1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 10:1-16
— Calling the Next Pastor
I almost did not make it with you today. This last week in light of the continued craziness with politics and life in today’s America, I threatened to go home and hide under the sheets until the world works itself out – until it is safe to come back out from under the covers. My Associate Pastor did inform me that I was not allowed to do that and told me to get back to work, so you have Cherie to thank for me being here today.
Honestly, this is not what I planned to talk about right now, but it is so pressing and so necessary right now. Between the politics and social unrest right now, our nation is really going through some serious turmoil and it just seems to get more and more serious. I have wondered at times in my life what it would have been like to live in those periods in American history that made history – those periods that were formative and shaped the future for decades, even centuries to come. Well, guess what? These are some of those momentous days. Our country is no stranger to division. We have even lived through a civil war. We have also lived through the crisis of civil rights and are still struggling with unresolved aftermath of that time. Our government has lagged to keep up with everything going on, and in a lot of ways, we are somewhat left to fend for ourselves. This need for us to see to our own security and way forward is really key, and I have actually decided to talk more about this generally next week, but today I need to get into how we are going to respond in a very special and specific way because today something is happening right here that does not happen very often.
In fact, the last time this thing happened was July 29, 2007. Does anyone know what happened then? I could put Barbara Smith and Paula Prouty on the spot considering they were most directly involved with that happening among everyone here. That was the last time this congregation elected a PNC – a pastor nominating committee. For the benefit of those listening or who do not know, the Presbyterian Church hires a pastor in much the same way as the secular workplace. We solicit names and receive resumes and examine and interview and check references and make job offers. Basically, we can hire whomever we want with the Presbytery’s approval which they tend to do. A difference is all of this is supposed to be Spirit-led and Spirit-inspired and grounded in the working presence of our Lord through discernment and prayer. Also unlike the public world, the PNC will listen to the potential job candidates preach. Not many other occupations require you to demonstrate your skills, so to speak, before you are hired. Maybe I should become a CPA – no one asks them to show how well they can add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
For Farmville Presbyterian Church, however, I cannot tell you just how significant this process is going to be going forward. This group of people who will become the PNC has a very significant task because the next pastor will be the one tasked with helping to guide the congregation through the troubled waters of this day and assisting in determining the course of this congregation as it responds to its own changes in age and ability. But can I also tell you that this is a wonderfully hopeful and exciting process because something I desperately believe is that when the storms of life start churning and the weight of the world presses and the times seem stretched toward the chaotic, that is when God’s hand is most at work in bigger and more creative ways. Another way of thinking about this is that God is most at work where God is most needed and is actively working for God’s good and ours. After all, the times that you read about in the Bible, especially through the Old Testament, are only when God was doing something big, when times were tough and things were happening that were worth writing down. There are hundreds of years in there between these events sometimes when nothing noteworthy seems to have happened. God was still there, of course, but God is more obvious in times of crisis and upheaval. God is with us walking through change. God is leading us, and if we will listen and respond, that change happens in our lives in better and more faithful ways. A pastor will help you listen and respond.
I keep saying the word pastor and there is a reason we use the word pastor for the person who is tending to a congregation. That is literally the word for “shepherd” in Latin. I may have mentioned that here recently but need you to remember that connection. There is much about a pastor that is shepherding, and the Bible has long expressed those who care for the people as shepherds. That’s why we are looking for a good shepherd today. The pastor nominating committee is going to begin this search officially within the next 45 minutes, depending on how long I preach. We will then have a congregational meeting and will elect this group from among you.
To help them consider their task and for all to be informed, I thought I would highlight a few key ideas that need to be nestled there in the mind and heart through this process. Of course, this does not only apply in our FPC context but relate to any congregation that ever has to look for a pastor.
First, the next pastor might NOT be the person you most expect. Everyone needs to see into this opportunity with an open mind and heart. God has planted all kinds of gifts in all kinds of people, and the appearance or assumption of what you want may not match up with what you need. Of course, this is the thrust of the passage from 1 Samuel. Samuel was in a real pickle. God had lost confidence in Saul to be the king, and Samuel was tasked to go out and find the next king. Stop and appreciate that risk for a moment: what if word got around that Samuel was searching for Saul’s replacement? Samuel was a well-known figure. He could not just go around incognito. That is why he has the pretext of going to sacrifice at Bethlehem and finds Jesse and all of his sons who are wonderful specimens of men and would have all appeared to be excellent king choices. When Saul was first selected to be king it was noted how tall and handsome he was. While David was also a handsome young man, he was by no means king material at that age. He was the youngest of his brothers, so young that he was still watching the family herds. That was the children’s job. No one respectable would be caught watching sheep. This is what made the announcement of the birth of Jesus so remarkable. Shepherds were the last people you would think of to get that announcement. Watching sheep for adults was embarrassing – the job that you took if you could not get any other work. They stunk and everyone knew they were coming down the street. Yet, the shepherd here is chosen king. From this time going forward, shepherd is an image of king. Thanks to David, the one who is to tend the people is like one who looks after and protects and leads the sheep.
David is selected as the next shepherd for the people of Israel, but he won’t actually take the throne for a number of years, after he is grown up and has a family of his own. In that time of waiting in confidence, he composed the most memorable of psalms that begins by saying the Lord is his shepherd.
I had the occasion to once visit a sheep farm that was busy with sheering that day. Hannah and maybe Grace were with me because I wanted to show them that bit of farm life. This sheep farmer was in my church congregation. There was a little bit of circus involved as the sheep had a mind of their own and had very little interest in being sheered. I got a little glimpse into the mind of a sheep. Ok, I’ll just come out and say that I don’t think sheep are the world’s most impressive animals. When you are puffy and fairly defenseless, you spend most of your time worrying about the world and staying alive. And that’s about it; you don’t do much else, especially not with higher brain function.
This is why Jesus’ remarks about the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel are particularly interesting. Sheep need a LOT of help. They really cannot do much of anything for themselves and if left to the wilds, would not last very long. They need a shepherd.
To be clear, we need a shepherd and the only good one is Jesus. In fact, he is the gate and the shepherd which is kind of a weird juxtaposition of images. He is both the inanimate object and the animate – the thing and the person. He is both the way to the sheep and the one who loves the sheep with his own life.
There are plenty of people out there who try to use the sheep, exploit them, and control them with false claims and empty promises. You do not have to look far to see some of that. For the purposes of the church, the next pastor has to be someone who has the people’s needs in her or his heart and someone who needs Jesus to be the one guiding light for us all. Any kind of shepherding the pastor is able to muster is only worth anything if it is in Christ – informed, inspired, directed, empowered, equipped, and conducted in Jesus. So the PNC must remember that whomever they pick as the next pastor is standing in for Jesus himself by his grace and with his love. That is a huge task, not one to take lightly, and this is why it is so important to be careful in the selection. But if you can find someone willing to work in the love of Jesus and who is willing to walk in his ways, then you will have a good shepherd to travel with you as you all look to follow the true Good Shepherd.
May God bless this search and all pastors as they seek their calling to live in the Good Shepherd. To God be the glory. Amen.