The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

This is the Sound of One Voice

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Once a year, every year, those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary are given a week in the Easter season where the scripture is somehow about sheep. Psalm 23, which we did not read, begins with “The Lord is my shepherd…” which may ring a bell for you. Our reading from the Revelation of John features the Lamb, who will be their shepherd. In our reading from the Gospel According to John, Jesus calls his followers “sheep” who hear his voice. But our reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes no mention of shepherds, or sheep, or lambs. Instead, it is about our sister Tabitha, a disciple, who was devoted to good works and to acts of charity. She made tunics and other clothing with and for the widows in her community. This is one sentence in the story but it is a meaningful sentence.

Do you know that, in the first century (and in many other centuries), widows were among the poorest members of society? This was because they had no husband to financially support them—theirs was not a society in which women were economically independent. Tabitha was devoted to good works and to acts of charity, making clothing for the poorest women in her community.

I wonder who she was. I wonder if she was a wealthy woman, with plenty to spare, and so she devoted herself to good works. We might call the 2019 version of Tabitha a philanthropist, which, by the way, is from the greek for “human lover” which is awesome. We can only speculate about who Tabitha was, because we only have these few sentences. But, if we recall that this story comes to us from a time in which women were particularly disenfranchised, it is notable that we have this story at all. That we have even these few sentences about this woman of valor.

Remember which book of the Bible this is in? The Acts of the Apostles. We have this story primarily because it is a story about the apostle Peter. You know Peter from his greatest hits such as misunderstanding the Transfiguration of Jesus, denying Jesus three times after his death, and falling out of the boat into the sea more than once. He’s also Saint Peter, who is responsible for the beginnings of the Church as we know it today. A multi-faceted guy.

So, in this story, Peter is summoned to the home of a woman who has died. We do not know why those apostles believed that there was something Peter could do about this, since we have no other stories of Peter raising someone from the dead. But the apostles understand, to whatever degree, the power of God. They understand that there is life, and death, and life again. So Peter arrives at her home, prays, and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And she does!

I think we have Tabitha’s story in with the sheep stories because of that detail. Peter speaks and Tabitha hears him. In the Gospel story, Jesus talks about speaking and listening. In that instance, he’s being questioned by the religious authorities about whether or not he is the Messiah. They’ve been wanting to know for a long time, as he’s been gaining notoriety and raising a ruckus.

“Tell us plainly,” they say. Jesus rarely tells anyone anything plainly; he replies, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” He insists that they should be able to tell who he is by hearing what he is saying and watching what he is doing. By healing people, and freeing people, and feeding people, he is showing everyone who he is and who the God who sent him is. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says, “I know them, and they follow me.” He doesn’t mean a literal flock of sheep here, of course, but he means those who follow him and believe that he is who he says he is. Those who are so hungry for liberation that they are listening to unbelievable stories and witnessing unbelievable miracles and believing.

If it helps to parse the sheep metaphor, you might be interested to know that sheep have weird eyesight—they have excellent peripheral vision, great for sensing danger, but have such poor depth perception that they cannot see what is right in front of their noses. This is why they have the instinct to “follow the leader” in front of them. They rely on shared sight, and on each other’s voices and the voices of the shepherd to know what’s going on. In a huge flock, packed tightly in for safety, sheep listen for the familiar sound of their shepherd’s voice, which calms and collects them. They can tell the difference between their shepherd’s voice and other sounds that might mean danger. [1]

So, then, if the Lord is my shepherd, it is imperative that I listen for the voice of God. If I cannot see what is right in front of my nose, it will help if I listen up. There are a lot of stories in the Bible about listening to the voice of God. In the first one, Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden of Eden because they recently listened to someone other than God who told them that they were naked and that their naked bodies should be hidden.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about this in her recent book, Shameless. “For some reason,” Nadia writes, “God allows us to live in a world where alternatives to God’s voice exist, and those alternatives are where shame originates. Maybe you, too, are hiding, having listened to a voice other than God’s.” [2]

There are so many voices we can listen to out in the world. So many individuals and institutions and cultural ideas that are all yelling over each other to get our attention—our families, our peers, professors, employers, politicians, business leaders, celebrities, instagram influencers. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between the voice of God and other sounds that might mean danger.

In a reflection on this week’s scripture, Jesuit Father James Martin wrote that “It’s important to know what is and is not God’s voice.” [3] A simple sentence, but basically the thesis of the thing.

The voice that tells you you are not enough is not God’s voice.

The voice that tells you that you are too much is not God’s voice, either.

The voice that tells you that your body is wrong, that your feelings are wrong, that your way of being in the world is wrong, that is not God’s voice.

The voice that tells you that your gender, or race, or class, or citizenship, or ability, or education make you worth more than another person—that’s not God’s voice, either.


It’s not always easy.

God’s voice is the one that tells you that you are loved unconditionally.

God’s voice is the one that tells you that your sin is forgiven.

God’s voice is the one that tells you that you are created good, as you are and as you are becoming.

God’s voice is the one that tells you that you are doing your best and your best is enough.

God’s voice is the one that tells you that you are the only one who has control over your body.

God’s voice is the one that tells you to get up and live.

Amen.

_____

[1] This is vaguely approximated from all sorts of cultural representations of sheep as well as the aptly titled sheepinfo.com

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, 2019.

[3] From a tweet thread by @JamesMartinSJ from 12 May 2019.


Saint Rachel