A few years ago at one of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s synod assemblies, pastors and other lay leaders who had made a difference in parish life were honored.
One pastor was receiving recognition for fifty years of ordained ministry. When his name was called from the podium, he slowly made his way toward the stage and unhurriedly walked up the steps to the microphone. All of us waited, anticipating great pearls of wisdom to be rained upon us, or something inspirational and courageous about Jesus’ steadfastness throughout his own humble work.
But after receiving his plaque, all he said was “I’m just glad it’s over,” as he carefully and deliberately walked back to his seat. There was a small smattering of applause because after all, for many of us there who considered ourselves pastors and preachers we had hoped for at least a word of encouragement and hope, but what we got was the truth.
Collectively, our lives in ministry flashed before us. We, who had already slogged through years of droning council meetings, working every major holiday, canceling long-anticipated events because someone died, as well as the slumpy parade of passive-aggressives who had avoided direct eye contact with us for months on end in the narthex, were momentarily numbed by this man’s words. We all remembered long weeks at confirmation camp where we wandered around the grounds with no real place to be and no one to talk to, finally cornering the poor, overworked camp cook in the kitchen to have a real adult conversation.
Even by the end of the week, we humbly recognized we never quite picked up the actions to the songs and were nakedly aware that we looked like idiots trying to keep up with nineteen year-olds and their enthusiasm; and then a few years later, only seeing those same confirmation kids again (never at worship) when we are trying to sneak through the drive-through at McDonalds where it just so happens they are working the window. You ask them how they are doing and check yourself because telling them “remember your baptism” just isn’t good small talk. Stay focused on the fries.
We recount working for days on a sermon, noticing the finer details in the text, weaving in nuanced poetic imagery, winding up for the big pitch only to have a parishioner say after the service “Pastor, maybe it’s just the kid in me, but I get so much more out of the Children’s sermon than I do yours,” ashamed to tell them that the children’s sermon was lifted from a book of “1000 Awesome Ideas for Kids’ Sermons!” Instead, we smile, swallow our pride and say “thank you.” We recall the ways we are told both indirectly or directly we don’t quite measure up, that if the church only had “this,” it would be like Stonedale megachurch, where if you hadn’t heard, they are already on their second building project.
And as the gentleman who has put in fifty years sits down, your life in ministry plays out in front of you and there is the sudden recognition that there might only be some poor schmuck slapping a flickering flashlight at the end the tunnel, and your loved ones have all wandered away to the snack table and they took the car keys with them, and you might just be alone in this thing called preaching the gospel. And that’s just how it’s going to be, so, get over yourself.
It’s no wonder so many of us give up on the gospel. It’s a tough sell anyway – no one wants to hear that faith might be a matter of death and life – and so why bother people with heavy lifting, even if it is the truth, when a puppet will suffice?
But is it nothing, to preach this God of cross and resurrection, who becomes disabled on our behalf, who knows the real, true cost of sin and offers us forgiveness with a dollop of extra grace tossed in (you can’t have too much and we know even God likes to decorate), who knows death and gives us life, so abundant that there are days our eyes water from beauty and loss all at once?
We hold fast to this Jesus-promise, the one that tells us that the first shall be last, the tiniest voice heard, that the one who wandered away will be tracked down. And so we do what we do, some days more weary than others, with the knowledge that in this lifetime, we’ll never know, we just can’t ever know. Some days our hearts may be bruised, we realize should have worn better shoes, but finally and ultimately, thy kingdom comes. And it does. Because this lovely legacy is always preceding us, just as flower, just as flame, just as grace always does.