by the Rev. Margaret Thor
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Tabitha the Sheep
Most Holy God, whose servant Tabitha you raised from the dead to display your power and confirm your message that your Son is Lord; grant unto us your grace, that aided by her prayers and example, we may be given a new life in your Spirit to do works pleasing in your sight; Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. If it hadn’t been mentioned in the Collect, certainly 3 of the 4 lessons that speak of lambs and sheep and Jesus as the shepherd would have probably given you a clue. I wish I had a great story about lamb or sheep. I don’t. There is a fun story that the youth who went on pilgrimage to Ireland can tell you about trying to catch a lamb but I’ll let them tell that story. I can say though, based on that experience that lambs are hard to catch. I wonder if the youth had been the lamb’s shepherd if they would have had more success. Could they have coaxed the lamb to come to them? Is it as easy as Jesus proclaims in the gospel when he says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I don’t know and since my interaction with sheep and lambs is limited to oohing over them at the State Fair, I’m not likely to find out.
In our gospel today, Jesus is speaking metaphorically about sheep when he responds to the authorities who are questioning him. They want to know if Jesus is the Messiah – tell us plainly, they say. Of course, since this is the gospel of John, we do not get a plain answer but we are reminded of the sheep knowing his voice.
Which leads me to the question: Who are the sheep? The answer is you and me, we are all part of God’s flock. And, we learn of one more in our first reading from Acts. Tabitha, who was also known as Dorcas, was apparently a woman of means. She made and gave away clothes to the widows in the area. As another translation of the bible states: Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. I’m willing to guess that she was well-loved as the widows appear to be genuinely weeping over the death of their beloved friend. The widows show Peter the tunics and clothes made by and given to them by Tabitha indicating a true regard of Tabitha as a person.
And she seems to have been well-known. The fact that we are told her Aramaic name (as she was likely known within the faith community) and her Greek name (as she may have been known in the wider community) may suggest that her good works were widely and publicly practiced. Peter is also well-known and has recently healed a paralyzed man – we learn this miracle in the verses just prior to today’s lesson. Did Tabitha’s friends expect a similar miracle from Peter? I wonder if that is why two disciples were sent to fetch Peter from a town about 10 miles away and why Peter was willing to come. This is all speculation as we don’t know why Peter went to Joppa and performed the miracle of her resurrection. We can only guess.
We do know that Tabitha listened and followed the words of Jesus and we are expected to do as well. In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells us that when the Son of Glory comes, all the people will be separated one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Here is that shepherd reference again.) He then lists the acts that we are to do, that is to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison. Tabitha walked the talk – she ministered to the poor by clothing them.
Poet George MacDonald wrote this poem about Dorcas:
“If I might guess, then guess I would
That, mid the gathered folk,
This gentle Dorcas one day stood,
And heard when Jesus spoke.
She saw the woven seamless coat-
Half envious, for his sake:
‘Oh, happy hands,’ she said, ‘that wrought
The honoured thing to make!’
Her eyes with longing tears grow dim:
She never can come nigh
To work one service poor for him
For whom she glad would die!
But, hark, he speaks! Oh, precious word!
And she has heard indeed!
‘When did we see thee naked, Lord,
And clothed thee in thy need?’
‘The King shall answer, Inasmuch
As to my brethren ye
Did it-even to the least of such-
Ye did it unto me.’
Home, home she went, and plied the loom,
And Jesus’ poor arrayed.
She died-they wept about the room,
And showed the coats she made.”
Tabitha is a sheep that listened to and followed Jesus.
How can we be like sheep? And not in a negative way. We generally think that acting like sheep is to behave in the same way as others, doing what we are told without acting independently. We don’t want to follow someone blindly – we know that can get us into trouble. Instead we want to follow Jesus with a purpose just as Tabitha did. As I mentioned earlier, it is clear what we are expected to do. I would go a step further and to say not only do what Jesus says but to advocate for the poor, immigrants, youth, those experiencing homelessness, those without a voice. We must stand up for what we see as an injustice or an inequity. We are to do what we must to help those in need. It is not easy, but it must be done. If Tabitha can help the widows, the poorest of the poor during the first century, we can walk today with the marginalized, work for justice and equity, be a voice for others.
This year Tabitha was one of the saints in Lent Madness. In the first round, Emily Miller wrote about Tabitha saying, “Tabitha gives us an example of an ordinary believer in the early church and how the work of the people in the pews quietly providing for others’ needs … is just as important as the work of those out front, leading the church.” We, ordinary Christians, can and must step out boldly like Tabitha. Amen