Tabitha: Work

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 5, 2016)

I’m not a foodie.

The best meal I had this past week was at a hole in the wall Thai restaurant. I’ve never eaten at The Painted Lady just a block away from here, or spent more than probably $20 on a plate of food in my whole life. Whenever we’ve had a garden at our house, Elaine’s the one in charge.

But somehow on Friday night I ended up watching Chef’s Table, a tv show produced by Netflix. Actually I know how it happened: we had people over, and my suggestion for what to watch really wasn’t very good. A bunch of people saw Chef’s Table as a suggestion and said it was awesome. So we watched it under my protest. And of course I got totally sucked in.

The episode we watched was about Dan Barber, a chef who started Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and is one of the leading voices in our country for the farm to fork movement. When I realized this, I started to feel guilty, like I was somehow not being faithful to our own Lisa Graham McMinn, who runs Fern Creek Farms and has recently written To The Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming and Community. Hopefully she will forgive my fascination with Dan Barber.

He’s one of those people who both inspires you, and makes you feel a little bit guilty, because he never settles for “good enough”. His training as a chef has just morphed and blossomed into so much more. What began with a desire to serve whatever fresh food was in season has led him on an incredible learning journey. He’s transformed his farm little by little, getting plants and animals working together organically to help each other.

He’s gone to university agriculture experimenters, learned from organic farmers, and little by little finds more and more ways to improve humane treatment of animals and organic growth processes which produce better and better tasting food. At one point in the episode, he’s talking to the university professor who is developing all kinds of experimental crops. The professor realizes in shock as Dan is talking: “No one besides you has ever asked me to breed for taste. It’s always so that crops look right, or so they can last to be shipped across the country.”

What Dan has learned has caused him to be a force to transform an industry.

Because he wants to produce healthy, sustainable food that is the best tasting food you’ve ever had, he’s worked with all kinds of people, changing practices everywhere. He learned from organic farmers that they have to be extremely thoughtful in how they rotate their crops, so that they replenish the soil. Yet this means a dent in their income, as they have to use precious growing time on crops that help their soil, but that the market doesn’t want to buy, so they don’t make money.

Dan wonders: could that change? Could we create a market for some of those necessary crops by making delicious food out of them? Watch this clip.

He does his job so well! In fact, he’s transforming what it means to be a chef, a farmer, a nutritionist, an ecologist. By taking his work seriously, he’s transforming the world, making it a better place, and raising consciousness and awareness about how we can be healthier, enjoy food more, and at the same time live more in harmony with the world God has created.

I don’t find any evidence that Dan Barber has a commitment to Jesus.

That’s where Lisa’s book can help with the intentional spiritual part of this same topic. But there was something really inspiring in watching that show about how Dan sees the world, and how he’s working to make it better through his job as a chef. Something that I think can speak to us as followers of Jesus, who most likely for large portions of our life do some kind of work. How can we make that an act of spiritual soil building, an act of justice, an act of transformation in this world we live in?

I don’t know what it’s like for people growing up today, but for me growing up in the church, we often heard that to give your work life to God meant being a pastor or a missionary. Other kinds of work might be useful, but to be a pastor or missionary was sort of the pinnacle of obedience.

I am a pastor, and I’m glad to be one…because I think that’s how God has uniquely wired me. But I don’t believe this kind of work is the only work that God uses, not in the least. When I watched Dan Barber on Chef’s Table, it gave me a picture of what could be for all followers of Jesus. There are a myriad of ways that work can be done and pursued in life giving, life-transforming ways! How might we all find our way of work where our curiosity and effort transform those around us, in small and big ways?

That’s the heart of the simple message I want to give today: how might the work we do be used by God to better the lives of others and the world God has made?

I’ve chosen just a few verses to root this message in, verses about a person we don’t hear much about. Not only that, but I’m not focusing on the “big” part of the story (in which, you know, she gets raised from the dead)…but instead on a little glimpse we get of her work life as a disciple of Jesus. Turn with me to Acts 9:36.

   In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once!’
Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that  Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:36-42, TNIV)

This is a huge demonstration of God’s power through Peter that makes a big difference in the Gentile world, that expands the whole course of Christian history from it being only part of the Jewish faith to becoming worldwide.

Peter himself begins a transformation here, as God leads him out of what he had thought was his job, to focus on telling the Jews about Jesus, and beginning the process of softening his heart to see that God wants every person on the planet, even Gentiles to know Jesus. The transformation that begins here with Tabitha in Joppa continues with a dream and with Cornelius right after this.

But for today, there’s something powerful about how Tabitha is described.

She is named as a disciple. It’s the only use in the New Testament of the feminine form of the unique word disciple, one that is used to distinguish the twelve disciples from other followers. Tabitha is a recognized leader in the early Christian church, and look at how she is described: “she was always doing good and helping the poor.”

As a woman, as a disciple, she is an example; she is an example because she is always doing good, always helping the poor. She is transforming the world around her through her work. Yet “disciple”, while being an honorable title, is not a job. We have to go down to verse 39 to get a glimpse of what she did for a vocation, for what her work was that she did as a disciple.

“All the widows stood around [Peter], crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”

Well now wait a minute. Isn’t that sort of stuff a bit beneath Peter, the rock, the head of the church, the one that is still seen today as the first of all the popes that have ever served in two thousand year? I mean, making clothing…what is that to an apostle, to Peter? But no…my contention is, we misread what’s here if that is how we are thinking.

Think of it this way: there are 1006 verses in the book of Acts, 7956 in the whole New Testament. Those few verses have to communicate the whole gospel to us, so what is chosen to be in there needs to be of utmost importance. Everything we know about Tabitha comes in these 7 verses. A whole life summed up in 7 verses, each one needing to be of incredible importance for us to understand how we can be followers of Jesus.

And we are told about the robes and clothing Tabitha made.

I see this as one of the best examples of how any work, done well, has value as we live as disciples.

A woman’s life of spinning and clothes making, of doing good and helping the poor, is worth being remembered through all the centuries of the church. To do work well, to use our work or our craft for the good of others, is worth remembering and honoring and celebrating, just as being Peter,the major leader of the early church, is worth remembering.

Why is regular, run-of-the-mill work seen as worthwhile? Part of it, scholars believe, is that the early church had a bad reputation in the Roman Empire. The early church in response did its best to hold up good, decent, hard working people as examples of their good values.

It’s interesting to trace the history of the church, and find that once the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, once Christianity became part of the power structure of the empire, the emphasis began to change. Taking vows as a priest or as a nun or a monk increasingly were seen as a “higher” way of living out faith in Jesus. Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation made a conscious effort to hold up hard work and discipline as an essential part of every person with faith in Jesus.

Where the Catholic church of the time emphasized confession and attendance at religious services and the Eucharist as how to live as a disciple, upholding a sacramental way of life, Protestants began to hold up hard work, frugality and discipline. In a sense, they, too, rediscovered Tabitha’s example of what it means to be a disciple.

Perhaps historians will look back on the 20th century as a time when Evangelicals moved back toward the hierarchy, back toward the emphasis on pastors and missionaries. I don’t know. But I think what is clear is that we have rightly been moving the pendulum swing more toward the middle, toward honoring work done well as a faithful way to be a disciple and to transform our little piece of the world for goodness and justice.

Tabitha helps us get that pendulum in a good place!

When I’m gone, I’d love to be known as she was, doing good and working for justice in our world. No one will be holding up my handiwork that I’ve made, I’ll promise you that. But for each of us, perhaps we can remember that there is value in doing our work in a way that helps others, as Tabitha helped the poor.

I began today with the chef Dan Barber, whose energy, work ethic, and curiosity keeps leading him to more and more ways to transform our world for the better. I wonder…in what you do, in how you are wired, in the things you are interested in and care about…in your things, are there ways that your energy and curiosity and hard work might be used to transform the world?

Ask God’s Holy Spirit to challenge and inspire you in this time of open worship, to give you insight into how your work or interests might do good and work for justice in our world as you are a disciple of Jesus.

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