Tend the Flock

This post is based on the sermon I preached this week for the induction of two new pastors at church.
The readings were Ps 23 and 1 Peter 5: 1- 4.

"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want."
George Macleod of Iona tells the story of a famous actor who gave an after-dinner speech, and then asked his audience if there was a favourite poem they would like him to recite. An old minister raised his hand and said: "Psalm 23 please." The actor agreed, on one condition: that the clergyman should also recite the Psalm when he had finished. They agreed, and the actor gave an outstanding performance, followed by tumultuous applause.
But when the minister recited Psalm 23 there was not a dry eye in the place. The actor asked them, "Do you know the difference between my version of the 23rd Psalm and his? I know the Psalm but this man knows the Shepherd".

Serving Jesus – in whatever way he calls us – is about knowing the Shepherd. 

I’ve been reading about the Shepherd over the holidays. Some of you have heard of Dr Kenneth Bailey who died last year. He spent decades teaching in the Middle East, and had an impressive knowledge of local farming practices and of the Arabic New Testament. In 2014 he published this book, The Good Shepherd, subtitled “the 1000-year journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament”. It’s good value.

Bailey describes two shepherding traditions seen in the Middle East. There are seminomadic herders who take large flocks away for months at a time, following the seasonal rains. But more commonly seen is the settled village, where families combine their animals, and arrange for one young man - or two young women - to take the herd out to graze each day and return to the village at night. From local stories, and from the myriad Bible texts that mention sheep and shepherds, Bailey brings the 23rd Psalm to life, and traces its themes over a thousand years of biblical history. Today I’m sharing his thoughts as they apply to all of us as members of God’s flock and to ...... particularly, as they take a new pastoral leadership role here.

Psalm 23 describes an ideal shepherd who cares lovingly, and provides generously for his sheep. This Good Shepherd offers food, water, rest, security, hospitality and deliverance from fear. The relationship is deeply incarnational; the Shepherd promises his personal presence, even in face of dark times. Centuries later, Jesus will declare this psalm realised in his own identity; in John 10, he is the embodiment of the Good Shepherd. The Scriptures reveal his cross-shaped form of pastoral leadership, as a kingdom which turns our usual priorities upside-down. A Shepherd who is also a Servant.

A little excursus fitting for a day when we induct a woman as fulltime lead pastor: Bailey is convinced that verse 5 refers to the work of a woman.  In the Middle East, as in many cultures, the important tasks of preparing meals are carried out by women and servants. Since a shepherd in that era would not be expected to arrive home and cook a meal like husbands today, this verse brings in a side of the biblical tradition that can easily be overlooked, the hospitable woman who prepares a meal for guests. Bailey notes how the Psalm’s inclusive model, marginalised for centuries, dramatically reappears in Luke 15 with the twin parables of a good shepherd seeking a valuable animal, and a good woman seeking a precious coin. Bailey says Jesus’ choice of imagery is reasserting the value of women. So are we!

But you might be thinking, sheep farmers in NZ are nothing like these ancient herders. The metaphor seems ill-fitting in our technological era when farmers use data-driven machinery and scientifically-prescribed nutrients to care for their flock. Yes... but shearing champion Godfrey Bowen reckons the truths of this metaphor still apply. Sheep left to their own resources have limited ability to find food and water. They can be insensitive to environmental poisons and, he says, left alone for long they would surely perish. Pastoral farmers – these days a team of people, dogs and equipment – are still key to the sustenance/survival of the sheep. 

So let’s think about the pastors.
My New Testament passage today is from 1 Peter 5; 1 - 4, and is a charge to pastors in the early church. The writer begins by making a connection between suffering and glory. Peter himself had learned how suffering can evolve into grace. He had watched his master die - and then encountered him as the glorious risen Christ. Peter had experienced a suffering of his own, after denying his Lord, but that guilty shame had been transformed as Jesus embraced him as friend and commissioned him as pastor. Here he (or his disciple writing in his honour) picks up the Biblical image of the Good Shepherd – one who takes daily risks, endures hardships and perhaps even gives their life for the sake of the sheep. This leadership offers many challenges, but the outcome will be noble and glorious. And so Peter calls these leaders to shepherd the flock, the congregation they lead. He is reminding his deputies that all the pastoral promises of God in the Hebrew scriptures can be applied to, and claimed by, the new flock, the church. 

He goes on to describe how these pastors are to lead, willingly, generously. Not because of greed or compulsion, but eagerly. It’s not an easy life but it’s a joyful calling. They are to emulate the Psalm 23 model, leading in a firm but gentle way, and journeying with the flock in a deeply personal relationship. That’s how these C1 pastors can bring that divine presence and power into the lives of people. They are to do it graciously, as the text says, not lording it over them, not coercing, but leading from the front with a gentle and inviting call. Like the Good Shepherd, they are to seek out nourishing pastures and replenishing waters, and to provide assurance in face of evil. The writer reminds pastors that they are accountable for their work, but that their service and sacrifice will be recognised when they are welcomed home at the end of time. 

Just as the work of shepherding has changed over the centuries, so too has the work of a pastoral leader. I grew up in a Presbyterian manse, seeing my Dad do all the preaching, baptism, communions, and most of the parish visiting. As I grew older and explored my own call to ministry, I learned about the priesthood of all believers, about cooperative leadership and about the comma that translators mistakenly placed in Ephesians 4:12, separating off “the work of the ministry” from “the equipping of the saints.” Today we understand ministry as the calling of every single Christian, and even the pastors’ task of equipping the saints is often undertaken by a team of ministry leaders. 
I can see three applications of these passages to us in the local church.

People need leadership: 
We live in an era when organisational leadership is seen as critical to success, whether it’s a political party, a business, a school or a church. Its not usually about a commander in chief as scary as Donald Trump, but good leadership is widely sought after. In Bible times a flock of sheep without a shepherd would have been an unstable or dangerous situation. The shepherd themes remind us that human beings too can wander round aimlessly without effective leadership, to develop them, guide them and inspire them. Yes, today we are more democratic and in Baptist churches our hierarchies are flat. But Godfrey Bowen says the comparison still stands.  Just like sheep, people need leadership.

...... we have called you to leadership. We operate in teams here, and collaborative decision-making is part of our denominational DNA, but we need your specific gifts for the next season of church life. We hear God calling us to guide people of all ages to personal faith, discipleship and belonging, but we need motivating and equipping. We do want you to manage the changes that are needed, but with godly wisdom as to speed and direction. We want to rely more deeply on the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in our worship and mission and to connect more effectively with our community. There are different gifts, but the same Spirit who gives them. 

Christian leadership starts with God:
In the business world, organisations assign ultimate responsibility to the person at the top, and rely on them to ensure goals are achieved. But the Bible makes it clear that Christian leaders are not ultimately in charge; their authority is delegated from the Chief Shepherd, and discerned in a local call. The people they care for belong to God and even pastors themselves are members of God’s flock, under Christ’s authority like the rest of us. So a Christian leader is accountable to God for their work, not just to the faith community they serve. That’s makes it tricky for churches to manage a pastor, which is why I researched clergy performance reviews in my Masters for AUT Business School. I found God’s oversight is exercised through collaborative human leadership teams, but that in the end, it is God who is our leader. 

........ you are accountable to God. The scriptures are tough on pastors who fail in their duty. That means it is critical that you stay in close collaboration with the Spirit of God, opening yourself to Scripture and good books, listening for the Spirit’s voice in worship and prayer, and finding spiritual disciplines that fit your temperament and help you to grow. You need to protect your ministry by prioritising self-care and Sabbath, by developing friendships outside the church and finding a good supervisor. We follow the Good Shepherd because we are familiar with his voice. 

Christian leadership is about service not status:
In the Hebrew Bible, fierce criticism is applied to human shepherds or pastors who use privileged positions for their own ends. So Peter urges his leaders not to be greedy for money or earthly power, but to serve eagerly and humbly, teaching, protecting, and caring for the people God loves. That may at times involve discomfort for the flock, as it did for the ancient herders who at times had to encourage sheep down steep and difficult paths. As pastors teach and model Kingdom values, they are not to be overprotective shepherds who cosset the flock, nor distant leaders who neglect their people, but wise and loving partners in the mission of God.

........ the upside-down kingdom is based on humility, not hubris. Your role here is to be a servant not a superstar. Listen to this quote from Craig Greenfield, an urban missionary who grew up in our part of Auckland:
Where empire consolidates power and says, "My way or the highway," the upside-down kingdom kneels with a towel and washes feet.
Where empire honours the influential and celebrates the celebrity, the upside-down kingdom welcomes little children and gives food to the hungry. 
Where empire is about power and status and tax breaks for the rich, the upside-down kingdom says the last should go first, losers are winners, and the most important among us will do the dishes. 
Subversive Jesus, Amazon Kindle, 2016.
So tend the flock of God as God would have you do it. 

I want to finish by sharing some words spoken by Bishop of Manchester, William Temple – later to become Archbishop of Canterbury – at his induction: 
“I come as a learner with no policy to advocate, no plan already formed …. But I come with one burning desire; it is that in all our activities we should help each other to fix our eyes on Jesus, making Him our only guide... Pray for me, I ask you, not chiefly that I may be wise and strong, athough for these things I need your prayers. But pray for me chiefly that I may never let go of the unseen hand of the Lord Jesus and may live in daily fellowship with Him.”

..........this is our prayer for you, and for each other, and for ourselves. May we travel ever closer with Jesus Christ, the Shepherd of our souls. 

To Think About: What part of this charge spoke to you most personally?