The Unnecessary Pastor
| 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
||Sun, November 3, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|* sermon preached at St. David's United Church, West Vancouver on the occasion of the covenanting of Rev. Dan Chambers, St. David's United Church and Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery.
Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians is, likely, the earliest writing in the New Testament. In it we come closer to the early Christian community than in any other scripture. And here, in the 2nd chapter, we glimpse how different that time is from ours. Paul says: “You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Notice what he is saying. He is pointing out how hard he worked in order not to burden the congregation. That is, how hard he worked in order to support himself by working a full-time job as a tent-maker. This early church knows nothing of full-time, paid, professional ministers. Instead, Paul’s credibility is staked on this – that he is not reliant on the congregation for anything. As a result, Paul is free to do the one thing that is essential: to proclaim the gospel of God.
Now this looks as though it presents a raft of problems for us. We are, after all, here to celebrate the covenant between St. David’s United Church, Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery and the Reverend Dan Chambers who is – by the way – a full-time, paid, accountable minister. You expect him to labour and toil, night and day for the congregation and, in return, he received a stipend from you. But, more than that, we United Church of Canada folk have long struggled with an embarrassing problem. Namely, the gospel that the New Testament bears witness to is, well, unreservdely evangelical. “Evangelion” is the Greek word that the English translates as “gospel”. And in my experience many United Church folk are in the United Church precisely because it is not – so the say – “evangelical”. Like I said, this brief text from Thessalonians seems to present a raft of problems for us. And that’s a good thing, because in these problems there lies the possibility that God may speak a new word to us and to our troubled lives, troubled church and troubled world. Surely that is the reason that we are here – to hear a new word to the troubles that haunt our days and times.
Perhaps, in fact, these times are more like the earliest days of the church than we have known in a long time. Notice how we now swim in a culture that is fundamentally indifferent – if not actively hostile – to disciplined communities of obedience to God. Dan has moved here from California. We imagine that California is the ultimate location of hedonistic, secular culture in North America and – hence – in the world. But, the surveys say, that is not true. No. Do you know what is the most hedonistic, secular culture in North America? English Canada! And, in English Canada the most hedonistic, secular culture is located here in British Columbia, here in West Vancouver. In case you hadn’t figured it out yet – we live in the most challenging missionary environment in North America and, some now say, in the world. And the problem is that for as long as we remember we have been taught that the United Church excels at making the gospel relevant. The problem with this is only now dawning on us. The problem is that in order to be relevant in a secular culture you have to be … well … secular.
The temptations for pastors like Dan and myself to meet the expectations of such a culture are huge. Eugene Peterson nicely names these temptations as threefold. First, he says, we are tempted to think that pastors are necessary as guardians of the moral order and of virtue for the culture. Second, pastors are tempted to imagine that they are necessary for the church to function (in case you hadn’t noticed, we like to be liked). And, third, pastors are tempted by congregation’s to think that they are necessary to lead the congregation to success as a religious organization. The problem with all these seemingly necessary roles for the pastor is that they seduce the pastor and the church into avoiding the once necessary thing. In other words, it is essential for the health of gospel communities that pastors avoid the roles which we have assumed are necessary in order that they – that we – can do the one necessary thing: to proclaim the gospel of God.
That is what Paul remembers as he writes. He recalls “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Now that is a loaded sentence. It is loaded with language that we easily misunderstand. First, Paul writes not to individuals. The “you” in these words is not directed at congregants who have come seeking to consume some meaning so that their life will be better over the next week. Our church has become so shaped by the consuming habits of an individualistic culture that we simply assume that church is primarily in the business of marketing meaning to individuals. But Paul writes to a plural you – to y’all. He writes to the congregation as a single body, imagining that its communal life is that of a single disciple that lives its life as a witness to the truth of the gospel for all in the neighbourhood to see. This requires, in my experience, a huge change of mind in we preachers and in our church. For one thing, it means no longer calling it “our church”. That is a habit that we are trying to break at University Hill. We have begun to realize that in saying something like “Welcome to our church” we have made a dangerous shift in the identity of the congregation. Instead, we are learning to invite people to join us as strangers given hospitality at the Lord’s Table. We are remembering that this is the house of God, not “our church”, and that the way we live here is odd because in this zone we cross the border from a hedonistic, secular culture into the ways of God’s kingdom come. Here we live a peculiar way of life in which the last are first, and the first are last. Here we discover that it is not a question of making the gospel of God relevant to the ways of the world. Rather, in gathering at the Lord’s Table and standing under the Word of God we realize how dangerously irrelevant the ways of our cultural world are to the life-giving ways of the God met in Jesus Christ.
Changing our minds – as preachers and congregations – about all of this is a huge undertaking. We are like amnesia victims struggling to recover lost memories and to remember who we are. That is precisely why we need you, Dan, to be an unnecessary pastor. We need you to remind us that the on necessary thing that this church in this time desperately needs is one whose single-minded task is to dare to tell the risky truth about the good news. And it is also the reason that Dan, like me, understands Paul’s great gratitude when he writes: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” Do you hear? We are not planting the seeds of God’s good news. Nor are we the harvesters of the harvest of this gospel in the life of the church. Instead, we live in the long season of cultivation when we are privileged to cultivate daring communities of determined hope and risky love. We watch with awe as y’all live the good news that we try to humbly voice. Then we know that it is the truth. Then we know that God is up to Easter newness in the world and in your individual lives, because we see it rising in the church - the crucified and risen Body of Christ. Thank God. Amen.