Confidently Incompetent

[This sermon was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the occasion of the installation of Laura Fry as new pastor. The text is 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6.]

 

Sometimes a movie title take on a life longer and more significant than the movie itself. Such was the case with a movie that came out a dozen years ago about two men with terminal illnesses. They decided to make lists of what they wanted to do before they kicked the bucket: bucket lists. Now when people say “bucket list,” we know what they mean. We don’t think, Oh, they must have just found out they have an incurable disease. We think, rather, they have lists of what they want to do someday.

 

Churches have bucket lists. We want to see our children and youth ministries grow. We want to send out teams to work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help after hurricanes and earthquakes. We want to see our giving grow so we can meet more needs. We want to care for the sick. We want to be a loving, caring community. We want to grow in faith and discipleship.

 

And we have bucket lists for our pastors. Quickly, determine your top three items on that list. Let me guess; we want a pastor who is…

  • A dynamic preacher
  • A sensitive listener
  • An outstanding administrator
  • A compelling visionary
  • An empathetic counselor
  • A friend to everyone
  • A fantastic fundraiser
  • A tireless worker
  • One who walks on water, multiplies fish and loaves to feed multitudes, heals the sick, and once in a while raises the dead
  • And one who brings in young marrieds with two children and a minivan.

Yes, I went longer than three, but I didn’t name every item that churches have on their bucket lists. We want pastors that can do it all, do it well, do it now, and, if needed, do it alone.

 

There is a falsehood in the church today that is dangerous. Too many churches believe that going to seminary, getting a divinity degree, and being ordained makes people into omnicompetent pastors. They can do anything, do it well, do it now, and if needed do it alone. That falsehood needs to be admitted and owned before we go any further. With the apostle Paul, I ask, “Who is competent for these things?” The answer is clear. None of us. No one is omnicompetent. No one gets all the gifts. Admitting that, we can affirm with Paul, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…” In the span of one sentence we have three mentions of the word competent, unfolding like this:

  • In ourselves we are not competent for this ministry;
  • But God makes us competent for this ministry;
  • By God’s gifting, we are competent to be ministers of a new covenant.

 

Laura is wonderfully gifted for this calling. She is a pastor and servant leader of distinction. Her credentials are impressive, yet she is humble and wears her credentials lightly. Anyone who works with Laura knows that she is in the right calling. But this calling doesn’t depend on impeccable credentials. Listen to Paul’s list of credentials: We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a noble birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. These very credentials I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for…. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.” (from Philippians 3, adapted from “The Message”) Indeed, “Who is competent for these things?”

 

In her book, “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells of her pastoral experiences and journey. As a pastor of a thriving congregation, this is what she experienced: “The demands of pastoral ministry routinely cut me off from the resources that enabled me to do pastoral ministry. I knew where God’s fire was burning, but I could not get to it. I knew how to pray…, but by the time I got home each night it was all that I could do…to go to bed….  Behind my luminous images of Sunday mornings I saw the committee meetings, the numbing routines, and the chronically difficult people…. Behind my heroic image of myself I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of people that did not try as hard as I did, and my huge appetite for approval.” Seasoned pastors understand what Brown Taylor experienced. We know our own weariness. Who is competent for these things?”

 

The pastor churches often think they want doesn’t exist. God doesn’t produce pastors on an assembly line. God calls the unlikely for this work, so the glory is God’s alone. God has always loved calling the weak and unsuspecting, from the little clan of Israel, to a shepherd boy named David, to an unlikely prophet named Jonah, to a heartbroken widow named Ruth, to a poor teenaged virgin named Mary, to a first-class klutz named Peter. In this work, weakness is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it may be our best friend. Paul writes later in this letter: “…but God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12)

 

I think of Twyla Paris’s haunting refrain from her song, “The Warrior Is a Child”:

“They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down. They don’t know Who picks me up when no one is around. I drop my sword and cry for just a while, ‘Cause deep inside this armor the warrior is a child.” Seasoned pastors understand what Twyla Paris sings. We know our own weakness. Who is competent for these things?”

 

What, then, is Laura to do in this new calling for which she is once well-credentialed and incompetent? The New Testament only uses the English word “pastor” once. Just once. There it gives a bucket list of one item. Just one. Since the New Testament gives only one clear description of what pastors are to do, we should learn this and seek to follow it. “The gifts God gave were that some would be …  pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4:11-13) That’s it. That is the New Testament list for faithful pastoring, “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

 

Earlier I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor, a friend to all pastors, when she said, I knew where God’s fire was burning, but I could not get to it.”  That image brings to mind a poem by George MacDonald that I read some years ago and has become a companion on my journey ever since:

Lord, I have laid my heart upon thy altar
But cannot get the wood to burn;
It hardly flares ere it begins to falter
And to the dark return.

Old sap, or night-fallen dew, makes damp the fuel;
In vain my breath would flame provoke;
Yet see-at every poor attempt’s renewal
To thee ascends the smoke!

‘Tis all I have-smoke, failure, foiled endeavor,
Coldness and doubt and palsied lack:
Such as I have I send thee!-perfect Giver,
Send thou thy lightning back. 

We are gathered here today to worship the Lord of the Church, to confess our incompetence, and to claim the competence that God gives us—all so that the Church may be the body of Christ God calls and equips it to be. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant” 

 

All praise, honor, and glory to God alone. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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