Perhaps you've heard the story of the preacher who was a golf fanatic. One Sunday morning, he woke up and the weather outside was just beautiful - just the sort of day that he would have loved to spend out on the greens. So he made a rash decision. He decided that he was going to skip church.
The preacher called up his lay leader and said, "I'm so sorry but I'm very sick. Can you cover for me today?" Then he put on his golf duds and headed out to the golf course in the next town.
Of course, God is watching all of this from the heavenly precincts and says to the angels gathered around, "I'm going to let him have a hole-in-one." The angels object. The man is skipping church to play golf.
But sure enough, on the next green, a 400-yard hole with a wicked dogleg, the pastor tees it up and hits the ball right into the hole. Hole in one. First one in his life. And he starts to celebrate and jump up and down, making a fool of himself.
The angels are still indignant. "God, how could you allow that to happen? You're only feeding his addiction."
God responds, "And who's he going to tell?"
Let me tell you a little about the secret life of pastors. And I'm giving away one of our biggest secrets here. Part of what it means to be a pastor is to feel that everything is your fault. When things go wrong, (and there are always plenty of things going wrong in a church, it's a human place), it's very easy to go looking for flaws in yourself. Of course, there are usually other people around who will help you to do that, too. But we go look for a cause in us. Attendance is down this week. What did I say last week? That program flopped. What didn't I do to make it work?
Part of the reason for this is the high standards for leaders that the Bible sets. You remember that the scriptures say, "Not many of you should be teachers for we will be judged more harshly." Jesus warns the disciples that if they lead anyone astray it would be better for them if there were a millstone around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
So when I get to this passage from Jeremiah, I take it personally. "Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture...You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven't attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord." Ouch.
Now I know that Jeremiah was speaking to the kings of Judah. I know that what he is castigating them for is their failure to live up to the duties of the king, which include making sure that justice is carried out on behalf of all the people, especially the poor and the widow. They had not been caring for them. Just as Samuel had warned years before when the people were clamoring for a king, the kings were deaf to the suffering of the people and the whole nation was suffering as a result.
So Jeremiah makes a promise. The promise is that God will raise up a new king - a righteous descendent from David's line who will rule as a wise king. And this king will restore the nation.
It will be such a momentous event when this new king comes to reign that even God will get a new name. If you read on to verse 7 in this passage it says that the time is coming when people will no longer call God the One who brought up Israel from the land of Egypt. Instead God will be known as the one who brought the scattered people back from the lands of exile to live once more in their own land.
John Holbert, who is a retired professor at that great school of learning, Perkins School of Theology, says that "what is important...is that God is the God of the new and the now. God is not stuck in the past, living off past deeds, no matter how wondrous. Jeremiah, who witnessed the demise of his people, his land, his kings, his temple, his priests, still found in his God one who cared for and loved the people, one who acted the part of shepherd for the scattered and wayward sheep. It is hardly an accident that when later Christian believers tried to name the actions of the one they called Christ, they often chose the image of the shepherd."*
A shepherd. That's what they call us. Pastor is a word that means shepherd. It's even clearer in Spanish and other languages where it literally is the same word - pastor. Christ is the Great Shepherd, the Great Pastor, yes, and thank God for that. And we are supposed to take that name as well. You can see how it's hard not to hear the challenge in these words about the bad shepherds.
This week perhaps you heard about a church trial that we had within our United Methodist connection. About six years ago a pastor in Pennsylvania, Frank Schaefer, was asked by his son to preside at his wedding. Nothing unusual in that. What an honor. But what was difficult was that his son is gay and the ceremony was a same-sex marriage to be performed in Massachusetts where it is legal.
Frank Schaefer was left with a difficult choice. The teaching of the United Methodist Church in its official statements is that all people are people of sacred worth. We are called to welcome and be in ministry with all people regardless of their sexual orientation. We support the civil rights of all people in the society at large. Jesus calls us to love all people and all means all.
But in the long history of the Church and in the history of the Bible's interpretation, the majority position has been that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. That's our official language on the subject in the United Methodist Church.
But it's an area of teaching that we have been divided about. At our last General Conference we saw how conflicted we are as we debated whether or not to introduce language that simply acknowledges that we are divided, that faithful Christians are looking at the same Bible and seeing different imperatives, some to maintaining old mores and others to hearing a new witness. In the meantime, we have retained our old language and we have added new language forbidding our clergy from presiding at same sex unions or marriages.
What's a pastor to do? What's a father to do? Frank Schaefer chose to preside at the wedding. Not in his church. Not in his state. And eventually a complaint was brought against him, which led to a church trial, which led to his suspension from ministry for 30 days with the expectation that within those 30 days he will either pledge not to conduct any more same sex weddings or that he will turn in his orders.
For a certain kind of unity of the church, that makes sense. The Book of Discipline is very clear. We clergy are asked to uphold the Discipline. But Frank Schaefer is not the first and he won't be the last. We are facing a wave of church trials and we will meet each other over this issue in front of how many juries as we struggle with this question.
In a sermon about this passage from Jeremiah, John Wesley says:
"How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion! And not only among the children of this world, among those who knew not what true religion was, but even among the children of God; those who had experienced "the kingdom of God within them;" who had tasted of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." How many of these, in all ages, instead of joining together against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time, but hurt one another's spirits, weakened each other's hands, and so hindered the great work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! -- How many of the lame turned out of the way! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard of all religion, and their contempt of those that profess it! And how many of "the excellent ones upon earth" have been constrained to "weep in secret places!"**
Here's where I feel convicted this morning as your pastor. Not that I have not "upheld the Discipline." But that I have not led you to listen for those who weep in secret places. The problem Wesley saw was not that church people weren't being vigilant enough in maintaining a standard. The problem was that the way they were vigilant meant that wounded people weren't finding their way to Jesus. Lost people were not hearing a call to come home. How many people will look at a church trial and say, "Now that's the way to run a church"?
The problem Wesley saw was not that church people weren't being vigilant enough in maintaining a standard. The problem was that the way they were vigilant meant that wounded people weren't finding their way to Jesus.
I know that there are those who will say - but there must be order in the church. People can't just pick and choose what to believe. There are means for changing our order and it's not to just flout what's there. Frank Schaefer told the court last week, "I thought about the severity of what I had done...but I couldn't pass on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule. All I saw was love for my son."*** But it affected his church as well. These are no small issues for the church as a whole. In the absence of agreement among us there must be a means to determine what's right, and I suppose a trial gives us that clarity. But why does it not feel settled?
When I was in seminary, lo, these many years ago, I had a classmate named Bill. Bill was a tremendously gifted person. Vibrant, smart, charismatic, a great preacher and singer. When we did the seminary talent show at the end of the year it was Bill who wrote several of the skits. My favorite was his send-up of the Board of Ordained Ministry that we were all going to have to face for interviews. He had a kickline of seminarians dressed as the board in white robes singing, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Stole." Bill was the kind of colleague I would love to have had.
We both lived on campus and one night he asked if he we could take a walk. So we walked to the top of the hill at the SMU campus and as we were walking around the fountain there he told me the least surprising thing he could have told me. He was gay. It was really not news to me but he took a risk to share that with me. He had grown up in the United Methodist Church and at the time was pursuing ministry in our denomination. Appearing before that Board of Ordained Ministry was going to be much different for him than it was for me.
So what did I do? I assured him I still considered him a friend, that I sympathized with his plight, that it really didn't change anything between us. Except that he and I were never going to be colleagues. Except that, even though both of us had grown up in Methodist churches and both had memories of sitting with our families in the light of the same kind of stained-glass windows and getting an inkling that God might be calling us to pastor churches, for me it was an entirely different process than for him.
What I'm saying is that Bill was inviting me to walk with him on a different kind of journey when he asked me to walk with him that night and I don't think I took him on it. He was inviting me to be part of his family. And the ways that families make decisions is different. Families, good families, are not held together by political processes and position statements. They are held together by love.
This family is held together by Christ the King -- The Lord our Righteousness, as Jeremiah would have it. Because it is God's righteousness, and not our own, we are all equal before the cross. As Wesley put it in that same sermon, we are all of us "humbled as repenting criminals at Christ's feet, and rely as devoted pensioners on his merits."**** So when we come to this table we say, "Welcome. You've earned it." We say, "He ate with sinners, so you are welcome here."
That's our hope. And it's what we all share. I pray that we can find some way beyond church trials -- other than church trials -- to serve our King together. Because we have too much work to do for a hurting world that needs Jesus. And we dare not do that work at the expense of the excellent ones of the earth who weep in secret places.
I know this is a difficult question and I hope that you hear that I am committed to being the pastor to this whole church, even though I'm going to fail you at times. I will keep us mindful of our call to be faithful to the witness of the Bible and the church. And I will remind us of the call to be open to all. And I will struggle with where we are on this issue. And we'll do this together.
One last story. Last December I was in Israel and I went to a village that is literally in no-man's land between Israel proper and the West Bank. Neve Shalom, or Wahat-al-Salam, is a village where Israeli Arabs and Jews have committed to living together. It's on the grounds of an old Christian monastery and there are about 300 people living there.
This may not sound unusual but it is very unusual in Israel. I was talking to a man named Howard Shippin, who lives in the community and he talked about how important it was that they had decided, not to join a political program, but to actually live together. "You put down roots in a place and even if things come up which can be divisive between Arabs and Jews," he said, "there's an undercurrent of community feeling which overcomes those differences and there's kind of a maturing process...In the beginning maybe you come in with your own ideas, radical ideas or whatever, but then there's a test of living with the other people. So you may find yourself changing. There are things which can be surprising. Most people who come to such a society think of themselves as liberal, as not racist or whatever. But then that's on the level of declaration. You haven't tested it. So you discover things about yourself. You discover where your fears are. So there's a kind of acclimatization."
When you live together, you leave yourself open to the possibility of surprise. Like maybe the way forward is not in your best proclamations or refined judgements. Maybe the way forward is to discover where your fears are and keep living together anyway. At the end of this road is not the best position statement ever. At the end of this road is the King. Thanks be to God.
*John Holbert, "God of the New and the Now," patheos.com, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/God-of-the-New-and-the-Now?offset=1&max=1
**John Wesley, Sermon 20 "The Lord our Righteousness," http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/20/. Referred to hereafter as Wesley.
***Michelle Boorstein, "For Methodists, a rift close to home," The Washington Post, 19 Nov 2013.