Sermon for July 9, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa
For those of you who are guests or new to the Lutheran Church of the Cross, a year ago, just as July began, those of us who were members here, had a letter from Pastor Andy Smith that his last Sunday would be on August 14th. He had decided to seek a call to serve a church in the Twin Cities where his wife lived and worked. That all made logical sense to us, but we hated to see him leave. I began my work with you the next day on Monday August 15th.
Together we stepped into what is a liminal moment. We were in the space called liminality. It comes from the Latin word for a threshold—a doorway. In contemporary usage the liminal moment is a step into the unknown, the unfamiliar, a territory that is strange, and may even be seemingly timeless. In a Biblical world the best two words to describe stepping into the liminal world were “Abraham Go.” Abraham and Sarah took the first steps in the story that brought us here.
When I began as your Interim Senior Pastor we didn’t know, however, that this was an extended time of uncertainty. We were deluded into thinking that I’d be with you for a short-time and soon there would be a new senior pastor called to serve LCC.
Our time together hasn’t been a wasteland. We kept many things in place, welcomed new members to the church, filled two key ministry positions, and tried some new things, because that’s all part of intentional interim ministry.
Perhaps, though, we didn’t reflect enough on where God was in this time of uncertainty for which we really weren’t prepared. But then again, as it true with many thresholds in life, we usually aren’t prepared. As a pastor planting a new church 30 years ago I described that work of as “building a bike while you ride it.”
How many of you when you became parents were prepared for what was ahead? I doubt any of us can claim such confidence.
The title of this sermon is “Ministry Failure.” It’s partly born out of the Gospel reading we had today. I’ll explain that a little further on.
I going to propose that you want a pastor who knows what failure is like. The usual assumption is that we want a pastor who’s been successful. Someone to lead us into certainty, into safety, into security.
How are pastors measured? Usually just as the world measures its CEOs. Has the company expanded its markets, gained more customers, added to its wealth, and presumed security, and perceived assets to continue to succeed for years to come? Has the pastor grown the church? It happens, but less and less these days.
And that brings us to Jesus and to John the Baptist. We read the version from the translation called The Message this morning:
How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children
whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
So I had this weird fantasy that one day in God’s heavenly kingdom Jesus and John had this conversation.
Jesus looks at John the Baptist and asks, “How, John, would you assess the results of your ministry announcing a baptism of repentance.”
John replies, “I drew big crowds. They came, both the important and the little people, but they didn’t like what I had to say. And you know, Jesus,” John went on to say, “how I got thrown into a prison controlled by Herod Antipas, and he ordered my death….What about you Jesus, how do you assess your ministry?”
“Well.” Jesus replies. “I liked your truth telling John, but I took a different tack. I thought we should sing and dance more, and live like we’re all equal in God’s kingdom. I got in trouble for inviting everyone to the party, and that meant having my parties with the wrong kind of people. And it didn’t end well for me, as you know.”
Ministry failure. And every month it is said that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry. Some few for things they should not have done, but the research is that most are simply discouraged. CEOs can report expanded sales, and increased profits, and rising stock values. The reality facing most churches is that we struggle to keep our people, to pay our bills, and to maintain our assets. And as pastors most of the stories we hear are of failure, and fear, and foreboding. Dare we tell are own stories of failure, fear, and foreboding?
I must be honest with you about this decision I’ve made to leave you while the search is still on for our next Senior Pastor. (Please note that I speak from the point of view of one who likes to come here; and I have really appreciated the opportunity to serve you.) But the truth is that I leave with work left-undone. I leave you while we’re still in the liminal time created when we all started to wonder about our future a year ago. And I can’t tell you how it all works out.
I’m not saying my ministry here was a failure, but I have known ministry failure. And I want to suggest in a very strange way that knowing failure is essential to ministry.
Behind this sermon is a recently read book by Andre Crouch, titled:
Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing
The other book I finished is titled
Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure
It is by J.R. Briggs, a leadership coach, consultant, and pastor.
Some key points to remember. Ministry can never be measured by results or data. Every pastor is essentially an interim pastor—even if someone stays a long time, we never stay.
And every pastor has some really good days—that’s true for my time here— but our most powerful preaching will not be evidenced by stories where we were heroic, or where when we were victims, but only by stories where we were rescued, and where our humanity was at the level of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty which we all know is the honest part of living.
No pastor has ever been properly trained for ministry. The best seminary can do is give you time to think, but when it comes to leadership, it is crafted in the trenches of conflict and the resistance to anything that is new or different when called to lead a congregation.
Pastor André Crouch who writes eloquently about vulnerability as the essential part of real faithfulness no matter who you are. (His book, by the way, is just for pastors.) To be vulnerable is to be woundable—meaning you are forced to be tender and careful.
The real story of vulnerability involves taking risks—living into an uncertain future—based on a belief that life isn’t measured by the absence of pain and suffering.
The real idolatry that surrounds us in this world though thinks that those who are vulnerable are to be pitied and maybe even deplored for their weakness. Our world constantly bends toward the idols of greatness, strength, power, wealth, might, security, and safety. So many people in authority worship this God which insulates us and them from pain or loss; and pretends that death will not happen. Though it does. Even to those most powerful and protected!
Failure in that world is often summed up in two words: You’re fired. Or three words: Out of here.
There are places though, where knowing failure, is a condition for membership. It’s true in the AA world. And it should definitely be expressed by any follower of Jesus.
What kind of pastor do you want? I would want one who in a phrase by André Crouch drinks from the cup of undiluted vulnerability. They know something of having been rescued—we would say rescued by the grace of God.
Do you know what were the last words of Martin Luther as he lay dying on February 18, 1546? I’ll tell you what he didn’t say.
He didn’t say, “I wonder if they will remember me and have a big celebration of what we started 500 years from now.”
He didn’t say, “I hope pastors will have red leather bound books of all that I have written sitting on the shelves in their personal study.”
Asked if he stood by what he taught and believed, this is what Luther did say: “We are beggars. This is true.”
Think of having as your pastor someone who thinks of themselves as a beggar. They reach for the same holy bread, and the same sip of consecrated wine as you do. Your Pastor doesn’t just lead confession, but makes confession, and needs to hear the words of affirmation and forgiveness coming into their ears as well.
At one ordination a number of years ago the Christian writer Brandon Manning gave this blessing for the new pastor:
May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child,
and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine having a pastor who knows the powerlessness and poverty of a child. Who sings, and dances in the love of God.
My time with you in a pastoral role will come to end soon. We don’t know for sure when it’ll end. Probably by September. But it will be another threshold. Another liminal time. A time of not knowing what’s next. A time of risk.
May the words of Jesus stay with us in this time: As we heard. Learn the rhythms of grace. Know that the Lord doesn’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on us. And simply asks that we keep company with Jesus and learn to live freely and lightly.