From The Rambles of a Wandering Priest
I usually ramble. Right now, I want to rant. I feel like ranting and raving and making large gestures in the air with my hands and arms to the effect of, “What the…? Are you kidding me? How can you… Ughhhhhh!” Yeah, something like that sounds about right.
I used to work in a children’s home in a house full of teenage girls with emotional and psychological issues. It’s not the only dorm on the campus, but it is the only one with girls in it. On Sundays, a group from a local church came in and set up shop to do services with the boys on campus who want to go, but nothing is made available for the girls. I was told that they used to do something for the girls, but they stopped when the number of girls interested dwindled to one, and the girls can’t join the boys for services (for various, very legitimate reasons). The local church group felt that just one girl interested in services wasn’t worth the effort. Thus my arm gesturing desire to rant and rave. Yes, the question comes up as to why I didn’t just offer services to them, but the simple answer is that I was already staff, and by policy couldn’t do anything that could be taken as proselytizing the residents. Cans of worms anyone?
I began to rant a little when I heard that, and one of my coworkers spoke up in the pastor’s defense. She mentioned that maybe it didn’t make much sense to them to just go and spend time doing a service for one girl when they could go and preach to hundreds. My response was, “I’m going to shut up now,” and I then went to go find something constructive to do while I bit my tongue, ranting in my head.
There is so much wrong with this kind of thinking towards pastoring that I don’t even know where to begin to rant. As a priest, and thus as a pastor (which word literally means “shepherd”), my job is to give Jesus to people and be Jesus for people. This is the general job description of a shepherd of the church. We feed the sheep. We keep the predators away. We tend the sick and injured, and we go after the ones that wander away from the rest of the flock. We put ourselves in harm’s way to ensure the safety of the sheep. That is what we do. We spend long hours on hillsides watching and paying attention. We go sleepless at nights when one is being born. No one sheep is more important or less important than the others, and none of them are considered expendable. They don’t belong to us, and each one is priceless to the Owner of the sheep.
We don’t do this because it’s fun. We do this because no shepherd belongs to himself. We ourselves are also the property of the Owner, and we are answerable to him if one of the sheep is lost or injured because of our negligence. We don’t get the excuse that, “Oh, it’s just one sheep. She’ll never be missed, and there are so many more.” If you think I’m ranting about this kind of attitude, imagine how livid the Owner of the sheep is.
There’s a story in Eusebius’s History of the Church about the Apostle John. I had originally thought to paraphrase it, but it really needs to be shared as it was written:
Listen to a tale, which is not a mere tale, but a narrative concerning John the Apostle, which has been handed down and treasured up in memory. For when, after the tyrant’s death, he returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went away upon their invitation to the neighboring territories of the Gentiles, to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit.
When he had come to one of the cities not far away (the name of which is given by some), and had consoled the brethren in other matters, he finally turned to the bishop that had been appointed, and seeing a youth of powerful physique, of pleasing appearance, and of ardent temperament, he said, “This one I commit to you in all earnestness in the presence of the church and with Christ as witness.” And when the bishop had accepted the charge and had promised all, he repeated the same injunction with an appeal to the same witnesses, and then departed for Ephesus.
But the presbyter taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his stricter care and watchfulness, with the idea that in putting upon him the seal of the Lord he had given him a perfect protection.
But some youths of his own age, idle and dissolute, and accustomed to evil practices, corrupted him when he was thus prematurely freed from restraint. At first they enticed him by costly entertainments; then, when they went forth at night for robbery, they took him with them, and finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some greater crime.
He gradually became accustomed to such practices, and on account of the positiveness of his character, leaving the right path, and taking the bit in his teeth like a hard-mouthed and powerful horse, he rushed the more violently down into the depths. And finally despairing of salvation in God, he no longer meditated what was insignificant, but having committed some great crime, since he was now lost once for all, he expected to suffer a like fate with the rest. Taking them, therefore, and forming a band of robbers, he became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all.
Time passed, and some necessity having arisen, they sent for John. But he, when he had set in order the other matters on account of which he had come, said, “Come, O bishop, restore us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to you, the church, over which you preside, being witness.”
But the bishop was at first confounded, thinking that he was falsely charged in regard to money which he had not received, and he could neither believe the accusation respecting what he had not, nor could he disbelieve John. But when he said, “I demand the young man and the soul of the brother,” the old man, groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears, said, “He is dead.” “How and what kind of death?” “He is dead to God,” he said, “for he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.”
But the Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, “A fine guard I left for a brother’s soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let someone show me the way.” He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place he was taken prisoner by the robbers’ outpost. He, however, neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, “For this did I come; lead me to your captain.”
The latter, meanwhile, was waiting, armed as he was. But when he recognized John approaching, he turned in shame to flee. But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, “Why, my son, do you flee from me, your own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death as the Lord suffered death for us. For you will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.”
And he, when he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand.
But John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Savior, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church. And making intercession for him with copious prayers, and struggling together with him in continual fastings, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection.
Saint John the Apostle was paying attention when Jesus asked, “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?” (Luke 15:4)
Being a pastor has nothing to do with the size of your congregation. It doesn’t matter if the Lord has entrusted to your care one, or a hundred and one. That person is still your responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the sheep isn’t being looked after by any one particular shepherd at the moment. That sheep belongs to the Owner and you are called and charged with looking after his sheep. Any and all of his sheep.
Someone might protest, “But that one’s not a part of my flock, it’s not my responsibility, it’s that shepherd’s over there. He needs to pay more attention.” If you work for the Owner, and it’s his sheep, it’s your responsibility. Do you really want to have to explain why he lost some sheep when you could have prevented it?
I fear there are lost sheep for which I will likely have to answer. I honestly dread the day when I have to give an account of them because of my own negligence or ignorance. I won’t sugar coat it. There are times when I really haven’t known what to do, or have been too cowardly to do what I knew I should have. His sheep have paid the price. It terrifies me, as well it should. The scriptures are clear on this also, that we who are teachers are held to a higher standards and a stricter judgment, (James 3:1). In short, we claim to know better, and we claim to be able to teach others the Path of Jesus Christ. This knowledge we possess requires action. Just knowing this, by itself, terrifies me. Even if I should escape a reprimand, it doesn’t mean everything is all right. His forgiving me doesn’t change the consequences to the lost sheep.
Well, what if they have other responsibilities? What if it’s too demanding on them? We are called first to love one another as he loved us. We are called to crucify ourselves, and put ourselves to death. Those of us who have been called to ordination must be very careful to walk this path and not deviate from it. There is no other responsibility for us towards anyone, including ourselves, greater than crucifying ourselves and our own desires so that the life of Jesus Christ may be free-flowing through us to all others around us.
If your “being Jesus” for someone has to take a back seat to some other priority, ditch the other priority. It’s not worth it. Remember what he said to us, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Those other priorities simply aren’t worth treating our God and Savior with contempt because he’s just one lone girl who might be interested in services on Sunday.
It doesn’t matter if the congregation we preach to is hundreds of people or one person. We are called, as shepherds, to care for them. If you’re one of the Rancher’s shepherds and you see one of his sheep out by itself in the wild with no other shepherd in sight, it’s your responsibility to look after it, not just let it go to fend for itself.