John 21:1-19” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Gary D. Jones. “Exegetical Perspective on John 21:1-19” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Robert Hoch. “Commentary on John 21:1-19” in Preaching This Week, April 10, 2016.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Joy Moore. “Commentary on John 21:1-19” in Preaching This Week, May 5, 2019.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Two Things Everyone Needs” in Dear Partner in Preaching, April 5, 2016.  Accessed online at davidlose.net.

Longyear Museum. When The Heart Speaks: Feed My Sheep. Poems by Mary Baker Eddy set to music in the Christian Science Hymnal. October 1, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xI1J5sGbEM


John 21:1-19

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”


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