The Valley of the Shadow 4th Sunday of Easter Pastor Pat Mecham
Psalm 23 May 8, 2022 Acts 9: 36-43
Well, it’s Mothers’ Day, and preachers around the country have had to figure out what to preach about today. Those of us who preach from the common lectionary have to decide: Do I focus on Mothers’ Day and Motherhood, or do I simply go where today’s texts lead me? In 42 years of ministry, I have often wished that I had a book entitled “What to Preach on Mothers’ Day” (or something like that).
But today is a wonderful day, a day to celebrate those who nurture! Not only is it Mothers’ Day, but our scriptures for today include a beautiful passage about a woman named Tabitha (or Dorcas, if you prefer her Greek name), AND one of the most familiar texts from the Bible, Psalm 23! My intent is to explore these passages and discover ways that God is nurturing us, and then to be inspired to participate in God’s business of nurturing! Let’s take a look.
My Shepherd in the Valley of the Shadow
The 23rd Psalm is an ancient hymn of our faith. We don’t have record of the tune used in ancient Israel, but this song has been sung for many centuries. I think its enduring popularity can be attributed to the image it projects: God caring for us the same way a shepherd cares for the sheep. My mind is drawn to the image Jesus used in one of his parables (Luke 15):
- A shepherd has 100 sheep, but one has gone missing;
- The shepherd goes searching for the missing sheep;
- When it is found, the shepherd shoulders the sheep and carries it back to the flock;
- Then a party is thrown to celebrate the return of the lost sheep.
- “Just so,” says Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
In our Psalm, God’s comfort and guidance are especially appreciated when we walk through the valley of the shadow. (When we are very like the sheep that has gone missing.) In the darkest valley, we need not be afraid because God Is With Us.
Now, friends, as Christians we usually want to see ourselves as “standing among the righteous.” But we must never forget the basic principle laid down in Isaiah 53: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way (we have ALL turned to our own way), and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Psalm 23 is good news for us sheep when we go astray!
There is another line we need to look at: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This doesn’t mean that you and I will sit down to eat and say, “Haa-haa” to our enemies while we eat in front of them. Not at all. The picture we have here is that God welcomes all to the table, EVEN THOSE WE DON’T LIKE! God’s mercy and care are for friend and foe alike! This makes us say, “Well, if you are God’s friend, I guess you should be my friend, even though we disagree with each other. Let’s sit together at God’s table.” Amen.
The final line says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” God’s love pursues us as long as we live, and God’s victory over death means that we will live with God forever.
Good Works and Acts of Charity
In our passage from the Book of Acts, we see some mighty works of God happening through Peter. He says to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” And Aeneas gets up! People see and turn to the Lord.
So when a Christian in a nearby town died, they asked Peter to come without delay. This follower of Jesus was named Tabitha, and her name in Greek is Dorcas, in English, Gazelle. (I think I’d rather be called “Gazelle” than “Dorcas,” wouldn’t you?) When Peter came to the room where she had been laid, all the widows of that town stood beside him, weeping. And they showed Peter the tunics and other clothing that she had made for them. With their tears and their presence, they were testifying to this woman’s generosity and labor that meant so much to them! Notice that Tabitha was not surrounded with her offspring—she may very well have not had any. But these widows were, for all practical purposes, her children. They had received her love, and now they grieved her death. She was a mother to them.
To get a clearer picture of what happened next, I need to take you to an event recorded in Mark 5. Jesus had been asked to come and lay hands on a little girl who was deathly sick. He took Peter, James, and John with him, after hearing a report that the girl had already died. He went into her room, put all the mourners outside, took her by the hand, and said, “Talitha cum,” (Aramaic) which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk around.
In our text for today, Peter looked at the body, put all the mourners outside, knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and he helped her up. She was restored to her loved ones, and many came to believe in the Lord. This is a beautiful story of God’s restorative love, and the importance of sharing that love with others!
This woman, Tabitha, stands as a paradigm of motherhood, devoted to good works and acts of charity.
Mothers’ Day is a day to celebrate anyone who nurtures others, regardless of whether or not they have given birth to a baby!
God’s Business of Nurturing
When we take our scripture passages together, we can see a thread weaving itself in and out of our texts. The thread is that of nurture. The Psalmist sings praises to the One who takes good care of us, even when we stray into trouble. (Not a God of punishment, but a God of restoration.) And we see the followers of Jesus (who have themselves been restored and nurtured) taking care of others. It reminds me of that quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” And, of course, Mr. Rogers spent his life caring for others and teaching them to be caregivers!
Even the Apostle Paul, often believed to be harsh and demanding and critical—even Paul described his ministry among the Thessalonians like this: “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children…you have become very dear to us.” If anyone knows the restorative power of God, it is Paul, one who was treated with tenderness and care during his times of walking through the valley of the shadow!
Well, I will finish with this thought: You and I are called to be a part of God’s business of nurturing. And let me begin with the idea of NURTURING YOURSELF. I’ll take mothers as an example: we all know mothers (and other caregivers) who pour themselves completely into taking care of others—but they don’t care for themselves properly. As a result, they get burned out, or exhausted, or ill themselves and can no longer care for anyone. Every time I fly, I am reminded that, “in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from overhead. Put the mask on yourself BEFORE putting it on a child or anyone else that you are caring for.” The logic is impeccable: in order to care for another person appropriately, you must care for yourself!
Now, when it comes to nurturing another person, you and I must be careful in deciding what it is we will do for that person. 1. I do not have the right to make decisions on that other person’s behalf (unless they are not capable of deciding for themselves.)
2. Simply giving them something that they desire might not be the most helpful thing to do.
3. The most valuable thing I have to offer is my TIME, and I must decide how much I can afford to give.
4. Being a good listener, allowing the person to come to their own conclusions, might be the most helpful thing I could do.
What I truly believe is that caring about others helps us to care for them, but we have to abandon our benevolent desire to run their lives! If I am going to partner with God in the business of nurturing, I will need to let God work through me to be a blessing in the lives of others. Prayerfully!