Sermon from 11-24-13, Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. 5The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
By now you may or may not have heard that the United Methodist Church is fighting…in public…again. This week it made national headlines when a pastor, Rev. Frank Schaefer, went to church trial for performing the same-sex wedding of his son 6 years ago. United Methodists and people from all over the country were waiting to see what the outcome would be. The decision made by the jury made up of clergy and lay members would determine what kinds of steps the church is taking…or not…on this issue that has been dividing the church and causing harm from all sides for over 40 years. Many cheered Rev. Schaefer on for standing up for gay rights and for welcoming and loving all people into the Gospel and acknowledging love in all of its forms. Many also chastised him for breaking the rule in the Book of Discipline, the governing book of the United Methodist church, that states that pastors cannot perform same-sex weddings. This same side also shamed Rev. Schaefer for breaking the clergy covenant that we all take at our ordination as pastors, to uphold the United Methodist Church and the Book of Discipline. Many stood by him as he bravely stated that he will not treat the gay and lesbian members of the Body of Christ as “second class Christians” and that he was simply doing his job as a pastor and ministering to all persons, and in this case, his very own son. Others felt that he had failed them as a pastor, a leader, and a colleague, claiming that he had broken the clergy covenant.
So the world waited for a verdict that finally came after long hours of deliberation- a 30 day suspension from all pastoral duties, and during that time, Rev. Schaefer must decide whether or not he will uphold the Book of Discipline from here on out or surrender his credentials. Based upon his statements that he refuses to exclude anyone from the church or from the right of marriage, I’m guessing that we have just lost another wonderful United Methodist pastor, colleague, and friend. But we’ve also gained a faithful person who has stated that he will be a prophet, an advocate, supporter, and truth teller for our gay brothers and sisters in the life of the church. As the verdict was reported on social media, people exploded with their thoughts and opinions- many were sad and angry, some supported the jury’s decision, while others have remained silent. Many pondered the question of covenant, leadership, and asking themselves, “are we following a rule book here or Jesus Christ”? After all, Jesus himself was a rule breaker while the Pharisees were the ones who were obsessed with holding up the law. I dare say that the situation of the United Methodist Church looks dangerously like this.
But despite of my opinion in all of this, I think it really comes down to this question: “What do we do when our leaders fail us?” In the end, this debate both was and was not about sexuality in the church- it was about the law verses the Gospel of Christ. When the church stoops so low as to put a pastor on trial for performing the wedding of his own son, we have problems, either way you look at it.
A big focus of the trial was really about leadership- what does a faithful leader look like? How do we want our leaders to lead? What happens when we don’t want to follow? Either way you look at this church trial, this issue, the outcome, the leaders failed. For some, the leaders failed because they didn’t stand up for Rev. Schaefer’s action of full-inclusion and make a statement that we should be moving forward as a church. For others, the leaders failed because they didn’t uphold the Discipline and the clergy covenant to uphold it. Either way, the church is left broken, divided, and bitter.
So in the midst of all this, I turned to this week’s reading from Jeremiah- I had planned to preach on this text several weeks ago with this same sermon title, and I couldn’t help but tie in this past week’s events with the theme of this text- a failed shepherd- a failed leader who scatters the flock and destroys them- a shepherd who leads astray rather than to green pastures. Throughout the Bible, we have these images of the shepherd who leads the sheep, of God as the Great Shepherd who gathers in the flock, and Jesus, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and who leaves the 99 and goes looking after just one who has gone astray. This shepherd portrayed in today’s text is not like the biblical shepherds we are used to seeing. In fact, he is just the opposite. God’s voice is speaking and proclaiming judgment upon the shepherd who destroys and scatters- in this case, the “shepherds gone wrong” are the kings of Judah, particularly Jehoiakim who has used his power to exploit the poor for his own material gain among other acts of violence and oppression. Jehoiakim, this false shepherd, has destroyed the people, scattered them, driven them away, making them to feel unheard and unloved, and he has struck fear and terror into them. As a leader, he has failed to shepherd his people. He has failed to uphold his covenant to be the leader, the provider, and care giver to which God has entrusted him. He has failed in his mission to lead with humility, integrity, and courage.
When our leaders fail us, we begin to question everything from the establishment and the institution, to our own security and well-being. We question the people themselves- people that we may have trusted with our confidences, our futures, our fears and worries. When our leaders fail us there is a moment of disappointment, sadness, and even fear. With everything going on in the United Methodist Church right now, there is a sense that our leaders have failed us for any number of reasons, regardless of where you stand on issues of human sexuality, leadership, the Book of Discipline, or clergy covenant. When I was called into ministry in the United Methodist Church, I knew I was called to be a pastor, a leader, a shepherd. I was called into covenant with my colleagues, yes, but my covenant (my relationship) first and foremost is with God that I will minister to all people in the best possible way that I can- that I will preach a gospel of love and inclusivity, that I will celebrate love in all of its forms, and that I will strive to model Christ in his ways of radical love and acceptance. That is the covenant I made when I was ordained. I also made a covenant to uphold the United Methodist Church and the Book of Discipline, but as a pastor I am also called also to be prophetic and work for the day that intolerance and discrimination in the church is no more. That is the pastor, the leader, the shepherd that I aspire to be.
But no shepherd is perfect, and taking care of sheep can be a messy and frustrating job. It is also a job filled with beautiful and transforming moments. As your pastor, my job is to help create a safe space for thinking, for listening, for talking with one another about the tough issues of faith and the church. As your pastor, I strive to care for each of you to the best of my ability, to pray for you, to accept you for who you are. My job is to help shape your faith, to challenge you, and to help you understand God just a little more than you may have before. I certainly do not have all of the answers, but I will walk with you on the journey and make discoveries with you. We may not always agree on everything, and that is perfectly ok. In fact, if you agreed with everything I have ever preached, taught, or said, then I’d be a little worried! There may have even been a time when you have felt that I have failed you, and for that, I am truly sorry.
But the good news is that in spite of ourselves, in spite of failed leaders, institutions, rules, trials, barriers, and shortcomings, God promises to gather us in as scattered sheep and to bring us shepherds who will bring us to green pastures, who will execute justice and righteousness, who will guide us to comfort, safety…who will bring us together as one…who will bring us home. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land…and he will be called, ‘the Lord is our righteousness.’”
We do not know what the future holds or how the church will deal with the issues that divide us. We do not know sometimes which leaders to trust or where they are leading us. But we do know that above all of our human frailties, above all of our divisions, arguments, and trials, that as a good friend said recently, “God is always leading us forward, even when the Church is kicking and screaming every step of the way” (Matt Kelley). Yes, God, our Good Shepherd, is guiding us through the wilderness-the messy, disobedient, stubborn, and lost sheep that we might be- we pray that greener pastures will be in sight soon. We pray to be more and more like Jesus, the shepherd who gathers in and brings the sheep home rather than scatters, destroys, and divides.
In a way, we are all called to be shepherds who guide, who care, who tend a flock- whether in our work, at home with family, or in church- we all lead people in one way or another. In the midst of the trial this past week, accusatory words like broken covenant and failed leadership were being thrown around. Rev. Schaefer was caught in the middle of the storm just trying to stand his ground. I remember thinking that if we all just stopped and asked ourselves, “What if we all just promise to lead like Jesus would lead?” What if covenant was really about entering into conversation rather than promising to uphold laws that discriminate and go against what the church is really supposed to be about? What if covenant language had to do with shepherding like Jesus? What if each of us in the church acted as shepherds to someone else- not using the model of the failed leader who destroys, scatters, and divides, but one who builds up and seeks those who are lost. A successful leader stands in the midst of his or her people and hears their concerns, their pains, their joys, their sorrows. He or she makes sure the people are physically and spiritually nourished, and instead of instilling fear or making threats, a promising leader gently guides. Above all that, a good leader represents Jesus Christ.
As a pastor, I vowed at my ordination to represent Christ in the way that I guide and lead the church. More importantly, I entered into a covenant that I would love and minister to all persons who seek the love and grace of God and who long to find a home within the church community. Along the way, I have seen the church as a whole struggle to identify who she is and where she is going. I have experienced harmful conversations and meetings where the Holy Spirit was definitely not at work. I have seen pastors and lay people alike be put down and torn apart by the system. I have also seen steps made toward a better, brighter, more hopeful, more welcoming church. I have seen people take risks and lay aside their given authority to stand up for what is right, for what is good, for what is truly of God. I have seen beautiful moments where people on all sides of an issue have stood together and acknowledged their unbroken bond and unity within the Body of Christ. So we must keep working. We must keep leading, we must keep following Christ as the Good Shepherd, we must keep working for the good of the church and not for harm.
We must have faith in the promises of God, who brings forth leaders who will drive away fear, hatred, and division. We must have faith in the God who seeks to gather us in from all places, sides, opinions, and perspectives. We must have hope in the coming of Christ as we begin to anticipate the Advent season and the coming of Christ into our midst once again. But today, on this Christ the King Sunday, we put aside our differences, our divisions, our bitterness, our anger, our failures as leaders and shepherds, and we do crown him Lord of our lives, our hearts, our minds- we crown him our ultimate shepherd, we crown him Lord of all. In this we can place our hope, even when the church and its people are scattered, even in the midst of heartbreak and doubt, even in the midst of confusion and brokenness, even when our leaders fail us. Amen.