The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 6]

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

In the fifth and final section of Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work he searches out how the book of Esther, the fifth of the Meggiloth scrolls, guides pastors in the important work of building the community. As Peterson writes:

Pastoral work is interested in people and their failure to achieve the humanity that is theirs by the will of the God who created them. The pastor who works with such people sees them not as a unicellular organism but as ‘members of the body.’ (194)

But there are many challenges to this work, particularly in an American context that emphasizes rugged individualism, which stands in sharp contrast to the “biblical view of man and woman [as] person-in-community, a ‘people of God’” (195). Pastors will always struggle to recall people to a sense of who they are as a people, not just as individuals. Not only that, Peterson claims, but the very context of church as community is often misunderstood as just one more voluntary organization amidst many. However, that is not what the church is.

The story of Esther and the rescue of the people of God celebrated at Purim is an antidote to these misunderstandings and a guide to pastors today. The joy of God’s salvation for the people of God is evident in this book and marked with the festival and guides the pastoral concern for joy and salvation to be seen as gifts of God for our congregations.

Esther and Purim provide a model for exhibiting the celebrative existence of a people who freely share and exchange God’s gifts of created and redeemed life together. It is the story and feast of what is discussed in theological terms under the heading communio sanctorum, the communion of the saints. (202)

God’s people, Israel, traces their identity to Abraham, but that identity becomes clearer after the deliverance from Egypt at the Exodus and the establishment in the Promised Land of Canaan. After generations in the land, the monarchy fails and the people turn away from God. The end of this is exile to Babylon, which leaves questions of what it means to be God’s people now. The book of Esther picks up the story of God’s people within this radically changed existence, but an existence, nonetheless. The community has survived by God’s grace, even if it is limping along imperfectly.

With the help of archaeological backgrounds, Peterson helps us see that the Jewish communities we know of at this time, in Susa and Elephantine, struggled and were not ideal. He reminds us they “are important for pastoral work inasmuch as neither demonstrates a community at its best. Neither is a ‘model’ congregation” (207). Still, this non-ideal community is God’s community, saved by Him, and this theological reality must orient us as pastors.

The pastoral  imagination that is oriented in this history will be quick to spot essentials and sense what is foundational. It will develop a  theological understanding of the community of faith as opposed to a sociological, or even historical understanding. It will understand the people of God as a grouping of persons who God has called together, whom God will keep together, who will survive by God’s grace. It will not understand them as a group of people who attempt to be religious together. (208)

This theological many times stands in sharp contrast to the guides we are often given for understanding or “evaluating” the church. Read this paragraph from Peterson on this point:

The pastoral understanding of community that is thoroughly immersed in this long, biblical tradition and comprehends the biblical dynamics of grace will not be quickly impressed with comparative statistics that judge the church by its visibility in the world or its impact on the census tables, and then be distracted into ventures of titanism and multitudinism. From a biblical point of view it is hard to conceive of a method for describing or understanding or evaluating the church that is less likely to get even a glimpse of its reality than those devised by statisticians or sociologists. Yet these persons provide the bulk of the material that is used to exhort the pastor in his or her work as a leader in the community of faith. (209)

And yet, as pastors today we feel the pressed urgency of contemporary statistical renderings of religion and the church in North America. Certainly we should not put our heads in the sand, yet at the same time we must consider what is truly shaping our understanding of our ministry and God’s people.

Because these variables are notoriously inconstant, spiritual and biblical integrity is far more important than the skillful use of propaganda in doing pastoral work, the doctrine of providence of more significance than any image-making publicity.  

As stewards of the community God has created, pastors may need to relearn what it means to stand in the biblical roots of community leadership. This may help free us from the pervasive fixations of many pastors today: “anxiety over survival, worry over size, an obsession with arithmetic” (211).  In America in particular we may need to come alongside of biblical figures like Mordecai to regain our senses.

For those familiar with Peterson, you may know his oft-quoted statement that one cannot truly be a pastor of a church over 750 people. I’ve wrestled with that statement as a pastor of a church larger than that. But I took some comfort from Peterson’s way of addressing pastoring and numbers in Five Smooth Stones:

The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference whether a community of faith numbers thirty-seven persons or thirty-seven hundred. Each soul is of eternal value, and needs to live with a few other souls in order to grow in grace and charity. The pastors’ task is to guide the growth of the thirty-seven (if that is where they find themselves) or the thirty-seven hundred (if that be the place) by leading in prayers, preaching God’s word, and administering abilities and aptitudes of the Spirit so that ministry takes place. The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference if there are ten persons in a cavernous gothic city church or five hundred persons  crowded into a suburban barn…the communities contrast in size and condition but are constituted by the same means (the Holy Spirit) and require the same ministries (worship, prayer, teaching, preaching). (212)

Returning to Esther, Peterson uses the character of Haman to emphasize the important insight of grasping that there are enemies to God’s people.

Wherever there is a people of God there are enemies of God. Pastoral work that seeks to build up the community of faith cannot afford to be innocent about Haman. (219)

How does a pastor respond to this reality? Peterson offers an apt summary of pastoral work:

The pastoral responsibilities for building up a community of faith under such conditions are grave and must not be trivialized or secularized: scripture must be taught and preached, prayers must be offered, visitation must be conducted, sacraments must be administered, counsel must be given, worship must  be led. (219-20)

There are other things that should be done, but the pastor shouldn’t do all of them.

The pastoral work ought to be defined as narrowly as possible to guarantee that it be accomplished expertly and thoroughly….Pastors who take upon themselves everything that appears worthy of ministry are either unsufferably arrogant, thinking they are the only ones in church capable of hearing commands and obeying in faith, or else extraordinarily faithless (ogligopistoi!) who do not give the Holy Spirit credit for being able to lead or direct anyone else. (220)

It was Mordecai who encouraged Esther to step forward to approach King Xerxes. Mordecai did not do it himself, because it was not his opportunity to take. Certainly he did other things, but he was not concerned with the center stage. “The importance of Mordecai for the pastor derives from his style of leadership, a style that exemplifies the way of the servant” (225). Peterson points out that many biblical examples of leadership in Scripture are attractively charismatic – “Gideon and Deborah; Elijah and Elisha; Amos and Hosea” – but the leadership of the diaspora community is simply a servant. And this is what we need to recover now, more than ever. At a time when bold and catchy leadership models have taken over the church, when pastors aspire to become “church famous,” we need to recover the servant way of Jesus, lived out by Paul, and sung about in Isaiah’s “servant songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). As Peterson reminds us, “‘Servant’ is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp. It is, though, a difficult role to embrace” (229).

It is perhaps fitting that this is the note with which Peterson ends his exploration of the Meggiloth. Pastors are servants. The imagery of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work derives from David who, after having set aside Saul’s armor which did not fit him, stooped at stream for ammunition before facing off against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:31-40). As David set out on a new way, Peterson writes, “a new leadership ministry was taking shape.” May we pastors, too, take up a new, but old, way as we live out our calling before God in the midst of His people.

[This is the sixth (and final) in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Jesus Pursues Sick People

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32)

I am glad that Jesus pursues sick people. In Luke 5, Jesus reaches out to a man with leprosy, a paralyzed man, a social outcast who collects taxes for Rome, and even calls some people peripheral to society to be His closest followers. Jesus does not always look for the respectable people. No, what He most often does is to search after those who know they need help. He heals them (the leper), He forgives them (the paralyzed man), He spends time with them (the tax collector), and He commissions them for His purposes (the disciples).

I am glad that Jesus pursues sick people. Although I was familiar with Christianity from my upbringing, I did not really know Christ until my later years of high school. When Jesus truly took hold of my life I was deeply sick. He sought after me and confronted me with His truth. I didn’t know how sick I was until then. It became so obvious that I needed help. When I responded to Him, Jesus saturated me with His grace and filled me with hope. He began to heal my life and transform me. Then He invited me to serve Him and brought purpose and direction to my life. I am sure that you have a story of your own about when and how Jesus pursued you.

But here are some pertinent questions for those of us who follow Jesus today: are we still glad Jesus pursues sick people? Do we let Him seek after the sick and needy through us? Do we let Him take us to risky or uncomfortable places so He can place His hands on the lives of others who need healing and life?

If He has pursued us and reached us, may He also pursue others and reach them through us.

The Messiah Heals

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we began a new series entitled “The Messiah’s Mission,” based in Matthew 8-12. It was a blessing to have Lisa Sinclair open Scripture with us from Matthew 8:1-17, exploring the healing power of Jesus in three specific healing stories: the healing of the leper, the healing of the centurion’s servant, and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here, as well as the devotional that accompanies the series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


And He healed all who were ill in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “He Himself took our infirmities, and carried away our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16b-17)

Introduction: Half-truths distort our understanding of God’s character

3 stories of healing:

  1. Jesus and the leper
  • Jesus and the centurion
  • Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law (and everybody else)

Application:                                                           

  1. Keep asking: He’s moved with compassion
  2. Keep praying for others: He is not limited
  3. Keep trusting: He sees and knows you
  4. Keep waiting: He promises final healing

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into your experience of Jesus the healer in one or more of the following ways:

  • “Practice makes perfect.” Pray for healing in your group for each other, for our city, and for our world.
  • Take this opportunity to memorize Isaiah 53.

The Messiah’s Mission – a new series at Eastbrook

This past Sunday at Eastbrook Church we begin a thirteen-week preaching series entitled “The Messiah’s Mission,” which continues our journey through the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on chapters 8-12. This is the fourth part of our longer series on Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” and “Becoming Real.”

After the Sermon on the Mount Jesus begins in earnest His mission of reaching people far from God and displaying the kingdom of God. He does the work and then invites His followers into the work.

You can join in with the daily devotional for this series online, as a downloadable PDF, via the Eastbrook app, or through a limited-run of paper copies available at our in-person worship services or by reaching out to the Eastbrook Church office.

Join us each weekend of this series in-person or via Eastbrook at Home.

Here are the weekly topics for the series:

May 9 – “The Messiah Heals” – Matthew 8:1-17

May 16 – “The Messiah’s Call” – Matthew 8:18-22

May 23 – “The Messiah’s Authority” – Matthew 8:23-9:8

May 30 – “The Messiah’s Followers” – Matthew 9:9-17

June 6 – “The Messiah Delivers – Matthew 9:18-34

June 13 – “The Messiah Sends” – Matthew 9:35-10:25

June 20 – “The Messiah Sends, part 2” – Matthew 10:26-11:1

June 27 – “The Messiah and the Forerunner” – Matthew 11:2-19

July 4 – “The Messiah’s Challenge and Invitation” – The Messiah’s Challenge and Invitation

July 11 – “The Messiah and the Sabbath” – Matthew 12:1-21

July 18 – “The Messiah and Satan” – Matthew 12:22-37

July 25 – “The Messiah’s Sign” – Matthew 12:38-45

August 1 – “The Messiah’s Family” – Matthew 12:46-50

Eastbrook at Home – May 9, 2021

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Join us for worship with Eastbrook Church through Eastbrook at Home at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM.

It’s Mother’s Day so don’t forget to express love to your mother, grandmother, or mother figure in your life!

This weekend we begin a new preaching series, “The Messiah’s Mission,” which will focus on Jesus’ moving outward on mission in word and deed after the Sermon on the Mount. Lisa Sinclair will kick-off this series for us by looking at Matthew 8:1-17.

This continues our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes previous series “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” and “Becoming Real.”

Join in with the Eastbrook 365 daily devotional for this series here.

We also continue in-person services at 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 AM this weekend at the Eastbrook Campus, but you do need to RSVP ahead of time. Find out more info here.

Each Sunday at 8, 9:30, and 11 AM, you can participate with our weekly worship service at home with your small group, family, or friends. This service will then be available during the week until the next Sunday’s service starts. You can also access the service directly via Vimeo, the Eastbrook app, or Facebook.

If you are not signed up for our church emailing list, please sign up here. Also, please remember that during this time financial support for the church is critical as we continue minister within our congregation and reach out to our neighborhood, city, and the world at this challenging time. Please give online or send in your tithes and offerings to support the ministry of Eastbrook Church.