“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”
Isaiah 53:4a (NRSV)
During my second call as a parish pastor, I was invited by the owner and operator of the local sanitation engineering firm to come along with him on his route collecting trash. I figured that it would be fun to travel along for a day. After all, like any other boy growing up, I had always looked out the window at the “garbage men” and wondered about who they were and where they were taking the things my family discarded. Their calling of public service always seemed to rank right up there with the work of police and firefighters.
My host was a man of good humor and sharp observation. Just as in any line of work, he had heard a number of old jokes about what he did. One stand-by was to ask “How’s business?” to which he responded, “Well, it’s picking up.” For most of the day, I rode in the cab of the truck with him and would hop out occasionally to empty a few plastic bins into the compactor. Other times, I had the privilege of standing on the back ledge, holding onto a handle and getting the full experience of the trade. A few times, I waved to a couple of teenaged students who happened to be in the neighborhood. They didn’t seem to be as interested in waving back or as intrigued by the mystery of trash collection as I was.
I learned about the kinds of items that are put into the garbage. He had seen just about everything and mostly just hoped that people would tie their trash in plastic bags. He said that the worst stench he experienced regularly was rotting fish in the summertime. Sometimes the job could be discouraging, like when he occasionally had to haul away a large stack of pornographic magazines. Other times he might come across a company that was dumping perfectly good inventory to make way for next year’s products. He admitted that when the local sporting goods store left brand new fishing rods and reels in the dumpster, it was tempting to keep a few for himself.
We stopped several times at the county transfer station to unload our haul. The truck would be weighed, then backed into a larger metal container before being dumped out. The refuse would be taken to a larger facility—partly to be burned, mostly to be buried. The sights and smells of the station were actually somewhat plain and nondescript. Heaps and heaps of anonymous garbage were much more boring than actual garbage taken out of a small town or neighborhood.
That day, I thought about several parallels between being a pastor and being a trash collector. Each learns about their community and their people at rather basic levels. They gain a private knowledge that doesn’t need to be shared, though can perhaps make for some good stories “around the campfire.” This knowledge may present itself as being strange and uncommon, but it is actually grounded in mundane, ordinary things.
Pastors give people a chance for new beginnings and fresh starts. We serve as a means for others to get rid of what plagues their consciences or harms their souls. Folks need to hear the word that Christ has come to take all of their trash, that it no longer belongs to them. It has been removed and banished. People are not always able to recognize the stink of sin and death for what it is, so pastors do need to be bold to name things as they really are. Without the true source of hope and life, infestations of spiritual malaise and epidemics of trouble will persist.
The work of a minister begins and ends in the dump. Just as our Lord Jesus was crucified in the midst of filth, so the pastor also finds his labor in the refuse pile. If wickedness and unbelief were to disappear from the world, then the calling of the preacher would no longer be necessary. As it is, sinners will always have more and more garbage—either hoarded within their own homes and polluting the whole family or brought out into public and shared through many different channels. A means is needed to spirit the trash away.
The tools of a well-worn truck, a good pair of gloves, and a sturdy back serve a trash collector well. Innovative ideas or cutting-edge solutions are not always so important. Similarly, the pulpit, font, and altar are the places where God has served his people in humility and will do so until the Kingdom arrives on the last day. A preacher needs to step back and realize that a certain historical outline of the task exists; it doesn’t need to be reinvented for each generation.
People can be asked to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” but they will never be able to set themselves free from their own captivity to disobedience and decay. Folks may be able to acquire certain spiritual experiences or insights that make them feel new and clean, yet the realities of this world always will linger. Trash collectors are needed to come and make the trade that Martin Luther called the “happy exchange”—old life for new, damnable sins for grace and peace, the death of this world for eternal life in the Kingdom.
A few months after my trip on the garbage truck, I brought home communion to a husband and wife who lived in the town’s senior apartments. They were longstanding members who had not been able to worship at church that winter due to a long recovery from surgery. They missed the opportunity to eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper and were eager for me to come to them with this precious gift.
We visited about the happenings of the congregation. They were two of many people who were being lifted up for healing and strength in the prayers of the church. We discussed church and community members who were in times of grief and loss. We thought about thanksgivings and blessings too. We talked about their wonderful granddaughter who was a student in my confirmation class. Different matters came forth naturally and were worked into our prayers during the service.
The church bulletin, the scripture lessons, and the main points of the sermon in the service that I performed for this couple that day all closely followed the Sunday service of the previous week. Maybe I’ve adopted that practice out of good stewardship or maybe out of ease of preparation, but the method does foster an organic sense of relationship. The pastor, the congregation, and the people at home are not living out isolated parts of the story, but are drawing upon the same materials. A standard order of service also brings some clarity and understanding to the overarching purpose of a home visit.
I can remember having a good visit that day. Maybe I was still reflecting upon an interesting ride in the countryside and how it compared to my work among the people of the town. Maybe I was inspired to keep things simple and let the rest of the details work themselves out. As I was leaving the apartment, however, I was asked by the wife to do them a favor. It was a small matter really, but it was one I hadn’t heard before from a parishioner and wonder if I ever will again.
Drawn up in a white plastic bag and sitting by the door was the couple’s trash. They needed someone to take it to the dumpster out back. I would be headed in that direction on my way home. She was a bit embarrassed to ask me, but she went ahead and did anyway. I was surprised at first, but then kept my bemused sense of irony to myself as I said I’d be happy to oblige. She added that “well, you’re just like our family anyway.”
A pastor’s work does not always reflect a high calling. The tasks at hand can be simple, helpful, and necessary. Expectations of worthy prestige, great accomplishments, or novel approaches to human challenges hinder the minister’s freedom to share the Good News. The message of a new life needs to be brought near time and again in a down-to-earth manner. For when Christ calls a person to himself, he takes away an old sinner that has become trash, buries it in the dump of the grave, and brings back a forgiven person. The Lord will keep his promise that he will be the faithful owner and operator of a magnificent garbage collection route from now until the day of glory. If we have the chance to ride along in the cab or wave from the back end, we can count it as a blessing.
The Reverend Daniel P. Ostercamp is pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Webster, South Dakota.