Tomorrow morning at Burke United Methodist Church, we will be confirming about 30 teenagers into our church. We had a dinner and then rehearsal for them tonight. I was given the mic a little abruptly and asked to say a few words. Whenever I think about youth joining the church, I always go back to the prophecy from Joel 2:28 — “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” So that’s what I told our kids — their job is to be our prophets, not just to join the church but to lead the church. I’ve said this in the past because it seemed inspiring and encouraging even if it wasn’t true, but I’ve come to the point where I really believe that’s what I’m supposed to tell them and that’s what they’re supposed to do.
My job as a shepherd is to empower others to lead me and speak God’s truth to me and each other. I am a permanent student of God’s truth; my teachers are young and old; I simply compile and rebroadcast the lessons that others have taught me, many of them without realizing it. Insofar as I “teach” others, it is simply teaching them how to teach me, how to hear the word that God has put into each of their hearts and prophesy it to God’s people. It’s kind of like when God called Samuel in 1 Samuel 3 after there had been no word from God in the land of Israel for many years. Eli’s role is to empower Samuel to hear and proclaim the word that God has given him, even though this word ends up being Eli’s condemnation.
As a shepherd, Jesus’ goal was to bring his disciples to the point where he could say to them: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). In emulation of our own Good Shepherd, those of us who are called to be shepherds need to learn to see our authority in a radically different light than how the world tells us to lead. We are set apart not to stand over those whom God has given us to love and serve but to stand beneath them and lift them up. This is what it means to be a diakonos (servant/waiter), which is what Jesus called himself and called us to emulate (Mark 10:45). We are not just servants in the sense of doing things for other people but in the sense of submitting ourselves to other people. You’re not being a true servant if you “serve” others in a way that disempowers and patronizes them. The only check upon my submission to my congregation members as a pastor is the fact that I am also a servant of Christ (doulos christou). I am called to empower others for the sake of Christ which means that I stand my ground as gently or firmly as the situation dictates when the desires of those to whom I am called go against what I understand to be the will of Christ.
This even applies to my relationship with my own sons. My five year old Matthew corrects me all the time for saying words like “stupid” and “hate.” I submit to him and ask his forgiveness and thank him when he speaks God’s word to me in the straightforward simple beauty of a child. There is no need for me to see his correction of me as something “disrespectful” that impugns my authority or other such nonsense. All that I direct him to do should be for the purpose of helping him to become someone who can tell me what to do when God speaks through him. In the same way, whatever direction I give to others in my congregation as a pastor is helping them learn how to receive God’s word and call for their lives so that God can teach me and teach others through their insights.
Lord, I pray that our youth would be Your prophets, that we would help them learn how to hear Your voice so they can tell us what You’ve got to say, and that we would listen and obey what You tell us through them. Show us how to be a good family to them, show us how to submit to them as servants even while we shepherd them. Teach us to respect them; show us how to help them learn how to preach Your word to us. Help them to become your perfect icons, radiating your beauty and love so that we may see your goodness in them and be evangelized by it. By the gracious empowerment of our Shepherd and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.