Pastor and Prophet: The Role of Minister and Church in These Times

This is the “Pastor Pondering” column that I wrote for the January 2017 issue of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

On Christmas Eve the Boston Globe ran a story – “Church Looks to Heal after Politics, Faith Collide” – about Plymouth Congregational Church in Framingham, Massachusetts.  On the Sunday after the presidential election, the Senior Minister, Rev. Gregory Morisse, delivered a strongly worded sermon in which he condemned the tone and content of President-elect Trump’s campaign, and called upon the congregation to stand with the downtrodden and oppressed. Morisse’s sermon brought divisions within the church to the fore, between those who felt ministered to by his sermon and those who felt like they were being wrongly judged as “deplorable” for the choice they made to vote for Donald Trump.

I read the story with great interest. I also preached a sermon on the Sunday after the election in which I named as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic things that were said in the course of the campaign, and spoke of the attacks on these vulnerable groups that followed the election. Though I named Donald Trump as saying these things (he did), I was careful not to suggest that anyone who voted for him did so because they shared these particular views. Instead, I emphasized that as the church we are all called to stand with the most vulnerable members of our society and confront those forces that seek to denigrate or harm these people.

At the 10 o’clock service many in the congregation applauded this sermon. I am quite clear that this was not because it was such a fantastic sermon, but because it gave voice to what a number of people were feeling. The applause was a, “Yes, that’s what I feel too!” I was also clear that as the applause rippled through the sanctuary, there would be some who didn’t share these feelings, some who would feel judged by my words and indeed, by the applause.

Though the reaction at First was more muted than that at Plymouth Church I heard from several people who disagreed with or felt hurt by my post-election remarks. One such person sent me a thoughtful email to which I responded; this exchange ended up with affirmation of my ministry and the direction the church is going. I met with another member who felt judged, hurt and angry in response to my words. While acknowledging our differences, I sought to hear and understand her perspective, and expressed my genuine appreciation of her faithfulness. And someone else responded, not to feeling judged, but to my statement that I woke up Wednesday after the election feeling afraid, specifically for the well-being of my wife who is easily identifiable as an immigrant and my beautiful, brown-skinned daughter. This member said they were uncomfortable hearing that their pastor is afraid, that I should set an example of hope and optimism. I responded that I experience the whole range of human emotions, including anger and fear, and that I understand my role as pastor as to model an appropriate faithful response to such feelings. Similarly, a fourth member, though he agreed with my sermon’s conclusion, expressed concern that I had scared people or made people feel guilty.

Though this was the extent of the expressions of concern that were voiced in response to my sermon, I am sure these few speak for others in the congregation who have chosen to remain silent. I have also heard from many others who felt ministered to by my words.

In the weeks that have followed the presidential election I have thought a lot about my appropriate role as the Senior Minister of this church.

Ministers are sometimes said to fill roles as both pastor (caring for the flock) and prophet (speaking God’s truth even when that truth is hard to hear). I feel a very strong call to both roles. I love people. I love to hear your stories. I am curious about your interests and passions, and I care about your regrets and sorrows. I rejoice with you, and I hurt when you hurt. I want everyone at First Church to see me as their pastor, regardless of how we each understand our faith.

I also feel called to speak strongly on behalf of the most vulnerable, as I believe the meaning and demands of Jesus’ birth, teachings, persecution, murder and resurrection could not be clearer in this regard. I expect we are entering an extended period of history where the rights and well-being of people of color, the poor, women, Muslims, Jews, and gays and lesbians will be undermined and degraded and I expect to speak directly to these concerns from the pulpit.

In addition to the comments above, I have heard a few express concerns about dividing the church. The article about the Framingham church speaks to this possibility. I am sensitive to this concern though I don’t sense we are in any immediate danger of this. And I do not believe that unity can come at the expense of being faithful to the Gospel. Jesus does not call us to a warm and fuzzy, least-common-denominator faith. Rather, unity comes through the hard work of faithfully confronting the tough issues of our day together. This is what Plymouth Church is doing, and this is what we will do.

In that post-election sermon, I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The two religious leaders that crossed the road to avoid the man beaten alongside the road may have had perfectly understandable justifications for doing so. That being said, Jesus calls each of us and the church to walk on the side of the most vulnerable in these troubled times. I recently read a blogpost by Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York. She takes the interpretation of the Samaritan parable a step further, asking of the church, “Are we really doing our jobs if at some point we don’t also stand up and call for safer roads to keep our people from being assaulted in the first place?”

Those who attended my Installation Service in April will remember that our preacher, my colleague Rev. Da Vita McCallister, proposed that God is “stirring up the waters” at First Church and encouraged us to “wade in the water” together. We all laughed in recognition when she suggested that we are more comfortable sitting in our beach chair right at the water’s edge, just sticking our toe in the water, rather than wading on in to those stirred-up, troubled waters. Well, this is what Rev. McCallister was calling us to. This is our time to hold hands, confront our fear together, and walk together into the waters that roil around us.

Rev. Butler concludes her blogpost with these words:

The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

Maybe, indeed.

Before concluding that post-election service with the Benediction, I reminded the congregation that my words are meant as a touchstone in an ongoing conversation among us, not a last word but an encouragement for us to engage the conversation together. I look forward to hearing from you and getting our feet wet as we wade into this new year together.

In Christ,

Pastor George

 

 

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