|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
August 5, 2018
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13
Raising Up New Leaders: Proper 13
This week the gospel story picks up where we left off last week, after Jesus fed the 5,000, and the crowd followed him to Capernaum. Today’s story features Jesus beginning his teaching about how the miracle with the bread was actually a sign of his identity as the Bread of Life. It’s a point he spent a lot of time and energy trying to make, so we’re going to hear a lot more from Jesus about this in coming weeks. Get ready, friends, because we’re going to do some serious spiritual carb-loading this August.
But I have to tell you, the crowd may have moved on and followed Jesus around to Capernaum, but I’m still back on the hillside where the miracle happened, because I can’t stop thinking about the person who humbly offered the handful of loaves and fish that Jesus multiplied to feed thousands. Do you remember who it was? Not Peter or John or any of the disciples. Not Mary or Martha of Bethany, or even Mary Magdalene, who probably came from a village not far from there. It was a little boy. All this past week I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that detail, and I’m just not quite ready to move on quite yet. So, this morning, I want to spend some time thinking about that little boy, and where he came from, and what became of him. Because, in my experience, little boys don’t just show up out of nowhere with baskets full of food that they’re willing to give away. Someone brought him to the hillside that day to hear Jesus; someone helped him pack the loaves and fish. Someone loved him and taught him to be generous. Someone cared about him and helped him learn how to share.
Yes, all this past week I’ve been wondering about him. Was his family proud of him for sharing their food? Did they sail around the lake with everyone else to keep listening to Jesus in Capernaum? If so, when did they finally return home? I wonder if any of the disciples kept track of him and came back to see him and tell him the stories of what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. I wonder, what sort of a man did he grow up to be?
When I imagine what became of that boy, I like to think that he grew up to take his place alongside the disciples, spreading the good news about Jesus and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He clearly had a big, generous heart, and it would seem that he was also bold and brave, too, so I would like to think that he developed into a leader of the early church. I like to think these things, but I KNOW this: no matter how remarkable and faithful that little boy may have been, no matter how much leadership potential he had, it would have taken the guidance and encouragement of others for him to become the leader he had the ability to be. Just like he didn’t get there that day to share his loaves and fish without an adult’s help, neither could he have grown up to become a leader without the support of the adults in his life.
I think we occasionally fall into the trap of thinking that priests and pastors and leaders of the church appear fully formed as mature adults. For many, the stereotypical priestly type is an older bearded man or gray-headed woman with decades of wisdom and experience and stories under her or his belt. But even the wisest pastors and ministers were kids once. They were young and full of potential and somewhere along the way, someone encouraged them to consider putting all their faith and talent to work for the church.
But how often does this happen? This past week, even as I’ve been wondering what became of that little boy, I’ve been playing the tapes in my head of how we talk to kids about what they could grow up to do. When we do that, what sorts of jobs or professions do we usually suggest? Things like doctors or firefighters or teachers. To a girl who loves animals we might suggest she’ll become a veterinarian. To a little boy who loves building things we might suggest he’ll become an architect. But how often do we suggest to kids that they could grow up to be a priest or youth or children’s minister? In my experience, not very often. Which may help explain why I’ve never had a child say to me that they hope to one day grow up to work in the church.
Let me describe to you the situation we’re in as a church, both in the Episcopal Church, and more broadly in the whole Christian Church. We have a shortage of people pursuing professions in ministry. And not only folks considering ordination and heading to seminary; fewer and fewer people are trying to start a career serving in any capacity in the church. And the net result of this drain of talent and interest is that the whole church is struggling with a leadership gap. In many parts of the Episcopal Church, as well as lots of other denominations, a church will be happy if they can find a single qualified candidate for an open position. Even here at Transfiguration, this past year we’ve struggled to recruit a new Director of Youth Ministries, because the sobering truth is that there very few people interested in this sort of work anymore, part or full time, clergy or lay people. We’re calling out to the metaphorical bullpen and finding that it’s empty.
The reasons for this are several. We have long paid people poorly, assuming that if you work for the church, you should be ready to live on near poverty wages. We do our best to pay fairly here, but even here we’ve had to fight to get many members of our ministry staff to the same level as an average starting school teacher. And beyond the pay struggles, it’s not always easy to build a career, to see how you could grow in your profession decade after decade. But I think the most important reason that our bullpen is empty is that, for many decades, we have simply not formed the imaginations of our children and youth to aspire to serve the church – that such work is exciting and fulfilling and viable as a career. Just like we assume that kids will graduate high school and disappear from the church until they get married and have kids, we also assume that kids, even our best and brightest and most inspiringly faithful, will grow up to get a “real” job of some sort – and it would never occur to any of us that this could be in the church.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When I was a kid, a dear family friend named Bill Carberry pulled me aside many times to tell me that he thought I would grow up to be a priest. Now, I’d like to think that he recognized something unique in me. I’d like to think that he detected in me faith and intelligence for this sort of work. I’d like to think he spent long hours in prayer and came to me only after the word of the Lord became clear in his soul. I’d like to think that, but, well, the truth is that he said the very same thing to a whole bunch of the kids in my youth group. It turned out I was not nearly as special as I thought. I learned this only after I left law school to begin the discernment process, when I called him to share my decision and tell him how much his encouragement had meant. I wanted him to be among the first to know that I’d decided to take this big step and to tell him how important his belief in me had meant, and he said something like, “Well, I knew if I kept encouraging all you kids, one of you might eventually believe it for yourself.”
Bill knew that we can’t reasonably expect a new generation of leaders to grow up and do good work if we don’t encourage and equip them now. We can’t assume that someday God will miraculously speak from a cloud and call them to ministry. It will be our voices that speak God’s call and encourage a new generation of leaders. And here’s the good news: I am absolutely certain that the church today is filled with little girls and boys like the one who shared his lunch with Jesus, who will only grow up to become the ministry leaders we need if we plant a few seeds and encourage their imaginations.
I want to be clear here: I’m not trying to idealize church ministry as the only kind of important work we can do. People can absolutely serve God as doctors and teachers and engineers and a million other things—I know many of you here today do just that! Frankly, we need a whole lot more compassionate and godly people in the offices and corridors of our nation, to reverse the erosion of integrity and kindness we’ve been experiencing recently. But I come today as someone who knows that the world needs the Church. And the Church needs a new generation of leaders who imagine ways that they can give their whole lives to the service of God—both beyond the church and within it.
Like I said, I’ve been wondering about what became of that little boy. What did he grow up to do? Was anyone there to encourage and support him? Was anyone there to mentor and guide him? Did anyone say to him, there is work to be done, young man – holy work, kingdom work, God’s work – and I think you are the one to do it.