Listen to the sermon from May 22, 2011, “Priests in the ‘Hood” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 22, 2011
“Priests in the ‘Hood”
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” – Psalm 19:14
You might think from my sermon title today – “Priests in the ‘Hood” – I’m here to warn you about that nest of Paulist Fathers just down the block at St. Austin’s. We Baptists gotta watch out for those Cat’lics, am I right? Actually, I would advise you to watch out for those guys. Father Chuck and Father Stephen are good people, and terrific priests, both of them.
No, the nest of priests in our neighborhood I want to warn you about today is closer than St. Austin’s. Deep undercover. They don’t wear collars, no pointy hats or embroidered chausibles. They’re not even Catholic, except for one or two. You might say they’re in the stealth mode because most of them don’t even think of themselves as priests. But they’re as close to you as the next pew.
I’m talking, of course, about you! According to our Bible reading from 1 Peter today, you are all priests. That’s why God has called you together here in the first place. Did you know that?
From ancient times, every religion had priests, a god-squad of specialists who ran the Temples and read the tea leaves and ran interference between the gods and their people. Mediators, if you will, standing between the dangerous Divine and the average Joe or Joan. It was the priests’ job to help the gods get what they wanted from the people and to help the people get what they wanted from the gods – without the people being blown to bits!
Doesn’t matter what religion we’re talking about. If it’s a god with any real power to speak of, worth worshipping at all, you’re talking holy terror, a deity with demands and expectations, agendas and missions, rituals and rules and best practices – the whole nine yards! No matter how you try to dodge or dice it, by very definition a god always gets in your business, you know what I mean? You think a relationship with your sweetie is a treacherous thing to navigate, oh my Lord! So – every religion knows this: you gotta have an expert on God!
Every religion has its priests who serve as holy go-betweens. Keep you safe. Keep you right. Keep you close! But then this Hebrew God “Yahweh” comes along, frees these Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, leads ‘em out to a mountain in the middle of the wilderness and says “You were just a bunch of disorganized individual slaves fightin’ each other back there. No hope. No promise. No future. Cost you nothin’ for me to free you and bring you here, but now here’s the deal: I will be your God, and you will be my people. And I will make you a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:1-6).
Oh, yeah! Exodus 19; you can look it up! This God had a notion to democratize the whole priest thing and make every believer one of God’s go-betweens, every last one an expert on God. And their mission-in-life was to be priests to the world. To go to other people, “Bob – meet God. God, this is Bob!” To go to other nations, “Persia – this is God; God, you’re gonna love Persia!” And so on. Can you imagine? “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” All of them, not just some.
They didn’t do so great a job at it. But God didn’t take the mission away from them. Instead, God extended it further. That’s what our reading in 1 Peter today is all about, don’t you see? This letter written to Jesus-believers in the early church who’ve never been Jews but are Christians now applies this everybody’s-a-priest business to you and to me:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Like it’s a privilege. Like it’s a gift just to belong. Like it’s something special, to be part of a purpose bigger than just yourself, that connects you with others and makes you part of a family, a team, a people.
Martin Luther, John Calvin and those other Reform school guys called this idea “the priesthood of the believers.” It means, on the one hand, spiritual freedom. If you’re a member of the church, you’re an expert on God already. You don’t need anybody else to be God’s go-between for you because the risen Christ is within you. You don’t need no stinkin’ preacher. No stodgy professor. No high and mighty pope. And no government agent to tell you what you must believe and how you must practice your faith. Lord knows, we Baptists like that freedom part!
Only, we forget the responsibility part, which is really the central meaning of the concept. The priesthood of the believers means if you are a Christian – one who follows the living Christ – priest is your full time job, your vocation, your destiny. However else you may earn a living, priest is your mission-in-life. How you doing with that? You helped anybody connect with God lately?
Too much we ignore the responsibility part of the priesthood of the believers. And these days I fear we also forget the community part. Neither the scripture nor the Reformers ever speak of the “priesthood of the believer.” It’s always the “priesthood of the believers” (plural!). As Carlyle Marney put it,
We are priests to each other. I do not priest me. I priest you and vice versa. On this the community of witness takes its rise. Without it no church exists at all.
What I’m saying today is that you and I have been commanded by good God Almighty to be priests in the ‘hood, by which I mean we are ourselves a neighborhood of priests mediating God to each other and together a nest of priests bringing God to the wider neighborhood around us, wherever Christ sends us. All your peeps here are priests. That’s their job. They’re your priests, and they need you to be their priest, too.
How are we doing with that, being priests to each other I mean? To our neighborhood? Is that what we’re known for? Connecting people with God?
Is that how our neighborhood sees us? Have we shown them the God we are called to mediate to them, whose love, we say, includes them, too? But how would they know we say that unless we’ve said, “Bob, this is God. God, meet Bob!” “Bob, here’s some food. Bob, here’s a cup of coffee. Bob, God loves you.” Have they heard anything like that from you, priest in the ‘hood?
I’m getting in your business about this today because some people who study church and others who study culture are saying the whole idea of belonging to community is declining these days. In his book called Community: The Structure of Belonging, cultural expert Peter Block points to the irony that while technological advances have shrunk our world and connected us to more people and more information, we are more isolated and individualized and lonely than ever before, slaves to screens, fightin’ each other instead of coming together, afraid of committing to relationship, connection, community.
Block delineates three kinds of communities: “the stuck community” that markets fear, assigns fault, and worships self-interest. It dwells on all the reasons we have to be afraid and resists change. These communities are dying, but we see them everywhere – in politics, in the media, churches, too. Block notes a second kind, “the restorative community” which values new possibilities and mutual relatedness over self-interest and fear. And he goes on to describe “the transformative community” where individual members take ownership by focusing on gifts, generosity, abundance, accountability, relationship and – get this! – a mutual continuing conversation!
The transformative community welcomes newcomers and enables all who belong to participate at some level, which sounds to me like Jean Vanier’s good definition of the mission of the church “revealing to others their fundamental beauty, value and importance in the universe, their capacity to love, to grow, to do beautiful things, and to meet God.” “We do not want two communities-” he wrote, “the helpers and the helped – we want one.”
A neighborhood of priests, don’t you see? That’s why we learned not to say we have a ministry “to” gays and lesbians. How “power over” paternalistic that is! No, we have a ministry “with” gays and lesbians because they’re priests to us as much as we are to them. Ministry “with” not “to” students. Ministry “with” not “to” the homeless or the hungry or any of the least of these. God makes no distinction. As we are all God’s beloved children equal in the eyes of the Lord, we are also God’s beloved community equally called to be priests to each other and to the world.
Priests in the ‘hood. You and me. All of us. All of us. Church expert Anthony Robinson says the old structures of Christendom have died and it’s time for us to grieve but let go of the past. Listen to this:
Many dis-spirited, bewildered, pedaling-as-fast-as-we-can, struggling, or conflicted congregations have come to believe that what they are undergoing is about them. “We are a bad church,” or a dying church, or a failing church, such congregations say. While there are few congregations that cannot stand some improvement, much of what is being faced and experienced by many mainline Protestant churches is not about them. It is about the end of an era, a sea change in the religious ecology of North America and the role of congregations in our society. American Christendom is over. In all too brief summary, the end of Christendom means that congregations must learn anew how to do adult Christian formation…. Too highly rational or intellectual congregations need to rediscover spirituality. To put it another way, they need to re-encounter both mystery and a living God.
Robinson insists the church has to change its conversation, rediscover its purpose, renew its engagement at the level of the personal, and make adaptive changes recognizing new social realities. Most of all churches have to rediscover their spiritual center in the living Christ and his loving the neighborhood where he has planted them.
Priests in the ‘hood y’all. You and me together. Priests to each other. Priests to whomever Christ sends us. That’s our God-given mission-in-life. It’s not that hard to do since the risen Christ is with us. Are you with me? Then let’s do it! Amen? May we pray!
Rise within us, Christ and make us carriers of your Spirit infecting one another and the world of our belonging with the love of God you have shown us. And we will be your priests, all of us, loving the world in your name. Amen.