Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson – October 18, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
It’s less than two weeks now from Halloween, and I suspect that many of you are beginning to gear up for the annual ritual we all know so well. Children and even some adults are procuring the most creative costumes they can get their hands on, homeowners are amassing their stashes of candy and donning their dwellings with spiders and ghosts and goblins and pumpkins, and the Assistant Rector of St. Paul’s on the Green is beginning to rehearse the two songs he will sing for the Haunted Broadway Spooky Cabaret next Friday (and, by the way, tickets are still available—downstairs at coffee hour, during the week in the parish office and online). But many of you may not know that October 31st is a notable date not just because of Halloween but also because of an important historical event. On October 31st, 1517, a German monk first challenged the established church of Western Christendom, particularly singling out the deceitful and financially abusive practice of indulgences—and now, looking back almost five hundred years later, many view Martin Luther’s dissemination of the so-called Ninety-five Theses as the spark which brought about the Reformation and thus changed the Church—and the world—for ever.
One of the central concepts in Luther’s thinking is called “the priesthood of all believers.” Though Luther never used that exact terminology himself, he consistently claimed that all of God’s people—not just those specifically ordained by the Church—could legitimately be called priests and share in the status and responsibilities that being a priest entailed. He didn’t believe in eradicating professional clergy entirely, I’m grateful to say, but he did challenge the notion that professional clergy had some special quality or talent that placed them closer to God than other believers. Ordained clergy, he argued, may have particular functions or ministries, such as preaching or presiding at the Eucharist, but we all have the opportunity and right to be priests—to communicate directly with God and to offer sacrifices for the universal good. And while his ideas were nothing short of combustible at the time he introduced them, they have since been adopted by a wide variety of Christians, including most interestingly the Roman Catholic Church as part of the Second Vatican Council.
What many people maybe don’t realize is that the Bible actually doesn’t have much to say about priests, and what it does have to say is confusing and contradictory. According to Exodus and Leviticus, the priests of ancient Judaism performed animal sacrifices in the temple and were legally required to be descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother. But when early Christians explored Jesus’ relationship to the Judaism he came out of they discovered a thread in the Hebrew Bible that hinted at a different kind of priesthood. They saw in the Isaiah passage we read this morning an individual, who like Jesus, made his own life an offering, who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.” They saw in Melchizidek, an obscure figure from Genesis and the Psalms, a priest who didn’t have to come from a particular lineage. And so, despite the fact that Jesus didn’t hail from the right background and never offered any sacrifices in the temple, some early Christians, including the writer of the letter to the Hebrews we heard from this morning, did not hesitate to characterize Jesus a priest—to say that in giving up his life for the good of the world, Jesus performed a sacrifice as significant and as meaningful as any of the sacrifices in the temple.
But the New Testament doesn’t just say that Jesus is a priest. It goes even further. It indicates, as Martin Luther would claim hundreds of years later, that we—all of us—are priests too. The first letter of Peter calls Christians “a royal priesthood” and encourages us to “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” and Revelation asserts that because of Jesus we are now “kings and priests.” Jesus makes continually clear that the work he does is not something he does on his own or something done by small group on his behalf. It’s something we—all of us—participate in. Jesus asks us to take up our cross, to drink the cup that he drinks, and to be baptized with the baptism that he is baptized with. He is not going to be a priest alone. He needs us too.
But what does he need us for? What exactly is it that a priest does? Hebrews tells us that the high priest is “put in charge of things pertaining to God” and “offer[s] gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The high priest, it notes, “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since the high priest him- or herself “is subject to weakness,” and Hebrews further mentions how “Jesus offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” According to the letter to the Hebrews, then, the priest cares for others, and the priest does so by being in touch with the self and offering some part of the self up. Jesus, both Isaiah and Mark suggest, went as far as to contribute his whole life as an offering, and in Mark, Jesus urges us to do the same ourselves. “Whoever wishes to become great among you,” he explains, must be “servant of all,” must aim, “not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus says that we must offer ourselves in service to one another. Doing so, we learn, is priestly work.
And if that’s the case, I can tell you that this community does priestly work very well. Week in and week out, I’ve seen all that you do for each other—from visiting those who can’t get to church to helping those who have difficulty moving around get here, from singing with artistry and fervor to dignifying our worship with your dedicated presence in the Altar Party, from caring for our tiniest members in Godly Play and Children’s Worship to laboring for hours for the community’s benefit in painstaking Vestry and Ministry Council meetings, from pulling together extravagant fundraisers to ensuring our coffee hours overflow with delicious sweets, from caring for our aging buildings to filling our sanctuary with beautiful flowers. I’ve also seen you extend your priestly work outward, beyond our walls, reaching to touch those not yet a part of what we do, welcoming newcomers with a smile and a nametag, cooking dinner for homeless women at Inspirica in Stamford, assembling food for those who are hungry, tutoring young, recent immigrants at local schools. You already are a royal priesthood, a holy people. You already know what it’s like to follow Jesus’ commands, to be servants to one another and the world. And I am humbled, every day, to be a small part of who you are and what you do.
But we’re not done yet, and there is more work for us ahead. At the Vestry and Ministry Council meeting yesterday, one member of my small group remarked that despite the immense activity that constantly pervades our church community, we consistently need more volunteers to ease the load of a core group of people that so often shoulders a disproportionate amount of the labor. There’s also the concern Father Lang has been hinting at in our coffee sessions between services the past few weeks—a concern that, though we do so much here, we haven’t always been as good at going out into the world and doing the work of St. Paul’s elsewhere. And there’s the unfortunate reality that our budget is tight—with repeated deficits and no real wiggle room to fund any greater dreams we might have or to ensure our security for the long-term future. Gifts and sacrifices need not always be spiritual; they can be financial too.
This may not be the feel-good message you hoped to receive in church this morning. You probably wanted something to calm your anxious mind, to distract you from the burdens that mercilessly weigh upon you everywhere else. You probably wanted to sit, if only for a moment, right next to Jesus in his glory. But a call to volunteer? A call to think about different ways to serve the larger community? A call to give money? That’s not why you came here. You’re a busy person! You’re stretched enough as it is! It’s all just too challenging, too inconvenient, too much work. Jesus, however, never said it would be easy. Jesus never said you would enjoy every minute. Jesus said you had to be ready to offer something; Jesus said you had to be ready to sacrifice; Jesus said you had to be ready to serve. Offering; sacrifice; service—that’s what it means to follow Jesus. That’s what it means to be a priest.