Sunday, July 15, 2007

Migrant Workers in God's Field

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 at Batesville Presbyterian Church on July 15, 2007.

Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving. You happen to be God's field in which we are working.(The Message, trans. by Eugene Peterson)  


A minister who was a mentor to me had just left his church to go serve God in another place. I asked him how his congregation had reacted to his departure. He said: "Same as usual. Some are glad, some are sad, and some are mad." I laughed. Because it is true in own experience. Whenever I have left one congregation to go serve another congregation, the reactions of the congregation I'm leaving usually falls into one of those three categories. Some are sad. Some are glad. And some are mad. However you may feel about my leaving is okay with me.

There is a natural grieving process that congregations, members, and friends of the church go through whenever a pastor leaves. This occurs whether the pastor's tenure was a good or bad experience for the pastor and for the church. Let me tell you as clearly as I can that our time in Batesville has been a good time for my family and for me. I have grown tremendously as a person and as a pastor over these past eight years. Many of you have graciously let me into your lives and let me be your pastor. We have journey together through hospital visits, home visits, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. We have laughed together and cried together. My pastorate here has been a good experience for me and for the church.

We have been close and we have grown together. I have baptized babies, officiated funerals, taught confirmation classes, taught new member classes, taught the Xyz class, officiated weddings, and visited you in your homes and in the hospital. After the pastoral relationship between this church and me is dissolved on August 15, I will no longer do such things for this congregation. Our presbytery has ethics guidelines that forbid former pastors from performing pastoral function in congregations they have previously served. These guidelines exist to foster relationships between interim pastors and installed pastors and their congregations. Call on your interim pastor or installed pastor to do your baptisms, weddings, and funerals. After August 15, if you call and ask me to perform any pastoral functions I will say no. I will abide by the presbytery's ethical guidelines for pastors and their former congregations.

What we have experienced as pastor and people has been a precious commodity and I don't give it up lightly. I realize that not every experience between pastor and congregation is a good one. There are times when the pastor and congregation are not a good match. Perhaps they don't jell. They don't see eye to eye. Things fall apart. But not with us. We've been good for one another. And that is what we are celebrating here today. Some may wonder why I would even consider leaving here when things are going so well. We seek stability in our lives. We seek order and simplicity. Change, even positive change, can be stressful. Well, let me answer that question. The reason I am leaving you is because that is the Biblical pattern.

You can see it right there in our text this morning. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, says, "Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us—servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow." The great Apostle Paul didn't stay in any one place for too long. He moved in, organized a cell group of Christians, and then moved on. He repeated the process many, many times. Much of the New Testament are Epistles, letters written by Paul because Paul did not spend his entire ministry in one place. Neither did Jesus. Jesus, during his three year ministry, moved around from town to town, so much so that he once said of himself, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but I've got nowhere to call home." Moving along is in the DNA of Christ's church.

Paul says in our text today, and here I paraphrase him: "The church is not about the pastor. The church is about God. God is the one who makes things grow. Your pastors are basically migrant workers. And you happen to be God's field in which we are working." Wow. What an image. Imagine your life as God's field and your pastor as a migrant worker in the field of your life.

One of the positive things we know about migrant workers is that they work hard. That is true for most pastors. Yes, our schedules are more free. But pastors are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We work on Father's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We work every Sunday except a few each year. Pastors work schedule is a bit like migrant workers. And like migrant workers we pastors frequently move. We've got work to do over there, you see. Tomatoes to pick. Orange groves waiting to be picked. Chicken houses to clean. You name it. There is work to be done. We do the job. Then we move on to work somewhere else. In the power of the spirit. There are exceptions to this rule. There are so still some decades long pastorates. But that doesn't happen much these days. People are more mobile and so are ministers. Let me tell you why I'm leaving here. I'm not leaving because you did something wrong. I'm leaving because we both did something right. We accomplished the mission for which God sent me here. Now God is sending me on to another congregation to work in God's field there. After I leave, God will send you a new servant leader. In the meantime, keep it together. Keep moving forward. God expects you to do that.

From this day forward let's focus on the positive things we accomplished together. This congregation is at a much better place now than when I arrived. You can do even better now. This is not the end for you. This is merely the prelude. Decide today that you will give thanks to God for the time we have had together. And then make up your mind that, with God's help, this congregation will move forward and accomplish great things for God's kingdom. Pastors are spiritual migrant workers laboring in God's field, your lives. Any good that comes from our work together did not come from me. It came from God. As Paul puts it: "It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow."

To God be glory. Both now, and forevermore.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from
2 Kings 5:1-14 on July 8, 2007 at Batesville Presbyterian Church

Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. So said the Munchins to Dorothy and her companions as they sought to find the Emerald City to see the Wizard of Oz. Follow the yellow brick road. That is, in effect, what this congregation is about to do as you begin your search for new pastoral leadership. The yellow brick road for you will require that you navigate the twists and turns of finding your way toward calling a new pastor within the framework of our Presbyterian call system. Follow the yellow brick road. That is a way of thinking about the journey toward healing and transformation taken by Naaman in our Old Testament story today.

That's right, in our Old Testament story today, Naaman learns to follow the yellow brick road. Naaman journey starts when his world falls apart. He is on top of the world. His career is at its zenith. Everything is going his way. Then one day the bottom falls out. He wakes up one morning and notices an itch that will not go away. Soon his body is covered with a debilitating skin disease called leprosy. If left unchecked, this illness will destroy his health, his career and his standing in the community. And there is no known cure for leprosy. Fortunately for him, one of his servant girls, a young war slave from Israel, tells him about a prophet of God named Elijah who lives in the land of Israel. She claims God may work through Elijah to cure Naaman's leprosy. Naaman is desperate enough to give it a try. Thus begins Naaman's journey down the yellow brick road from Syria to Israel.

Naaman's test along the yellow brick road, his price for personal transformation, is whether he will put aside his pride and follow simple, but seemingly stupid, instructions from the Prophet Elijah, who represents God's will and God's power. Elijah's prescription is for Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman initially balks at this seemingly nonsensical suggestion. He does not see how washing in a river can leprosy and he is right. Washing in a river cannot cure leprosy. It doesn't matter whether you wash in a river one time, seven times, or seventy times seven times, bathing in a river will not cure your leprosy. Thus God tested Naaman. For God also knew washing in a river will not cure leprosy. But God also knows that faithful obedience can transform a person. When Naaman followed God's prescription and washes seven times in the Jordan River, his leprosy is healed and his life is transformed as he comes to have faith in the powerful God of Israel.

Now, from the Bible story about Naaman, I would like us to transition to another story about the yellow brick road. This is the story that is told in the movie called The Wizard of Oz. In the movie, the main character, a young girl named Dorothy, begins her journey toward personal transformation when a cyclone throws her and her dog, Toto, into the land of Oz. Dorothy never expected a cyclone to hit her in her small town in Kansas. Yet, as with Naaman, it is an unexpected tragedy that triggers the events that set Dorothy along a path that will eventually become the yellow brick road and lead to her personal transformation.

Here is how it happens. When a nasty neighbor tries to have her dog put to sleep, Dorothy takes her dog Toto, to run away. A cyclone appears and carries her to the magical land of Oz. Wishing to return, she begins to travel to the Emerald City where a great wizard lives. On her way she meets a Scarecrow who needs a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who desperately needs courage. Dorothy and her traveling companions are convinced that all their problems will be solved and all their dreams will be answered if they can just speak to the great Wizard of Oz in Emerald City. Some Munchins tell them how to get to the Emerald City. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. Dorothy and her motley gang follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City. When they finally find the great Wizard of Oz, he turns out to be an impostor. But in the end, their journey succeeds despite the wizard, as they discover within themselves the very gifts they thought only the wizard could give them.

Now, let's make a connection to this congregation. Like Naaman and Dorothy, this congregation started down the yellow brick road this week week with my announcement that I have accepted a call to serve as pastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. The journey down the yellow brick seems always to begin with a shock that jolts us with a seemingly tragic event. Now this congregation finds itself, like Naaman and Dorothy after their intial shocks, in a strange land, in a place that is somewhere we think we'd rather not be found, in a sort of no-man's land with a pastor who has announced he's leaving and yet is still here for one more week.

The yellow brick road for this congregation is the path that will lead toward finding a new pastor. It is a long journey. It normally takes a few years for a Presbyterian Church to find and call a new pastor. That is why the normal procedure is to hire an Interim Pastor and I recommend you do that first. Then, when you start down the yellow brick toward calling a new pastor, do not assume that God has one and only one special person already chosen by God to serve as your pastor. Do not think the job of your Pastor Nominating Committee will be to go out and find that one special person whom God has already chosen to serve as your next pastor. A healthier way to think about finding a new pastor is to realize that that there are many pastors who may be a good match for this congregation. Your task is not to find a perfect preacher. If that is your goal then you will fail. For there are no perfect preachers. As you may have discovered about me after our eight years together, I am not a perfect pastor. In fact, your PNC, the one that called me to come here eight years ago, seemed reluctant to call me, as I recall. Perhaps they did not think I was the one person whom God had ordained to serve Batesville Presbyterian Church. But thanks be to God, they did finally extend me a call to serve as your pastor. And while I may not have been their first choice, or a perfect choice, I think I have been a good match for this congregation.

The congregation has grown over these past eight years. We have increased in membership and in spirit. When I came here, the congregation seemed to be at a low point. There were some young adults and some children but nowhere near the number there are today. My own children were young. Jennifer was 2 1/2 years old. Jackson was 6 months old. They have had a terrific early childhood here. We love this place. I appreciate your generous support of me and my family financially and emotionally and in so many ways. I appreciate the teachers who have taught my children in church and in school. The staff people I have worked with have been tremendously helpful and excellent leaders. I think this congregation has been a good match for me. Your task is to find a good match.

Now back to the yellow brick metaphor. Like Naaman, your test as a congregation, will be whether you will follow the guidelines for finding a new minister within our PC(USA) call system. Speak to someone who has served on a Pastor Nominating Committee, and they likely will tell you about all the hoops you have to jump through. The mission study. Writing the church's information form. Reviewing pastor information forms. Interviewing prospective pastors. Hoping the person you want to come serve as your pastor also wants to come be your pastor. It is a long, time intensive, process to call a pastor through our system. And there are no short cuts. There is no easy way out. When the Presbytery Executive says you have to go wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times you will simply have to follow his directions. You will have to put aside your pride and follow simple instructions in order to find a new pastor. The good news is that although it is a cumbersome process, our call process does work. If you stick with the program and follow the rules and guidelines, you more than likely will find a good match between your church and a new pastor. In the end, if you find a good match then you will agree that it was worth the effort. I believe this congregation will find a good match in your next pastor. This church is extraordinarily young and blessed with excellent lay leadership in every age group. Due to your size and your gifts, you will be attractive to prospective pastors.

So, as did Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, you will make your way down the yellow brick road and it will eventually lead you to find new pastoral leadership. But you have more to look forward to than merely calling a new pastor. There is a possibility for real transformation for this congregation through following the yellow brick road. Here is the good news I have to share with you today. When you finally get to the point of calling a new pastor, you may, as did Dorothy and her companions, discover that it doesn't matter nearly so much what kind of wizard of a pastor you find. The key to your future will not be determined by the nature of your new pastor. The key to your future comes from the hidden strength, gifts and talents you discover within yourself along the yellow brick road. The fact is that this church already has everything it needs to be successful. You already, right now, possess, inside yourselves, everything you need to succeed. You will find and call another pastor. You will find a good match. But the real key to your success will be the discoveries you make about yourself along the yellow brick road.

Along the way, I hope you will make the greatest discovery of all. I hope, like the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy, that you also will discover at the end of your journey that all the time you already had the essence of what you were looking for. The courage of the lion. The brains of the tin man. The heart of the scarecrow. It is hidden away inside yourselves. The essence of what you are looking for in a new pastor is Christ, who is the true head of the church. And Christ already dwells in you and among. And you already know this. Yet you will come to know the Christ within yourselves in a deeper, more intimate and more authentic manner as you follow the yellow brick road in your search for a new pastor. My prayer for you on your journey is that you will discover the gift of God that lays hidden within you. So do what the Munchins tell you to do. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road.