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Helping everyone find the ways that they find joy in feeding a hungry world leads to a healthy church.
I have a set of bird feeders outside my living room window: a few squirrel-proof seed feeders, a hummingbird feeder, and two suet cages. I don’t see a lot of unusual birds, but I get visits from black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and occasional goldfinches. Mysteriously, the house finches that live on my porch lights don’t seem to visit the bird feeders; they must get their food elsewhere.
Oh, and I get house sparrows. Lots and lots of house sparrows.
They first showed up a couple of weeks ago and started eating the suet that I had put out. A crowd of sparrows would arrive and absolutely decimate the suet, and investigate the seed feeders and hummingbird feeder, and chase the other birds off, and fight amongst themselves. And, after a while, the only bird that I saw at my feeders for any length of time, were sparrows.
So let’s talk about sparrows.
I don’t know exactly where it comes from or when I first heard it, but there’s a quote from the pastor and theologian Frederick Buechner that I have heard a thousand—or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million—times. It goes like this:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
That is a quote about vocation. That is a quote about the call—the vocatio—that God places on each of our life. There is a place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet. And God is calling you to be there, joyfully engaging in the work of feeding the reign of love that God is bringing into the world.
There is a place, to stretch a metaphor, where I am feeding black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and occasional goldfinches. And that is where God is calling me to be.
And then there are house sparrows.
In this metaphor, the sparrows are the things—and, in ministry, sometimes the people—that might bring us some joy, but that also take everything that we have to offer and crowd out or chase away the other things that bring us deep joy. They are the places where we encounter the world’s deep hunger, but where our deep joy does not appear, and where we are simply stuck feeding ourselves to the world in ways that harm us.
Now, I want to be clear. I have nothing against actual house sparrows. I don’t even have anything against the metaphorical house sparrows. They are perfectly nice birds who are just trying to make their way in the world. I am just saying that there are places where I am not called. And I can only feed so much of the things that crowd out my joy.
One of the beautiful things about the church is that it is not something that we do alone. The church is a place where many people can bring many deep joys to feed the world’s many deep hungers. And that means that it is not one person’s responsibility to feed everything or everyone.
Not even the pastor’s.
Every time that I think about the role of the pastor, I become more convinced that the pastor’s job is to ensure that every person can find that place where their deep joy meets the world’s deep hunger: the place to which God is calling them. Their vocatio.
There is someone who wants to feed the black-capped chickadees and the white-breasted nuthatches. There is someone who wants to feed the downy woodpeckers. There is someone who wants to feed the ruby-throated hummingbirds. There is someone who wants to feed the goldfinches.
There is even someone who wants to feed the house sparrows.
Expecting the pastor to feed everyone leads to an unhealthy pastor. But helping everyone find the ways that they find joy in feeding a hungry world leads to a healthy church. And, maybe, even a healthier world.
I’m going to feed the sparrows, of course.
The actual sparrows will get their own feeding station with cracked corn or some other cheap food—they like it and they don’t know that it’s cheap—where they can enjoy their sparrow lives without crowding out or chasing away the other birds.
And the metaphorical sparrows will get what they need, but not to the degree that I am left hollowed out or without joy. And what I cannot do can be made up by someone who loves to feed the sparrows.
And everyone will be better for it.