Brian E Pearson
The Role of Clergy: Rabbis
Jesus was a storyteller. He was not a theologian. He showed by word and example what it would be like to live in a realm infused with the Spirit of the One who made us. He planted his stories like seeds, allowing them to do his work for him after he'd gone: the realm of God is like a mustard shrub; or like a lost coin; or like leaven hidden in a measure of meal.
He was not an innovator in this. The rabbinic tradition was all about storytelling. So were the wild-eyed itinerant preachers and healers who blew into town from the desert from time to time. So were the sages of the East, who startled their disciples more than lectured them, in order to wake them up, to enlighten them. Jesus's teachings were meant as a smack upside the head. "God's realm is at hand," he said. "Turn around, and believe this good news." Smack!
The early church strove to preserve Jesus's teachings after his death. But as it did, those teachings became codified to serve as building blocks for a comprehensive understanding of how God and the universe work. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, in the 4th Century, Jesus's parables were read as allegories of church doctrine, which by then had been officially articulated as creeds.
Modern clergy receive their education in classrooms. There they learn the precepts and corollaries that comprise the teachings of the church. In seminary, faith is taught, not caught, reversing the way it works in real life. Then, when they are sent out into the vineyard, clergy all too often adopt the role of their professors, imparting knowledge rather than awakening faith.
If clergy were to let the stories be stories, from the parables of Jesus to the pastoral letters of the apostles to the imagined history of God's people, going right back to the beginning, and not turn those stories into the tiers of some magnificent Babel of knowledge, they might rediscover what it means to be teachers, like Jesus was a teacher, who was more interested in how people lived than what they thought.
The Christian tradition is rich in stories that awaken faith. And if this is true, so are other faith traditions, whose stories are also capable of smacking us upside the head. As the church, in its institutional form, flickers and dies, the world remains hungry for such stories. For who doesn't long to feel connected to life's divine Source?
This is a role for clergy in modern times. Even as their jobs disappear, they can be storytellers--teachers, not of knowledge, but of faith.
Next Week: Clergy as Homemakers