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May 8, 2022

This week I have been especially mindful of several beautiful artifacts that I have to remind me of special women in my life.  There’s the quilt that the women in my internship congregation made for me, filled with the colors of the Arizona desert.  The needlepoint image of the Lamb of God that hangs in my office was made by my mom; it was an ordination gift.  She has done all kinds of sewing projects throughout my life, from our Christmas stockings to my prom dress.  I wish I had her talent.  My sister Claire has taken after our mom lately because she made several cross-stitched items for Christmas.  On my wall at home hangs a gorgeous scene from Arches National Park that she cross-stitched and had framed. 

And then there’s this one.  My other sister Carrie several years ago made for each of us a collection of my grandmother’s recipes.  Carrie typed up many of them, but several are copies of the originals in Grandmama’s handwriting – her precise script, always slanted at the same angle.  There are recipes for her Swedish cookies, her cornbread, her angel food cake, her squash fritters.  As you can imagine, these recipes are all the more special because she’s not here anymore to make them.

I bet you have items like this too.  Things that you can hold in your hand to evoke the love and the memory of someone in your life who has passed on.  A mother or sibling or grandparent.  A friend or cousin or neighbor.

That’s why it’s easy to imagine that scene from our first reading.  The women, gathered around to mourn their friend and fellow disciple, Tabitha.  Yes, women were disciples too. The book of Acts, remember, is a sequel to Luke’s gospel.  Acts gives us stories of the early church, after Jesus has risen and ascended, and as the earliest followers of Jesus start teaching and leading in his name.  The author of Luke and Acts makes it clear that women were among the leaders of the early church, supporting its growth both practically and financially. 

Tabitha has died, and we can easily picture that upstairs room.  Her friends have washed her body and laid it out until it could be carried away.  The women are gathered there, showing each other the tunics and pieces of clothing Tabitha had made.  They weep together as they share memories of their friend.  Notice that many of them are widows, which means that this community was especially important to them.  In the ancient world widows were among the most vulnerable people, especially economically.  We sense that this community of women looks out for each other.

Someone hears that Peter is nearby, and they send for him.  Apparently at this point Peter already has a reputation as someone who gets things done in the name of Jesus.  Peter.  Our impetuous, often confused Peter.  Just last week we heard how the risen Jesus asked Peter three times – “Do you love me?”  Three times to parallel the three times that Peter had denied knowing him before.  And look at Peter now.  Bringing people back from the dead. 

Peter says: “Tabitha, get up.”  And she does.  It’s possible no one was more surprised in that moment than Peter.  But he doesn’t just raise her from the dead.  He calls together her community.  He returns her to her people.  Turns out Peter was paying attention when Jesus healed folks because that’s what Jesus so often does when he heals someone.  He makes sure they have life-giving relationships.

What I see in each of our readings today is a different kind of community.

In Acts we have the women gathering together in the midst of death to mourn for Tabitha – and then to celebrate her return to life.

In the gospel the religious leadership wants to know if Jesus will claim the role of the messiah – the anointed one – the powerful leader they have been expecting.  Jesus acts as though he finds their question tiresome, and he leans instead into his identity as shepherd.  He says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…No one will snatch them out of my hand.”  Jesus wants to hold the whole flock together, even though there are always predators threatening to take them.

I love Psalm 23, and while we often read it at funerals, it speaks to more than death.  My favorite image is that table that God has prepared in the presence of enemies.  When there is danger all around, when it would be easy to give in to fear, God says, “Pull up a chair and eat.  I’ll keep watch.”  The psalm doesn’t make it clear, but I like to think that God invites others to join us at that table so we don’t have to eat alone with those enemies nearby.  And perhaps God brings the enemies to the table too so that in the sharing of the meal, hospitality can overcome hostility.

And then there’s this gorgeous passage from Revelation – a vision of a time when God’s kingdom is fully realized and all tribes and peoples and languages are joined together.  It’s a kind of cosmic community, united by a God who says that there will be no more hunger, no more thirst, no more tears – only life, the springs of the water of life.

Taken together, here’s what our readings this morning say to us:

Whatever ordeal you have been through or are going through now,

wherever death and danger draw near,

whatever worry, fear, or grief is breaking your heart, you are not alone.

The Good Shepherd stands watch, ready to put his body in front of what threatens you.

The Good Shepherd calls out to you, invites you to follow his voice and join the flock as we walk together through the valley of the shadow.

The Good Shepherd invites you to the table, where you receive the bread and wine, something you can hold in your hands and taste on your tongue and know that his love, the love of Jesus, crucified and risen, is always with you.  He fills our hunger and quenches our thirst and leads us to the water of life.

May we know the fierce love of the Shepherd, and may we share that fierce love with each other.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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