The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn't look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner. I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.
As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I'd even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.
I wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ's flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.
First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.
But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.
What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.
Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.
It's a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.
But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they'll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn't care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.
Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.
This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.