Thursday, May 24, 2007

Provocative, risky, possibly wrong

So I went a risky way today with my sermon. I got mostly positive feedback. Also some cautionary questions, "How is this pastoral?" (it's not, it's for you guys, and I think you can handle not being given answers). Also I don't think they were thrilled that I left them with a question and a struggle whether than telling the answer. I simply wanted to point out that we do this thing and Jesus seems to say that we're not what we think we are. Plus it was fun to get into a voice from scripture that is almost never heard.

Here is Just a Hired Hand, a sermon for my classmates.

Wow. This has been some training, hasn’t it? Three years of study! Who knew it would take so many hours, so many papers, so many languages, so much money – just to learn to look after a bunch of sheep?

I don’t know about you, but when the Boss called and asked if I would be interested in this job, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But now that I’ve been here a while I feel like I’m really getting the hang of things. I’ve got a lot of great historical trivia to tell the sheep. I’ve got all kinds of eschatological theories to discuss with them. I’ve gotten trained on organizing them into sub-flocks by their interests and gifts so I can keep better track of them. I’ve even done an internship with a “test flock” to try out what I’ve learned. Yep, I think I’m pretty set. I’m all ready to graduate and become…

A hired hand.

Wait…didn’t I mean to say I’m becoming a pastor? Well, I don’t know. Let’s think about that. What does “pastor” mean? It means, shepherd, right? And what does Jesus say?

There is one flock, and one shepherd. There is one Pastor. And I ain’t him. And neither are you.

Uh-oh. This is really gonna mess up those business cards they’re printing.

But it’s right here, from the Boss’s mouth to our ears: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep…So there will be one flock, and one shepherd.”

Stay with me now. Who’s allowed in with the sheep? There are thieves and bandits, but they don’t enter by the Boss’s gate. And then there’s the One Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. And then there’s this…hired hand. Comes in by the gate, which means she’s trusted. Is hired, which means she’s been asked to do the work by the Boss. Even gets paid, rewarded, for doing a good job. But still, she is “not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.”

Do you remember: in orientation they told us about the first person hired by the Shepherd? Peter, what a joke. Certainly didn’t have the qualifications we have! I mean, come on, a fisherman? The Boss is sure lucky to have us educated and enlightened people to hire nowadays.

But do you remember what the Pastor did? He asked Peter to “feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say, “I’m making you a pastor – you’re going to be a shepherd like me.” No. He simply says, “Feed MY sheep.” He makes it clear that he is still the owner of the sheep – this mutton is on loan. Peter does Jesus’ will, not his own, when he feeds the lambs. He’s working for Jesus.

Ah. But you don’t wanna be a hired hand, do you? I mean, the hired hand in this story is the bad guy! She’s the person who takes off when the chips are down. He’s the one who doesn’t care about the sheep! Runs scared at the first sign of danger.

Yeah, the Shepherd doesn’t seem to think much of us. He says that when the wolf comes, we’re gonna run. That’s probably why it seems bad to be hired – why we’d like to think we’re actually the Pastor, not some lowly hired hand.

The hired hand runs. The hired hand hides. The hired hand, Jesus says, runs away because she is a hired hand – and doesn’t care for the sheep. Ouch.

Is it part of the definition of being a hired hand that you don’t care for the sheep? Or is that just part of the definition of running away? Maybe Jesus says we don’t care because we run, not because we’re hired. Or, maybe we can’t care - at least, not as much as the Shepherd does about His own flock.

But even if we did lay down our life, that wouldn’t make us the Shepherd! In fact, if we laid down our life, we’d be useless. We’d be dead. In our own power as hired hands, we run, hide, or die – and in any of those situations, the sheep are scattered. We can’t take care of them like the Shepherd does.

But the real Pastor, Jesus, doesn’t have to run from the wolves. He has the power to lay down his life. And not only that, he has the power to take it up again! Jesus can die for the sheep because he goes on living after he does it! His death isn’t an abandonment. In fact, his death saves the sheep. Only the Good Shepherd can lay down his life and take it up again.

So what if we can’t do that? He can! And he did! And that’s good news! The good news is that we aren’t the ones who are supposed to save the sheep. The Shepherd is. Do I hear a collective sigh of relief from the hired hands? I know I’m grateful!

Now, since we know that the sheep are safe, we can take care of them with confidence. We don’t have to fear the wolf anymore – in fact, we could lay down our life, if the Shepherd asked us to. Because we know that he’ll take care of his sheep, no matter what happens to us. And he’ll take care of us, too – for if we are united to him in a death like his, we will be united to him in a resurrection like his.

You know, it’s good to be a hired hand. We’ve been called on by the Good Shepherd to tend his flock! Wow! What an honor!

The Boss hires people to tend his vineyard, to feed his sheep, to sow his seed. It’s totally part of the kingdom to be a hired hand. It means the Pastor trusts us. He’s put his lambs in our hands! He’s given us great responsibility. Much has been given to us – and much will be expected.

We only enter the sheep pen because the Shepherd lets us in. He knows we belong with his sheep (unlike the thieves who try to jump the gate). He knows we belong there because he’s the one who hired us. We are in charge of His sheep, and we feed them, and we love them. We take care of them. But always and only for the Pastor, not as the pastor. If we start thinking WE are the Pastor, we’re gonna get ourselves – and the sheep – into a heap of trouble.

There is only one Shepherd. It’s not about us hired hands. Our only job is to get the sheep to listen to and trust the Shepherd. Not us. Him. The sheep have to see Jesus as their Pastor. Jesus’ sheep know his voice and follow him, and he gives them eternal life. No one, not even the hired hand, can snatch them away from him.

Before you let your part of the Shepherd’s flock start calling you “pastor,” think carefully about what that is implying. You are not the Shepherd. There is only one Shepherd. And you do not own the sheep. The Shepherd has asked you to look after them, feed them, love them. But they don’t belong to you. They belong to Him.

It is our responsibility as hired hands to always point the sheep towards the Pastor. Last week, Paul [that's my classmate] told us about the call of the shepherds, and how sheep know only their shepherd’s voice. So that means we have to imitate the Shepherd as closely as possible, so that when the sheep hear our voice, they really hear the Shepherd’s. We’ve got to listen extra carefully to really know Jesus’ voice. We’ll make him awfully proud if we teach His sheep to hear His voice and to follow Him.

But we can never, ever think we are him. Not even think we “are him for them.” We can never think for a moment that it’s our voice they should follow. There is always only one Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep – and for the hired hands.

Come to think of it, this is probably why we needed all this training: so we could learn the Shepherd’s song perfectly. I don’t want to mess up one note of it. I don’t want to sing my own song. I sure don’t want to compete with the Shepherd! I never want the sheep to think that they’re supposed to follow me, or mistake me for their Pastor.

My job is to point to the Pastor. To help His sheep know Him so well that when He calls, they run to follow Him! Even if that means they leave me behind…that’s OK. I’m just a hired hand.


Anonymous said...

"How is this pastoral?" Seriously. Like "pastoral" means all cute and cuddly, and always making you feel good and crap - for real.

I think you did two really great things here:

1) Pointed to Christ as the Head of the Church, and 2) exemplified the (admittedly non-Anglican, forgive me) maxim "Reformed and always being reformed."

As a renegade Presbyterian, I loved it.

Josephine- said...

Thank you for posting this. As a brand new minted traveler on the road of discernment this might seem like a far off concern but I've tucked it into my bookmarks as something to look back at now and then and remember. Sermons needn't be cute and fuzzy and make you feel good. They should make you think, and force you to examine yourself.

You nailed it.

Edette said...

Ya, I am a little worried about your classmates that did not see this immediatly as exactly what pastoral is! You were speaking to your audience, challenging that exact group of people - that is our job - as hired hands. Maybe your best yet! I am keeping this to read over and over!

Kathryn said...

It put me in my mind of the Oscar Romero quote that "We are ministers, not Messiahs" - which is sometimes such a hard one to keep at the forefront of one's mind in ministry.
Thank you for posting this.