Sermon for Sunday, April 29, 2012

John 10:10-18

“Hired Hands & Shepherds; Mercenaries & Missionaries”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, pastor and preacher

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James H. Garfield

The legend goes, as recorded in the 100th Anniversary booklet of this congregation printed in 1942, that James H. Garfield, while president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) got caught up in his own “arrogance” and got himself in hot water.  The story indicates that he, the regular preacher for Franklin Circle Church of Christ in the late 1850’s, had the audacity to approach the board of Elders and request a raise for his work preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The amount of the raise requested?  $10… a year!  As you might fear, the legend does not end well.  Mr. Garfield, future Civil War Hero and President of the United States of America, was fired as pastor of our church.  You can almost hear the elders exclaim in disgust, “That’s what we get for employing the services of a hireling!

Collins Dictionary defines “hireling” as a derogatory word for “a person who works only for money, especially one paid to do something unpleasant.” (1)  We’ll leave the second half of that definition alone for this sermon.  😉  But it is sufficient to say that the Elders of this congregation were very much in accord with the mindset of the founders of our church, what is now known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  In the iconoclastic journal of the 1800’s, the Christian Baptist, Alexander Campbell attacked all human institutions, but had special indignation for the hireling clergy who were the promoters of corrupt institutions. (2)

Campbell also preached against such “located preachers” in his sermons.  In one sermon on Isaiah he rails: “when the ecclesiastical hireling lifts up his voice in the sanctuary, saying, ‘What will you give me?’ when many shepherds have fleeced their flocks and then scattered them on the mountains; – even in this portentous day, we are warranted to expect that the Lord will soon revive his work, and are encouraged, by the kind prophecy of God, to hope that the day, is not far hence when the stumbling-block shall be removed out of the way of the people…” Campbell seemed delighted to lump together a wretched assortment of ministerial bogeymen: “hirelings, drones, idle shepherds, dumb dogs, blind guides and unfaithful watchmen” (2)  Makes one quake in one’s shoes, doesn’t it?

[Editor’s note: the following section has some incorrect information about Alexander Campbell’s founding of Bethany College.  He did found it to train *lay* leaders, and maintained his distrust of “hireling” located clergy for most of his lifetime.  But, my point was really to say that the college itself would go on to prepare settled/located, ordained clergy for much of its existence up until the present day.  AVH]

Of course, this is the very same Alexander Campbell who would later go on to found Bethany College, which became a central educational institution for the training of such “hireling clergy,” even up to our day… some who sit in our very pews and who have preached in this very sanctuary!!!  This paradox notwithstanding, Campbell and the other early reformers were surely trying to read Jesus’ own words as carefully as they could.

Statue of the Good Shepherd (third century), 39" high, marble, from the Catacomb of Domitilla, now in Museo Pio Cristino, Vatican.

Jesus very clearly distinguished between the “shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep and the “hired hand” who sees the wolf coming and runs away – which is somewhat akin to “fleecing” their flocks.  What’s the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd?  Between mercenaries and a missionaries?

As I understand it, the real question behind Jesus’ and Campbell’s words is “Who should you trust?” and it is a very good question for us today.  Who do you trust, and why do you trust them?  Jesus, and Alexander Campbell by extension, asks the question, does paying someone to do something for you automatically ensure trust?  Their answer is a resounding “NO!”  At risk of undermining my own precious employment, not to mention my sacred profession, I would agree.  That is, just by paying someone to do something for you does not immediately and necessarily confer trust.  Trust has to be earned and proven in other ways.

But, as Campbell would later most clearly show in his educational commitments, the consistency and depth that a theological training would allow for was, indeed, one very good way to help engender trust in the profession of clergy.  While I believe profoundly in “the priesthood of all believers,” I also know the time set aside for my educational training, which opened up literally a millennia of wisdom and knowledge to me and gave me the skills and perspectives I would desperately need in my career, the carefully supervised field education work, and the twenty-six years of experience that my student and full-time ministry has provided has also allowed me the chance to help train and lead a host of other sisters and brothers in the faith in their own “priesthood of all believers.”  I would never even begin to imagine trading in my education and experience just so I wouldn’t be a “hireling,” and I hope you agree.

Christ as the Good Shepherd is found as a fresco in the Crypts of Lucina, ceiling of the Cubiculum of the Good Shepherd, catacomb of Callixtus in Rome (mid-third century).

But, the question of whether or not we can trust someone more if we pay them to do it is not such a far-fetched one for today.  There are great movements within our political and social structures that put a premium on “privatization.” Privatization is where a public sector business, enterprise, agency, service, or property is transferred to a private sector entity.  The most hotly contested example in our state at the moment is the sale of the right to run our toll roads to private companies.  The question at hand is do we trust private companies to run public services better and more cost effectively?  Does experience prove that leaving things to the will of the “free market” prove trustworthy?

For Jesus, who did not have to worry about toll roads, postal services, military contractors, or prisons, the deciding factor in whether or not to trust someone came down to personal relationship, sacrifice, servanthood, and, quite clearly, love. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  I have to say, as one of Jesus’ sub-shepherds, that is a highly tall order.  I really care about you all, but to lay down my life for you?  That may have been implied, but I can assure you it was not in the job description the Search Committee shared with me eleven years ago!

Shanghai-based artist Yu Jiade's interpretation of Jesus as The Good Shepherd

So, in pondering the questions, “in whom do we place our trust, and why,” I was presented with a blog post via the Rev. Deborah Bolen.  In this post writer Ronnie McBrayer (3) ponders those good and faithful Christians who, for one reason or another, have left the institutional church, or may have never been really connected to it.  He challenges those of us who are regular “church folk,” especially those of us paid to be in church, to acknowledge that some of these folks out in the world have “an authentic faith” and are quite capable of developing “a happier, more hopeful perspective than many of us who fill the pew each Sunday.”  For him, these “other sheep” are not necessarily living beyond the bounds of the church walls because they are disgruntled, hurt, or have lost their faith.  He says, “They simply have found church, in their experience, to be unhelpful to their spiritual well-being.”

So, one might say these folks have decided that not only do they, who represent a significant portion of young-adults today, have decided that they not only distrust “hireling clergy,” but they don’t trust the entire “hireling church” at all!  What does this mean for those of us who do still find this institution, fraught with all its inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies, and ideological altercations a meaningful place to worship God and serve God’s people?

Well, in addition to bringing a bit of humility to our souls, as well as reminding us that, practically speaking, most of our ministry should be beyond these walls, it should call us to reexamine regularly in whom we place our trust, and why.

  • Clearly, if we take the words of Jesus to heart, “I know my own and my own know me,” we should be trusting those people and those places who take the time, energy, and wisdom to know us, really deeply know us, and invite us to know Jesus and one another just as deeply.
  • Clearly, if we take the words of Jesus to heart, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” we should be trusting those people and those places who honor the outsider, who do not set themselves up on a pedestal as “the one true… anything,” and whose energies serve and honor those different from oneself.
  • Clearly, if we take the words of Jesus to heart, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” we should be trusting those people and those places where sacrifice, selflessness, vulnerability, and love are paramount to all other qualities, including the quality of self-preservation.

I happen to find these things here, at Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and I happen to get to be the “hireling clergy” who has the honor of serving this congregation.  Together, may we continue to ask the question, “Who do we trust, and why?” and may our first answer always be, “Jesus: the good shepherd.”


(1) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003.  Found online at:

(2) Sermon Outline on Revelation 20:11, by Alexander Campbell; Found online at:

(3) Maybe I Outgrew the Church… by Ronnie McBrayer, on the online e-zine the ooze: evolving spirituality. Found online at:…-by-ronnie-mcbrayer/