Pastorís Gratitude for a Grateful Congregation
Thessalonians 1:2-7; 2:1-8
A few years ago I was standing at the end of a cottage-dock chit-chatting
with the cottage owner, Bob Giuliano. (Bob
used to be the pastor at
a singular honour to be a pastor. No
other work is to be envied. I am
moved every time I recall the remark of Jean Vianney, an early-nineteenth
century Roman Catholic priest from the city of
Alexander Whyte, a turn-of-the-century Scottish pastor, used to say to
young ministers, "Be much at deathbeds".
Whyte wasn't morose. He
simply knew where people most need the pastor's quiet confidence.
Whyte also knew that itís at deathbeds that the fewest words are used;
itís also at deathbeds that the pastorís spiritual authenticity is most
evident or spiritual vacuity most exposed.
Robert Coles is a paediatric psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard.
I first came upon him when I read his book reviews in the New York
Times. In addition to psychiatry
he teaches ďGreat LiteratureĒ to Harvard medical students.
(He says heís anxious lest medical students leave school with a full
head and a shrivelled heart.) In one
of his video-taped lectures Coles branches out into a discussion of painting,
especially the work of Edward Hopper, an American artist.
Coles points out that the people depicted in Hopper's paintings sit close
to each other but never look at each other.
They share the same space geographically but are humanly remote.
Coles points out that itís easy for people to be proximate to each
other physically, to chatter, even to meet conventionally; yet itís
exceedingly rare -- because exceedingly difficult -- for people to communicate
intimately, heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, deep-to-deep.
Coles is correct: such communication is rare because difficult.
But not so difficult and therefore so rare as to be non-existent here.
For I have found many people in Schomberg who have admitted me to their
innermost heart, even as I trust I have admitted them to mine.
When I was only a teenager I read anything I could find by Dr Leslie
Weatherhead, a British Methodist clergyman with immense gifts in psychology,
literature, and speech. In one of
his books Weatherhead stated simply that if we knew the suffering, the sum total
of the suffering, in the smallest hamlet in
Then regardless of what else we need in the midst of lifeís
contradictions (certainly we need wisdom and patience and persistence and ever
so much more), above all we need courage. We
always need courage.
Few books in scripture speak as much about courage as the book of
Hebrews. It likens the Christian
life to a race, a relay race. Those
who have run their leg of the race ahead of us (i.e., Christians of an earlier
era who have predeceased us) are awaiting us at the finish line.
They remained courageous throughout their leg of the relay race.
They remained courageous: thatís why they finished (rather than quit)
and are awaiting us at the finish line. The
unknown author of Hebrews cries, ďSince we are surrounded by so great a cloud
of witnesses...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.... Consider him who
endured from sinners such hostility against himself.... Therefore lift up
your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.Ē Because Schomberg
congregation is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we can
lift up our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees.
the cloud of witnesses Ė fellow-believers past and present Ė that becomes
for us a vehicle of the grace of God. One
such witness in the great cloud is John Calvin, the foreparent of this
congregation. Calvin was a giant
(some would say the giant) among the Protestant Reformers.
Calvin spoke characteristically of the grandeur of God, the glory of God,
the sufficiency of God. Calvin
always insisted too that the being of God must never be confused with the being
of God's creatures. God is
irreducibly God. God isnít
humankind talking to itself with a loud voice.
God isnít a projection, unconsciously disguised as divine, of our
overheated imagination. God is
uniquely God, and must never be confused with that which isnít God.
And yet when Calvin pens a comment on Paul's first letter to the
Thessalonian congregation he writes what we should never expect him to.
Paul has written, "We give thanks to God always for you all".
In other words, the apostle thanks God for the congregation.
Calvin comments, "Is there anything more worthy of our love than God?"
Of course there isn't. But
here comes the surprise. "There
is nothing, therefore, which ought to make us seek the friendship of men
(and women) more than God's manifestation of himself among them through
the gifts of the Spirit". How
startling! The Reformer who insists
that God is uniquely God and insists elsewhere that God is the only fit witness
to himself here maintains that our friends in the congregation mirror God
to us. Our friends in the
congregation aren't friends chiefly because we get along with them or they like
us; our friends in the congregation are those whom we are to cherish just
because they mirror to us the mercy and patience and persistence of God himself.
Calvin was born in 1509 in the town of
Before Calvin died in 1564 he had written commentaries on most books of
the bible, including 1st Thessalonians.
I am moved every time I open it, for here Calvin speaks so very warmly of
the pastor's life with that congregation which the pastor serves.
In 1st Thessalonians the apostle Paul speaks of the style of
his ministry with the congregation in the city; Paul writes, "We were
gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children.
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you
not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very
dear to us." Calvin comments on
this passage, "A mother, in nursing her child, makes no show of authority
and does not stand on any dignity. This,
says Paul, was his attitude, since he willingly refrained from claiming the
honour that was due him [i.e., as an apostle], and undertook any kind of duty
without being ruffled or making any show. In
the second place, a mother, in rearing her child, reveals a wonderful and
extraordinary love...and even gives her own life blood to be drained.... We
must remember that those who want to be counted true pastors must entertain the
same feelings as Paul -- to have higher regard for the church [i.e., the
congregation] than for their own life."
When Paul maintains that one mark of an apostle is his willingness to
make any sacrifice for the edification of the congregation, Calvin adds,
"All pastors are reminded by this of the kind of relationship which ought
to exist between them and the church".
Calvin always knew that a dictatorial, tyrannical pastor is a
contradiction in terms. The pastor
is to lead the congregation, not hammer it; he is to plead, not whip; he is to model
the gospel, not hurl it. When Paul says to the congregation in Thessalonica,
"we beseech you", Calvin adds, "His beseeching them, when
he might rightfully command them, is a mark of the courtesy and restraint which
pastors should imitate, in order to win their people, if possible, with
kindliness, rather than coerce them with force."
The pastor is always to plead rather than pummel.
Calvin summarizes this issue: "Those who exercise an absolute power
that is completely opposed to Christ are far from the order of pastors and
To be sure, Calvin speaks of two kinds of pastors who give the ministry a
bad name. Class one: "stupid,
ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves from the pulpit". Class
two: "ungodly, irreverent individuals who babble on with their detestable
blasphemies". Any minister who
reads Calvin here must search his own heart.
I search mine, and trust that you have never found me blurting out
worthless brainwaves or babbling detestable blasphemies.
Calvin had the highest estimation of the ministry.
Such work, he said, is "...the edification of the church, the
salvation of souls, the restoration of the world.... The excellence and
splendour of this work are beyond value".
It is a privilege to be a pastor, isn't it.
Yet Calvin also knew that pastoral existence could be difficult, even
dangerous. He had seen congregations
ruin ministers. When he reflects on
the disputes and feuds which make life miserable for a minister he writes
something which is certainly true of many congregations but not true of
Schomberg: "So we see daily how pastors are treated with hostility by their
churches for some trivial reason, or for no reason at all."
Not here. Not only has the
congregation never treated me with hostility for trivial reason or no reason;
the congregation has never treated me with hostility at all.
One day in May, 1954, Stan Musial, the superb right fielder for the
St.Louis Cardinals, hit five home runs in a single game.
A few years later Musial was in the twilight of his baseball career.
His legs no longer ran fast, his arm was no longer a cannon, and pitchers
with even a mediocre fastball were starting to sneak it by him.
He knew that he could now play only occasionally as a pinch-hitter.
"Even if I know Iím going to sit on the bench for most of the
game", he told a sportswriter, "every time I go to the ballpark and
put on my uniform I still get a thrill".
Iím not in my twilight years. Nonetheless,
every time I come here I get a thrill. Whether
itís when I step into the sanctuary on Sunday morning and see the expectant
faces of the congregation, or whether itís when Iím meeting a few people in
a mid-week meeting, or whether itís when I sit by myself here and intercede
for those who are especially needy -- whenever I come here I get a thrill.
It mystifies me and saddens me that other clergy donít get the same
thrill. One of the professors
alongside whom I teach has told me several times that when he left the pastorate
he vowed never to return. ďOn-call
seven days a week; being telephoned at any hour; having to go somewhere night
after night; no sooner finished preparing one address than having to prepare
another. When I leftĒ, this fellow
tells me, ďI knew Iíd do anything before I ever went back.Ē
Compare that attitude with Jean Vianney: ďIf we knew what it is to be a
pastor, we couldnít endure it.Ē
I relish teaching in a seminary, and relish it for several reasons.
One reason is that it keeps me probing the work of the giants in
theology. Another reason is that it
keeps me acquainted with men and women (younger than I) who are preparing for
ordination. Entirely too often a
student remarks that after his first degree in theology he plans to do a second
and third degree Ė i.e., a doctorate Ė in that a doctorate is the ticket out
of the pastorate and into a professorship.
The first degree in theology lets one into the pastorate; a doctorate
lets one out. The truth is, I heard
as much when I was a seminary student myself thirty-five years ago.
Whenever I hear this I tell the students most emphatically that the real Doctores
Ecclesiae, teachers of the church, were pastors first.
Luther worked as a pastor every day in addition to teaching, writing,
travelling, and wrestling with most vexatious problems in church life; e.g., the
predicament of nuns who left the convent in response to the message of the
Reformation and then had no means of support.
Calvin preached on average every second day.
His writings are so extensive that his 2000-page Institutes
represents only 6.8% of his written output.
In addition he sat with the dying, married the living, visited the sick,
sorted out conflicts in the wider church (rural pastors, for instance,
complained vociferously that they should be paid the same as urban pastors in
You people have allowed me both to pastor and to teach.
For this I canít thank you enough.
For both pastoring and teaching are aspects of my vocation to the
ministry. Calvin spoke for all
zealous ministers when he said, ďMy ministry is dearer to me than life.Ē