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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

About Discipleship: Tabitha and the Good Shepherd - 05/12/2019

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

When we read a story like we have from Acts about this close-knit community in Joppa, it’s pretty easy to transport the scene to a small city like ours or other small communities we may have known in our walks as Jesus’ disciples.

This place called Joppa in our text is now known as Jaffa and is the oldest part of the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine. It’s an important harbor on the Mediterranean Sea and it has been for something like 8,500 years. In fact, it is thought to be a port King Solomon conquered in order to bring in the massive cedars of faraway Tyre. He used the famous Cedars of Lebanon to build the first temple at Jerusalem. “(King) Solomon sent word to King Huram of Tyre: ‘Once you dealt with my father David and sent him cedar to build himself a house to live in…Send me also cedar, cypress, and algum timber from Lebanon, for I know that your servants are skilled in cutting Lebanon timber.’” (2 Chron 2:3,8)

In our story from this harbor-town of Joppa today, we are focused on a small community of Jesus-followers that has formed around this disciple named Tabitha. Interestingly, her name in Greek – Dorcas – is also given to us. Her names mean “gazelle.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think of a gazelle, I immediately visualize a swift and graceful animal leaping over grasslands in bright African sun. So I wonder if we have this name detail in the story so we understand this early disciple of Jesus as someone who could gracefully leap between the Hebrew and gentile worlds. It would be a relevant character trait for our story from Acts in which we have disciples like Peter, formerly known as Simon, inviting his Jewish people into the Jesus Way and simultaneously, people like Saul, soon to be known as Paul, inviting Greeks as well.

Perhaps this disciple Tabitha had feet in both worlds and was able to devote herself to good works and acts of charity among people who didn’t typically interact and even opposed one another. And all along the way she would be sharing the story of Jesus, who lived and died and defeated death in the tomb for the sake of all. All people, she might emphasize as she brought a warm tunic to a widow who struggled to have enough to eat and maintain a safe place to live … Jew and Greek, slave and free, people of all social and wealth status, all skin colors, all genders … all people … are treasured and saved in the One True God who sent Jesus.

The story and its nuanced details help us perceive how different this woman is, why her portrait of discipleship is held up as an example for Jesus followers throughout the centuries.

She is serving widows, we know from the story. It’s highly likely Tabitha was also a widow. Unlike most widows, however, she appears to be wealthy … quite wealthy.

Typically widows are among the most vulnerable people of a community. If they did not have a son, there was no one to provide for them. So they were too often forced to beg at the city gates for a coin, some firewood, a little bit of food. Sometimes they ended up selling the only thing they had in their possession just to survive, themselves.

But we know Jesus was a fierce advocate for these often forgotten people. Luke tells the story of the widow of Nain, for instance, whose son dies. Jesus encounters her in the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery. “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” (Luke 7:13-15)

These stories traveled fast and far and so we can imagine how this would have empowered and encouraged widows like Tabitha and all these women who surround her death bed weeping. In the stories and witness of Jesus they heard of a God who did not forget them. And they gained new identities. They were children of God, just like those who were seldom forgotten.

Tabitha’s response to that hopeful and Good News was to use the wealth God had given her to provide clothing for others and to help them discover their true identifies too. To love others, especially forgotten others, courageously and maybe even foolishly, in the opinion of some.

Her friends and fellow worshipers – this close knit community of disciples of the Risen Jesus – loved her and they are heartbroken at her death. It cuts right to the core of their faith community.

I think we may also glean some deeper understanding of who Tabitha was to this community from the fact that it was two men who were sent urgently 15 miles one-way to summon Peter, who they heard was in a close-by town. This was not typical for men in this culture to do something like this – not for a widow anyway. If anyone was going to be sent on behalf of the grieving community of Tabitha it would more likely have been a child or a slave.

That men were sent is telling of Tabitha’s respect in this community.

So Peter responds to this emergency pastoral call request and is so moved by the loss suffered by this faith community that he prays to God on their behalf and God works through him to raise Tabitha and restore the community – new life in God and as disciples of Jesus. The word spreads and more people come to faith in Jesus.

It’s an incredible story and it’s an incredible snapshot of a faith community.

It might remind us of the story of a faith community that quickly pooled some resources to buy firewood for a family faced with depleted bank accounts and serious health crises.

Or a community ceaselessly surrounding people in prayer and with the laying on of hands, knowing that God works the healing of all creation through us too – especially when we willingly give ourselves over to God for that purpose.

I think of the stories of how a community forgives one another our sins and missteps.

We will continue to see a story like this unfold here in people we love and support, like next week as we gather around our graduates to bless them for the next part of their journeys; or further down the road when we truly begin to see the benefits of supporting a social worker for our schools today.

I think we see reflections of the story of Tabitha’s community in stories of the way this community maintains a Help Fund to respond to people who are hungry or facing shut off notices or in need of some gas money.

These are incredible stories and snapshots of a faith community AND it is not always easy. Being a disciple in a place like Munising or Chatham or AuTrain can be challenging.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the very topical “I <3 Jesus” bumper sticker kind of presence out there. I’m talking about deeply living into that faith so that we push ourselves to respond to others in the way Jesus would lead us – the way the disciple Tabitha would want to teach us …

To reach out to those who need a hand, especially the often forgotten.

To pray over each other and fiercely journey with one another in the face of illness and hardship.

To forgive one another and do the hard and sometimes unpopular work of forgiveness that commands us to joyously welcome home all sheep that have gone astray, even those like Judas and Peter who have betrayed or denied us.

To support one another with love and honesty, even when it’s kind of hard or scary.

To seek the well-being of all, not just those we agree with, or those who can afford it, or those who have access to it, or even deserve it.

These are all glimpses of the disciple walk that may sound so clearly right in our Jesus-following ears today and maybe even simple – but not always easy, not always popular, not always pragmatic or profitable.

But listen, O disciples, all with ears to hear – we are reminded on this Good Shepherd weekend that God has brought forth everything we need to be courageous and foolish and loving in the name of Jesus. The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and be freed to the Jesus Way.

So we are prepared and named for that life in the waters of baptism. We are nourished and reminded of who we are at a simple table of bread and wine.

We are empowered and encouraged, as Tabitha and the disciples at Joppa were, by the stories and witness of Jesus, in which we hear of God who does not forget us.

“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.” (John 10:27-30)

The Kingdom of God has come …

So hear God calling you to be courageous and loving and even foolish in your discipleship, knowing like Tabitha and that community of disciples that we are protected in all our Jesus-following ways by the infallible arm of the Great Shepherd – protected even in death.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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