Monday, May 04, 2009

A church of one

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-21
******** United Church of Christ
May 3, 2009

I grew up in the United Church of Christ, in a congregation on the south shore of Massachusetts that was a new church start in the mid-sixties. It was and still is a very unusual church, from its architecture to its mission and energy. It was there that I began to hear the call to pastoral ministry.

During the time that I was there, from nine years old until I my second year in seminary, my pastor was the Rev. David Nordstrom.* Like the meaning of his name in Hebrew, he was nothing short of beloved. He was a charismatic preacher, an exceptional storyteller, a compassionate pastor who knew how to listen and how to give counsel, and an engaging person of faith. He knew how to inspire people, how to raise up leaders from the congregation, and how to build a community of transformation. Just by being in his presence you knew you were valued and loved.

It was a heady time for this church. During his 19-year tenure, membership increased from the original 151 charter members to over 600, requiring a doubling in size of the physical church. An Associate Pastor, the Rev. Judith McConaughey, was called and added to the growing staff of the church. When I was in the high school youth group, it reached an all-time high of over 100 kids. Mission and service were our fruits of the Spirit, forming hands-on connections to inner city missions, Habitat for Humanity, Alcoholics Anonymous, a mission in Mound Bayou, MS, eye care clinics in El Salvador and more. In that church people felt like they could accomplish anything.

The church had, however, become dependent on this gifted, spiritual leader without even knowing it. He was the apparent center from which the congregation’s energy emerged. When he announced that he would be leaving for another church in the Midwest, it was as though he had said he was leaving us for another woman. The church’s grief was palpable. He hadn’t been just our pastor but a fundamental aspect of our experience of God.

The anger at his leaving came during the interim period, when the church called as its interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, a former president of the United Church of Christ. Hurting with rage for their former pastor, the congregation devoured this gentle, learned leader with such force that he stayed barely a year. Judith, the Associate Pastor remained at the church, now as Pastor. Soon a young graduate from Andover Newton, Doug Johansen, who had been a seminarian at this church, temporarily joined the staff also with the title and role of Pastor. Within two years, a settled senior pastor, the Rev. David Stromberg, was called. But as one might expect, the church still not having a proper interim period, there was conflict between the congregation, the new Senior Pastor and Judith, who had assumed the role of Pastor quite well and did not wish to be an Associate again. The church devoured David Stromberg and he also stayed only for a year.

David Nordstrom resigned in 1988. It was not until 1993, after Judith had resigned as well, after another interim pastor, that the church would finally be able to deal with its anger and grief and move on to a time of healing with the Rev. Susan Stone as a settled pastor. For the past ten years the church has been thriving under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Chapman Gardner.

I share this story with you to demonstrate how very common it is that congregations who allow themselves to become dependent on their pastors, that when the pastor leaves, grief, anxiety and anger are to be expected, even when the pastor was greatly loved, perhaps even especially then. It can feel as though the bottom has dropped out of the church, that, in the context of the scripture readings this morning, that the shepherd has left the sheep to fend for themselves. Or that the shepherd was really only the hired hand, who ran off in search of other sheep to tend, in safer, more greener pastures.

The word ‘pastor’ is, in fact, defined as ‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’. It goes along with that old joke that ministers don’t retire, they just go out to pastor. And a pastor is a shepherd of sorts, guiding the congregation as though it were a flock of sheep, through the dark valleys and rocky climes to those places of spiritual nourishment and fulfillment. Lately though, leading a congregation, whether by lay or ordained leadership, has been referred to as ‘herding cats’, those independent creatures with minds of their own, who will do what they want to, when they want to and not when it’s your idea.

But in truth, the reading from the gospel of John is not speaking of pastors. The Good Shepherd is Jesus the Christ, the crucified and risen One. The shepherd is the owner of the sheep as well as their manager. The simplest of covenants is this: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” And it is through Christ that we know this claim upon our lives, my life as well as yours and our life together as a church. We do not own the church, we are not the head of the church—the church is Christ’s and we belong to him. We are his stewards, his caretakers, as well as his sheep. Sometimes we can behave like the hired hand who is not as invested as the shepherd, and we run when faced with thieves, bandits and wolves who would take the sheep and scatter them. Sometimes we act like thieves, bandits or wolves in our fear and anger, dividing and scattering the flock, devouring our leaders and each other, especially when it can seem as though the shepherd has abandoned us. And we are also sheep, who just want to be loved and cared for, in safety and peace.

The word ‘sheep’ is the same for both singular and plural. We can’t refer to one without referring to all. The welfare of all the sheep hangs together. When we act or when we pray or when we speak, we do so not as one individual but for the benefit or harm of the whole flock. And so often we can be like sheep: stubborn, timid, easily frightened, with a herd mentality, following one another into dangerous territory when we wander away from the voice of our shepherd.

Often in the church we talk a great deal about communication: about how we need to communicate better with one another, get the news out to everyone so no one is left out of the conversation. What we don’t talk about as much is forgiveness when that communication inevitably breaks down. Jesus came to teach us how to love and how to forgive. He did not come to teach us how to communicate, but how to have communion with one another, and not solely this sacred meal.

Indeed, Jesus, our good shepherd, our Lord, continually prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies—and our enemies aren’t other sheep. Our enemies are self-absorption, self-deception. So often are we at the center of our awareness that we forget that others see themselves as the center of their awareness. Many times those around us are on the margins of our awareness.

In order to have communion with one another, ultimately we must be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others, to place our focus on the welfare of all and to surrender to Christ’s claim upon us. Being a church is supposed to turn our bent toward politics on its head: rather than what’s in it for me and my cohort, following the other sheep and their fears, how can I listen to the shepherd’s voice and be of service to the shepherd and to the flock, the church, the wholeness of all? We are one not because we are sheep or because we are united in what we believe but because we are loved by one willing to lay down his life for us, that we might know how rare and precious we are, claimed and called as children of God.

At the end of the day, what we’re all about is the care of souls in a way that is safe and trustworthy for everyone. This church may be Open and Affirming, but is it a place where everyone is listened to with equal weight, where all feel safe to voice their opinions and feelings? The interim period can often bring out the worst in a church, because the church feels lost and insecure without a settled pastor, one who is as invested in your future as you are.

My role as interim pastor is to observe how you are a church, to perceive and to inform you of the patterns of dysfunction that are preventing you from being an effective witness to the risen Christ, the good shepherd. I am also called to be a non-anxious, loving, compassionate presence to guide you and build you up. I am invested in your future but only to encourage you to be even more invested in your own future as a church.

Sadly, sometimes thankfully, pastors come and go. But the Good Shepherd, Jesus the Christ, the risen One, is constant and his love for you never ends. Let this love enfold your grief, your anxiety, your anger. Allow this love to shape you, guide you, sustain you and hold you together. Any action, any word spoken that does not come from love can only serve to divide and scatter, to devour and ultimately, hurt. Love one another as Christ has loved and continues to love you. In this way will you find the right path, the green pasture, the still waters, the restoration of your souls. Surely then will goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in the house of the Lord your whole life long. Amen.

*All names have been changed, with the exception of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, who passed away April 2008.


Andy said... are things at your new parish? ;-)

Cynthia said...

Well, if you can guess by some of the sermon, a few are behaving like sheep. It's busy, challenging, but also good.

The irony is that I need to allow myself to be led by the shepherd as well. I need as much guidance as I can get. I'll be attending a three-day introductory course on interim ministry the end of this month. I know it won't be a magic wand, but some helpful pointers would do wonders.

All good thoughts and prayers are greatly appreciated, dear friend. Thanks for asking.

Marez said...

Hey Rob, are you doing an interim? Where?
Fascinating work! I am on the national training team here...although we call it transitional ministry!
Haven't been in blog land for months and months!