For our Revelation passage this morning, “To him who loves us…made us to be a kingdom, priests serving our God…be all glory and dominion…” I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about priesthood lately—what it means to be a priest, what are the functions of a priest, why are priests important, and what sets priest apart from everyone else?
This past week, on November 17th, I celebrated my third anniversary of ordained ministry. Three years ago, I was ordained a transitional deacon at the Washington National Cathedral, along with three other people from the Diocese of Washington. And while it was a picture-perfect day, being surrounded by my family and classmates, in the massive and beautiful worship space of the cathedral, this year I found myself reflecting more on the day before, November 16th. That day started out rough… re-reading the informational email I had received from the WNC staff about the rehearsal to make sure I wasn’t missing anything—“the rehearsal will be promptly at 9:00am—DO NOT BE LATE. We will start without you. There is much to go over, and your presence and attention is needed for this service to be a success!” This set the tone for the morning. Here I am, already nervous and anxious about officially saying “yes” to God’s call—in front of hundreds of people, in the most famous house of worship in the country, desperate to hear any words of comfort—and the liturgical staff of the cathedral were all business. Once there, this is what I heard…“Follow me, sit there, stand up, come over here, DON’T bring your bulletin with you, kneel—remember the importance and weight of this moment—look reverent, stop smiling, take this seriously, you only have one chance to do this right.” While I may be exaggerating just a tad, and the staff does amazing job of executing beautiful liturgies, but by the end of the rehearsal, I not only needed a hug, but I was questioning whether I wanted to be a part of a church so devoid of feeling, love, and care—a church that seemed to only care about the business at hand.
That God for Bishop Mariann Budde. She had not been present at the rehearsal (and still to this day wonder how it would have been different if she had been). Instead, she was at her house preparing for us, the ordination candidates, to come for an afternoon retreat. Talk about two totally different worlds—we had just left the cathedral that felt cold and overwhelming, and now we were in a gorgeous, wooded neighborhood in a warm cozy house set up just for us to be comfortable. Our time together began with prayer, then a meal, and then a question… “when did you know?” Bishop Mariann went on to say, “Tomorrow I will lay my hands on your head—I will ritualize and ordain you, but you are already priests. So, tell me the story, tell the moment you knew you were already a priest…when did you know?”
One of my favorite books is William Countryman’s “Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All.” According to Countryman, we are all priests, and must of his theology comes from our Revelation passage this morning—the one where the audience hear themselves described as priests, here to help God’s reign and glory be known here on earth—for us as priests to assist in making God’s kingdom a reality. God has made us all priests—newsflash/surprise, you are all priests! The book goes on to share that we are priests because we are human beings made in God’s image, born into this world to carry out our common fundamental priesthood. But as priests, we much first figure out what it means to be a priest by experiencing the Holy in what Countryman refers to as the “borderland”. After knowing the Divine by visiting, and then continuing to live in the borderland, we use Christ’s life as an example to live out our life as a priest.
What is the borderland you may be asking? It is where our awareness increases…it is where we don’t fully understand…where our perspectives expand and change. The borderland is the place where we learn the fullness and totality of God’s creation and understanding the need that exists in the world. Countryman urges us to look at Jesus’ life as an example, because while he was the product of a culture and society influenced by Roman rule and oppression, he also lived most of his time in the borderland—with widows, the sick, the suffering…those desperate to be shown love. Jesus operated in two worlds and so do we—one is the world we all know…the one that cares only for the bottom line, the one that’s all business, the one that operates out of fear and scarcity, and the one ruled by empire, BUT the other world shows the seeds and buds of the growing Kingdom of God—the one where the Jesus’ love flows freely, regardless of difference—the one where justice and equity are of the highest importance—the one where the priests know God’s will and continue to build on what God intended—and the one where Jesus is King and ruler of all.
Yes, today is Christ the King Sunday, a Sunday set aside to remind us of how Jesus has already conquered the evils of this world, and now rules out of love, acceptance, and servanthood. Christ is ruler over Jesus’ kingdom, and Christ is the priest over all other priests. As our ruler and leader, Jesus—and the way he lived his life—is the primary source of how we as priests should be living our lives. Jesus went against the grain—he was counter-cultural—he thought about things differently—he was the embodiment of love—but I wonder when he knew…when did he know he was a priest? I wonder when he knew it was more important to listen and care for the least of these, instead of keeping the powerful happy…I wonder when he knew it was better to turn over tables, instead of allowing a human institution to take advantage of the less fortunate…I wonder when he knew it was better to react to violence with love, instead of more hate and revenge…I wonder when he realized that giving life—through healing, relationships, love, understanding, connection, compassion, forgiveness—is more important than taking life. Whenever he realized it, he knew that acting out of love was always better than acting out of hate and fear.
We are living in two worlds—the world of priests and the world of warriors. The world of warriors is ruled by warriors…is the world we know too well—the world where fear and hate rule the day, and injustice often takes the seat of actual justice. But the priestly world is ruled by our Creator and Savior—our head priest—and it is a world full of priests—a world full of God’s creation who know and understand the ways of love and aren’t afraid to go against the grain.
God’s vision for us is to live in one world, but God needs more priests, not more warriors, for God’s vision to come true. All of you are part of the fundamental priesthood, priests made to help bring the reign of God. Countryman would label me, a sacramental priest, but he is very clear about the hierarchy—the sacramental priest is part of the fundamental priesthood, and it is the fundamental priesthood that is more important! But specific to my role as a sacramental priest is similar to Jesus’ role as chief priest—to remind you who you are and to points you toward the living out of you priesthood.
Like Jesus, the fundamental priesthood views things differently—we think and act differently—and that includes all aspects of our Christian life, including the way we keep time. Today is the church’s version of New Year’s Eve—it’s the end our church year and next week begins Advent, when we liturgically say Happy New Year. But instead of popping champagne and partying all night long—we wait…we pray…we long…and we remember. The theme for Advent this year is “Longing” and the idea is that we will use this time to intentionally slow down and name for ourselves what it is we are longing for. But, as your priest—your sacramental priest—I want to remind you of your fundamental priesthood. I want you to remember your role and your calling from God, and that this world needs you to be a priest and not a warrior—to act differently from the rest of the world and to bring God’s reign and glory here on earth.
It is easy to get lost in the chaos and chatter and noise all around us—to feel like the world is messed up to remember that God is still present… “stand up, sit up, don’t go over there, those people don’t deserve your attention, you can handle life on your own, only look out for yourself… not guilty on all accounts.”
But we, as Christians—as priests—view things differently. We know who we are and whose we are…we know that love is always the answer.
So, in the midst of your “longing” in the weeks ahead, I hope you by the time we welcome the coming of our savior on Christmas day, that you will also be able to confidently answer the question, “when did you know?”