Last week I spent an incredible 5 days with Anglican clergy under 40. A few conversations had me reflect on what we mean by the word “pastoral”.
Is this a word laypeople use to describe their clergy? We clergy certainly use it a lot to describe an encounter or a relationship where we are caring for a person or a community. It is characterized by kindness, patience, generally the gentler fruits of Spirit. It is an ideal, what we hope for in all healthy relationships we have in Christian community. The image is based in early Roman poetry, pastoral poetry, about the idyllic life of farmers, shepherds and their maidens.
This week our Sunday lectionary is set aside as we mark the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, our first two models of Christian pastoral ministry, aside from Jesus, of course. As we read Acts and, particularly, the letter to the Galatians, we do not see a lot of the gentler fruits of the Spirit in our ancestral pastors. In fact, both of their legacies are fraught with conflict.* A theme of living together in disagreement could work beautifully with Canada Day, speaking of embracing differences even when it gets hard.
Our readings express the pastoral imagery, shepherds with their sheep. We look for the gentle and strong image of a shepherd with the lamb resting on his shoulders. In Ezekiel we see that being a sheep to this particular shepherd is no easy task, climbing mountains and leaving our homes for green pastures. We will also, though, face judgement, particularly for greed. The prophet also expresses the great hope the Lord has in the people, calling them from far and wide. That theme of God’s hopes in and for us are further expressed in the psalm for the day, “The singers and the dancers will say, ‘All my fresh springs are in you.’“
Paul’s instructions to Timothy create further tension about this Christian calling. The pastoral image is not just for the clergy, but for laity as well. Who is God calling to gather with you? Who in your family, your workplace, among your friends, has “itching ears”?
But the rubber really hits the road in the gospel reading. Springing from some advice of the Rev. Jonathan Rowe, Curate at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, I am focussing on everything that comes after, “Feed My Sheep” and reflecting on vocation. Jesus told Peter the price of following Him–it would lead to Peter’s death. If you continue on to vv.20-21, Peter never really answers Jesus after that. He diverts attention to the disciple Jesus loved. Whether Peter knew then and there he would follow Jesus, or he had to think more about it, we know that he followed Jesus and joined Paul in martyrdom. Shepherds take that same risk for their sheep.
What does it mean to be pastoral, then? For our bishops, clergy and deacons? For our laity? It means being gentle and caring, and also firm and resolute, even in disagreement.
Happy Canada Day to you and all with whom you worship!*For more on this read the entry for this day in For All the Saints.