31 May 2012

After 25 Years

“Don’t quit your day job!” I remember one of my elders saying that to me once, in the kindest of ways, after hearing me play guitar. He’s a fan of my musical efforts, don’t get me wrong. But he knows a hobby when he hears one, and he knows what he needs from his pastor. He is one of my encouragements in the Ministry, as are others. When he heard that we were taking a summer-hiatus from our normal Wednesday Vespers, due to vacation schedules and what-not, he told me, “I understand, but I will miss it.” He lives from my day job and doesn’t want me to quit it! I am his pastor.

He was with me the week before last on Wednesday night as we worked toward a completion of our study of the epistle of James. I read from the third chapter . . .

ESV James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Becoming a pastor-teacher in Christ’s Church is no hobby. It’s not even a job, really, not in the sense that we normally think. Our Lord warned against the hireling mentality, being “in it” for the money, or the security, to please men and so win their accolades and favor. That is a temptation, to be sure. We are all liable to stumble, as St. James says in the very next verse . . .

ESV James 3:2 For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

Part of that stumbling is the desire to be more than our Master and Teacher, Jesus, Who was despised, rejected, spoken against and finally rejected. Who wants THAT in a job description? “Be a pastor and be as offensive as a man can be!” You won’t even need to try. Just be faithful. Just repeat what you have been given to say, and hand on what you have received. Act as if you are not the CEO but a servant – a male nurse who has no authority to change the Doctor’s prescription; you are under His orders. Act like the waiter who cannot change what the Chef has prepared. Serve, don’t get cocky, and see where it gets you.

We can stumble in how we do that, of course. We can be jerks. We can get too familiar; you know, like the waiter who somehow thinks he’s there to make jokes, be your buddy, entertain instead of serve. I find such waiters fairly transparent. I know they are aiming at a higher tip. If they schmooze me, I will up the offering from 15 to 18, maybe 20 percent!

Hey, if it works when waiting tables at restaurants, maybe it will work for those who serve before the Table of the Lord. It only stands to reason. So, we stumble. It’s hard not to. We like to be liked. At least I do. “Like” is the big deal these days, from Facebook to YouTube. We are pleasers of men and we watch the indicators to see how we are doing. Are the pews filling up and staying full? Do people come, even on Wednesday nights? Even when it’s raining? Even when the local gal is in the top ten of American Idol?

Not one of us is immune. That’s why James warns against just anyone jumping into this thing called Holy Ministry. It’s no child’s play. No hobby. Not something you pursue half-heartedly while keeping your day job. That isn’t to say a man can’t be a pastor and something else at the same time. He surely can. St. Paul was a tent-maker, and he plied his trade for a reason; so that he needn’t be a burden on others. He didn’t do it to get rich. He did it so that he might continue pouring out the Gifts of God’s Heavenly Treasures to people who direly needed such service. He made tents so that He could continue serving in the stead of the Word Made Flesh, Who continues to tent or tabernacle among us in the Church through the Ministry of His Gospel. St. Paul sewed so he could continue sowing the Seed of God’s Word of Grace. Tent making supplied his daily needs so that Eternal Ones might be provided free of charge.

It may behoove a young pastor today to have a fall-back, like St. Paul’s. As for me? My music won’t do it. It’s just a hobby. I’ll have to be a bit more conventional if the suffering of the Servant Jesus ever rises to a level that I need another way to keep a roof above my head. The Lord will provide even then, and His Gifts will still be given – freely.

Why am I writing this? Because of what St. James says and what I’ve learned after 25 years in the Ministry. I am not a pastor because my “likes” outnumber my dislikes. I’m not a pastor because I can wail on a sermon the way my guitar heroes wail on a six string. This isn’t a talent show, and if it were, America wouldn’t know how to vote. The world never does. That anyone believes the Gospel – that by the death of a Man and His resurrection and ascension at the right hand of God as true God Himself – that anyone believes the benefits of that are poured over us in Baptism, spoken into our ears through preaching, teaching and the Absolution of a man who shows himself far less polished, practiced or professional than those who regularly entertain us with their music and acting – is an outright miracle! The world puts millions of dollars into a single hour of entertainment, and countless man and woman hours go into those sixty or ninety minutes our people sit enthralled. Pastors wrestle over a text for a week and then give birth on Sunday morning. It is often raw and messy and if you recorded it and put it up on YouTube, only a few would ever take the time to watch it, much less like it and share.

If this is a job, then pastors are crazy – at least the ones are who hold fast to all that God has given in His Son! We can find those who have found ways to appease the masses and plug into the likes of this world, so they flourish. They say what itching ears want to hear. They can prove their success with statistical reports and slick styles that really do entertain. I’ll admit it. I even find myself feeling a little jealous. Why can’t I do that, too?

Answer: Because I’m not as slick and skilled and stylish as others. I’m just not as good. I could try, but it would come off a bit clunky, like me trying to be the next American Idol when I really haven’t got the chops. Of course, the REAL reason I can’t do that is that it’s not what the Lord has put pastors in place to do or be. We are tempted to please men. We are called and ordained to serve them, whether they like or like it not, and that just plain isn’t easy. It goes against every competitive fiber of my being!

That’s why not everyone should desire to be a teacher in the church. Men’s souls are at stake, including those of the men who serve. We will be tempted at every turn to want to make the top ten with the world, to garner the votes that keep us in the running. Crosses aren’t popular or pleasant. We’d rather have couches, with big screens and top-notch music, the kind that rocks! I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’m not tempted in the same way. I am, and that’s why I’m increasingly concerned when our Synod makes it easier for men to more quickly take up the mantle of pastoral service. I worry for them. Maybe they are stronger than I. Maybe they, like Luther’s hypothetical man who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, deserve to be made immediately a doctor of Holy Writ. Lacking that, I wonder what we are doing, rushing men into service, even before they are ordained?

Ordination doesn’t make a man indelibly worthy. It doesn’t give him super powers. St. Paul mentions the Spirit’s gift given Timothy at his ordination, so when the Lord puts a man into Office as His servant, He provides. I know that much. He provides His Word, and bids us take it seriously. For that, we are to be taken captive by it, daily and much. What else have we got? Faith comes by hearing, and that hearing only comes by the preaching of Christ; the preaching that is not me trying to win anyone’s approval, but me being gotten out of the way as much as possible so that the Word of the Lord is heard.

That’s hard. It’s scary. I don’t want to be diminished so that He may increase! When He does, I don't want to be taken to the brow of any hill to be cast off. I don’t want anyone picking up stones to stone me, and after 25 years, no one has hurled a single hymnal at my head. If they did, I wasn’t looking and it didn’t get very far. Makes me wonder about the times I’ve heard a hymnal go crashing to the floor! What it also makes me wonder is: Am I loving God’s people as Christ did, even to the point of saying what they least want to hear but most need?

I know the answer to that. No. I am not loving God’s people like that, but Christ is. So, it’s good advice to warn eager young men against rushing into where even angels fear to tread, namely, the Office of Christ. Oh, pursue it, but pray that it crush you before you dare speak. Explore if it’s something to which the Lord has a desire to call you. Study. Read. Talk to people. Pray. Then, go to the seminary. Yes, I know there are alternative routes available, and I’m not saying that alternates can’t be good. I’m pursuing my dream of being a rock star, of sorts. YouTube gives me that option. But few who make it as rock stars get where they want by doing what I’m doing via YouTube. Most invest themselves fully in what they want to be, and that’s what I’d advise anyone wanting to be a pastor.

Go to the seminary. Be crushed, broken and reshaped. Learn some humility. Learn that you have no right and no business being a pastor, but God must call someone, and so He puts men into place who are frail and sinful and oh-so-apt to stumble and stray. Our greatest threat is to think too much of ourselves and our authority. We do that, wanting to tweak the show from week to week so we stay in the running. We know how the game works. Everyone else does too. That’s why St. James warns us as he does. That’s why one of the hardest things for God to do is unmake a man from what he thinks people want so that they get what they really need: Christ – the unpopular – Christ – the uncool – Christ – the One Who can drive a crowd away with a single sermon – Christ, the crucified and risen, our Savior, our Baptizer, our Absolver, our Server, our Chef as well as the Main Course. Christ – our Pastor – and the Only One Who is worth having in the man who finally becomes a teacher in the Church.

Believe me, after 25 years, I'm still learning that, and Christ is still blessedly teaching me!


Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Well said, Pr. Sawyer. Thank you for this wisdom of the Cross and of the Gospel. Christ be praised for His gracious care of both His pastors and His sheep.

Chuk Gottschall said...

Thank you for this post. I've saved it to read again, since I'm in the process of applying to one of our seminaries.