The First Lesson: Acts (9:36-43)
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 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.” 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. 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
The Response: Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me
in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The New Testament: Revelation (7:9-17)
I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The Gospel: John (10:22-30)
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This Fourth Sunday of Easter serves as a turning point for the entire season. Even though the actual halfway point is still a few days away, today divides the season into two roughly equal parts. The first three Sundays, beginning with the Great Vigil of Easter, focused on stories about Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The next three Sundays will include readings from John’s long Last Supper narrative and will focus on preparing us to celebrate the great Feast of Pentecost.
Each year in our three-year cycle of readings, this Fourth Sunday, this in-between Sunday, includes a reading from the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. It is sometimes referred to as the “Good Shepherd chapter,” even though that is only one of the images that appear there. In fact, we don’t even hear that term used in two out of three years. (By the way, it was in the gospel reading last year, so we won’t get it again until 2021.)
While the expression “Good Shepherd” is not in this year’s reading, the image of a shepherd and sheep is. And I suggest that this gives us a good opportunity to look a little more deeply into that image as Jesus uses it: to see what it is not, and then to see what it is.
As is the case with the rest of the bible, it’s important to look at the context of the story. Today’s passage takes place during the feast of Hanukkah, the feast of the re-Dedication of the Temple. It celebrates a military victory: the victory of Judas Maccabeus who, in 164 BCE, drove out of Jerusalem the army of the Syrian king Antiochus IV and then rededicated the Temple that had been desecrated. Kings and military leaders like Judas Maccabeus were sometimes referred to as shepherds. Think, for example, of David who, we are told, was originally a literal shepherd but who was later called by God to a role as a completely different kind of shepherd: as commander and king of Israel.
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries were apparently looking for that kind of shepherd: one who commanded, one who ruled, one who would drive out the armies of Rome. But Jesus rejected that kind of so-called greatness. Instead, he not only proclaimed but also modeled for others a completely different way of being a shepherd. His way, and the way to which he called his followers, was the way of service to others.
According to the gospels, Jesus’ service was not a theoretical kind: the kind that those who want to control others and get their way substitute for genuine service. Instead, he addressed people’s real needs. When he encountered someone who was sick or lame or blind, he didn’t preach to them about patience in enduring their condition; he healed them. When the crowds were hungry, he didn’t lecture them about the importance of focusing on so-called “higher things”; he fed them. And when he recognized people who were outcasts in society, he didn’t call to them from a distance or simply ignore them, like many other people did; he went over to them, letting them know by his words and by his touch that they were valued, that they were loved.
In today’s first reading, we hear about a disciple of Jesus, a member of the early community of believers, who followed Jesus’ example. Her name was Tabitha. She had spent her life making and providing clothes for the widows of her community: for those who typically were the poorest and the most neglected. Many people who heard about her and what she did probably thought that it was a nice thing, a kind thing to do; but put within a broader context, it really wasn’t that important.
Even among the community of believers, Tabitha probably didn’t stand out. She wasn’t a great preacher like Peter. She wasn’t a great missionary like Paul. But she knew how to sew. And she was willing to use that skill to make a practical difference in the lives of others, a difference that might have affected their lives more than either of those two great apostles was able to do.
Notice that, when Tabitha died, those near her recognized that her death had brought on a real crisis. They immediately sent for Peter to come to them quickly. When he arrived, he found the widows in tears, torn with grief. They obviously were devastated. This was a major loss that would have a profound effect on their lives.
This was about the same time that Pontius Pilate was deposed and recalled to Rome; King Herod Antipas, who had ruled Galilee, died; and even the Roman Emperor Tiberias died. Leading figures within the city and in the area surrounding it likely died as well. But, as far as we can tell, no one there really noticed or even cared. Their departures or deaths didn’t make any perceivable difference in people’s lives. But Tabitha’s death did. To them, she, who did her quiet, serving work behind the scenes, was the one who most affected them in a life-giving way. To them, she was the most important person in her community.
All too often, when it comes to living out our baptismal commitment, we try to get ourselves off the hook by suggesting that the gifts that we have to offer to others are not really very important, and that maybe we are not really very important. Most of us aren’t going to be prominent people, with our names in the news for great projects that we have led or great discoveries that we have made. But it just could be that the many small, practical things that we do are what affect other people’s lives most profoundly.
Think, for example, on this Mother’s Day about the countless small things that mothers do for their children – and fathers as well. More specifically, think about the countless small things that your parents did for you, day after day, year after year. Weren’t these some of the things that made you who you are and, consequently, that contributed to and shaped your life more than the people and events that made their way into the news?
Think then about the countless small things that you can do to touch, in a positive way, the lives of others. Like parents, like a shepherd, like Tabitha, we all have the capacity to bless and brighten the lives of people around us – people whom we know and people whose names we may never know. And it is by doing those things lovingly and generously that we follow the example of Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.