Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.

In today’s scriptures we have an image of God as the Good Shepherd, a comforting image for most people. Though we do not know what it is like to be a shepherd, we do know that the shepherd loves his sheep so much that he takes care of their every need. He protects them from danger, ensures that they are fed and leads them to the best food. We see those images in the Psalm for today, along with some other aspects of the life of sheep and shepherds. Sometimes we do not consider the importance of those other things, since water, food and shelter are so vital to our existence.

Yet, the Good Shepherd provides all the needs of his sheep. He makes the sheep lie down. How many of us could use someone to tell us to go to rest, especially when we get ourselves caught up in so many activities? He leads the sheep beside still waters. Our hectic lives are often chaotic like the churning waters of a fast running river. We need someone who will make us slow down, walk carefully along a better path, a safer path. He leads the sheep in right paths – helps us to make the right decisions, to do the right things according to His Word. The most comforting thing about this Psalm is the reminder that God is with us. He is with the sheep.

That’s what we see in the passages for today – God’s presence among His people, His sheep. He is there doing miraculous things, and yet He is doing them in ordinary ways.

We can’t know what motivated the disciples to send for Peter or what made him come. Tabitha must have been an important part of the Christian community at Joppa. She was certainly an important part of the lives of the widows. As I have thought about this story, I have wondered about her age. I assumed she must have been one of the widows, and yet I get the impression that she was like a caregiver to them. When Peter arrived, the widows showed him the tunics and clothing she had made. I can almost imagine that they were wearing the tunics and clothing that they were showing to Peter, spinning with excitement as they told him about the work she did in caring for them.

Did they ask Peter to raise her from the dead? Was this their expectation? It was not noted in the text. Perhaps Tabitha was a friend of Peter’s and they thought he would want to mourn. Perhaps they were so overtaken by grief that they needed a more experienced pastor to comfort the congregation. Perhaps they expected the miracle. This story mirrors and experience Peter had when he was following Jesus, when Jesus raised the daughter of Jarius, the synagogue ruler. Jarius begged Jesus to heal his ailing daughter. It took them some time to get to the house because of the pressing crowds and a messenger brought the news that the daughter had died. Jesus went to the house anyway and told everyone to leave the room except Peter, John, James and the child’s parents. He told the mourners to stop crying, that she was asleep not dead. They laughed at Him. In the room, He reached out to the child and said, “My child, get up!” Luke tells us that her spirit returned and she stood up. The parents were astonished.

Peter did exactly the same thing when he went to the room with Tabitha. He said, “Tabitha, get up!” When she opened her eyes he reached out his hand and helped her up. Then he showed her to be alive and many believed in the Lord. They believed in the Lord. They knew that Peter should not be credited with the miracle, but that it was by the power of God that Tabitha was alive.

Imagine what it must have been like for Peter. Three years or so earlier, Peter was nothing but a fisherman. Though he was probably in charge of his own boat, his crew was likely little more than his brother and a few others. Then he spent three years under the Master, learning about being a disciple and seeing the most incredible things. Finally, he was given the charge to be a leader among the disciples. It could easily have gone to his head. He had such an intimate relationship with Jesus – in the inner circle, present at the most incredible moments. I wonder if any of us would have gone about this healing in the same manner as Peter. Would we have sent everyone out of the room or would we have wanted to have an audience that could verify that we did something spectacular. Peter knew that it wasn’t his gift to give, but that he was blessed to be a blessing and that blessing came from God.

Raising Tabitha from the dead was a most incredible thing – not something many of us will ever experience – and yet it was a very earthy thing also. After all, Peter brought Tabitha back from whatever it is we will experience after death. I think it is interesting that we never hear what happens to those who were raised. Whatever happened to Jarius’ daughter? Lazarus? Tabitha? The stories about these miracles are about more than bringing people back to life. Perhaps Tabitha was then able to go on making clothes and caring for the widows and that would have served the community well while she lived. However, Peter raised Tabitha not for her sake or even for the sake of the community. Peter raised Tabitha for God’s sake.

There was a woman named Catherine. Catherine was born in Siena in 1347 to a middle class wool dyer and his wife. She was one of the youngest children in a very, very large family. Her father wanted her to marry a man he selected when she was just 12 years old. That might seem shocking to us today, but arranged marriages and early wedlock was typical during the Medieval age. She did not want to marry, so her other choice was to become a nun, hidden away in some nunnery forever. She did not want that choice either. Instead, she fought to become a tertiary of the Dominican order. That role, which meant committing to the life of service by living outside the community, was left for widows. Teenagers still have too many temptations to face to be allowed in the world without benefit of marriage. However, Catherine fought to be allowed to live such a life. She became a hermit, living in a room in her parents’ home. She learned to read and she used her knowledge to read the writings of the church fathers and modern theologians. She spent much time in prayer and grew a following of disciples.

During the three years she lived in her hermitage, she had amazing, mystical experiences. She suffered from the stigmata and had visions of Christ. In one vision, Jesus gave her a wedding ring. In another He told her to go out into the world to serve Him. After three years she was given permission to join the Dominican order as a tertiary. She went out into the world to serve Christ. Through her compassionate nursing, a great many people survived the horrific plague that killed one third of the European population. She was also a reformer, writing many letters, sharing the Gospel of Christ with those who did not believe and with those who’d lost touch with the central message of God’s love and forgiveness. She intervened in the religious and political upheaval of her day, and helped to bring healing to a schism that threatened to destroy the Church.

She was just a baby when the black plague attacked her hometown but she survived. Then, as an adult, she willingly nursed the most horrific cases, the cases that even the doctors refused to touch. When everyone else had left the town, she and her followers willingly stayed to tend to the sick. Despite her mystical experiences, her live was not one that was set apart from the world, but instead she took God’s love with her into the world where she served others according to his Word. She once wrote that God told her “not to love Me for your own sake, or your neighbor for your own sake, but to love Me for myself, yourself for Myself, your neighbor for Myself.” Her love, service and faith were for God’s sake. Her willingness to fight societal conventions and to do the things that others were unwilling to do was her response to the call from God into the world. She heard His voice and followed. April 29th is her feast day.

Last week we heard from John’s revelation of Christ about an image of worship in heaven. It was a mystical vision, one with angels and strange looking beings surrounding the throne of God. This week we have another vision, but this one is more down to earth. The great multitude praising God was beyond anyone’s ability to count and they were waving palm branches.

It was not very long ago that palms were an important part of our worship experience. On Palm Sunday we gathered together and processed with palms as they had done on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. The Romans would have understood this to be a victory parade, since palms were used to reward returning heroes and the champions of the games. The Jews were also known to carry palms at festive times. As a matter of fact, palms played an important role in the Feast of Tabernacles, as the people presented their offerings in thanksgiving to God they were also to wave palm branches as they rejoiced over His blessings.

The palm branch means many other things. In Judaism, the palm is a symbol of peace and plenty. It is also believed that the palm represents the Tree of Life. The Muslims believe that Mohammed built his house out of palm branches and is therefore considered a symbol of hospitality. To the ancients, palms were considered a symbol of the connection between heaven and earth and were also a symbol of longevity. It is said that at the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh’s reign, the Pharaoh was given a handful of palm branches to hold. The marks on the midrib indicated the number of years the Pharaoh would continue to rule.

Today’s passage from Revelation describes Jesus as the Lamb of God whose blood sets us free. In this vision of heavenly worship, a great multitude from every nation and tongue are standing before the throne of God in white. They are waving palms, just as been done in religious ceremony generations. The symbolism here can mean many things – God’s victory, His hospitality, His peace and strength. It can represent the joy of the multitude and their thanksgiving for God’s blessings. The white of their robes does not come from their own righteousness, but because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, “Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.” They sing out praise and thanksgiving to God for to Him belongs the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication; He was the presence of God incarnate in the flesh of man. He was the light of the world and He told them so. He spoke with authority and performed miraculous deeds of healing and forgiveness. Yet, there were those who did not recognize Him. “Tell us plainly,” they said. Jesus answered, “I have told you.” They did not recognize His voice. When He called, they did not hear.

Belief is not always so easy. We hear the stories from the scriptures and wonder if they really could happen. As a matter of fact, a great many Christians are willing to believe that the miracles were simply legends that had been embellished from acts of Jesus that were not so miraculous. Others think the stories were written based on older legends from other religions so that Christianity would be accepted by pagans. There are those who believe that the miracles were simply spiritual without physical reality. Jesus performed a great number of miracles and yet there were those who could not believe. There are still many who do not believe. The miracles were not meant to bring faith – but to establish the authority of those whom God had chosen.

In today’s lesson, Jesus was in the temple for the Festival of Dedication. This is the Jewish festival we now know as Hanukkah. It was different then, a new remembrance of an event that had happened just two hundred years prior to Jesus’ visit. It was a memorial of another miraculous event, in the days of the Maccabees. The temple had been profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes as he tried to make the entire world worship and live as the Greeks. All Jewish practice was suspended for a time – no circumcision or Torah reading was allowed, but Judas Maccabeus refused to stand aside and allow his faith to be destroyed. After three years, the Maccabees took over the temple and restored it to the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, the temple had been desecrated. Antiochus Ephiphanes had slaughtered a pig on the altar and poured urine over the furnishings. The building had been left to ruin because the priests could not continue their work. So, when Judas Maccabeus took control of the temple, the first thing that needed to be done was for the building to be rededicated to the Lord God. Unfortunately, there was no oil for the lamp, except a small portion that would like one of the seven cups in the lampstand for a day. It would take eight days for new oil to be produced. They lit the one candle and it stayed lit for eight days, a sign to the people that God was with them. They realized that God’s holiness far exceeds the filth of creation.

In this passage we see the Lamb as the Good Shepherd who will guide His people to the springs of the water of life. They will no longer hunger and thirst; they will not mourn as God wipes the tears from their eyes. This is such a vision of hope and promise; that God is with us.

His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive verb in the scriptures. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Those who have children are quite familiar with selective hearing. Kids hear what they want to hear. I am sure I had selective hearing when I was a child. I am sure that there were times Mother called me more times than necessary because I did not hear. The last thing a child wants to hear on a pleasant summer evening is Mom’s voice calling them to go home. Perhaps they hear it with their ears, but they don’t hear it with their mind or their body. They don’t respond.

Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of His identity and purpose. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and they they did not hear because He was not what they wanted for a Messiah. He could not be a king; He could not deliver them from their enemy. His teachings were different than the established Jewish thought. They did not want to hear because they had rejected Him. He did not fit into their expectation, so they ignored His voice. They were not His and it was not because Jesus rejected them. They rejected Him.

We love to see Jesus as our Shepherd, calling our names to follow Him. Yet, we are not always good about actively hearing His voice. Like the sheep that wander away from the shepherd, the Jews had wandered away from God. They were obedient to their laws and rules but they were not men after God’s own heart. They no longer knew the God of their fathers. He was lost to their self-righteousness. They couldn’t hear Him when He called.

The same was true in the days of Catherine of Siena. The religious leaders were more concerned about their own politics and prosperity than they were the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Catherine stepped out of the societal expectations to obey God’s call and she made a very real difference in the lives of many. She did not do it for her own benefit or even for the benefit of those she helped. She did it for God’s sake.

The Twenty-third Psalm is probably one of the most beloved passages from the Bible. It is a passage that even non-believers seek to find comfort in their times of need. It is read at many funerals and I have heard countless stories of people on their death bed wanting to hear those familiar words as they enter into the valley of the shadow of death. It is a song that reminds us of the One who has always had control of our life and in our hour of need we need to see that He is there providing everything we need.

Peter did not expect that the power to raise Tabitha would come from his hands and he did not want anyone else to see it that way. The power comes from God. He is our Good Shepherd who cares for our every need. Peter knelt and prayed for God’s will and then he followed the voice. He reached out to her and called her to get up and she heard his voice. Yet, in those words she heard the voice of the Shepherd who is the source of our life now and forever. Peter reached out to her from this world as God reached out to her from His. In these stories we see that the life of faith is not just a spiritual thing and it is not just a physical thing. It is both, and God is with us through it all – incarnate in Christ and still alive and active in our world. Faith in the shepherd means following in His footsteps, in His works. Isn’t it wonderful that the Shepherd trusts us to be shepherds too, to pass on the comfort and peace that He has given to us?

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