Longing to See You

“8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” – Romans 1:8-12

These words from St. Paul reflect his pastoral heart. The apostle says to his parish, “I am longing to see you”.

At the center of the pastoral vocation is a deep longing. It is a longing to be in relationship: to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the people with whom I do ministry.

When people ask to see me, they often say at the end of our meeting, “I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.” I want to say back, “Are you kidding me?! This is the best part of my job! If I could just do this all day, I would.”

The pastor’s first job is to be in relationship with God’s people: not to be “professionally religious”, not to solve their problems, not to entertain them, not to teach theology or correct bad behavior, and certainly not to maintain buildings and manage institutions. All of the above are important and necessary parts of ordained ministry, but they are not the heart of the pastoral vocation. The heart is the relationship: the “longing to see you” that Paul wrote about.

To be sure, there is an exchange of something that happens in this relationship: Paul says that he wants to “share some spiritual gift” in order to “strengthen” his people. But he goes on to say that the exchange is a two-way street: “that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Every relationship is a matter of simultaneous giving and taking. All of us are constantly being both filled and emptied by love in the relational network of the Trinity, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17).

As Christians, we believe that we are saved by a relationship. The Incarnation is a relationship in which God “takes on flesh” and “moves into the neighborhood”, as Eugene Peterson put it. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel: “God with us.” Each Sunday, we further celebrate the Real Presence of Christ in our celebration of the Eucharist. By faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our very selves.

If we, as Christians, truly want to bear witness to the saving activity of our Incarnate Deity, then our action must mirror God’s in its relational nature. We must follow that deep, inner longing to be with one another in the flesh, as God is with us. When our fellow human beings come to believe that they are loved, that they are not alone, then can we say that we have truly done our job as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is the longing to be in relationship that brought God from heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ; it is that same longing that fuels the pastoral vocation. It is the longing to be in relationship that draws the Church together in covenant community; it is that same longing that sends us out into the world as witnesses of the Gospel.

“I saw the person before I saw his or her poverty. And I realized that the person who is hungry, abandoned or in need is first of all a heart who needs to find another heart; someone who will listen, understand and love. People who are poor and discouraged need to hear someone say to them, “I love you. I have confidence in you. You are beautiful. You can give life to others.” This helps them find confidence in themselves, new strength, new hope. The poor do not need to hear a lot of words, not even pious words. They may need people who will do things for them. Above all they need friendship: friends who love them and are willing to do things with them. This will help them grow and develop both humanly and spiritually.” – Jean Vanier

(Reblog) Faithful to the end: An interview with Eugene Peterson


Peterson’s wisdom never fails to strike a chord.  Once again, he nails it…

A couple of excerpts:

…pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

And, as someone who grew up in big churches, but has been either a member or a pastor in small churches for most of my adult life, I just love hearing this bit of advice for those who want to take Christian faith seriously:

Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.

(Reblog) 11 Things I Wish More Pastors Would Say

Reblogged from the epic Rachel Held Evans:

I’m blessed to have had several such pastors in my life, though I realize such humility isn’t a given. The irony, of course, is that saying these things not only liberates a congregation; it also liberates the pastor. Often, the most meaningful and impactful words a pastor can share are spoken away from the pulpit.

So what would you add to this list? 

What’s something a pastor has said to you that was painful or destructive? What’s something a pastor has said to you that encouraged, healed, or inspired?

Click here to read the full list


I have never plugged another blog so vehemently as I am now plugging this one.

My wife and I were up until 1:30 in morning, rolling in laughter at this blog because IT’S ALL TRUE!!!

The author is not forthcoming with personal identity details, but that’s the blogger’s prerogative.  The experiences chronicled and parodied here are almost universal among mainline clergy.  I’m actually a little scared that if my parishioners found this blog, they would be able to read my mind.

Please check this out, especially if you happen to be the clergy type.

Thank me later.


A Growing Church is a Dying Church

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

What then can your pastor do?  She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study.  She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary.  She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns.  She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music.  She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion.  She can ignore your phone call because she’s too busy praying.  She can ruin your perfectly balanced budget with appeals for more funds to be allocated toward mission and outreach.  She can take up your precious evenings with kooky new book studies and meditation groups.  She can take up your precious weekends with exhausting volunteer projects. She can open your church building to the ugliest and meanest freaks in town, who show up at odd hours, beg for handouts, track muddy snow into the building, leave their cigarette butts in the parking lot, and spill their coffee on the carpet during their Junkies Anonymous meetings.

She can come off sounding like a Jesus freak evangelical, gushing on and on about the Bible and your personal relationship with God.  She can come off sounding like a smells n’ bells catholic, pontificating on and on about tradition and sacraments.  She can come off sounding like a bleeding-heart liberal, prattling on and on about social justice and the need to constantly question old interpretations.

What can she do to grow your church?  Nothing.  There’s nothing your pastor can do to make your church grow.  She can’t save your church.  Your church already has a Savior and it’s not her.  She can push you.  She can open doors.  She can present you with opportunities.  It’s up to you to take advantage of them.  She can plant seeds and water them.  It’s up to God to make them grow.

And what if that happens?  What will growth look like?  Will all those old, inactive members suddenly return?  Will the pews be packed again?  Will you need to start a second service and buy the lot next door in order to expand the parking lot?  No.  You might see a few new faces in the crowd.  There won’t be many of them.  Some might stick around but most won’t.  Those who stay won’t fit in with the old guard.  They won’t know about how you’ve always done it.  They’ll want to make changes of their own.  Their new ideas will make you uncomfortable.  Your church won’t look or feel like it used to.  You’ll feel like you’re losing control of this place that you’ve worked so hard to preserve.  It will feel like your church is dying.

And that’s just the thing.  A growing church is a dying church.  It has to be.  It cannot be otherwise.  The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday.  The way to the empty tomb goes through Golgotha.  The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion.  When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else?  What Jesus told us about himself is also true of churches: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.

But what if it doesn’t work?  What if you let your pastor do all that crazy stuff and nobody new shows up?  What if the church still goes under?  What if all that time you spend studying the Bible, expanding your horizons, deepening your spiritual life, and serving your community turns out to be time wasted?  What if it does?

Tell you what: if that’s what happens, if you commit yourself to all this and still feel like it was a waste of time in the end, then maybe your church really needed to die.

A Witness Without A Word

Pastors in several churches across the country wore hoodies to church last Sunday as a prophetic act of lamentation over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

The Washington post covered the event.:


Also, here’s a video of one pastor preaching in a hoodie.  Worth watching:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Great Shepherd

Himalayan shepherd. Image by Raja Selvaraj.

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is good old Psalm 23.

Over the course of these past seven months, I’ve been getting to know all of you as I begin my tenure of service as your pastor.  During that time, one thing has become quite clear to me: it’s been a long and hard road for you in your search for a new pastor.  There’s been a lot of heartbreak and frustration.  Mistakes have been made.  New hopes have turned into false starts on more than one occasion.

I know something about how that feels.  Today, I’d like to share some of my story with you.  I’d like you to know something of the road that has brought me to you at this particular time.  I’ve had my own share of mistakes, heartbreaks, and frustrations along the way.  But I’m sharing my part of this story because I believe that, in spite of all the setbacks, the Holy Spirit has brought us together at exactly the right time.

As most of you already know, I began my career in ministry as an Episcopal priest.  The denomination I served was not the large mainline Episcopal Church that most people are familiar with.  (In other words, it was not the same denomination that’s associated with our good neighbors down the road at Trinity Episcopal on Schuyler Street.)  I served a small independent group that was founded as a separate organization about ten years ago.  Out of respect for that church and the people in it, I won’t be naming any names this morning.  I was initially attracted to their ministry ideals and their commitment to serving the poor.  But I discovered in time that a denomination that small comes with its own set of problems.  The top-down hierarchy meant there was little accountability for those at the top of the organization.  Sadly, abuse of power was bound to happen in that kind of situation.  And it did happen.

It would be inappropriate for me to go into gruesome details about the nature of the abuse, suffice to say that it eventually reached a point where I found it personally and ethically impossible for me to continue serving as a priest in that church.  So I made the decision to leave.

This was the hardest decision I have ever had to make.  Years of prayer and preparation had gone into my process of ordination to the priesthood.  The decision to serve that church was not one I made lightly or rashly.  The decision to leave was even harder.  I consulted several trusted friends, family, and professionals.  I went through some very long days of struggle and self-doubt about my sense of call to the ministry.  Yeah, it felt like I was walking “through the valley of the shadow of death”.  Not my physical death, but the death of my dreams, the death of certain close relationships in my previous church, and the death of my plans for the future.

Yes, I’ve been through that valley.  I know you’ve been through that valley as a church.  I also know that many of you have been through that valley as individuals.  So, this morning, I’d like for us all to keep our own personal experience of this “valley of the shadow of death” in mind as we explore the 23rd psalm.

First of all, this is one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible.  I had us read it together this morning in the King James Version because that’s the version in which most people are used to hearing it.  The language may sound archaic, but to many of us, it’s also comforting.

Obviously, the language of this psalm paints a picture of God as the Great Shepherd.  Shepherding was an important job in the ancient world.  Livestock was a measure of one’s wealth in those days, much like an investment portfolio is for us today.  The richer you are, the more you need a shepherd’s help.  Ironically, the shepherding profession itself was not held in high esteem.  Shepherds were thought of as dirty hillbillies.  This was not unusual in ancient agricultural societies.  More “civilized” farmers who settled down and established a homestead on a particular piece of land often looked down on the nomadic shepherds, who had to travel wherever there was sufficient pasture and water for the sheep.  Farmers spread lots of nasty rumors about shepherds.

In fact, this farmer vs. shepherd rivalry is so long-standing, some biblical scholars think it may have been the inspiration for the legendary Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4.  These two brothers were the first sons born to Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  Cain, the elder, stronger, and more “civilized” brother was a farmer, while Abel, the younger and weaker brother was a nomadic shepherd.  I could go into more interesting detail about their story, but that would be an entirely different sermon.  For now, it helps us to see that shepherds were looked down upon in the ancient world.

What does it mean that God was identified with this necessary-but-despised profession?  I like to think it means that God, the Great Shepherd, isn’t always present to us in ways that are nice and pretty.  Sometimes, God seems to be very “rough around the edges”.  This makes me think of the character Strider in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Lord of the Rings.  Strider is a dark and mysterious wanderer.  Nobody knows if he can really be trusted, but it turns out that he is actually destined to be a great king over the land of Gondor.  In spite of his rough appearance, Strider is one of the most noble and trustworthy characters in the book.  I think that God, the Great Shepherd, is quite similar to Tolkien’s Strider.

As Psalm 23 progresses, we learn more about God’s job as the Great Shepherd.  We learn first that the Shepherd is a Guide.  The flock is destined for “Green pastures” and “still waters”, places of rest and refreshment, while they walk with God.  Even in the darkest valley, the sheep are never alone or abandoned.  Their final destination is the place where God lives, the place where a home has been prepared for them by the Shepherd.

The second thing we learn is that the Shepherd is a Guardian.  The “rod” and “staff” mentioned in verse 4 are actually weapons used to fight off wolves that might try to attack the sheep.  As flocks of sheep wandered through the wilderness, they would often have to worry about predators that might be stalking them from behind.  Who knows what kinds of dangerous and wild animals might be following the flock?  But the sheep says in verse 6 the Great Shepherd is so good at the job that only “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”.  No wild animals here!

Third, we learn that the Great Shepherd is a Host.  The sheep says that the Shepherd “preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies”, therefore “my cup runneth over.”  The nomadic life of sheep and shepherds often looked unstable to outsiders.  They had little control over outward circumstances.  How could one know whether there would be sufficient food or water at the next stop?  I’m sure it was nerve-wracking.  Faith in God’s providence for our lives can be just as unsettling.  We never know whether feast or famine lies around the corner.  It feels more sane and stable to trust in the fragile and fabricated security systems of wealth and power in our society.  But the fact is that we cannot effectively “insure” our health, life, or property any more than helpless sheep can safely find their own way to food and water in the deserts of Palestine.  We need a guide and provider.  Will we trust the Shepherd to do this for us?

Fourth, we are told that the Shepherd is a Healer.  The sheep says that the Shepherd “restoreth my soul” and “anointest my head with oil” (a common medicinal practice in the ancient world).  Tending to sick and wounded sheep was a big part of the Shepherd’s job.  More than anyone else in this room, I’m sure our veterinarian friend, Terry Hausserman, could tell us detailed stories about animals in need of tender care.  God promises to do this for us.

All of these roles for the Great Shepherd (Guide, Guardian, Host, and Healer) have been much needed by me and the people of this congregation during this long and difficult period of transition.  Can God be trusted to fill these roles for us?  Well, I can tell you what I’ve seen in my own experience:

After I decided that it was time for me to leave my previous denomination, I made a call to my friend Naomi Kelly, who is the co-chair for the Committee on Ministry in this presbytery.  I explained the situation and she was sympathetic.  It would be an understatement to say that these colleagues received me with open arms.  The committees and the stated clerk of presbytery literally bent over backward to welcome me as one of their own.  It didn’t happen overnight.  Paperwork and exams were involved.  There was also the issue of receiving a call.  In order for me to come on board, I would need to receive a pastoral call from a congregation.

Well, it just so happens that, the next Sunday after my initial phone call to Naomi, I was scheduled to preach here in Boonville.  My decision to leave my previous denomination was so fresh, I wasn’t yet talking about it to anyone outside of my inner-circle of close friends.  I came here that morning and did what I always do.  But then, after the service, a group of elders basically cornered me in the sanctuary.  “What will it take,” they said, “for you to consider coming here to be our pastor?”  Let me tell you, I was totally blown away.  There was no way that any of these folks could have known about the decision I had just made in the previous week.  How is it that they picked that exact moment to approach me about becoming the pastor?  I wanted to come right out and tell my whole story right then, but prudence dictated otherwise and I simply said that we should consult the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and ask for their guidance.

But there was obviously someone bigger than a committee that was guiding us in that moment.  In spite of the dire circumstances of that “dark valley”, I can honestly say that I have never in my life felt so clearly the presence of God the Great Shepherd as Guide, Guardian, Host, and Healer than I did in that moment.  Even as God was leading me away from an unhealthy situation, God was also leading me toward this new future in ministry.  God’s timing was impeccable.  So yes, I’ve been through the “valley of the shadow of death”, but I also know that I need “fear no evil” for the Great Shepherd is with me.  Throughout my ordeal, God has been my Guide, Guardian, Host, and Healer.

I can see the hand of the Great Shepherd at work in the life of this congregation as well.  Yes, it’s been a long and hard road in your search for a new pastor, but you’ve never wandered alone or abandoned.  In fact, you’ve always had what you were looking for.  Did you know that the word “pastor” is actually Latin for “shepherd”?  You’ve been searching for a new pastor, but all along you’ve been under the care of the Great Shepherd (the Great Pastor).  In a very real sense, I’m only serving this congregation as the “assistant pastor”.  It’s not my job to guide, guard, host, and heal you.  I’m here to help you look for the ways in which God is already doing those things.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”.  God has been your pastor all along; there is nothing you lack.  And let me tell you, as a pastor, God is a tough act to follow!

As you sit here this morning, you may be walking through your own personal “valley”.  Maybe it’s the loss of a job, a relationship, or your health.  Your circumstances will inevitably be different from mine, but the question is the same: Can God be trusted as Guide, Guardian, Host, and Healer?  I invite you to look around in your present situation.  See whether God has already been present and active in these ways.  Also, I invite you to be patient and see what might be coming around the bend.  Ask God to show you these things.  As Jesus promised, those who seek will find.  And those who trust in the Great Shepherd will dwell in God’s house forever.

Love Covers a Multitude of Sins

This is the sermon I preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church, Boonville, NY.  The text is John 21:1-19.

Parents, in my experience, have a way of knowing us better than we know ourselves.  I know this because I am a parent and, even though she’s only sixteen months old, I can already pick up on distinct aspects of my daughter’s personality emerging.  I also know this because I have parents and, much to my chagrin, they have often been able to finish my sentences, predict my next move, and see a part of my personality that I thought I had hidden well.

I felt particularly cornered one day when my mother aptly pointed out that I suffer from an “over-active conscience”.  Little things, small errors in judgment that most people would be able to let go, bothered me to the point of needing to confess to someone.  On one such occasion, my father interrupted my tirade of self-loathing to give me one bit of advice.  “Son,” he said, “go easy on yourself.”  To this day, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

I am hardly the first person in history to wrestle with such a compulsion.  Psychologists have identified a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called “Scrupulosity”, which manifests itself as an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sinfulness.  Historical scholars suspect that both Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist churches, might have suffered from this ailment.

These “scrupulous” tendencies in myself, combined with a church environment that condoned such an inclination, brought me to the point where I disqualified myself from serving as a minister in the church.  Even as I graduated college and started seminary, people would ask me, “Are you planning to pursue a career in ordained ministry?”  I would respond, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

Because of this experience, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the apostle Peter felt at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading.  This story comes to us from the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We read that Peter was certainly present for the events which took place around Easter Sunday, but the last time he played a major role in the plot of this story was on the night when Jesus was arrested.  Earlier that evening, Peter had expressed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus in no uncertain terms.  By the next morning, Peter had publicly denied that even knew Jesus.  He did this, not once, but three times.

This was no minor misstep for Peter.  In doing this, we know that he turned his back on his faith; he rejected everything he had come to believe about God through Jesus.  But more than that, Peter had also turned his back on his closest friend at a critical moment.  According to ancient near-eastern custom, Peter’s infidelity had violated Jesus’ honor.  Jesus would be expected to demand vindication for such an offense.  Perhaps Peter thought of those words which Jesus had spoken earlier, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of his Father and of the holy angels.”

So Peter was probably not all that surprised when at Jesus’ first appearance after the resurrection, his friend did not address him directly.  I can imagine Peter, in his crushing guilt, believing that his denial had purchased his exclusion from the ranks of apostles.  He had been reduced from the role of leader to that of spectator.  When Jesus commissioned his apostles, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I can see Peter, sitting in a far corner of the room, relieved to see Jesus, excited for his friends, but also sad for himself.  I can even imagine Peter saying the same thing I did, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

After the events of Easter, Peter has to decide how to get on with the rest of his life.  It made perfect sense for him to return to fishing, the only life he knew before Jesus.  I find it interesting that six other disciples accompanied Peter in his return to the maritime business.  I like to imagine that they went along as Peter’s social support system.  Maybe they were hoping to shake Peter out of his paralyzing guilt so that he would come and join them as they sought to preach the Good News about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Peter, hoping he could forget the past (or at least put it behind him), was finding his old job to be a hollow pursuit on multiple levels.  We read that his nets kept coming up empty.  I think this is a comment about something more than the fishing conditions at the Sea of Tiberias.  I think we, as the readers of this story, are getting a glimpse inside Peter’s soul at that moment.  The fisherman’s life to which he was returning seemed empty and meaningless after his experience of traveling with Jesus.  I also imagine that it must have been hard for Peter to work those same shores, remembering the day he met Jesus on that very spot, when Jesus used his boat as an impromptu pulpit.

In this sad moment, the risen Christ makes a sudden reappearance.  Jesus encounters Peter in the midst of his daily routine and brings two gifts.  First, he brings Abundance.  Like the symbol of emptiness, this miraculous catch is a sign to Peter that he is about to find that which he was really seeking (and here’s a hint: it isn’t fish).

As they are gathering the nets, one of the disciples, the one “whom Jesus loved” (identified as John by most biblical scholars), turns to Peter in realization that this catch was no ordinary coincidence.  “It is the Lord!” he says.  In this moment, John is acting like a true pastor by pointing out God’s presence and activity in Peter’s life.  This, by the way, is how I spend most of my time on the street as a Community Chaplain.  I’m not a street preacher, I’m a street pastor.  It’s my job to walk with people through the triumphs and struggles of daily life and help them see how God is at work there.

Peter responds to this observation immediately.  But we read that he does something quite unusual: he puts his coat on just before hopping into the water.  I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to swim without being fully clothed.  But, like the nets, I take this to be a statement about Peter’s internal state-of-being.  He doesn’t want to feel so exposed in front of the one he has let down.  Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter wants to cover himself because he feels ashamed.  Too often these days (even in the church), God’s children fall victim to this mentality.  They assume there is something about themselves that is unacceptable, so they duck and cover.  Hiding in the closet, they wear the mask constructed for them by society’s expectations.  But, as we will see in a moment with Peter, Jesus has this uncanny ability to pierce the veil of our shame with his love.

Which leads me to Jesus’ second gift:

Jesus appears bearing the gift of Acceptance.  When Peter and the disciples finally make it to shore, they find breakfast waiting for them.  This is evocative of Jesus’ meal-sharing ministry, which got him in even more trouble than his teaching and healing.  You’ve heard me describe before what a powerful statement it was to share a meal with someone in the ancient near-east.  Eating with someone signified one’s total acceptance of the other person into the family unit.  By feeding the multitudes and dining with outcasts, Jesus makes a statement about the scope of his radically inclusive love.  In this passage, that love is extended to the disciples, even Peter.  By eating first, Jesus is effectively saying that he has rejected Peter’s rejection of him.

Once breakfast is over, Peter is finally ready to come face-to-face with Jesus and talk about the painful events of that night.  Jesus uses his words like a surgeon’s scalpel: cutting ever deeper, exposing the source of the pain in order to heal it.  It is not an easy soul-surgery for Peter to endure.  Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him.  One time for each denial.  Each time, Peter affirms that he does love him and Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

Instead of enacting vengeance upon Peter, Jesus asks him to take care of that which is most precious to him: this new community of believers.  In verse 16, Jesus uses the term “Shepherd”, which is “Poimaine” in Greek, and will later be translated into a Latin term that is very familiar to us: “Pastor”.  Jesus doesn’t punish Peter, he ordains him!

Jesus says to Peter, in effect, “Do you really love me, Peter?  If so, then I want you to take that love and give it to these people who need it the most right now.”  Peter now stands before Jesus as a healed and restored person.  The shameful hurt of denial has been replaced by the warm embrace of love.

History tells us that Peter did, in fact, take up this call.  Peter stands out as one of the great pastors in the early days of the Christian Church.  We have stories and letters in the New Testament that bear witness to this fact.  I think Peter walked away from that meeting with a newfound faith in the power of love to set things right.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Peter had this encounter in mind when he wrote to a group of churches years later, saying to them, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

I went to seminary declaring, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”  I said it as a joke, but my sarcasm was a thin veil covering my deep sense of shame and unworthiness.  But it happened that as I heard Jesus’ words to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, I began to notice a new desire rising up within me.  I realized that I wanted to feed Christ’s people with his Word and Sacraments.  Following this desire has led me out into the streets, where many of Christ’s lost sheep stand desperately in need of love.  I am being transformed by that love, even as I try to give it out.  My ministry in the neighborhoods of inner-city Utica has only increased my faith in the radically inclusive love of God.  I believe Jesus is teaching me to read my Bible with a new set of eyes as I read it with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.  I no longer see it as a book of rules and doctrines, but as a library of stories, poems, and letters, documenting a millennia-long romance between God and God’s people.  Like Peter, I find myself being transformed by the warm embrace of a love (God’s love) that covers a multitude of sins (my sins).

I don’t know where you are this morning, in relation to this powerful, transforming love of Christ.  Maybe you feel like there is something inside of you that you have to hide from the world?  Maybe you feel like you’ve committed some unforgivable sin and Jesus has finally turned his back on you?  Maybe you feel the crushing burden of doubt or guilt?  If that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you with this Gospel passage.  Jesus is coming into your life now with his gifts of abundance and acceptance.  He is not coming to punish you, but to heal you and, finally, to commission you into his service.

Maybe you’re here today and you’ve already experienced that healing love of Christ firsthand?  If that’s you, then I want to encourage you to take it with you into the world.  There are many of our sisters and brothers who are still bound by chains of guilt, fear, and despair.  Jesus is calling you this morning to follow him into those dark corners of the world, bringing with you the light and the warmth of his love.  One need not be a pastor in order to feed Christ’s hungry sheep.  Each of us, regardless of age or occupation, has a call to ministry.  Likewise, one need not go to Palestine or the inner-city.  There are hurting people who stand in desperate need of love in your own family, neighborhood, and community.  Your co-workers, clients, and supervisors need it.  If you are still in school, look for that fellow student in the cafeteria or playground who always eats or plays alone.  If you are retired, look among your friends and neighbors.  None of us has outlived God’s call on our lives.  For as long as there is still air in your lungs, God still has plans for your life.

Jesus has a lot of love to give and the hurting people of this world desperately need it.  Let’s learn to accept that love for ourselves and then pass it on.  Come on people, let’s feed some sheep.

Let us pray.

Eternal and Holy One, your love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, has covered the multitude of our sins: Grant us vision to see your love more clearly in our own lives, that we might pass it on to those hungry sheep who you have entrusted to our care; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.