Wednesday of Lent 1

Deuteronomy 9:13-21

Moses He Wasn’t

In his first and unhappy letter to the Church at Corinth, St. Paul wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (3:6). That is as apt a description of the succession that inevitably takes place in a congregation. It is not merely that the founding pastor plants and the succeeding pastors water and harvest. No, this is what happens simultaneously in every parish. Even in a new parish, someone else has previously planted the Gospel in the ears of the parishioners and other pastors have watered folks in their previous congregations, so that the founding pastor now enjoys a portion of the growth God has given. Likewise, every pastor is simultaneously planting, watering, and harvesting in the lives of the saints.

Now, in the life of every congregation, there is a particular pastor whom God has called to be in that unique role. A solo pastor of a mission or smaller parish has a very different call from the pastor of a parish on the verge of major growth. A senior pastor has a very different role than any other staff pastors, which can cause not a little tension if they have not built a relationship with mutual respect and very clear boundaries. A pastor of a congregation that has not been able to weather demographic changes has a very different call when a congregation has resigned itself to decline and sadly to closing its doors.

Sometimes, a pastor asks whether his role is to be Moses, leading the people so far but not being able to go on with them into the future. Sometimes, he asks whether his role is to be Joshua, who has to define which God he will serve and asking the folks to decide whether they will serve the same God. This is not a matter of personal preference. Indeed, the question is always who does the Bible say God is. Only heretics busy themselves with the delusion that the LORD God will be malleable to their hearts’ desire.

This pastor founded a parish, because he had a few willing families in a community without a Lutheran church. He was already serving two parishes, and he saw adding a third was his path to great success or a larger paycheck. It was the early 1970s and still the days of massive Billy Graham Crusades. While the pastor had no affinity or love for Dr. Graham, he certainly lusted after spellbound crowds in the pews.

The problem was apparent to my Dad. This was man who could wear a black suit and collar, but he was in the ministry because that had been his father’s script for him. Every seminarian has to wrestle with whether God’s call is to the holy ministry or to some other needed ministry in the world. If your Mom and Dad wanted to have a pastor in the family, the emotional burden can be too great. And, if you have done time in seminary or pre-seminary classes, the emotional weight can seem to be evidence of God’s will.

The pastor wasn’t Moses. He wasn’t Joshua. In short, he planted something other than the Gospel, watered a different story in his hearers, and didn’t grow much more than malice in the many. If not for the intervention of the Holy Spirit, I might well have pursued a very different vocation and life because of him. The worst advice too many parishioners have given is: “You should go to seminary.” No, you should only go to seminary if the Holy Spirit won’t leave you alone, and, if the seminary and Church affirms that call. I don’t know what the man might have been good at, but it certainly was not the holy ministry.

Thank you, Father, for those who do not need to be called pastor, to wear a clerical collar, or to try to shape a congregation into his or her own image. Thank you for those whom your Holy Spirit drags kicking and screaming into the holy ministry and who will, by your help, submit to being shaped and changed by you alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Put eight pennies, nickels, or dimes in a bowl or box today to feed the poor (Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard).

Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, NC

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.