We all watched the news this week as the pictures came from Moore Oklahoma of a devastating tornado. As a mother of two children, I stood in my kitchen spellbound early Monday evening as the live pictures came from Plaza Towers Elementary School. I was watching to see if the children and teachers would all come out alive. Seven children died at that school, and another 17 adults in the town. As I watched the photos I was convinced many more children had died. I needed to cook dinner for the family, but I could not move. I just wanted to see children start walking out or being helped out from the debris, but the photos did not come. It was gut-wrenching.
Eventually the stories have come: the stories of bravery and courage. I saw a couple of teachers interviewed. One was a teacher and also a mother. She talked about what she did to protect the children in her classroom, while worrying about her own children in other classrooms in the same building. Then they showed her walking, the next day, in the rubble, to the place where her child’s classroom had been. Her child’s teacher was there, Mrs. Biddle. The mother/teacher said, “This teacher is my friend. I know she loves her students and I knew she was doing what she could to protect them.”
The reporter there talked to Mrs. Biddle and she told the now familiar story of doing her best to get her children to safety: under their desks, trying to keep them calm. Mrs. Biddle was wearing a necklace with a big medallion on it that said: “Pray big.” She said that she wants parents to know “Your child is my child” all day long. To me, Mrs. Biddle is a disciple. She is definitely not just teaching school to get a paycheck. This is her calling. The other mother/teacher knows that about her friend. These women know that their job is to teach children and to raise them to be compassionate and responsible adults. But in a once-in-a-lifetime tornado, their job is also to do everything they can to save the lives of these children. And that is what these teachers did.
That is being a disciple: using your gifts to help someone else, being the best person you can be, and when it comes to a life or death situation, putting your life on the line for the people you serve.
In the weeks and months after Jesus left this earth, his disciples put into practice what it means to be a disciple. It passed from one person to the next, just like the light from a flame passes from one match to the next.
You know the names of those first disciples: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew. But then there were others: the ones they discipled, and the ones discipled by them as the fire of the Holy Spirit spread. One of them was named Tabitha. In fact, Tabitha was the first woman in the Bible referred to as a disciple.
When we meet Tabitha in scripture, she has just died, but we learn that she had an important ministry as a disciple. She was well known for her ministries of care and helping. It wasn’t complicated. She could sew and she made clothes and cared for the widows. This was an important ministry in her day because, you see, most women did not have any means of income. They were taken care of by their husbands and a widow was left at the mercy and the generosity of friends and neighbors. Tabitha was someone who apparently had the means and the desire to care for the widows. When she died, they were distraught, perhaps not only because their friend died, but because they had lost her help.
While the women were preparing her for burial, some disciples heard Peter was nearby and they sent for him. Peter came to the home where Tabitha was being prepared for burial. He saw the widows in their distress. And then the most amazing thing happened. Peter sent the women out.He knelt and prayed. Then he spoke directly to the body: “Tabitha, get up.”
40-41 She opened her eyes. When she saw Peter, she sat up. He took her hand and helped her up. Then he called in the believers and widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
This miracle comes not long after Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Of course, we have no idea what may have happened. Were they mistaken about her being dead? Did he resuscitate her? Did he really bring someone back from the dead? These early days after the resurrection of Jesus were filled with miracles. We can’t really know what happened for sure. But here is what we do know. Something happened, and because of it, many more people became believers. More people became disciples.
More people became people who:
· pray big,
· who care,
· who do amazing, heroic things in times of crisis
· care for the people that are forgotten by the rest of the world.
You see, Jesus came to make disciples like Peter, James, John, Andrew and Bartholomew and all the rest. And then they led others, and they led others, like Tabitha and her friends who were widows, and in time they led others, and over generation to generation, the discipleship tradition led to us today.
And this week in Moore, OK, some people had their discipleship challenged big time. People are facing some challenges of faith. I had a friend write to me on Facebook this week and say: how do I keep my faith in God when God allows bad things like this tornado to happen? How can God let children die in a tornado? It wasn’t just on Monday, it’s every day.
And I said to her: I don’t believe God chooses to have some people die and other people not die in a tornado or a plane crash or anything else. I don’t think it’s good theology to say that God needed another angel in heaven. I think that the world is just set in motion. But I don’t think God interferes with nature in order to interrupt who will die and who will not. None of us is going to live forever in this physical world. And even though we have the promise of eternal life, it’s always hard when someone dies, an older person, or a child, because we miss them.
We wish for a miracle like the friends of Tabitha got. But disciples do not lose faith in the face of a horrific tragedy like Moore, OK. We may doubt for a while. That’s okay. But then we lean into God. You see, God is right there with the people of Moore, this week. God is weeping with the mothers and fathers who lost their children, and with the others who lost a brother or sister or parent or grandparent or friend. God knows our sorrow and God suffers with us. It’s part of human experience that we’re not going to live forever.
And God is inside all of those brave and courageous disciples living in Moore who did what they had to do to care for their neighbors and who are now going through the hard work of clean up and rebuilding. Without trust and faith in someone greater than themselves, the work of recovery from such a crisis would be almost unbearable. God will see those disciples in Moore through this tragedy.
I know that the word “disciple” is probably not one used in your day-to-day vocabulary. But I want to invite us to reclaim it. Being a disciple is a strong identity. It means that we “get” the ways of Jesus. Someone (or more than one person) has modeled for us the ways of Jesus and we said “yes” to this life. Someone did that for Tabitha. Who in your life has been a disciple and has shown you how to be like Jesus? Can you picture that person?
Someone did that for Tabitha and then she began to use her gifts to help and care for others. She began to “disciple” (using the word as a verb now) the widows and they became disciples. So my question for you is this: Who are you discipling? For whom are you modeling the ways of Jesus – compassion, forgiveness, joy, generosity, humility and all the rest, so that they will claim this way of being a disciple? So that they can see Jesus in you? Can you see a picture of that person in your mind?
If you see the person, I want you to pray for that person every day this week, and be intentional about what it means to be a mentor for that person as a disciple. If you don’t see anyone then I invite you to pray every day this week, and ask God to show you the person that God wants you to mentor as a disciple.
What is a disciple? A disciple is someone who helps and cares and is ready at all times to use their gifts to encourage others. A disciple trusts in God, and a disciple is always looking for someone new to disciple because there is always someone else out there who needs God. So this week, I challenge you to be a disciple by mentoring someone else along the way toward being a disciple. Someone did it for you, and now it is your turn. Amen.