January 24, 2008

Advice From a Sheep: A Sermon for Clergy

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 4:02 am
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Feast Day of the Confession of St. Peter
1 Peter 5: 1-4
Matthew 16: 13-20

Good ShepherdToday is the feast day of the Confession of St. Peter. What could I say to you about Peter that you yourselves have not heard a hundred times before? As I’m sure you know, the passage from the gospel this morning has been controversial in the history of the church, with Roman Catholics interpreting the passage to mean that not only is Peter the rock on whom the church is founded, but that the bishop of Rome—the pope—is the successor of Peter. Western Reformation Christians and Orthodox Christians have interpreted the passage otherwise.

However, I am not sure how edifying a sermon on the various ways in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Reformation Christians have interpreted Matt.16 would be. Given the likely audience at a Jan Term chapel, I would doubt whether many of you are staying awake at night worrying about whether the pope is the rightful successor to Peter. However, as I looked at this passage and especially at the epistle reading from 1 Peter this morning, I realized that you were the proper audience for a different kind of sermon.Let me re-read part of the epistle reading:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to your flock.” (1 Peter. 5:1-3)

I find myself in an unusual situation this morning. I am a lay person, and I find myself speaking to a chapel full of people who are either mostly clergy, or who are studying to some day be clergy. On most Sundays I find the situation reversed. You are the ones that Peter addresses in his epistle as “elders.” The Greek here is presbyteros, sometime translated as pastor or priest. And the English word pastor comes from the Latin word pastor which means “Shepherd.” You are or will be the shepherds, the ones whom Peter exhorts to “shepherd the flock of God.” And, apart from Christ, Peter is the New Testament’s prime example of a Christian Shepherd. In John’s gospel, the risen Christ commands Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Regardless of our theology of the episcopate or the primacy of the pope, we know who Peter’s successors are. You are, or you will be. You are the shepherds, and your job is, as Peter says, “to shepherd the flock of God,” and “to be examples to your flock.”

I, on the other hand, am one of the sheep. I have heard thousands of sermons in my life. I have lived in five states and five different dioceses, I have had the privilege of being a sheep under a number of bishops, and a number of pastors. As a sheep, what advice might I be able to give to you as shepherds? What do I see as I look at this morning’s readings that might provide you some guidance, either as you prepare for ministry, or as you return to your parishes? By the way, I hope what I have to say does not come across as law rather than gospel. Clergy have enough burdens without once more hearing a lay person telling them what they’re doing wrong. Think of this as helpful advice from a sheep who is suggesting what kind of grass he prefers. 1

The first suggestion I would give to you is found in this morning’s gospel. When Jesus asks his disciples who people say that the Son of Man is, they tell him what they have heard in the culture around them. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But when Jesus ask: “Who do you say that I am?,” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This first suggestion has to do with preaching. There are lots of ideas about who Jesus is and what he was about in our culture today, and even in the mainline churches. But if you are properly going to shepherd the flock that God has given you to shepherd, there is only one answer you can give, and Peter is its witness. First, as Peter says in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And, second, as Peter writes in his epistle, he is a witness to Christ’s sufferings. Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God, the incarnate Word become flesh, the second person of the Trinity. What did Jesus do? He became human, he died for our sins, he rose from the dead, and he is coming again. That is the gospel. That is what you are to preach.

One of my most memorable experiences as a sheep occurred when I had just moved into the Episcopal Diocese of CT, and was visiting a church on Palm Sunday. The rector preached a sermon—again, this was on Palm Sunday—in which he claimed that the idea that Jesus had died for our sins was the cause of more suffering and evil than any other idea in the history of humanity. The congregation then stood and said the Creed. I walked out, and did not return to that parish. I once heard another sermon preached on Easter Sunday in which the rector—who was later a candidate for bishop—claimed that the good news of Christianity is that we do not have to believe that Jesus has risen bodily from the grave.

My advice? If you find yourself in a situation when you no longer believe the good news or you don’t believe it is good news any more, don’t preach. Find another job. Get a new spiritual director. Take a sabbatical to sort things out. But don’t preach your unbelief from the pulpit.

I do not think for a minute that anyone taking classes at Trinity could imagine preaching such sermons, but unfortunately orthodox theology does not necessarily mean sound preaching. At one parish I used to attend when I was doing my doctoral work, the priest’s theology was quite orthodox, and everyone loved him. But the joke among some of the graduate students was that he had only two sermons—a love sermon and a sin sermon—and he was for one, and against the other. And he preached the same two sermons over and over again. Yes, we sheep in the pews can be cruel.

But the point I think, is this. Clergy need to know the Scriptures, and they need to know the central themes of the Scriptures; your theology and spirituality needs to be formed by the central content of the Scriptures, and that is what you should preach about. Your pet political causes are not the gospel. Moralistic exhortations about what people should or should not do, are not the gospel, even if you preach about love or sin. And, although, as a theologian, it is painful for me to say, even your favorite theological commitments are not the gospel. The gospel is not a doctrine about imputation or infusion or predestination or free will. (Yes, I once heard a bishop preach a sermon about the doctrine of free will.) The gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead, and is coming again. The good news is about Jesus Christ, and his person and work, and that is what you need to come back to in your preaching, over and over.

You should know the doctrines and the theology, and they should inform your preaching, but you should never forget that the doctrines serve the gospel, not the other way around. Of course, if the doctrines help the sheep understand the gospel, then by all means preach on the doctrine. One test of the soundness of a doctrine is whether it can be preached.

The second suggestion that I have to give has to do with the keys. Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, and tells him “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

What are the keys? What is this power of “binding and loosing”? I am going to turn to an unexpected source for the answer to that question, the Anglican Reformer John Jewel. In Jewel’s Apology for the Church of England, he says that “we” (meaning “we Anglicans”) “believe that ministers have received of Christ the power of binding and loosing, of opening and shutting; that the power of loosing consists in this—that the minister offers, by the preaching of the gospel, the merits of Christ, and absolution, to the contrite and truly penitent; and declares to them the forgiveness of their sins, and the hope of everlasting salvation. . . . And the authority of binding and shutting we say he exerciseth, as often as he shuts the door of the kingdom of heaven to the obstinate and unbelieving . . .” And this is where it really gets interesting. Jewel goes on to say: “And we believe that whatever sentence the ministers of God thus execute, God himself doth so sanction, that whatsoever is by their means loosed or bound here upon earth, the same it is his pleasure to loose and bind, and ratify in heaven.”1

Some might think that an incredible statement for an Anglican Reformer to make. It sounds, well, Catholic. Jewel is saying that there is a very real sense in which you as ministers act in the place of the Chief Shepherd on behalf of your flock. You have the power to pronounce forgiveness. Jewel is also very quick to add that the keys which give you this power are, in his words, “the knowledge of Scripture,” but the point is, I think, that there is an objectivity to your ministry. You do not act on your own authority. It is not your charismatic personality, or your clever jokes in the pulpit that gives you your authority. Your ministry as shepherds is a sharing in the ministry of the One Shepherd. Your authority as shepherds is objective in that it comes from outside yourself. The only authority you have is that which you share with the risen Christ. That is the authority of the keys. It is an awesome responsibility.

And this leads me to a point that is not in our readings this morning, but I think is implied in them. Reformation theology says that the Church is present when the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered. The objectivity of preaching is that its message is found outside the preacher’s own words in the incarnate and risen Word, witnessed to in the inspired Word of Scripture.

But there is another objectivity about the ministry. I think we could make a case that the objectivity of the keys has to do not only with the proclamation of the Word of forgiveness, but to a great extent with the objectivity of the sacraments and of worship. As ministers, you pronounce forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s authority, not of your own. But, also, as minister, one of your functions is to celebrate the sacraments, and to lead worship. And I think it important to emphasize that worship also is something objective. It is something given, something objective. As a minister, your priesthood is a sharing in the priesthood of the risen Christ. Historically, that is the patristic understanding of worship. And it is echoed in the Reformed and Anglican tradition. We lift up our hearts because the risen Christ mediates for us at the right hand of the Father. Worship is not something we make up for ourselves.

This is just the baaing of one sheep. And you are welcome to make of it what you will. As shepherds, your chief job in leading worship is to help the congregation share in something objective that has been given to the church. As Anglicans, we have something really precious in the liturgy. Prayer Book worship is rooted in a history that goes back almost two thousand years. The basic structure of worship in Word and Sacrament can be found in the writings of Justin Martyr in the second century. Our hymnal contains hymns from every era of the church’s history. The theology of many of those hymns is profound.

As clergy, it is not your responsibility to create something new or clever. Worship is not entertainment. It is not about manipulating emotions. Nor is worship just about change for the sake of change. C. S. Lewis talks about this a little in his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer when he complains about liturgical novelty. It is distracting, Lewis complains, constantly to be asking oneself “What on earth is he up to now?” Lewis reminds the clergy: “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”3

My third suggestion comes from the 1 Peter reading. Peter says: “Shepherd the flock among you, exercising authority, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Of the suggestions I am going to make, this is perhaps the most difficult. I have been friends of clergy most of my life. Indeed, probably more of my friends are clergy than are lay people. But I am going to alert to you something that I think has been a serious problem in the Episcopal Church. Despite the talk of lay ministry that has been a mantra in the Episcopal Church, our church really is extremely clerical. One of the reasons the Episcopal Church is in the mess it is in right now is that the liberal Clergy have adopted a self-understanding of superiority to the uninformed laity. I am speaking from experience here. As some of you probably know, I stood in a parking lot in Bristol, CT for an entire day after the bishop and twelve others invaded our building, changed the locks on the doors, and hired two IT specialists to hack into our office computer. When the bishop met with us as a congregation a couple of days later, he was baffled, I think, to discover that we laity were quite willing to stand up to him. He dealt with our opposition by having his priest in-charge dismiss all of us who were on the vestry.

It is my hope that as realignment takes place, our bishops and priests will not make the same mistakes as their predecessors did. At any rate, for those of you who still are clergy or will soon be clergy, and who are not yet bishops. Listen to the laity in your parishes. Care for them. Visit them. Cultivate friendships with them. That is part of what pastoral care is about.

There is great advice about such pastoral care in George Herbert’s little book, The Country Parson. I suggest you read it sometime. Herbert suggests that one of the chief jobs of the parson is to get to know his people, to visit them in their homes, and as they go about their day-to-day business. Herbert notes that no parishioner is beneath the pastor’s notice: “Wherefore neither disdaineth he to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell never so loathsomely; for both God is there also, and those for whom God died.”4

There is another point that I feel I need to add to this bit about pastoral care, one also emphasized in George Herbert. As clergy, you need to be men and women of prayer. And you need to teach your laity about that. There is a whole tradition of spiritual direction and guidance not only among Anglicans like George Herbert, but also among Catholics and Protestant pietists. In my church history class this term, some of the most interesting student discussions took place the day we read Philip Spener, one of the founders of pietism. You could do worse than getting familiar with Herbert and Spener.

This is my last sheepish bleat, and then I am done. Martha Giltinan, our Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry here, gives a required assignment to her students in which they have to write out 100 times in longhand, “I am not God. I am just a priest.” As we look at our gospel reading this morning, we find Peter in a high point of his career as a disciple. When Jesus asks the one important question, Peter is the one who gets it right. And Jesus pronounces him blessed—“On this rock I will build my church.” If we look at the very next paragraph, however, Peter goes from the heights of glory to the utmost depths. Immediately following Peter’s confession, Jesus announces that his way leads to Jerusalem and death, and Peter takes him aside to set him straight. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” And we all know Jesus’ response to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” That’s gonna leave a mark.

We know, of course, that Peter eventually gets it right. But first he denies Jesus three times. My last piece of sheepish advice to those of you who are shepherds or who will be shepherds is this. Like death and taxes, there is one inevitable certainty about your ministry. You will fail. Not all the time, and not every day. But it will happen. I have seen friends of mine who are clergy fail in some fairly catastrophic ways. Some have divorced. One of my closest friends almost divorced, although his marriage is going strong fifteen years later. Conflicts between clergy and vestry or parishioners or clergy and bishops seem to be par for the course. Laity can be vicious to their priests. Clergy have one of the highest job dismissal rates of any occupation. If you’re a priest, you’ve got something like a one in three chance of being fired.

The church can deal with this in one of two ways. We can continue to pretend that clergy, unlike the rest, of us, are not sinners, and do not fail. Or we can recognize that the ministry is a calling for ordinary sinners. And clergy, like everyone else, are saved by grace.

That recognition can be helpful for those of you who are pastors, or hope to become pastors, because it will help you remember that the survival of the church depends on Christ; it does not depend on you. And because you know that the survival of the Church does not depend on you, you can count on the promise with which the epistle reading ends this morning: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

I am going to conclude with one of my favorite readings from Martin Luther.

It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

As it says in Hebrews 13: “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and today, and forever.” And in Rev. 1: Which was, and is, and is to come.”

For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, but the Church was preserved without us, and it was done by the One of whom it says, “Who was” and “Yesterday.”

Again, we do not do it in our life-time, for the Church is not upheld by us. . . . For us, the Church would perish before our very eyes, and we with it . . . were it not for that other Man who manifestly upholds the Church and us. . . . We must needs give ourselves to the One of whom it is said, “Who Is,” and “Today.”

Again, we can do nothing to sustain the Church when we are dead. But he will do it of whom it is said, “Who will come,” and “forever.”

May Christ our dear God and the Bishop of our souls, which he has bought with his own precious blood, sustain his little flock by the might of his own Word, that it may increase and grow in grace and knowledge and faith in him. May he comfort and strengthen it, that it may be firm and steadfast against all the crafts and assaults of Satan and this wicked world, and may he hear its hearty groaning and anxious waiting and longing for the joyful day of his glorious coming and appearing. Amen.5

1. I wish I could claim credit for this clever idea of having a sheep address his shepherds. I am blatantly borrowing it (including the bleating) from C. S. Lewis who thought of it first in his essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticsm,” Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), 152-166, ed. Walter Hooper.

2. John Jewel, An Apology of the Church of England (Cambridge: J. H. Parker, 1839), 32-35.

3. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963, 1964), 5.

4. George Herbert, The Country Parson, ch. 14.

5. Martin Luther, W.A. 54, 470 and 474 f. shortened from a citation by Karl Barth, “In Place of a Foreword,” Church Dogmatics, ed. G.W Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956), xi.

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