April 21, 2002
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

Acts 2:42-47 42
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

John 10:1-10
1 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NRSV)

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Sermon - Servant or Shepherd

What title would you give to Mike and me if you were introducing us. some of you would say this is my pastor, and other would use the word minister? How many of you would say pastor – how many would say minister?

Both words , pastor and minister are of course, lifted right out of the Bible. Minister is the Latin word for servant. Pastor is Latin for shepherd.

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus refers to himself as a servant, or a minister. While in John, he refers to himself as the good shepherd, or a pastor.

We tend to use the words interchangeably, but in fact, there are subtle differences in what each title portrays. Think of it, a servant is one who walks behind the master, waiting to make life more bearable or even pleasant. A shepherd is responsible for the life of the sheep, for their very survival. The shepherd must lead, because sheep don’t take well to being herded. They would rather follow. Without a shepherd they might just as likely end up on the edge of a cliff, because they just wandered away. The servant on the other hand must anticipate the needs of the one he serves, gently influencing from behind while tending to every need. So, pastor or minister… the same idea, but 2 different ways to interpret the job. The servant will influence through gentle attention to the needs of the congregation and the other is to be a leader, drawing the congregation away from danger, to safety.

Jesus says in this passage – from John, that he is the good shepherd. He calls us by name, he leads us toward safety. And he implies that all of God’s shepherds will be known by their ability to be like the good shepherd. Any one else is just a thief or a bandit.

Thieves and bandits have plagued the Church. Since Jesus’ time there have always been those whose deepest concerns were not discipleship, but rather personal power and pride and money. There have always been those who worked as a servant to gain status themselves.

Today we still are plagued with those who use the Church - some for their own personal satisfaction, like power, pride and money – others who have an even less savory agenda. We still have those thieves and bandits today.

As I read this passage of the good shepherd I couldn’t help but think of the Catholic Church and their efforts to deal with the recent allegations that surfaced about Bishops and cover up regarding priests charged with clergy misconduct. It goes without saying that those who prey on the weak and helpless are thieves that steal the childhood and the lives of their parishioners. It is a despicable crime. And so is the lack of responsible and appropriate action. It is one that the Church would rather not deal with. It is also a problem that has infiltrated all religious entities.

While I was in seminary, nearly 10 years ago, the UCC right here in CT. made headlines, when a number of their pastors were charged with clergy misconduct. What resulted was a whole system put in place by our denomination to address the issue of abuse, so that complaints could not be ignored. Policies were generated, people were trained, committees were established, and funds were set aside for legal fees for all involved. A great deal of effort has been made to insure that the accused and the victim are treated fairly. The UCC also ministers to the effected church, as they realize that the impact on the local Church is far reaching, whether a pastor is proven innocent or guilty. The goal today is to do enough personal background checks on clergy who are moving into a new parish to determine that there are no allegations pending from other churches. Plus, each clergy in the Connecticut conference of the UCC is required to take a class in misconduct prevention in order to retain their standing with the denomination. I attend that class this week, Mike attended one last spring. Christian educators and youth ministers, musicians and all those who work with children in the Church are asked to participate in the similar training.

You may be asking - how can you train someone who is not really in control of those inappropriate impulses? Clearly that is true, so the training actually assumes that you are not a perpetrator, but rather someone whose actions might be misinterpreted. Much of the training centers on understanding how to avoid situations that could be misinterpreted and helping people understand what behaviors fall into the category of suspicious.

But obviously, that isn’t enough to deter individuals who live daily with seductive impulses. The training assumes that there is safety in numbers and high visibility. So, if one follows that prescription, it would decrease a circumstance that would invite opportunity for misconduct to take place.

Yesterday three of our members attended a “Safe Church” seminar. They will give us information on strategies and policies that we can adopt that will hopefully lessen opportunities for a predator to take advantage of any one here.

These policies might be ones that we already practice such as no adult should be alone with a child at a Church event. Each youth activity should include both male and female chaperones.

But there might be more policies that will need to be in place. The good news is that we are supported by the United Church of Christ, where there is a continual effort to find experts in this field to shepherd us.

This isn’t an issue that just effects the pastors or the leadership of the Church, all of us need to be involved. It is important that we understand the importance of these policies and see appropriate behaviors as a part of our covenant. There will have to be consensus that our congregation will make a deliberate effort to provide a safe arena for all people – adults, youth and children. And we must all agree to live with those policies. We will all have to be creative in our solutions to problems that crop up, and we will all have to cooperate. Because these policies do assume safety in numbers and high visibility.

Does the issue of misconduct change your relationship with your pastor or minister? At a fundamental level, no. You can count on us to be there for you when life challenges you, when you need support, when you struggle to understand God’s call, when you wrestle with God – when you just need a friendly word or a prayer. Mike and I will do our best to be either pastor or minister, lead or serve when the situation arises. We will minister to your needs and work to lead this congregation safely through the brambles and cliffs of life. But this issue should remind everyone that all pastors are just human and the Church is filled with other humans. We are not better than the rest of society, because we call ourselves disciples. We are only as good as the way that we represent the Good Shepherd.

Should this issue change your relationship with God? No. Absolutely not. We hear in this passage that Christ is the door, both in word and example. He is the one we should all look to as the standard both in our spiritual life and in our moral behavior. With Christ as the leader, we can stay on course, we can discern thieves that might be trying to infiltrate the Church, who have ulterior motives. For the shepherd is the door to the shepherding. He is the one who came not to destroy, but to give us life, that we might have it abundantly.Amen.
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