April 17, 2016 “ 4 Easter C
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
About Tabitha, the writer of Acts says in our first lesson today: She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
When I was a senior in college, I called up the Bishop’s office and set an appointment to tell the Bishop I wanted to be a priest. I borrowed a friend’s car and drove the 90 miles from Spartanburg to Columbia and walked into the Bishop’s office to find him sitting with his head down writing something. As I approached his desk, he looked up at me and, without even getting out of his chair, told me to have a seat. So what can I do for you?, he asked. Well, Bishop, I have given it a lot of thought and I have decided that I want to be a priest. Hmmm, he said, unimpressed. Where are you going to church? Well not really anywhere right now but I graduate this spring and I want to know what I need to do to go to seminary. The Bishop, not so patiently, spent about 10 minutes with me regarding what I felt was a bright future in the church. He never got out of his chair and basically he said to me, Get involved in a church and then we’ll see how all this works out.
I went back to Spartanburg, got involved in a church, and here I am today 40 years later. But it took three years for me to get to seminary and I began to learn a lesson. If you want to be a priest, you don’t start at the top and try to impress the Bishop; you start at the bottom and learn to be a faithful servant.
That lesson got echoed for me in the job I selected for those three years. I went to the nicest restaurant in Spartanburg and got a job as a waiter. This was no Red Lobster as Daniel spoke about last week. This was AJ’s, French cuisine, the priciest place in town. Starting out as a waiter, I was a little flashier than necessary and it was definitely all about me. The customers were important to me only in so far as they represented 15 or 20% of what they were buying. If someone asked which was better, a $20 dish or a $30 dollar dish, I steered them to the $30 dish because that meant more money in my pocket. I could persuade people who weren’t even thinking about a glass of wine to order a $50 bottle of wine.
One night a customer treated me like my Bishop had and it was really good for me. As I approached an 8 top, sizing up the well dressed couples, I started doing waiter’s math: $50 per person equals a $400 bill; 20% equals $80 for me. The more I can drive up the meal, the more whiskey and wine they order, the more I can make. Cocksure and 22 years old, I announced to the table, My name is Robert and I will be your waiter tonight. Before I got out the next line which would have been the invitation to order cocktails, the man at the head of the table said, Well, I’ll tell you one thing, Robert. I don’t give a damn what your name is. We came here to get a good meal, not to make any new friends. Yes, he was being a jerk but I started that night learning what it took to be a good waiter. It was about efficiently serving drinks and a good meal, not about trying to impress anyone or make any sort of name for myself. At the end of the meal, the man said absolutely nothing to me but he left me a $200 tip on a $600 bill. And never again did I ever say, My name is Robert and I will be your waiter.
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter each year, we celebrate what is called Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Sunday we always read the 23rd psalm and we read a gospel lesson having to do with Jesus being the good shepherd of his people. We remember that Jesus, as the good shepherd, selflessly serves others, generously has the welfare of each of us in his heart, and lays down his life for us. Jesus comes not to be served but to serve. He is faithful to his calling and, through his sacrifice, we are given life and joy, peace and comfort, salvation and wholeness. Jesus doesn’t flash in to make a name for himself. He puts the needs of his father’s creation ahead of his own needs.
If you’re like me you need to hear that message over and over again. Jesus comes to love us purely and selflessly and, in so doing, shows us the love God himself has for all of us. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about the love of God is that it transforms us into people who become less selfish and more generous. Jesus isn’t a superhero, rooting out the bad guys. Jesus is pure love which inspires us to become a loving community, the body of Christ in the world.
The reading from Acts today shows how the love of Christ causes community to be formed. There we hear of Tabitha being raised from the dead by Peter, new life and hope being given by Jesus’ apostles and disciples some years after Jesus has died. But Tabitha being raised from the dead isn’t really the big news in that lesson. The bigger news is who Tabitha had become. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. So much so that the community was stung by her death.
40 years ago when I stood in that bishop’s office I had some idea of what I thought being a priest would be like. Easily the biggest surprise for me, and something I really had no idea about then, is that there are a bunch of Tabithas in the world. When people come to know the love of Jesus Christ, they change. They come to count themselves less important and others more important. They devote themselves to good works and charity. They let go of trying to make a name for themselves and find joy in the good name of Christ. They don’t flash around in big ways; they serve humbly and generously. Honestly for me that’s a whole lot more impressive than Peter raising someone from the dead. The love of Christ changes us into less selfish people. That’s what gets my attention. That’s big stuff.
Jesus is the good shepherd. He knows your name and actually cares who you are. But he loves us and calls us not to single out the good and punish the bad. He loves us and calls us to change us all into more loving children of the father. He loves you dearly but no more so than he loves the people you count as enemies, the people you don’t even notice. The love of God is given not to make a little club of people like us. The love of God is given to change the world into a community of faith and good works.
The big news of Jesus Christ isn’t that by believing in him you get to go to heaven. The big news of Jesus Christ is that his love brings heaven to this earth. Let the love of God into your heart. It will change your life. It will change this world.