Keeping Watch Over Souls

“Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who have to give account. Let them do this joyfully and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17)

The second reading for Tuesday of the week of Epiphany 5 in year two of the Daily Lectionary (LBW) begins with this bit of parenesis. It balances very nicely with James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

It was easy as a younger pastor, eons ago, to gloss over such verses. Despite all evidence to the contrary, when we are younger, we believe ourselves to be rather invulnerable. Death is decades away. We may even dismiss such admonitions as legalism. Of course, one, then, must ignore more than a few such warnings from the Lord Jesus, whether in parables or straight-forward teaching. At our own present and future peril, we ignore that every life, including our own, is fragile.

The call of the prophet Ezekiel at the time of Judah’s bondage in Babylon provides an earlier warning: “And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them” (2:3-5).

I remember those early sermons, post ordination, in which I fancied myself a prophet. Having had my anger stoked by reading Mother Jones magazine and considering the urban poor with whom I worked at Parkland Hospital, the large trauma center in Dallas TX, I could call fire down from heaven on “them,” the rich and powerful. Moving to my first parish, a blue-collar mission in a southern Dallas suburb, I continued to preach about the perils of nuclear bombs and evils of “those capitalists.” My LCA bishop, a social liberal, said: “When you start loving your people, you will become a pastor instead of a prophet.”

I recall one sermon in which I was railing against nuclear weaponry when I actually noticed that most of the people in the chairs either worked directly for companies with military contracts or, like me, were paid, directly or indirectly, by a local economy that was largely based upon military contracts. Suddenly, it wasn’t about “them.” I remember a visit with a young couple in which a very bright doctor, who was my age, began to challenge me to think through the actual costs of socialistic policies and the impact it would have on my congregation’s ability to make a living. He was like the one who recently asked Bernie Sanders about the cost of his policies. Truthfully, Sanders answered: “I don’t know. Nobody does.”

I learned that I wasn’t very self-aware about my naivete. As an economist, I was hopelessly inadequate. As a pastor, I wasn’t watching over the souls of my people. In short, I was doing little more than spouting platitudes and the political sound bites of others. My prayer life was sporadic. I could sing or say a beautiful liturgy, but my sermons were long on passion and short on substance. Slowly, I changed.

Ten years ago, which was regrettably 29 years too slow, I began participating in quarterly retreats with the Society of the Holy Trinity. Subscribing to the Society’s rule, I committed myself to a more ordered life of prayer. Actually availing myself of regular private confession of sins, I became more mindful of the Lord’s life into which He wants to draw me and all people. How I wish I could turn back the years. There were guided retreat options that were more ordered than the Roman Catholic Cursillo I had attended while on vicarage (seminary internship).

A Lutheran pastor is called rightly to divide the Word of God into Law and Promise, No and Yes. It is far easier to go with the zeitgeist instead of the Holy Ghost, to speak for the approval of one’s mentors and peers or for the adulation of one’s flock. It is harder to hear God’s No and Yes in one’s own soul before setting out to watch over the souls of those to whom one regularly speaks. It is much harder to accept that a preacher is always studying for finals, and the account one will give to God may come much sooner than one expects.

A pastor cannot force anyone to listen, especially when God’s Word doesn’t scratch the itch in one’s own ears. A pastor cannot confess anyone else’s sins. He has enough of his own. So, the pastor speaks as one who must give an account to God for the content of his speaking. Will the pastor speak in fidelity to the Word of God? Or, will the pastor speak as if God’s Word is malleable to suit the preacher’s whims and the wishes of the hearers?

To the one comfortable in his or her sins, the most important question will be: “Is it possible you are wrong? And, if you are indeed wrong, what will the Lord God say to you then?” Preachers beware!

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

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The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 44 years and in May 2020 celebrated the 39th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.