Sunday, May 12, 2019

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

They cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

Bruce’s mom died in January and his father is not doing well, so the past few months have been filled with the business of their estate. He went home for a month to help clean the house and make decisions about all their belongings. They have found some amazing things in the process, unsurprising since the family has lived in the house for about one hundred and seventy-five years. Bruce shipped a few boxes filled with photos, documents and other treasures. I promised to take on the task of scanning the photos and documents so that they can be shared and protected.

It has been interesting, fascinating even, to look at these photos from the past. There were quite a few from Bruce’s Uncle Willard from the time he served as a soldier in World War II. There are photos from his parents’ youth, from choirs they sang in and even from a play that they put on before they were married. Some of the photos are even older, of people Bruce can’t identify, but are probably great-grand somethings perhaps from the 19th century. The documents are equally fascinating because many are attempts at laying down the family tree, reaching well into the 18th century. Some of the papers document the history of the family in Pennsylvania, which predates the Revolutionary War.

I was there in January as they started this process. They went through every piece of paper that they kept in a safe. We laughed. We cried. We wondered. And we told stories. I’m sure the conversations went long into the night during the month Bruce was home helping. I’m sure that this will be a very difficult Mother’s Day for Bruce. My mom died decades ago, but I still think about her, especially at this time of year. Her birthday was just a few weeks ago. My parents were married in May. Facebook reminds me of my mom as previous photos pop up as memories on my timeline. Those memories help me remember her story, just as the conversations and storytelling helps keep the memory of those we love alive.

My mother was a talented woman. She was an excellent seamstress and she knew how to crochet. She also liked to craft. She used plastic canvas, made jewelry with stones and ornaments with plaster. She enjoyed doing ceramics. We have many things in our home that she made like afghans, Christmas ornaments and a large crocheted wall hanging of the Lord’s Prayer. Every time I see these things I remember my mom. It is fun to share stories with others when we come across these items. When we decorate the Christmas tree, the ornaments bring back fond memories of Christmases past.

The story in today’s first lesson is about a woman named Tabitha. She was active in her community and apparently very talented. She made clothes and tunics. Tabitha got sick and died, and her death was heartbreaking for the Christian community in Joppa. She was a disciple and perhaps even a leader who helped found the church there. The widows took care of her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then they sent for Peter. When Peter arrived, the widows took him to the body of their beloved friend and they showed him all the wonderful things she did. They may have been wearing some of the tunics and clothes she had made and I can imagine their excitement as they remembered her and the stories of how she made them.

Peter sent the widows out of the room, he knelt to pray and then he turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and sat up. He took her hand and helped her out of bed, then took her to the widows to show them that she was alive.

Have you ever, in a time of great mourning, wondered why we do not hear of such incredible miracles as this one? Do you ever wish in your grief that someone would come and raise the ones you love from the dead? This is especially true when the one for whom we mourn is someone who was a good person, who had a loving and giving heart like Tabitha. We want them back. We want them to live again because life without them will be empty.

I suppose it is hard to hear a story like this at a time when we are dealing with loss, even the loss of someone who has lived a long life. It makes us wonder why God no longer touches people in such dramatic and miraculous ways. After all, we are told that after the raising of Tabitha many believed in the Lord. Couldn’t He bring faith to millions if someone was miraculously raised by a man of faith like Peter?

We are reminded, however, that life comes not from men, but from Jesus. Jesus once told the disciples that if the people do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Jesus rose and still many did not believe. Others were raised and yet many continue to reject the Gospel. The purpose of this story and all the other miracles in the scriptures is not to make people believe, but to establish the authority of those who would bring the message of God’s power over death to the world. Peter was about to leave the comfort of his community amongst the Jewish Christians, to discover that God’s grace is for all people. This miraculous moment may have helped to encourage him as he faced the unknown.

We do not need to see someone raised from the dead to believe, instead we believe because Christ gives us the faith. Now, stories of resurrection remind us that we will also be resurrected by God’s power in His time and in His way. Jesus heals and by His power we are sent into the world. It is important to note that Peter then travels to stay with a man named Simon who was a tanner. Tanners in that day were outcast. It was dirty and disgusting work preparing skins for clothing and other purposes. As a matter of fact, it required use of urine and dung to make the skins suitable for use. It was a smelly trade, performed by the poor and children. It was also dangerous, since the combination of acids and long hours handling the skins often meant burnt flesh. For Peter to choose to stay with Simon reminds us that the Gospel is given to the outcasts, the poor and the lonely as a message of hope.

We receive the Gospel in the same way, not as a promise that we’ll see miraculous events but that God’s power over death is real. When we face death we know that by His Word, God calls those who believe out of death into a new life. Storytelling helps us remember. The stories our mothers tell us help us remember our past, our experiences and the foundation of our lives. Jesus was doing the same thing during the forty days He spent with the disciples before He ascended into heaven. They eventually recognized Him, as we have seen over the past few weeks, but the teaching of the scriptures he shared in those days continued to build upon everything He had done before He died. He taught them these things, and in the storytelling; Jesus reminded them of the foundations of the future Church. “This is where you came from,” He was telling them, “this is who you are.”

We live in a much different age than when I was a child. I’ve seen memes on Facebook that describe the things we did as kids that would be shocking today. I remember having the freedom to just go outside to play, running all over the neighborhood with my friends. I did not tell my mother where I was going to be every second of the day. It would be impossible for me to know because we often jumped from one friend’s house to another. Or we went to the woods behind our street. Or we ended up at the ball field a few blocks away. Or we walked to the store to buy candy. For a time there was even an arcade just around the corner. We didn’t know where we would end up – we just went. It would have taken too much time to go home with every change to let Mom know where I was going to be. We didn’t wear watches. We didn’t worry. Now parents can be arrested for letting their children walk a few blocks to a park without supervision.

Mom always yelled out the door when it was time to go home. I was usually somewhere that I could hear, but not always. She would yell until I came home. She didn’t worry about me; she just became annoyed when she had to call more than once. I can remember my reaction whenever I would hear my mother’s voice calling to me. I was usually disappointed because I was having too much fun with my friends, but when I heard her call I usually answered.

In today’s Gospel story, 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 may have heard with their ears, but they did not hear with their hearts.

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 did not hear because He was not the kind of Messiah they wanted. 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.

It was not very long ago that we recalled the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. As hard as it is to believe, Jesus was dead in less than a week from that day. The week began with the waving of palms, but ended with the waving of fists. The Romans would have understood Palm Sunday as 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.

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.

The midrib of the palm was very strong and was used as a walking stick. It is identified with Saint Christopher who is the patron saint of travelers. Though there is little verifiable information about Saint Christopher, but he was said to have been a very large man, like a giant, and that he worked shuttling people across a bridgeless river by carrying them. There is a legend that says that one of the people he carried across was a child, who was a much heavier burden than he expected. It was the palm branch he was carrying that helped him stand through it. When he arrived at the other side of the river, the child told him to put the stick into the ground and it suddenly became a beautiful palm. The child was the Christ child and His weight was due to the great burden of the entire world He carried. It is said that this miracle was a catalyst to Christopher’s conversion to Christianity.

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 for 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, they are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They sing out praise and thanksgiving to God for to Him belong the blessing and honor and glory forever and ever.

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. In the legend about Christopher, it is said that when they arrived at the other side Christopher berated the child for nearly killing him. “Had I borne the whole world on my back,” he said, “it could not have weighed heavier than thou!” “Marvel not!” the child replied, “for thou host borne upon thy back the world and him who created it!” We are reminded that it is not by our power that we are saved, but by God’s grace. Though Christopher carried the child, it was only by the strength of God that He was able to make it to the other side. And so it is with all those who will be standing at the throne of God praising Him. It is by His grace that we will wave those palms and proclaim thanksgiving for His blessings.

Glencoe (Gleann Comhann in Gaelic) is a beautiful valley, with rugged hills and rocky cliffs where hikers and climbers love to visit. It is a challenging place even for the most experienced people. Though Glencoe is known for its rough beauty, it is better known for its history. In the year 1692, government troops tried to massacre and entire clan of people.

The chief of the MacDonald Clan was late in making a vow of loyalty to the king of England. The men in charge were glad to have an excuse to be rid of these people. The betrayal was incredible. The government troops moved into the homes of the MacDonalds and enjoyed their hospitality for ten days. Then one bitter winter morning, the order was given to slaughter the entire population. Most managed to escape, thanks to the warnings of the troops. Only 38 people were killed that day, including children and elderly. Some also died in the harsh weather. Those who survived returned to Glencoe to restart their lives; however the place was never the same.

The name Glencoe most likely means ‘narrow valley’ but it has come to be known as ‘valley of sorrows’ or ‘valley of weeping.’ It has even been referred to as ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ Glencoe is a place of beauty, but the pain of death lingers on in our minds as we remember the massacre of 1692. It is equally impossible to walk through this life without being reminded of the pain of sin and death, especially when we hear the daily news stories of violence and hatred all over the world. As we face these valleys in our life, we are reminded in the words of this psalm that God is with us, He loves us, and we have nothing to fear in this life. Life does go on, even in the most desolate places.

Those desolate places are different for everyone. For some, it is the grief they are experiencing over hearing about the horrific death of a friend. For another it is in the news recently received from the doctor of an illness. Some are suffering with questions about the future and their financial well-being. Others are facing separation from loved ones as they begin new phases of their life. Our desolate places might not seem so horrible to someone else, but for us they are the places where we deal with our fear and our expectations. Those of us who are remembering our moms this weekend, whether they have been gone a few months or many years, often feel like we are in a desolate place.

The words of the Psalm were written by David and they come from his experience as a shepherd. Though Psalm 23 has been comforting for many generations of believers, sometimes the language is beyond our understanding. Yet, we can find peace in the words as we relate them to the care God gives to us. The psalmist writes, “He leads me...” There are lots of ways we can go, but sometimes those other paths are a waste of time, leading us to places we do not need to be. Most of the time our wrong choices mean we are lost for awhile but we eventually find the right way. Sometimes, however, the wrong path is dangerous. When we go those ways we can lose faith, lose hope and worst of all lose sight of our God. Our shepherd leads us on the right path, guiding our footsteps so that we are going His way.

The psalmist writes that the shepherd makes the world safe for the sheep, being present, protecting, providing, anointing and restoring. Even when the world seems dark and frightening, the sheep have no reason to fear. As long as the shepherd is nearby, the sheep are blessed with all they need. The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want, for He will provide everything we need. The most important thing we learn in this week’s passages is that it is the Lord that provides. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior.

Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 to Giacomo di Benincasa who was a middle-class wool dyer and Lapa who was the daughter of a local poet. She was the twenty-third of twenty five children. It was a time of political, social and religious upheaval. It was also a time when the black plague brought death to one third of the population of Europe. Catherine, who was just a baby when it began, survived and eventually became a nurse who brought healing to many victims through her compassionate caring.

Catherine was always different from other children, drawn to a spiritual prayer-filled life from an early age. Though her father wanted her to marry at the age of twelve, she refused and also refused to become a nun. Instead she pursued a life as a Dominican Tertiary, lay members of the Dominican order, a role that was generally given only to widows. The tertiaries took the habits of a nun, but lived outside the community. She lived in her parent’s home in a nine foot by twelve foot room that served as her hermitage. There she prayed daily and began having mystical experiences in which she had visions of Christ. In the three years that she lived that life she gained many followers, learned to read and became educated in historical and contemporary Christian writings.

Catherine had a mystical vision in which Jesus told her to leave her cell and enter the world to serve the poor, sick and imprisoned. She had an incredible impact on the world in which she lived. Despite the danger, she stayed in her hometown when the plague hit to minister to the sick and bury the dead. She is said to have been able to heal those whom even the doctors could not, and some even claimed she raised the dead. She became a reformer in the church and society, writing hundreds of leaders to leaders in government and in the church. She helped to heal problems in the church in 1377 when she convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome after a period of time running the church from Avignon, France.

The central message of her teaching was the divine love of God, found in the bleeding image of Jesus Christ who is the Redeemer. Despite her mystical experiences, her life 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.

Our scriptures this week tell about the life of Christians who had followed Christ’s voice. Peter willingly went into the presence of a dead woman, prayed for her and God blessed his faith with a resurrection that brought joy to the community of faith. John, exiled on Patmos, wrote about a vision of heaven that was not like last week’s image of an inner sanctum separated from the world. In this week’s vision, a great multitude, more than anyone could count, from every nation praised God with palm branches in their hands. In this vision, very earthly cares like hunger and thirst, pain and suffering are no longer concerns for God’s people for the Lamb is the Shepherd and He will lead them to living water and wipe away their tears.

Peter reacted to the shock and uncertainty of Jesus’ death, resurrection and his denial of Jesus by hiding on his fishing boat doing the one thing that he knew best. But Jesus called him away from that life, again, and offered him forgiveness. “Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep,” Jesus said. Catherine began her life of active faith hidden in a hermitage where she became educated, but once Christ called she left that safe cell to go out into the world to live and serve and share the love of God. Through it all, despite the persecutions and pain that she suffered, she knew all along that the Lord is her Shepherd and she had no wants, for He provided for her every need.

It is all about God, what He can do and what He has done. He is the Shepherd. He is the Healer. He is the Savior. We might buy the food produced by others to fill our empty stomachs, but it is God who provides. We have no needs or fears that God can’t overcome. Peter didn’t raise Dorcas from the dead, God did it through him. We believe because we heard the words God spoke. He does not need to prove Himself because He has given us the ears to hear.

God’s sheep are those who are active listeners. They not only hear the Word but they put it into action. They are like Peter; they continue to do the work of Jesus in the world. Peter remembered when he saw Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter and he did the same for Dorcas. Will we raise people from the dead? I don’t know. I do know that we can reach out to those who are wallowing in darkness and give them the Gospel so that they might have the hope, peace and life that come from faith in Jesus.

Though we may not raise someone from physical death, it is up to us to actively follow Jesus, continuing the work He began by speaking His word into the lives of those who are without faith. Who knows? We might just be the vessel through which God’s voice gets through and as we reach out to them and tell them to get up, they might finally respond and join us in the great company of saints singing God’s praise and thanksgiving at the foot of His true throne.

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