To Serve the Lord
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 12, 2017
Scripture: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Amos 5:18-24
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Not many of you were here last week to hear the first part of this sermon series on servant leadership, so I’ll give you a brief recap of what I said in that sermon. I said that servant leadership was a phrase I heard over and over again in seminary. It is the kind of leadership we were trained to do, not that any of us does it anything close to perfectly. I said that the servant part of the phrase servant leadership meant that a leader must lead for the benefit of the people she or he leads and not primarily for his or her own benefit. Servant leadership is leadership that puts the other first, that weighs the benefit of an action or statement for those one leads more than the benefit for the leader. I ended that sermon by saying that there is another word in the phrase servant leader, namely of course leader, that I would focus on more this week. So here goes.
What does it mean to be a leader? It means of course to lead, but in what sense does a servant leader lead? If the servant leader is to look out most of all for the benefit of those led, in what sense is a servant leader a leader at all? That question really boils down to another one: Just what does benefit a group that the leader leads? That question is actually one that sometimes gets the leader sideways with the group he or she leads, perhaps most of all when the leader is a parish minister and the group led is a congregation. I think that happened here between some of you and me. My experience here tells me that getting a clearer understanding of the leadership role of a pastor could do this congregation a lot of good. So let me talk specifically about at least one way in which a good pastor leads as well as serves a congregation. And I want to do that by introducing you to what we call “the 3 p’s” of the parish minister’s office.
I was introduced to thinking about the call of a parish minister in terms of the 3 p’s early in my time in ministry. It is a traditional way of thinking of the parish minister’s call that I find quite useful. The 3 p’s of pastoral leadership designate three roles that a minister of a church is called to fill. The ordained minister is called to be priest, pastor, and prophet. Those are the 3 p’s: priest, pastor, and prophet. Now of course in our Congregationalist tradition the ordained minister isn’t a priest in the technical sense because he neither offers sacrifice nor mediates between the people and God. In our context, however, the minister does perform priestly functions. That means that she presides at the sacraments of baptism and Communion and otherwise leads the community in worship. That’s the priest p.
The pastoral p is the function of caring for the congregation. The minister exercises the pastoral part of her call first of all when she is paying a pastoral visit on a member of her church. That visit may be in a hospital, or at the parishioner’s home, or at the church, or most anywhere. In the pastoral function the minister seeks to be present with and for a parishioner or the entire congregation in every setting in which the minister is in contact with the church or any member of it. The priestly and pastoral aspects of an ordained minister’s call rarely cause friction between the minister and the church. But there is that third p, prophet. That one causes trouble sometimes, and it is the one I want to focus on this morning.
What is a prophet? In common usage prophet has come largely to mean someone who predicts the future. In the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, however, prophet actually means something different. Especially in the Old Testament being a prophet is only partly about predicting the future. Yes, many of the Hebrew prophets whose sayings made the cut into the Bible predicted bad times ahead for Israel and Judah that indeed occurred, but that isn’t primarily why they are important to us. We see a good example of what the Hebrew prophets were all about and of how predicting the future relates to their work in our passage from Amos.
That passage begins with Amos predicting a bad day coming for Israel. He says: “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!...That day will be darkness, not light.” Amos 5:18 He goes on about what that “day of the Lord” will be like, and it isn’t pretty. It will be a day, he says, of darkness, pain, and fear. OK, there Amos is predicting the future. But notice how then the tone, the format of the passage changes. All of a sudden the text has the prophet speaking in the name of the Lord. The text says “I hate, I despise your religious feasts….” Amos 5:21 It isn’t Amos who hates Israel’s religious feasts, although he may well have hated them. It is God who hates them. Speaking a word from God Amos says that all of Israel’s worship, their sacrifices, their songs, their music, God will not accept. The passage ends with God saying “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24 In that last line we see what the Hebrew prophets are mostly about. Yes, they predict the future; but mostly what they do is proclaim a word of Israel’s God. And that word is almost always about two things. We see one of those two things here. The one we don’t see so much is a demand that the people worship only Yahweh. The one we do see is God’s demand that the people, and especially the rulers of the people, do justice. “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” That’s primarily what a prophet is, someone who has heard a word from God and is called to share it with the world. And the most important word the Hebrew prophets heard from God was God’s demand for justice.
In the Bible a prophet is less one who predicts the future and more one who brings a word from God. And in the Bible the people to whom the prophets spoke their word from God mostly didn’t want to hear it. Do you think the rulers of 8th century BCE Israel wanted to hear Amos call them on their injustice to the poor and vulnerable? Do you think they wanted to hear him cry that God was going to plunge them into darkness, fear, and pain because they didn’t do justice for the poor and the vulnerable? I very much doubt that they did. Rulers, be they kings or democratically elected representatives, don’t much like being told that they are ruling unjustly, especially when they are ruling unjustly. That the rulers of Israel didn’t want to hear what Amos had to say didn’t stop him from saying it. That the Romans and their allies in the temple leadership more than seven hundred years after Amos didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say didn’t stop Jesus from saying it. The thing about true prophecy is that the prophet who feels called to bring it has to say it, and does say it, even or especially when his or her audience doesn’t want to hear it.
So what does that mean for the parish minister part of whose call is to be a prophet? It means that when she or he acts as a prophet she or he can and often does get in big trouble with her or his congregation, or at least part of it. There is a fundamental tension in the local parish church in our time between a minister who believes he is called to proclaim all of God’s truth as far as he knows it, to proclaim all of the Gospel as far as she knows it, and people in the congregation who don’t want to be challenged, who want to hear only positive things from the pulpit, who want only to be comforted and lifted up in the worship service. And yes, the word of God’s unfailing love, God’s eternal care for each and every person, God’s presence that can get us through whatever it is we must face in life—all of that is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ too. An important part. A life-enhancing, uplifting, joyous part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But it is not all of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Jesus brought us our ultimate revelation of God’s love, but he also brought us God’s demand that we transform our hearts and our lives from bondage to the ways of the world into the freedom of the ways of God. He brought God’s demand that we live lives of justice and that we demand justice from our rulers, justice for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the ones the rulers don’t hear, the ones the rulers want to ignore at best and suppress at worst. Jesus didn’t think most of the people he preached too were bad people, but he knew that they needed to hear a new word from God. They needed a call to transform their hearts and their lives. Those in positions of privilege and power needed to hear it most of all, but everyone else needed to hear it too. Did they all want to hear it? Heavens no! Did that stop him from preaching it? Most certainly not!
Now, everyone I know in parish ministry, myself included, knows full well that we aren’t Jesus, I probably less than most. No, we parish ministers aren’t Jesus. No, I am not Jesus. Certainly not. We’re not even Amos, but all (or at least most) of us in parish ministry have discerned a call from the Holy Spirit to be ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That call is not limited to the call to be a prophet, but it includes the call to be a prophet. And when God calls a man or a woman to be a prophet, God calls that person to be a prophet whether all of the people of the person’s parish want to hear prophecy or not. That’s why the prophet part of the 3 p’s gets ministers in trouble with their congregation. It gets us in trouble with our congregations, or with parts of them, because people don’t always want to hear what we are called to say.
Which brings us back to the leader part of servant leader. A leader, especially in a church, has discerned a call. A pastor leader in a church has a call that some of his people won’t understand. He has a call to say things they don’t want to hear. If he refuses to say what God is calling him to say because some people don’t want to hear it he is no kind of leader. A leader has a vision, or at least should have. A church pastor has (or at least should have) studied the Bible and other aspects of the Christian faith for years. A church pastor does (or at least should) keep on top of the best recent developments in Christian theology and share them with her people. Even if they don’t want to hear it.
Folks, a parish minister is a leader not a follower. Or at least not only a follower. A parish minister’s call comes on one level from the congregation, but on a much deeper level it comes from God. That doesn’t make us perfect. It doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. We all do. It does mean that while on one level we are responsible to our congregation, on a much deeper level we are responsible to a power far greater than that congregation. We are responsible to God the Holy Spirit. And if we ever let the fact that some of our people don’t like something we are convinced the Holy Spirit is calling us to do or to say stop us from doing it or saying it we have failed in our response to our deepest call. And if we fail in that deeper call we will fail in the call of our congregation too, for that congregational call to be authentic must be grounded in the deeper call of the Holy Spirit.
So. Being a leader doesn’t always make you popular. It’s not supposed to make you popular. It’s supposed to make you lead, and sometimes you have to lead where your people don’t want to follow. So be it. If the congregation can accept a pastor’s leadership whether they like it or not the pastorate can be a successful one. If it cannot, that pastorate will fail; and many do. That is not to say that anyone in a congregation must or should accept anything any minister says without doing her or his own prayerful discernment. We are all called to do our own work around all issues of faith and never to accept anything uncritically. That work will probably lead you to agree with somethings your parish minister says and disagree with others. That is how it should be. The issue is whether you can accept your minister’s ministry when you disagree with some of the things she or he does or says.
You are or soon will be looking for new pastoral leadership. As you do I hope you will understand that the pastor’s call is to love you, but it is also to lead you; and you may not always like that leadership. So be it. Jesus’ leadership of the people got him crucified. A pastor’s leadership of her people sometimes gets her fired, or causes her to resign. As you look for new pastoral leadership for this church I pray that you will be open to men and women who truly have been called by God to be your leader; and when they lead you’ll listen. Listen critically, but listen. I ask you now to be prepared to be loved, but also prepare to be challenged. That’s what authentic ministry does. Amen.