Sermon from May 1: On Feeding the Flock

On Feeding the Flock
Easter III; May 1, 2022
John 21:1-19

Since Jesus told Peter that the way to show his love for Jesus was to feed Jesus’ sheep, I’m going to use that idea as a place to talk with you about the relationship between pastor and people. I think there are mission implications too: Jesus says he has sheep we may not be aware of (John 10:16) and so we can think of Jesus’ command as a motivation for the Church to feed people both in bread and in the Word of God. Support hunger ministry and tell the lost and wandering about Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”

But let’s focus on the reality that you are facing soon, which is to welcome someone who will be a bridge pastor or an interim pastor and to begin your search for a new installed pastor, as well as talking about the implications of our separation. Let’s consider first what the pastor’s responsibility is when Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” and then talk about what that means for you and me. And, of course, I will remind you of what our Good Shepherd does for all his sheep.

The Pastor’s primary concern is to feed the sheep the truth of the Word of God. That is harder than it sounds. We pastors are human beings with the frailties, prejudices, and sins of all human beings, and so it is easy to get distracted from Jesus’ command to feed his sheep with the Word of God and to give you junk food instead. What do I mean by “junk food”? Such things as expressing our own political opinions rather than opinions based solidly on the Gospel, or using preaching to further our own purposes, or simply telling you what makes you feel good rather than what would promote spiritual growth. People may like junk food: after all, most of us would rather eat a chocolate Easter bunny than a plate of broccoli. But we also know which is better for us. A few bites of a chocolate bunny after the plate of broccoli is a welcome treat, but it is not a substitute.

While I’m playing with metaphors, let me be crass and say that it is also the Pastor’s responsibility to feed the sheep, not fleece them. Pastors can fleece the sheep in a variety of ways. Obviously it is possible to take financial advantage of people’s willingness to support the work of God. We all know of TV preachers who have gotten wealthy off their work, but I was also told the story of a pastor who gave a lot of attention to the widows in his congregation, with the result that they left him money in their wills. Please don’t; please remember your church in your wills, not the pastor.

You may prefer I not mention this, but I will anyway: there are pastors who have been abusive of their people. April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month; perhaps you saw yards covered in pinwheels as a reminder. One of my social media friends posted stories of men who had been sexually abused as children; he had shared his own story of being abused by a Scout leader when he was a boy. He pointed out how difficult it is for anyone to talk about having been abused, but it is particularly difficult for men. Our group continues to celebrate the courage of our brother who told us his story. I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you that abuse happens and in order to break the cycle of abuse it is necessary to talk about it. If you have a story, tell it to someone you trust.

Another, more subtle way that pastors fleece their sheep is to do their work faithfully but with the intention of satisfying their own emotional needs. So here I will talk about our relationship after May 31. As of June 1 I will no longer be your Pastor. I will still love you and I know you will still love me. I will pray for you. I will want the best for you. I will be glad any time I see any of you. I will be your friend, but I will not be your Pastor. So if you ask me to do a wedding or baptism or funeral, I will refuse. You haven’t done anything wrong if you ask, but if I do it, I will have done something very wrong. There are two reasons for that.

The first is that it is against the rules. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) explicitly prohibits it. Now, I have done two funerals for my former congregation in Clarinda. It was not against the rules. Why? Because the Pastor was going to be away and asked me to cover those for him. If I had just done it on my own, it would have been a violation of my ordination vows. And so, in another case, when a dear friend in my former church asked me to do her brother’s funeral, I refused. I said, “Jay is your Pastor and he cares about you.” He did the funeral and did an excellent job. If you ask a former minister of this church to do a wedding or baptism or funeral and the minister does it without the request coming from the pastor of the Church, that minister has violated their ordination vows.

The second, more important reason is that it isn’t good for you or for the church as a whole. You may think you want the minister who knows you and has loved you for a long time to do this, and I understand. It feels good. But it isn’t right. First off, we ministers need to remember that our job is not to cultivate your loyalty to us, but your loyalty to Jesus Christ and his Church. We are to care more about your relationship with your Church than about your relationship with us. And second, it is important to give the new Pastor a chance to connect with you and care for you. They can’t do that if some former pastor or associate pastor keeps getting in the way. If I were to do that, I would be serving my own desire to feel needed rather than doing what is good for you.

But to finish on this note. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” This was right after Jesus had fed Peter a nice grilled breakfast. Remember that the One who ultimately feeds us the Word of God isn’t the Pastor but is Jesus Himself. He feeds us by his teaching throughout the Gospels. He feeds us by inspiring teachers and preachers over centuries of Christian growth and learning. And he feeds us with his Body and Blood in the Holy Supper. The Church can feed Jesus’ sheep in the world and Pastors can feed Jesus’ sheep in the Church because Jesus feeds us repeatedly with grace and in the Holy Spirit. As the Psalm says, taste and see that the Lord is good.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska