Sunday, September 16, 2018

Phil Kniss: Words for wisdom and well-being

“Circling back, moving forward”
Isaiah 50:4-7

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On this special occasion of Paula’s installation
as a pastor among us,
and our return to our usual place of worship,
I think it is worthwhile to talk together,
with her, and with all of us,
about the role of a pastor,
as it relates to the role of a congregation.
It’s important for us all to talk about it,
so we have good and healthy expectations
for this pastor-congregation relationship.
And it’s important for you, Paula, to think and talk about it,
so you enter this role with good and healthy expectations
of yourself.

So, three comments to Paula here at the front end, about your tasks.
First, we want you to devote yourself with a passion
to those tasks that are most central to your pastoral role,
and are life-giving to you and us.
Second, we want you to hold lightly
to those tasks that sort of end up getting attached to your role,
but are kind of like a human appendix—
not sure how they got there,
or what they really contribute,
but they seem harmless,
so we leave them alone,
until they get enlarged or inflamed.
That metaphor could go on, but I’ll spare you.
Third, we want you to resist with all your might,
those tasks that distract you from your calling,
or get put on you by those who
misunderstand the role of a pastor,
or the role of a church.

So toward that end, I offer, hopefully,
a little bit of clarification for all of us,
that comes from the wisdom of scripture.

Isaiah 50 caught my attention,
as I was looking at this Sunday’s lectionary texts.
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”

I was struck by these words of a prophet
known for his strong voice and content-heavy message,
teaching the many and varied ways of the Lord.
He, a teacher full of many words,
saw his primary responsibility, boiled down, as this:
“to learn how to sustain the weary with a word.”

Chronic weariness is often the result of having energy sucked away
from where it should be invested,
and having it redirected to another, less life-giving effort.
What makes us really weary,
is not being able to invest our time and energy where it counts.

There is a “bad tired” and a “good tired.”
We’ve all seen it—in others, and in ourselves—
we come alive when we are working hard
on something that really matters,
or that we are passionate about.
And we get weary when it seems
our time and energy have little impact.

We know the satisfied exhaustion after a hard day’s work,
or hard week or month, for that matter.
There are lots of exhausted first-responders
in the Carolinas right now.
But they will eventually get a good night’s sleep,
and they will go out again, get exhausted again, sleep again,
and keep on doing it, because it’s also life-giving,
it’s meaningful.

In this summer of transition,
some of us church staff, and many volunteers,
recognize this rhythm of hard work, exhaustion,
rest, renewal, and repeat.
It takes a toll, but it’s also lifegiving,
because it has meaning, and there’s an end in sight.

But Isaiah, I believe, is speaking of another kind of exhaustion.
The role of the prophet in scripture,
is to call the people back to their true identity as God’s people.
And he saw his people getting weary,
not because they had a sudden or dramatic crisis.
They were weary because they had lost their way.
They forgot who they were.

So God gave Isaiah the tongue of a teacher,
that he might “sustain the weary with a word.”
A clarifying word.
A word to re-ground them,
help them find their footing.
So that their misfortune would not knock them over,
but be an opportunity to shift their weight a bit,
dig in, find a good firm stance,
like a baseball player in the batter’s box,
so they are ready for next curve-ball that life throws them.

I don’t think Isaiah believed he needed lots of words,
he didn’t need to teach them the whole content of the law.
Like he said, he was called to “sustain the weary with A word.”
The weary people simply needed to be reminded
where their strength came from,
where they came from.
In the next chapter, he reminds them,
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

We churches and pastors should do the same.
It seems to me that the contemporary church
expects too much of its pastors,
and expects too little.
And we as pastors follow suit.
We expect too little, and too much, of ourselves.

Too much, in the sense that we try too hard
to meet the expectations of others,
to be there for everyone, whenever there is need.
Because we need to be needed.
Or at least, it feels really good to be needed.
But if our calling is to help others become
the whole people God wants them to be,
sometimes our helping instinct can actually get in the way.
Stepping in all the time as the professional helper,
makes us a substitute for the larger church family.
It keeps people from finding their place of belonging,
keeps them from the growth-inducing process
of muddling through,
and accepting help from a wider circle.

And, I said we also expect too little sometimes,
when either we ourselves, or members of this community,
expect us primarily to be emotional support-providers.

Yes, no question, we all want and need emotional support.
We want and need presence,
and a comforting hand to be with us in crisis.
Along with others, pastors can, should, and do often help with that.
But the work of the pastor
does not begin and end with emotional support.
We have another responsibility.
It’s a kind of priestly role,
a kind of prophetic role, like Isaiah.
We pastors, no matter our job description,
are always teachers.

So, Paula, even though on your job description,
preaching is down the list a ways,
please know that your pastoral role includes
“sustaining the weary with a word.”
You are carrying with you a Gospel message,
every time you make a visit in a home or hospital.
You are a pastor-theologian.
In your ministry among us,
you are reminding us who we are as a people of God.
When you come to visit us,
yes, listen to us,
connect emotionally with us,
laugh and cry with us,
but ultimately, as the Spirit leads you,
get around to that task that needs
“the tongue of a teacher,
to sustain the weary with a word.”
Encourage us, by telling us again who we are in Christ.

We, the people of Park View, in our times of need,
require care and support from a wide circle,
and part of your job is to facilitate our communal caregiving.
But we also invite you into the pastoral, prophetic, and priestly role
of reminding us who we are as God’s people.

And to all of us, let me add a word of exhortation,
as we move back into this familiar space
of worship and fellowship.
There is a sense in which this physical space can also help us,
in a pastoral, prophetic, and priestly way,
to become who God intends us to be.
And we can all play a part.

This building is not the center of our life and identity.
We have rediscovered that during our summer as nomads.
But it can be an important tool for our formation as God’s people.

In the same way we can expect too much or too little from our pastors,
we can expect too much or too little from our building.

Mennonites typically, and rightly,
play down the significance of a holy place,
of a building being sacred or even essential.
Early Anabaptists met in caves and boats,
and shunned cathedrals.
But let us not be naïve about the power of our physical space,
to shape our self-understanding and identity and way of being.
The way we use our building,
the way we think about and talk about our environment,
our furnishings, our rooms,
everything around us,
speaks volumes to us, and to others,
about who we are, and what we think is important.

But now that we have a clean and beautiful carpet,
are we going to react any differently than we used to,
when a child from our neighborhood joyfully prances in
with dirt on their shoes at Kids Club?
And come January 21
when we open our building for a week
to shelter our homeless neighbors
can we be just as hospitable and relaxed
about their smells and occasional mess,
as we have been every other year,
before our building sparkled?

Not saying stewardship of our physical space isn’t valid.
Of course it is.
But if there is an imaginary and delicate balancing line,
between caring for our stuff,
and welcoming our neighbors
who are looking for people to love them unconditionally,
can we make sure that line hasn’t suddenly
shifted toward self-protection,
just because we have new carpet and fresh paint?

What I’m saying, is
let’s pay attention to the messages we send to each other,
and to the community,
as we begin to move back into our fresh space with fresh air,
as we enjoy what we have,
as we share what we have.

We will be transmitting messages.
We can’t help it.
Let’s make them life-giving messages.
Because the more often we repeat these messages
to ourselves and others,
the more we are actually shaped by those messages,
and begin to change within.

This is a golden opportunity, church,
as we gradually move back into this space,
to ask how we want to occupy it—
with what kind of communal values?
with what kind of missional posture?

Now we have time to think and talk about these values,
and what this all means,
because the construction isn’t done yet,
we aren’t fully back.
We are still in transition.
There is still a need for a lot of patience, and good will,
and hard work on the part of all of you, and all of us.
And we will still have plenty of time to talk.
In fact, in two weeks, we are going to have some
intergenerational table talk about some of these matters.

So, let’s be together on these important transitions,
in mutual care, in mutual discernment, in shared mission.

Let our prayer be,
“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear,
that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share.

Help us to build each other up, your strength within us prove.
Increase our faith, confirm our hope, and fill us with your love.”

And let’s sing together, HWB 362

—Phil Kniss, September 16, 2018

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