I gather with a group of pastors every so often to discuss ministry, local church issues, and pastoral leadership. During our most recent conversation, a good friend guided us in a reflection of Matthew 11. And the conversation was rich and encouraging to the point I wanted to share with you, my friends here at Word&Way.
In this passage, Jesus is traveling about the small villages of Galilee and the imprisoned John the Baptist (JTB) still has questions about/for Jesus. John sends his followers to ask if Jesus is the Messiah or if they should wait for another. Jesus responds by telling them how the infirm are made whole, the dead are brought to life, and the gospel is proclaimed. Then he adds the wrinkle, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
Every pastor in our meeting has preached this passage of scripture. You have heard their sermons. Usual interpretations include that it is right and good to ask questions. Be JTB, bring your earnest and honest questions to Jesus, never stop pursuing Christ. Trust in the work of the Spirit, look for the evidence of healing, new life, and lived gospel. Do not reject miracles that are happening in unexpected places and ways and thus lose sight of Jesus. These are all right and good ways to reflect on this passage.
But the passage does not stop there and as one pastor pointed out, we tend to stop there because that is a lay-up sermon. So, we kept reading to see what else the text had for us. Jesus turns to the crowds and flips the question to ask what they think of JTB. Jesus declares that if the crowd has the chutzpah to believe it, John is the embodiment of the long-awaited return of Elijah! Which further answers the question, who is Jesus. If John is Elijah, then Jesus is indeed the Messiah. He answers both questions with a mic drop.
Our gathered pastor group is just like your pastor and pastor friends. They are loving, compassionate, wise people searching for the leading of the Spirit and Christ’s presence in the ordinary everyday elements of life. They are quick to celebrate when God is on the move through conversions and baptisms, moments of unhindered worship, and when congregants lean into discipleship. They are also exhausted, frustrated, and battle-weary after nearly two years of COVID-19, annual natural disasters, the deaths of beloved saints, dwindling budgets, and abrasive congregants.
Much like the children playing in the square these pastors wonder what is happening with their local church specifically and the North American Church generally. Nothing seems enough. “We played wedding songs and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs and you didn’t mourn.” (Mt. 11.17) We sat in these verses for a while as they each took it in turns to share the age-graded programs, worship styles, mission trips, community outreach, and discipleship themes they have tried. Over the course of their years in ministry they have played every version of every song and the people no longer dance or mourn and they wonder if they can go on.
And this is where it is so easy to get stuck. Here is a secret we don’t often share with church members. Pastor groups can quickly devolve into complaint sessions, where they unburden themselves from the grind of institutional ministry and reveal the wounds from a thousand paper cuts that might lead to their cause of death if left unattended. This is partially human nature — we all need someplace to safely unload. It is also partially hubris. Pastors can often feel they alone carry the load of the institution and the demands of the people. Like Elijah we cry out, “I have zealously served the Lord…I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19.10; 14)
At times like this, we need hope. We cannot get stuck wringing our hands about the state of our local churches or the corporate church in North America. Elijah got good news, there was in fact remnant of support waiting for him and a new mission and ministry ahead for himself and for Israel (see 1 Kings 19.15-18). This is the gift of such pastor groups. We get to lay our burdens down, but for it to be helpful, meaningful work we must also pick up the hope that is available. Not pie in the sky, motivational poster cliches, but real hope.
That is the turn we made in our gathering recently. Matthew 11 concludes with Jesus summons, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at hear, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” If we are running around frantic, we need to find ways to rest in Christ. The yoke of Jesus is easy to bear, the yoke of institutions and their people are too heavy to bear at times.
And so, we did. We admitted the truth first. Some of us are worn out in many ways, discouraged, doubtful even. But our relationship with Christ and his church and his saints do not stop there. We spent the next little bit encouraging each other. Affirming our calls to serve the local church and her people. We shared the ways we see the spirit moving locally, nationally, and around the world and asking God to give us the courage and wisdom necessary to get participate in what God is doing. Miracles and ministry are happening all around us. It just looks different than before. Our contexts are ever changing missional landscapes and our ability to be flexible is a key discipline to walking with the Spirit.
It was a great conversation that moved beyond the burdens into a realm of hope. I can’t wait to meet up with them again soon to see and hear how God is using Matthew 11 and our spirit-filled conversations since last we gathered.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is the Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Nebraska, and a contributing writer for Word&Way. He is the author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press in print and e-reader versions from online distributors including Amazon. To learn more information visit www.table-life.org.