A sermon by the Rev Linda Harrison
Easter 4; May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
“Do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I do.” “Good Peter, because know maybe you know it, too. Go and do the work I have prepared you to do and called you to do. Feed my sheep, tend my lambs. You are the Good Shepherd now.”
Even though I am joining two very different gospel writers with very different agendas, the story in Acts is confirmation of the story we heard last week from John’s gospel. Peter has truly lived into his calling as the Good Shepherd. Peter can even revive the dead – when we hear ‘Tabitha, get up’ are we not reminded of Jesus’ words to the little girl of the centurion – ‘Talitha, cum’? (Again, bringing in yet another gospel writer – but it is difficult for us to hear these stories separately.)
Peter has gone among the lost, the lonely, the dispossessed … the Gentiles even! Luke tells us that Peter even stayed at the house of one especially unclean – a person whose living is made touching carcasses!
In the next chapter of Acts, Peter has a revelation that there is no such thing as unclean food. By extension he applies this vision to all that God has created, therefore there are no unclean people. He sits down to have a meal with a Gentile.
“Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.” “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Peter is not the only one called to be a Good Shepherd and to hear and follow the voice of Christ. Through the millennia, Jesus calls to each of us. We are both the sheep and the shepherd. Christ feeds us. We feed others. Christ tends to us. We tend to others. That’s how this Christianity thing goes. It isn’t a one-way street, where we get ours and let others fend for themselves.
There is so much truth in the old adage: give a people fish, and they eat for one day; teach a people how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.
First, we feed, then we tend.
When I was in Cape Town, South Africa, for my cross-cultural experience in seminary, I saw a lot of feeding, but very little tending. First, because “Coloured” is no longer considered a polite racial designation in the US, let me clarify that in South Africa, the vocabulary of race was and still is Black, Coloured, and White. As you might expect, Black is the designation for the indigenous population, Black Africans – whose life, land, and language the Afrikaners (Europeans) tried to annihilate. Coloured includes those people of mixed race – which can be people from any number of racial mixes: other African regions and nations, South and East Asians who were abducted and sold into slavery, and even European – and we don’t have to think to very hard about how European blood entered the mix when Xhosa women were enslaved and exploited. And the Whites are the Afrikaners – the Europeans, mostly of Dutch ancestry, the colonizers.
Today, the people labeled Coloured and White mingle freely while Blacks are relegated to what are called Townships – segregated slums, ghetto areas, divided by highways with high barrier walls that separate Blacks from Blacks and also isolate them from White and Coloured residential areas. It also makes it nearly impossible for Blacks to access civil resources such as schools, hospitals, even stores, or employment.
Consequently, poverty is rampant in these slums. Many charities have formed to help the hapless Blacks because they are ‘simply incapable of doing so for themselves’. Charities, many of them Christian based, go into the Townships to feed children who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and who also have no opportunity to learn how to read or write, either in their own language or Afrikaans. One of the few charities I shadowed went to one of these Townships and gathered the children into a large warehouse-style building. Before the children were fed, the Afrikaner volunteers would ‘tend’ their souls by reading them Bible stories and teaching them Bible songs. Only after these lessons, were the children fed a slop of some indescribable earth-toned glop of ungodly odor. The particular lunch I watched being prepared – likely the only meal the children would eat that day and prepared by the Coloured volunteers – included canned sardines, canned peas, and peanut butter mixed with who-knows-what-else, simmered together in a huge pot. I asked how the children could even abide the taste; I was answered that they’ll eat it if their hungry enough and they should be grateful for what they got – and that it had a lot of protein.
Apparently because they were poor Xhosa children, they didn’t deserve the respect and dignity of food that was nutritious as well as palatable, nor did they deserve it without earning it first by listening about the White Afrikaner’s god. There was no tending to their future.
To these charities, tending and feeding the sheep did not include tending as far as equipping these children for a future of feeding themselves, or providing the tools and resources for the few adults remaining who had not died from AIDS or any variety of other treatable diseases. When I was in South Africa, apparently very few charity organizations and programs afforded the impoverished people of South Africa any truly viable or meaningful opportunities.
By all means, yes, tend to hungry bellies, tend to abused and battered bodies and minds, wrapping wounds and setting bones, tend to the sick with medical aid and medicines and comfort and care, tend to the illiterate with reading help and help with filling out forms, tend to the bullied or harassed person based on race or religion – it is all commendable and certainly needed. And, while providing for their immediate needs, tend also to their need and their right to access resources and tools to continue to tend themselves. Provide a meal for hungry people or donate to a local food bank, and also provide education; provide them with job training or appropriate employment opportunities; advocate for healthy food stores in the food deserts of impoverished neighborhoods. Wrap the wounds, listen to the stories of battered spouses or partners while also making sure they can access the counseling help they need, the legal services they require, and the emotional support to get through such an ordeal. Care for the sick and nurse them to health and strength while advocating for affordable health care and access to medical facilities in low-income or rural areas. Be the friend who helps filling out the forms and reading prescription bottles for those who English is not their first language, then help an immigrant learn English as a second language, support a literacy organization in our community. By all means be sympathetic toward the harassed and stand up to the white supremacist on behalf of the African American teen-ager, accompany a Muslim woman who is harassed on public transportation, then advocate for more and better public education about diversity and agitate for stronger anti-discrimination laws and anti-hate speech laws and keep accountable those people who are responsible for enforcing those laws.
Christ is our Shepherd who shepherds us into the strength and courage and confidence to shepherd others who are lost, lonely, hungry, or hurting.
And no, you cannot do it all, nor are you even expected to. Find your passion; find that one thing that speaks to your heart or that presents itself as an opportunity and do that one thing with the help of God and the help of others who share the same passion or opportunity. Nope, we’re not even required to go it alone. Sometimes it takes a village to tend the village.
We are the sheep of Christ’s pasture and we are the shepherds of the pastures presented to us.
Do you love me more than these? Then feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Hear my voice and follow me.
Blessed be God who feeds, cares, and tends to us in this community and at this Table. Blessed be God who sends us out to share that caring and tending with others. Amen.