Tending the Sheep

dorcasActs 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17

Dorcas and Tabitha mean the same thing, sorta like feline and cat or Charlie and Chuck. This woman’s name is gazelle, and she is so important to the early Christians that she is the only woman ever called a ‘disciple’ in the New Testament! We can picture her as a leader in the Joppa church, if not THE leader. Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews of the UCC writes, “Tabitha sounds very much like a living saint, very much like many of the living saints in our churches today, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources in ministry to those in need.”

Yet, we know very little about who she is: does she have money? She weaves or sews clothing for those who can’t afford clothes. Is she a widow? The widows of Joppa mourn her terribly. Is she an older lady or a young lady? Luke doesn’t tell us. Her income, her marital status, her age… these things aren’t important. Remember that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, free person or slave. We are all equals. And so, Tabitha isn’t know for her statuses… but for her love. She is “devoted to charity and acts of good works.” She is a disciple. We know she is Christian BECAUSE OF HER LOVE.

… Did you know a rich Christian is not an oxymoron… but a greedy Christian is?

In 2010, the New York Times brought the public’s attention to the “Charitable Giving Divide” that sociologist had noticed for years. Now, more and more people are beginning to see the pattern that the POORER you are, the MORE you give to charity. Isn’t that strange? A PhD candidate at Berkeley, Paul Piff, recently found that in his tests, “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.” So… does this mean that a person becomes financially rich by being greedy, distrustful, self-reliant, and not giving away money? Or does it mean a person becomes poor because they give to every charity and homeless person they see?

Psychologists and sociologists went out to study this. And they found that no — a person’s wealth or poverty isn’t a result of their charity… their charity is a result of their empathy, and their empathy is a result of who they identify with. This same researcher primed his volunteer test subjects by showing sympathy inducing videos and encouraging them to imagine themselves in different financial circumstances. That changed their reactions — for both sets of income. In other words, the poor, imagining themselves rich, became less altruistic. The rich, imagining themselves poor, became more generous to the destitute and ill. Piff concluded: “Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients” in the generosity of the poor.

When a person identifies as rich, he or she believes others are or ought to be rich too. So she votes for laws that help rich people, and she doesn’t give out money because that person she gives it to might misspend it on something like cigarettes rather than something she values – like education. She doesn’t understand, sympathize, or feel compassion for the poor because their lives, their worlds, are so different than her own. She doesn’t know the little things like cigarettes are a real addiction, and that food-stamps make sure you don’t go hungry, but they don’t cover things like toilet paper, sanitary napkins, or soap. So the money may not be used on food… but it’s going to be used on whatever the poor needs most at the moment.

And the reverse happens. When a person identifies as poor, he or she believes others are poor and need help too. “Oh, I was in a similar situation once, and I needed charity. I bet you do too, let me help!”

This compassion, this empathy, so scientists are learning, isn’t due to our actual wealth or poverty at all. It has all to do with who we identify with. Tabitha may have been a rich matriarch, or she may have been a destitute widow – Acts doesn’t tell us because her actual status didn’t matter. What mattered was who she identified with: and she identified with Jesus. She was a disciple, a follower, someone attempting to live like Jesus. And so she, like Jesus, identified with the trod upon, the ignored, the poor, the sick, the sinners, the people who need help. She identified with the Good Shepherd and so she aided the Sheep.

Our reading of Paul’s vision in Revelation is all about identification, about thinking of how to be like Christ. He sees all the people of the world — every race, every tribe, every tongue, every walk of person, all robed in white with victory palms singing to God. He can’t tell one group from another — they ALL are in sparkling white. And he asks his guide in the vision, who are all these people? Paul is told these are everyone who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. This is an oxymoron – blood doesn’t make things white. It covers something, marks it. Paul is being told these people have been covered in a universal, new identity. This new identity is worshiping God. In other words, these are people who have left their individual identity as a richly clad Roman, or poorly clad Judean; people who have left their identity as broken bodied or as able bodied; people who no longer think of themselves as American, Spanish, Straight, Gay, Democrat or Republican — but think of themselves as a person who identifies with what is good, Godly, pure.

Every race. Every nation. Every walk of people John sees. And each and every one is washed in purity because she or he has known the great ordeal of being faithful to the kindness, love, and generosity of God when those things too often bring us heartache. These saints identify with the Lamb, and so tend to the Lamb’s sheep.

… As Jesus told Peter in our reading last week… if you love me, tend my sheep.

If you love and worship Jesus, if you consider yourself a Christian – a follower of Jesus – tend his sheep.

Love others. Help others. Be generous. Imagine yourself in the position of others and think how best to love them. How best to tend to them. How best to be like Christ to them.

Our Good Shepherd gives us food and water, rest, sits with us even when we’re surrounded by enemies and bad times. Our Good Shepherd tells us not to fear, leads us to prayer, leads us to living ever renewing waters, leads us to where we can trust in God.

If we identify as Christians, our lives ought to be Christ-like.

Amen.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hidden-motives/201008/why-are-the-poor-more-generous

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