Like most working people, ministers like to whine now and then about how hard their job can be. An article in “Christian Century” magazine, for example, by Rev. William Willimon, started out by reporting his doctor’s expression of sympathy for him: “I don’t know how you preachers do it,” the doctor said – “the politics, the congregational complaining, all the different expectations of people.” And Rev. Craig Barnes, for many years the Senior Pastor at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said in an address at Pittsburgh Seminary (slight paraphrase): “We ministers and seminarians assume that members of a church are all paying attention to a call from above, and want to serve Christ – but that assumes a lot. The culture has taught them instead only to be good consumers, with a right to get what they want, the way they want it, and when they want it; and the pastor’s job is just to make them happy and satisfied customers, even when they want opposite things from each other.”
During the weeks, years ago, between the time Laurie and I had accepted the call to come to Paris and our moving and start dates, we received a forwarded email from one of the members of your Pastor Nominating Committee; fortunately he recognized it as a joke: it’s called “The Perfect Pastor”:
“The Perfect Pastor is 29 years old, and has 40 years’ experience. He makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. She has a burning desire to work with teenagers, but spends most of her time with the senior citizens. He makes 15 home visits a day, and is always in his office to be handy when needed. She never misses any meeting of any organizations, and is always out busily evangelizing the unchurched.”
Yes, ministers like to whine about their job now and then too.
Rev. Willimon’s article continues, “The pastoral ministry is a tough vocation. Something like 300 Southern Baptist pastors get fired every month. Yet in my experience, most of us pastors don’t do anything interesting enough to get fired. Instead, we get worn down. Like the disciples with Jesus in the Transfiguration story, we get ‘weighed down with sleep’ some time between seminary and retirement: we can lose the excitement, the vision, burn out. When I asked pastor, author, and professor of ethics Stanley Hauerwas about the main ethical challenge for us pastors, he replied, ‘I know what you’re thinking, and don’t flatter yourself: it’s not about sex. You pastors aren’t that appealing. NO, the biggest challenge . . . is constancy.’” It’s keeping at it. Perseverance. Constancy. The article continues:
It’s being well-prepared for Sunday morning preaching every Sunday, even when it’s been a crazy or depressing week. It’s following up and following through on pastoral care – hospital visits, phone calls, counselling – week after month after year. It’s doing the needed preparation work for every Sunday school class you teach, every Bible study, every meeting; sometimes it means keeping going morning, afternoon, and evening several days in a row. It’s continuing to respond to people with warm greetings and Christian respect even when you know they’re trying to stab you in the back. It’s providing joyful and organized wedding experiences even when you’re sure the couple won’t ever set foot in a church again. It’s providing funerals of comfort and hope even for those families trying to make you uncomfortable and hopeless. The biggest challenge is constancy. Perseverance; keeping at it.
So how do we, pastors and church members, all disciples, keep at it, persevere in our discipleship, keep serving – over all the many years?
Jesus leads his disciples, Willimon points out, up a mountain.
Now Jesus was forever making the disciples go places with him that nobody much wanted to go, but this was different. Mountains are good, quiet, restorative places for Sabbath retreat, rest, and renewal. The pace had been hectic lately – so they headed for the hills.
But on this mountain, everything changes. The disciples’ solitude is intruded upon, and it’s by people who had died centuries ago. If Peter was hoping for rest and relaxation, forget it; he finds instead the two great figures of his faith, Moses and Elijah. There is a stunning, transfiguring vision, and inspired speech. There is a conversation to listen in on, between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – imagine!
This is exciting, this is inspirational, this is a “worshipful experience” as good as it gets. This is revelation. So Peter blurts out, “Let’s stay here forever! Let’s keep doing this! Let’s stay past 11:30, just this one Sunday!”
And we understand his wish. Can’t we forget the new roof project, the committee meetings, the Sunday School lesson planning, the counting of the offering, just for a while, and just be with Jesus? Can’t we just stay in this moment, instead of having to go back and “keep at it”?
And Jesus’ answer, of course, is . . . NO. We can’t. Christian discipleship is not about staying in the exciting spiritual moment, or extending the exciting spiritual moment, or always seeking the next exciting spiritual moment, the next mountaintop experience.
We rise, and we go forth, back down to the valley, where there are sick to be healed, and crosses to be borne. Where there are budgets to be met, donuts to be picked up and put out, Sunday School teacher vacancies to be filled. Where there is the usual church stuff. We go back to the work of discipleship.
Four verses after Peter says, “Let’s stay here; let’s make dwellings and live here,” we see that Jesus has led them back down from the mountain, a great crowd has gathered wanting his attention, there’s a boy to be healed; the disciples have had so little faith they couldn’t take care of it, Jesus has to rebuke them . . . ministry happens not up on the mountain, but amongst people; it’s back to business as usual.
After Moses was up on his mountain, face to face with God, receiving the Ten Commandments, in the book of Exodus, it’s finally time for him to come back down, and what does he find, in Exodus 32? People worshipping a golden calf, violating some of the very commandments he’s carrying. He’s turned his back for a minute, and look what happened. Now he has to correct this people again, discipline them, teach them all over again – back to business as usual.
In the parable sometimes called “the sheep and the goats”, when Jesus comes back and separates all the people into two groups, one to be rewarded by eternal life and one not, do you remember what his standard is for his decisions? Not how many mountaintop experiences you’ve had, how many spiritual highs, how long you’ve been caught up in the Holy Spirit, how many moments of ecstasy you’ve felt in worship. NO, it’s the daily “grunt work” of ministering to the needs of others: did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, visit the prisoner – day after day, persevering. Did you keep at it?
The job of the Christian is not to stay up on the mountain, but to keep at the work of discipleship.
And how do we do that? Well, those rare, occasional mountaintop experiences, the spread-out moments of inspiration, the once-in-a-while retreats or especially-meaningful worship services or discoveries in our personal prayer and Bible reading, can help sustain us, along with our reserves of commitment. When Moses came back down from the mountain the second time, since he had to go back up and replace the tablets he had broken, Exodus 34 says, “he did not know it, but the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining; when Moses went to speak with them, he had to put a veil on his face.” He looked like the sun, some said, his whole countenance changed. And the moment was enough, to keep him on that difficult journey, with those difficult people.
“A few weeks ago,” Willimon says in his article, “I had a bad day, the culmination of a bad week. The congregation hadn’t liked my sermon, and some hadn’t cared for my brand of pastoral care. I received a batch of spiteful emails. The electrical relay to the organ gave out. I was depressed.
“Then preparing for a sermon, reading a text I had worked on many times before, Galatians 2, I noticed something: I looked at one little word differently, and suddenly felt like I could identify with the kind of faith Jesus had – not just faith in Jesus, but faith like Jesus. And that possibility glowed before me, lit up my imagination, transfigured my previous understandings, inspired the rest of my work on the passage – the notion that I might be able to believe like Jesus.
“I wanted to preserve that moment, that excitement, forever. But I couldn’t. I still had to go back down that day and answer the mail, visit a hospital, work on a sermon. Still, for a while, my face shone, like Moses, like I had been talking with God. For a while, that moment sustained me.”
That’s what those moments like the Transfiguration are for. Not to stay in. Not to expect every day, every week, every month. What God wants in disciples is the constancy, the perseverance, the keeping at it, the caring for those in need day by day by day. The living faithfully down here, off the mountain. And every once in a while, we receive, as a gift, to help us, one of those glorious, transfiguring moments.
Let us pray: God, thank you for your inspiration, through our worship, our daily prayers, from our fellow disciples, and occasionally, through a “mountaintop moment.” Help us use that inspiration to carry out the daily work of discipleship to which you call us, to faithfully serve you in grateful response to all you have done for us. Amen.