“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”
Fifty years ago Pastor Gary was given a Bible and commissioned to preach and teach the faith of the church. A stole was laid around his neck, a symbol that the pastoral office is a servant office. Representatives of the church then laid their hands on his head and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be his guide and comfort in the task set before him.
We celebrated his fifty years of service on Sunday, in worship and in a luncheon after. It was a delightful day. It was not without some forethought that we choose this day, the feast of Holy Cross, not only because the color of the day would be red, as is the color appointed for ordinations, but because it is Christ crucified that pastors are called to proclaim.
The pastoral office used to be a greater honor than it is today. The public esteem of the church has dropped – as has the esteem of many social institutions. The church has been wounded by scandals involving its clergy. Its message has been marginalized by the media attention given to the radical fringe. The social compact that respected all religious traditions and recognized each one’s value to society has broken down in a kind of religious partisanship where the claim to truth has lost its social graces.
Our congregations, too, have been shaped by changing attitudes and our changing culture. Pastors – at least in traditional, white, mainline churches – are sometimes viewed as employees hired to administer the parish program rather than bearers of the divine message. Or they have been seen as providers of nurture and care rather than agents of God’s transformative work in our hearts and world. Congregations have sometimes looked for institution builders rather than kingdom builders. Since truth in general – and religious truth in particular – has become entirely personal, we measure sermons for how they keep our interest or meet our needs rather than for their fidelity to the ancient confessions.
On the face of it, the traditional local church seems to be going the way of local bookstores. The economy is passing them by.
But only on the face of it.
The Word of God is, by nature, a spoken word. At least in the Christian scriptures, God is not found; God reveals himself. God is not the culmination of a spiritual journey but the start of one. Moses is tending sheep when a voice speaks to him from the burning bush. Jacob is fleeing his brother’s murderous threats (well deserved) when he lays his head down upon a rock and God reveals himself in a dream. Who knows what Abraham is doing when he is told to leave his home and kindred towards a promised land.
God is not found; God finds us. God encounters us. God speaks to us. And God nearly always speaks through prophets and messengers. Even the word ‘angel’ means simply ‘messenger’ (and is used for earthly as well as heavenly messengers).
To speak, God needs to use a voice. A human voice. And human hands.
That task of speaking is given to all of us, of course, but the church also trains and commissions some to exercise this role publicly: To speak on behalf of the whole church. To speak the word that God has entrusted to us. To speak the word that lifts the burden of our sin and brokenness. The word of healing grace. The word of comfort in desolation, of hope in loss, of the true way of God in time when evil seems triumphant.
Though the form of the church changes from age to age, this task of speaking remains. The world may not recognize nor honor this work Pastor Gary does, but the heavens see.