From the instant of the Big Bang, it seems that things have been flying apart, falling apart, tearing apart, however you want to think about it. The 2016 presidential primary campaign seems to be the epitome of this, as both Democrats and Republicans have spent an inordinate amount of time and money tearing each other up. I can’t help but think of a favorite childhood poem, “The Duel,” by Eugene Fields. Do you know it?
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I was n’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!…
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
In a world where things fall apart, where we tear each other up, the image of a divine Shepherd, gathering in the pieces and lost lambs, tending the flock, is perhaps a little quaint, but so appealing, even so necessary. In fact, the word Jesus uses when he says, “I am the good shepherd,” the word good also means beautiful, as in attractive. In quantum physics, “strangely attractive fields” are energy fields within which patterns form and hold together, if I understand an incredibly simplified version of that concept. “The Lord is my strangely attractive field,” a quantum psalmist might sing, or “I am the strangely attractive field,” Jesus might say, in the Quantum Physicist’s paraphrase of the Bible.
In the version known slightly better by most of us, the psalmist says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want,” or as our pew Bibles’ translation says, “I have everything I need.” It’s a powerful, radical statement, here in our consumer culture which urges us to “want”–or crave or desire, not “lack”– more and more; and here in our present day world, where billions of people do not have everything they need–clean drinking water, adequate shelter, a secure food source, healthcare, let alone dignity and safety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.”
We often say this psalm at funerals, usually in the King James Version, which does use the phrase, “I shall not want,” and it’s usually that line about walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil that makes us think about it in terms of dying and funerals. But what might it mean to “have everything I need” in the midst of death and dying? Isn’t “what I need” in that situation to have this loved one back and well, still living?
The story from Acts which David read for us this morning seems to address that. It’s the story of a woman–the first woman in the New Testament, by the way, to be referred to with the word “disciple”–a woman whose name in Greek was Dorcas and in Aramaic was Tabitha, both of which mean “gazelle.” It seems that Tabitha became ill and died, and we gather that this death seemed premature. She hadn’t lived a long life, but rather fell ill and died from this illness.
But Tabitha did not die alone, nor had she lived alone. “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity,” Luke tells us. She was an integral part of a community. She made countless garments–tunics and shawls and other items for clothing–not only beautiful but warm and necessary, providing the only shelter from the cold for many a poor person. In death as in life, Tabitha drew a community together, particularly the community of widows whose lives literally depended upon one another, and when she died, this community came together to wash her body, to bring casseroles and soup, maybe even toilet paper and paper plates, as the community of widows who gathered around my mother did when my dad died. And they brought the material creations of her life and work–the tunics and garments which she had made. We do the same thing, when we bring paintings that a person has painted during their life, or quilts they had made, or woodwork they had carved, and we see them again as we celebrate their life with their family. As their life was falling apart when Tabitha died, at the same time the lives of these women were being held together by another Force, another “strangely attractive field,” as they gathered in that home in Joppa.
There were, apparently, other disciples of the Good Shepherd there, who knew that Peter was in a nearby town, and so they sent for him to come. In the post-resurrection period, Peter had become a real leader amongst the disciples, carrying on the work of Jesus, preaching and healing and making new disciples…doing what he had promised Jesus he would do in the passage from John we read last week–”tend my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep,” in other words, he too became a “good shepherd.”
So when Peter arrived at Tabitha’s house and saw the community gathered there, he asked to be left alone with her body, so that he could pray and open himself up to the power of the Holy Spirit. He had been with Jesus when he had done the same thing with Peter’s own mother-in-law, and again when Jesus had said to the young daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, “Talitha, cumi. Talitha [so close to Tabitha!], get up!” So Peter now said to this disciple, “Tabitha, get up.” “And she opened her eyes and saw Peter, and he gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”
Wow, talk about having everything you need! If only such a thing could happen at roadsides where bodies could emerge alive from crumpled wrecks. Or at bedsides of those whose bodies have been wracked with cancer. Or in countless other places where we long for miracles to somehow restore our loved ones to us, to have them shown to us to be alive.
We know that Tabitha or Dorcas eventually died again, as Lazarus did (because otherwise we would have heard about it!). But Luke, the writer of Acts as well as a gospel by that name, tells this story of Peter’s raising Tabitha because it showed how even after Jesus died, the community of his followers, or disciples, experienced resurrection in so many ways. They were indeed able to do the things that Jesus had done, like he had told them they would, including healing and even “raising the dead,” they experienced the power of the Holy Spirit with them, in them, around them. They lived in that energy field which they could only describe as the risen Jesus still with them. This is what it means to follow Jesus.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains the African concept of ubuntu, as meaning, “I am because you are.” It is the essence of being a human being, Tutu says, but you would not find universal agreement on that in our culture. We are much more likely to describe human beings in terms of being able to stand on their own, being able to make their own decisions, be “free to be me.” But while there is unique beauty and a particular set of gifts and graces in each one of us to be offered freely, we are still held together in this strangely attractive field, this Force which binds us together, which connects us not only with each other but with everything else in the universe. To live in that knowledge and that trust is to experience “having everything we need,” even to live into resurrected life beyond the deaths which would seem to tear us apart.
“I and the Father [as he called God] are one,” Jesus said. “I am because you are.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “God is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” May those words be truth, and hope, and courage for us for the living of these days. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark