Gazelles, Sheep, and Pigskins
by Louise Westfall
Mother’s Day has never landed as softly for me since my first year of ministry, as pastor of a small-town Iowa congregation. I was leading the children’s sermon and asking the kids what they had done to show their love and thanks to their mothers. There were all the usual expressions–breakfast in bed, flowers, hugs and handmade cards. Then one little boy responded matter-of-factly: “Nothing. My mom went to California and got a new family.”
I thought of young Troy again this week in preparation for the baptisms today of another little boy, Miles– deeply loved by mother Libby and father Josh (also to be baptized) and grandparents Bonnie and Tom. A beautiful family who have made a decision to follow Jesus and become part of this beloved community.
In the contrast between those two families lies the glory of the church. Whether beautiful or broken, cool or decidedly un-cool, confident or traumatized, you belong. You have a welcome and a home here. You are God’s beloved, and ours.
For so it has been from the very beginning. Our morning text is a tiny slice of life from those heady days following Christ’s resurrection and the profound experience of his ongoing spiritual presence and power. The apostles are on the move, traveling far and wide to share the good news of God’s love. But here’s the thing about those first disciples: they demonstrated the truth of St Francis’ advice to preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. That is, they didn’t just go on a preaching tour, hitting 40 cities in two months. They spent time in local areas, getting to know folks and their particular needs and gifts. They shared meals. They healed the sick, and in today’s reading, raised the dead. They gathered in groups for worship and conversation. The apostles may well have been the first community organizers, building a movement towards the Kin-dom of God on earth as in heaven. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the ninth chapter, verses 36 through 43. Listen for God’s Word to the church, the messy church, full of people with complicated, contradictory lives who somehow and sometimes become vibrant witnesses to the transforming love of God. Listen for God’s Word to you and me. [Acts 9:36-43]
It would be a mistake, I think, if we focused only on Peter’s raising of Dorcas from her deathbed, without considering the wider picture. It’s easy for our scientific minds to dismiss the apparent miracle as preposterous and consign it to the “it didn’t really happen” category. We might rationalize the situation and conclude that Dorcas wasn’t really dead; maybe in a coma or catatonic state from which Peter was able to waken her. Well, okay. Let’s stipulate that for a moment so we can take a look at what else is going on in the scene.
In the seaside city of Joppa there was a church community. We know a couple things about them: one, they engaged in outreach to those in need; and two, they cared deeply about each other. Among their members are a gazelle (that’s what her name in both Aramaic and Greek means), and it is not hard to imagine what she was like, because these gazelles still fill church pews today. Devoted to good works; head of the sewing circle making clothing for impoverished widows. I’ll bet she also had prize-winning recipes for chicken casserole and lemon bars. Always the one you could count on to show up; cheerful, kind, and volunteer extraordinaire.
We get it right when we devote ourselves to acts of love toward others, particularly the vulnerable and those on the margins.
Perhaps it was Dorcas who had attracted the many widows who were also part of the church; moved by her compassion, they too became disciples. There were others–“saints” the text calls them, which just means members of the flock. I’ve mentioned before that the image of God’s people as “sheep” isn’t my favorite metaphor because of the association with “sheeple”–those who are blindly led without thinking for themselves. But that’s not at all implied in Scripture–rather it’s talking about the relationship of trust between sheep and a shepherd who protects and provides for them. The shepherd knows the sheep and calls them by name; the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and follow because they know the shepherd will stay with them through easy green pastures and still waters, as well as dark shadowed valleys and in the face of danger and threat.
There’s one more person mentioned by name in the Joppa church: Simon, identified as a tanner. Well, now. That’s more than a throw-away comment. No good Jew would have worked in a profession that brought him into daily contact with pigs, considered unclean and forbidden by sacred law. No, the writer of Acts is cluing us in to the nature of the church following Jesus: just like he did, the church breaks down walls of division and separation to welcome all: the graceful gazelles who are so easy to love, the sheep which include big ole’ rams butting their way in, docile lambs and many “yous”… not to mention the pig-handlers.
And there you have it, friends. The Church seeking to reflect the love of God we’ve come to know in Jesus. It’s a real menagerie. We get it right when we devote ourselves to acts of love toward others, particularly the vulnerable and those on the margins. We get it right when we’re attentive to the care and feeding of one another. In baptism, the whole church promises to love Miles and Josh, and help them feel at home in the zoo. (Just wanted to remind you of what you’re getting yourselves into, Josh and Libby!)
Recently a friend living in another city posted a poignant Facebook message. I would definitely call this woman a gazelle, long active in church, retired from a distinguished teaching career and continuing to work hard to make the world a better place. She wrote: The ongoing slaughter in Ukraine. Ugly election campaigns. And now, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, the leak of the Roe v. Wade draft. Trying hard not to lose hope.
Well, I know only one way not to lose hope. That’s to put my trust in the Good Shepherd–you know, the one who left it all on the cross and then defeated the powers of death by rising to new life. I have hope that Dorcas rose from her bed in that upstairs room because the church prayed for the impossible, and then took it on in daily acts of compassion in ever-widening circles outward. I have hope because I know that little Iowa church reached out to Troy’s family with tangible support and surrogate grandmas to love on him through loss and beyond.
I have hope because in the city of Denver there is a church community known as Central Presbyterian. Thanks be to God.