Sermon at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio

Evensong, Propers for a Pastor II
October 8, 2008

We’re here tonight to talk about pastoring – tending the flock, herding sheep or sometimes, cats. Last week I had the opportunity to reflect at length on the role of the pastor not just in caring for the flock but in caring for the pasture. I’m not going to reproduce that here in depth. Mostly I want to point out that the flock will be healthy when the pasture is healthy, when the crop of grasses and other plants in the pasture is diverse, neither overgrazed or undergrazed, when there’s a similarly balanced water input, and when the soil itself is healthy. The discipline to keep the flock moving so that the grass is stressed just enough to keep it growing rapidly, but not chewed down to the roots, actually results in far greater productivity for the whole system. Letting the flock stay too long in one place destroys the grass and increases the flock’s parasite burden. But that kind of intensive grazing requires skilled and involved management – we’d call it intensive pastoral ministry.

The Bishop of New York told me in conversation last week after that pastoral reflection that he needed to put lime on his pasture. He meant it literally, but it’s a good image for the work we do in balancing the pH in a pastoral community, buffering the environment so that the conversation is neither too acid nor overly base. You get the picture.

When we pay attention to the big picture, and the whole garden, the internecine warfare that sometimes characterizes parish politics becomes far less fraught, less inviting, and fewer people are interested in obsessing about it. When the pasture is seen to be abundant there are far more glorious things to focus on, and they don’t stick in the craw like major conflict. A sense of scarcity in the pasture often leads to unholy behavior. How different when the sheep say, “Oh, take a look at that gorgeous mustard over there, or that yummy clover by the fence! If we go have a sample now, there will be more next week.” When our work can help to inspire a sense of overflowing abundance, like what Ephesians describes, “the love of Christ passing knowing,” being “filled with the fullness of God,” the “power of the spirit that can accomplish more than we can ask or imagine,” the pasture and the flock and their relationships are changed eternally.

How are we going to produce that sense of abundance in a society that seems to be in financial meltdown? That’s at least partly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “be ready.” If we had known this fiscal crisis was coming, well maybe we’d have stuffed a few more bills in the cookie jar. Or if we’d really thought the storms were going to cause floods around here, we’d have done a better job of laying in clean drinking water and canned food, flashlights and a solar-powered radio. Yet the task is not just what the bumper sticker encourages, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” The task is to nurture the soil so there is always enough fodder for a feast.

In the midst of this current crisis, that work is certainly going to include advocating a saner and less greed-focused fiscal policy. This is an opportunity for those who have a different view of what the pasture should look like to speak more loudly in the halls of power, and whisper in more ears that are hungry for holier and healthier solutions. The whole flock can be well-fed if some are not getting obscenely overfed. The motivation to consume resources to excess, to be gluttons or hoarders, usually grows out of immense fear. We have something to say to that fear – the love of God that passes human understanding.

Where else do we look for abundance? The answers are before us, in the loaves and fishes possibilities represented here and in the communities around us.

In the mid-1980s Dick and I spent a year in Seattle. He was on sabbatical at the University of Washington, and I had a one-year position as an oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service. We thought we were going back to Oregon at the end of the academic year, and I had no position to return to. I spent a fair amount of energy applying for grants and making wild stabs at research positions from Hawaii to Washington, DC. I got quite a few letters that started out, “you are one of 125 well-qualified applicants…”

The whole community was in the same boat. In Seattle in those days Boeing was the big employer, and they were also feeling the same cutbacks in federal research money. The church we were attending responded to the unemployment crisis by offering a series of workshops to help their own members and people from the community to examine their possibilities. They framed it around discovering what you were good at doing, rather than obsessing about the career that had dumped you, or which one was going to be your new focus.

Some of you have probably heard of Jean and Bernard Haldane. Bernard used to tell people that he had invented career counseling. It’s an accurate statement. He invited people to look at their strengths, what they were good at, and focus there. He and Jean did the same work in the church, helping people discover their gifts for ministry by looking at the strengths involved in what they called “good experiences.” The Haldanes’ work has also been foundational for a lot of the baptismal ministry developments in recent decades.

Focusing on strengths and gifts is a way of discovering the abundance in our lives. Even in the disaster of job loss, God is at work, and the Haldanes helped people discover that. The disaster may clear away the fog that keeps us from seeing those gifts and blessings. Tending the soil means paying attention to the richly gifted people we are, the abundance of blessings we have forgotten about, and the ones that go unnoticed. It’s far easier to do in community than it is when you’re all alone at midnight.

So, what is the householder going to find when he comes in the middle of the night? Who has access to those abundant blessings? How are you going to help this community discover them?