Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 3, 2009: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 4:5-12  •  Psalm 23  •  1 John 3:16-24  •  John 10:11-18

In the name of Jesus, who calls us by name. Amen.

Yesterday morning, before coming over to church for the Chicago Community Chorus’ preview concert of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, I was down on the south side at the Lutheran seminary for the annual synod stewardship conference. We had a guest speaker, Peter Steinke, who has written a number of books on congregations from a systems perspective and is a highly sought after consultant for congregations in crisis or transition. As I listened to him speak about the factors that contribute to congregational anxiety – money, sexuality, leadership, change – I found myself wondering if there are any congregations out there that aren’t either in crisis or transition. In fact, I began to think that the nature of life together as a community is either transition or crisis. If you’re not growing, changing, being transformed then you’re probably experiencing a crisis. We call that crisis death.

After a plenary address by Pastor Steinke and a good workshop on developing a stewardship program by one of the principal owners of a stewardship consulting firm we had lunch together and were addressed by Bishop Miller, our synodical bishop here in Chicago. Bishop Miller shared with the group the ways that he has restructured the synod staff around five key areas for mission: new mission starts, mission re-starts, leadership development, stewardship and communication. Afterward he took questions from the group.

One colleague of mine, a first-call pastor, asked a question about the connection between stewardship and mission. He said that in his community more and more people were coming to his church to receive services, but that these people weren’t coming to the church to offer their services. People were coming to take what they could get, but they weren’t asking what they could give. This pastor wanted to know when and how the mission of the church to love and serve the neighbor might also issue an invitation to join that work, an invitation to support the congregation’s mission.

Bishop Miller gave what I thought was a really excellent response. He said, “we can’t expect people who receive charitable services from our congregations to become active in the mission of the community until we build authentic relationships with them.” He went on to describe the typical strategy of a congregation in ministry with the surrounding neighborhood, “people come in, we give them something, and they leave. This is charity, which is a kind of stewardship of our resources, redistributing God’s good gifts so that there’s enough to go around. It is not justice, however, which is stewardship of power – redistributing the center of decision making so that people don’t have to beg for what they need. And it’s not evangelism, which I would call stewardship of the story.”

As I listened to this pastor’s question and the bishop’s response I, of course, immediately began to do an audit in my mind of our own congregation’s many ministries. Elijah’s Pantry sprang to mind, our feeding ministry which supports anywhere from 250 to 500 families a month. Or the Narcotics Anonymous groups that meet here, which have grown in the last year from one night a week to three nights a week. Or the families who bring their children for our early childhood music and arts education. Or the families with children in Boy Scout Troop 115. As I checked each one off in my mind I asked myself, “how well do I know the people served by that ministry?” Then I reframed the question to be, “if I were to sit down with the people served by that ministry, would they consider me one of their pastors?”

In no time at all I was feeling like the hired hand in Jesus’ story of the good shepherd, which is a translation from the Greek word kalos. The kalos shepherd is not only good, but the word implies that this shepherd is the model, the example of what a shepherd ought to be. The hired hand, by contrast, runs when the going gets tough.

Brothers and sisters, I need to confess to you this morning that I have too often been a hired hand. Too often I have been a pastor, a shepherd, to only those people who come to church on Sunday morning and not to the people who come on Tuesday or Thursday mornings to get food for their families. Not to the people who come Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights to fight for their lives as they recover from deadly addictions. Not to the youth who come here on Mondays to learn what it means to live as responsible citizens in light of their commitment to God. Too often I have been just a hired hand, shepherding the sheep of a tiny, little flock when God has been calling sheep to this place from so many different flocks I can barely keep track of them all.

But there’s even more for me to confess. I know that some of you have felt, and that some of you have even said, that too often I have been a pastor, a shepherd, to only those people who are new to the congregation, who are young or recent arrivals to the community. Not to the people who have been here for decades. Not to the friends of the congregation who no longer worship with us. Not to the programs and activities and traditions that have been a part of this congregation’s life for years and years. Too often I have been just a hired hand, giving my attention to those people and projects and initiatives that I have started or that I support and not to the life of the whole community.

I am confessing these things to you, brothers and sisters, because we are a community – we are a family of faith – and it is a part of what we are called to be and to do for one another. We are called to be a place for confession and forgiveness. For reconciliation and renewal. So I want to take personal responsibility and make myself publicly accountable to all of you for the pastoral duties that are a part of my call to this congregation. As I begin the second half of my third year of ministry with all of you, I want to rededicate myself to the ministry to which you called me. I want to be a better shepherd.

Here’s how I want to do that. I’ll be leaving this afternoon for a week and a half of vacation, some much needed rest and relaxation after the long season of Lent and the very full Holy Week and Easter celebrations of last month. When I return we’ll all be preparing for Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of summer. I want to use this summer, a time when things are traditionally a little less hectic around church, to visit with you all one on one. I want to hear from you what it has felt like to be a member of this community for however long you’ve been here. I want to find out what excites you about our ministry together, and I want to hear what concerns you. Beyond that, I want to sit down with the families who come to Elijah’s Pantry and learn how people who are struggling to put food on the table experience God at work in their lives, what brings them joy and what keeps them up at night. I want to attend one of the open meetings of the N.A. group and hear how God is saving and healing them through their bonds of community and accountability. I want to be a better shepherd, and to do that I
need to hear the voices of the many flocks that make their home here at St. Luke’s.

But please notice, I say I want to be a better shepherd – not that I want to be a good shepherd, and certainly not the good shepherd. I want to be a better shepherd not because I am a pastor, but because I am a Christian. If you think that it’s somehow my job to do all those things because I am a pastor, then you make me into a hired hand. I am a baptized member of the family of God, which means that at the end of the day I remember that I am a sheep and that God in Christ Jesus is the shepherd calling me to be part of the flock. I am able to ask myself what sacrificial self-giving looks like for me, because I have encountered God’s own sacrificial self-giving in Jesus and I have discovered the joy that comes from giving yourself away for the life of the world.

And as one baptized Christian to another I need to ask you to reflect on what kind of shepherd you are in this family of faith as well.

Just as I sat in the stewardship conference yesterday morning and questioned my level of involvement with the various ministries of this community, I would ask you to spend some time thinking about some of the following questions. For example, could you name all the people with whom you worship on a Sunday morning? I know for a long time people were confusing Lora Salley and Kristen Glass because they are both young women with blonde hair. If you think you might struggle with this exercise, then perhaps you want to stick around for coffee hour and get to know each other a little better. Maybe you want to bring a newspaper to church one Sunday morning and take part in the project of working together to write thank you cards to folks you see acting as God’s hands in the world. Maybe, in fact, you want to do something like what I’m going to do and make a goal of having a cup of coffee, or even a meal, with the people in this congregation that you don’t already know.

I would also ask you to revisit how you think about the various communities that call St. Luke’s their home. Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, Teatro Luna, Sally Levin’s yoga studio, Brad Reeg’s tai chi class, the food pantry, the weight watchers group, the Boy Scouts, the Narcotics Anonymous group. Are they just renters? Are they just people who we let use the space to help us meet the costs associated with keeping our doors open? Who do you imagine the real community to be around here? Who gets priority and who gets bumped? We have been careful to select programs and partners and organizations that align with our core values of unconditional welcome, healing and healthcare, music and the arts. It’s all ministry!

And all of these ministries, collectively, as they continue to grow are a part of our witness to the neighborhood, to the church, to the world that God is active in and through us, and that God has a purpose for our life together. When the church council and committee chairs gathered this time last year, they adopted a mission statement for their work as congregational leaders. It says, “claimed in promise, equip St. Luke’s for loving service.” Claimed by the promises of God, the good shepherd, never to abandon us and never to leave us wandering alone in our lives, the leadership of St. Luke’s has a call to equip this community for loving service.

Well look around. In a community this size we are the leaders. It falls to us to equip this congregation for loving service. That is why we have been asking everyone to sign up for one of the congregational small group or cottage meetings. Because we need to take the time to build a shared understanding of all that we’re doing at and through St. Luke’s. We want all of you to be passionate about the creative, life-giving and healing work that happens at St. Luke’s. We want you to be proud of this community. We want you to know what you’re supporting – and, yes, we want you to make a commitment to support this work with your time and your skills and your money. We’re not ashamed to say it, we need all of those things from all of us here in order to support all that we do. That is the spirit that infuses the text we hear from 1 John this morning,

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

We’ve talked about it here in worship before, the ELCA’s new tagline, “God’s Work, Our Hands.” I think it may be equally appropriate, though not as catchy, to paraphrase and say, “God’s Voice, Our Mouths.” Jesus says, “they will listen to my voice.” But as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14).

Brothers and sisters, we who are sheep are all called to be shepherds as well – or at least to use our voices and our ears to speak to one another and to listen to one another. We will hear the familiar voice of God, the good shepherd, the model shepherd, only when we are not only open to listening to one another – but when we are truly active in our attempts to know one another, when we reach beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and comfortable and discover the voice of God calling us to join flocks of sheep we’d never dared to associate with before. Beyond that, to lay down our lives, or some portion of our lives, some form of sacrificial giving that supports the needs of the whole family of God – the flock that contains sheep of every fold.

I want to be a better shepherd and, as your pastor, I want to help you be better shepherds too.

Amen.

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