3rd Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 3.22 “One Fine Day…” Luke 9:51-62
Pastoral ministry (as Jesus lays it on those sent in his name) is not at all what most modern people imagine. The two main words for the office in the New Testament are “overseer” and “shepherd”. But, because few modern people have flocks of sheep, and “oversight” in a modern society (where representative democracy is at least a stated ideal) is not at all the same as in an ancient Kingdom where the King is absolute ruler and master over his subjects (aka slaves)—the idea of “overseer” and “shepherd” are quite different in our world than in Jesus’.
Now, modern people tend to imagine the pastor as a “people-person”-facilitator-therapist, sharing feelings, smoothing over conflicts, and generally making people feel good about themselves, their community, and their “Higher Power” (usually in that order) like Counselor Troi from Star Trek Next Gen…
By contrast, Xt’s original shepherds watched over his flock (that could be more like herding cats than sheep, then as now) to keep them on the way of Christ and to guard them from wolves and demons and other threats in the athletic way of King David—taking out lions, bears, and big, ugly giants with rocks and slingshots, or (like Elijah) with fire called down from heaven (as in 2 Kings chapter 1 in which wicked King Ahaziah sends two squads of 50 soldiers to command Elijah to come down off his mountain (where he sits, rather chill 😉 so they can kill him; and he replies: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your 50”. Which it does, twice! Finally, a 3rd commander crawls up the mountain on his knees (over the charred 100 corpses 😉 begging for his life, and Elijah says “since you ask nicely, I’m happy to accompany you”. That’s really in the Bible!; and really illuminates our Gospel, today. 😉
So, when Jesus sends a “shepherd” who conceives his office in the Scriptural, confessional, old-school manner—more like David’s, Elijah’s, James’ and John’s (whom Jesus calls “Sons of Thunder”, a nickname which our Gospel today would seem to explain) than Oprah’s or Counselor Troi’s, some conflicts and confusion can arise…
Like the Saturday before last, when I found myself on 8W, the intensive care wing of Duke Medicine Pavilion, trying to get past the woman behind the armored glass reception area with control of the button to unlock the security door to the wing where the mother of a parishioner was dying and the family wanted me to say the last rites with everyone altogether. It was an emotional day.
I’d found the desk empty, no attendant in sight, and called “Hello? Anybody home?” for several minutes before she rather lazily sauntered to her station and glared at me without even a word of welcome. She had badges (“Duke Staff”), buttons with acronyms, flowers, rainbows whose meaning I don’t really fully understand, and an attitude of pure hostility that I do understand a little bit—because I’ve encountered it often enough wearing the collar for 30 years as a servant of Christ, and much more frequently the last couple years.
There was a day, a couple decades ago, when walking onto a hospital wing wearing a clerical collar opened all doors quickly and respectfully. Since HIPA became law in the last decade, I’m much more often greeted with a glare and told “family only in the ICU/ER” or “you’re not on the list of visitors”. Pro tip: if you want me to visit you in the modern medical-industrial complex’s fortresses of solitude, you need to put “Pastor Martin” on the list of family/friends when they conscript, uhm; admit you… 😉
And, since COVID, unmasked clergy in collars are viewed by most hospital gatekeepers as “super-spreader” threats to public health, I had already donned my mask, full-face, in the lobby, as all hospitals require in an (ironically!) almost religious rite, doing my best to blend. I noticed the much-buttoned and badged receptionist on 8W was wearing her mask down around her chin, yet my compliance with COVID security theater cut no mustard, and my winsome smile was hidden from view. I said in my friendliest (mask-muffled) voice I was here to give last rites in 05.
“Only 2 visitors allowed in ICU and they already have 3. You can’t go back.” “Well, I was told those visitor limits were waived because Edith is dying and her family are expecting me rather urgently.” “No. More. Visitors.” Now, the daughter of the dying woman is a long-serving, much-respected doctor on the staff of Duke hospital. I mentioned her name and that she’d cleared this with the higher authorities, and would be… distressed were I not admitted at once.
The attendant glared and said she didn’t know who Dr. Last-Name was, and turned away. I said (with my most twinkliest eyes) “And… you don’t want to find out who she is, if you don’t let me back. I’m just trying to help you stay employed.” Eventually, I got back, but had to do the last rites in two shifts with the family, to emphasize arbitrary authority and our state of humiliation.
It reminded me: Christ’s apostles still get a similar reception as James and John in today’s Gospel. The more things change…
After getting the bum’s rush from a Samaritan village, they go to Jesus and say: “Do want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Actually, the Greek ειπωμεν translated by the ESV as “tell” and the KJV as “command” is not so strong. It’s an aorist subjunctive of λεγω which is the “maybe” not the “command” voice; like “Hey, if fire isn’t busy up in heaven, maybe it would like to come down and torch this village?” Like Elijah’s “Hey, if I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you.” 😉
But James and John are not Elijah. It was a different time, you understand. But what’s different? Why does Jesus rebuke them? Some manuscripts add that Jesus says “you don’t know what manner of spirit you are of! We came to save people’s lives, not destroy them!” But Elijah had the same mission—and he got to kill lots of people! “Lotta killin’ in that one” 😉
But Jesus tolerates all kinds of abuse and scorn. Lets them kill him, so that by his suffering and dying, death and hell itself are destroyed. That said, he’s quite clear that those who persistently reject him and his shepherds will be in for one hell of a time at the Last, in the lake of fire, with that flesh eating worm…(!)
I learned, later; the 8W attendant asked the family: “Is that guy really a pastor?” We all smiled. I get that a lot. I usually reply, “in the 80’s, you could get ordained answering an ad in the back of Rolling Stone!” On my way out, I put my parking ticket on 8W’s desk, and, sweetly and meekly, asked: “Do you validate clergy parking tickets?” (as every hospital did, years ago). She went, “No!” I replied, with mask-hidden grin: “OK. I’ll let my Boss know…”
Sucking up the scorn and abuse from haters is part of the job. And, by taking it with a grin and (maybe?) a little attitude of our own, we remind everyone: we aren’t people-pleasers; we’re Christ’s Secret Service agents, who says, of us: “what you do to them, you do to me”—who’ll look on and repay, one fine Day…
Now, it’s not like the fire of that Last Day won’t burn us all up. It’s just that Baptism and faith have made us… fireproof. It will burn off our sin—like a spa treatment. The pause that refreshes! And with eyes on that prize, we go our merry, insouciant way, hearts, eyes always up—on Heaven, which is ours, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.