Women Shepherds

 Acts 9:36-43

There are lots of shepherd's stories, jokes really, but they aren't ones that I can share from the pulpit, nor would I want to share most of them. One of them led me to look up some information on sheep since it was a fact that I had never known before. I guess most of you, being farmers, even though not necessarily sheep farmers, would know. So, I'm showing my ignorance, even though my grandparents had farms and many of my members of the places I served in Nebraska and Wyoming were farmers-but again, none were actually sheep farmers.

Through one of the jokes I learned that sheep are not only kept for their wool and their meat, but also for their milk. I had never heard of sheep's milk being consumed by humans. Goat's milk, yes, but sheep's milk no.

I'm focusing on the passage from Acts today because it is so powerful and usually gets overlooked as the focus is usually on the Gospel for today, the passage about the Good Shepherd, Jesus.

This passage about Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, has so much to say to us. Because we just see the English words, and not the Greek, it is important to know that St. Luke identifies Tabitha (known in Greek as Dorcas) with a title given to NO OTHER PERSON in the New Testament: "mathetria," the feminine form of the Greek word for "disciple." The Gospel according to Luke identifies many women who play very important roles like shepherding and leading. We have, of course, Mary, Jesus' mother, and Elizabeth; the many women who minister to Jesus; the women at his crucifixion; the women who visit the tomb; here we have Tabitha and then there is also Priscilla and Lydia. At the women's Bible Study this month and subsequent Bible Studies I'm going to focus on women of the New Testament.

But today I'm focusing on women as shepherds. A shepherd is one who takes care of sheep, usually in flocks in the fields. References to sheep in the bible occur over 500 times. A shepherd tends the sheep, guides and guards the sheep, provides food and protection and care for the sheep. Shepherding is one of the oldest professions, beginning some 10,000 years ago in Asia Minor. That the sheep was early domesticated in Palestine is suggested by the Cain-Abel story in Genesis. Sheep represented the chief wealth and the total livelihood of pastoral peoples.

It's important to recognize that in the Bible the nature of sheep is presented as affectionate, unaggressive, relatively defenseless, and in constant need of care and supervision. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theological language, is very powerful and very moving. The 23rd Psalm is an example, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: "The Lord is my Shepherd, that's all I want."

In Isaiah, God is spoken of as a shepherd, even including the feminine aspect, "…he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young." The New Testament focuses on Jesus, as the Good Shepherd. We, as shepherds in his stead, must follow his example. We must care for the most vulnerable in our society, and those who don't have a shepherd.

One of the most vulnerable of God's flock of sheep in the time of Jesus was the widow. In our story today we know that Tabitha's ministry is among the widows. "The emphasis in the story is her work among them. It is holy work. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God's desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice. The frequency of these urgings suggests that such mandates were not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. What does Tabitha, Dorcas, do? She clothes them. In the example of Jesus, the Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on.

Tabitha's town of Joppa had been the setting for Jonah's call to minister to the hated Assyrians. Dorcas ministers with women routinely overlooked. In so doing, she weaves a community who grieves her death, celebrates her gifts, and witnesses her restoration to life." (Brian--on the internet)

This is one of the several "restoration to life" stories in the Bible, performed by Jesus and some of his disciples and apostles. They are hard to deal with sometimes because one wonders 'why that person and not this person?' One then attempts to reason it out logically or in some systematic fashion. It's not possible; miracles can't be dealt with on that level. We don't know why some people are raised from the dead and others aren't (not resurrected-that's a forever thing-raised from the dead is a 'restoration to life' but is a temporary matter for the person will eventually die a physical death).

We don't know why some people are cured of diseases and others aren't. It's never that their work or purpose is more important than others. I believe that no one leaves this plain of existence, that is, dies a physical death, until the purpose for which God created them is completed. I don't believe that the moment it is completed, they die. But out of the purpose for which we were originally created, God can create further purpose for us. So, if we are still here, no matter if we have completed the purpose for which we were individually created, if we are still here, then God has created a further purpose for us.

But this story, like every story in the Bible, has a spiritual meaning to it. What is it that was raised from the dead? What is it that is lifted up? It is her ministry to the vulnerable. Her work was not complete in some way. She had not finished teaching others how to care for the vulnerable. She had not finished spreading the Gospel through her works of charity so that others would take up the same cause.

But there is one more point to recognize. What is it that is dead here? What is it that is being raised from the dead? We are all shepherds called to raise people out of their spiritual death. Dorcas was a shepherd, and through her hands-on compassion she raised people from their spiritual death to a new life in the risen Christ. And in this story of raising Tabitha, restoring her to life, she is restored to a spiritual life.

Perhaps Tabitha was overwhelmed in her work for and among the widows. Perhaps it became a burden instead of a joy. There is so much need in our world-so many sheep, so many who are vulnerable, fragile-that the shepherd becomes overwhelmed and loses sight of on whose behalf she or he is performing these acts of charity. When one loses sight that what they are doing is all for the glory of God, all for Jesus' sake, they can experience a spiritual death. Sometimes their ego gets in the way because of all the praise that comes their way.

So here, we can also see this story as a restoration back to a spiritual life. Every one of us is a shepherd. But shepherds, if they are going to tend and care for and feed their sheep, must be strong in the Lord. They must feed their own spirits. Women shepherds, like the Tabithas of today, must nurture themselves spiritually through prayer and understanding what Scripture has to say to them as shepherds, as leaders. They must understand what Scripture is saying to them as a woman; seeing it un-filtered as it was written for them as women, rather than through a past and present filter of masculine culture.

And finally, at the same time the women are strengthening themselves as shepherds in service to our Lord, they must allow the men to develop in their own way their own strengths as shepherds. What is nurturing for women, is not always nurturing for men. The church in helping shepherds develop and grow is not only a place of compassion and forgiveness, a safe and nurturing place, but at the same time it is a place of excitement, adventure, challenge and risk. It has to be all those things in order for us all to be the kind of shepherd Jesus is, and the kind of shepherd Jesus expects each one of us to be.


Read more sermons by Pastor Brie