I rarely write out an entire sermon, prefering to make an outline to use when I speak. However, this past Sunday I chose to compose the entire sermon. Even with that, I often depart from my own script to make editorial comments. I doubt I will ever be able to read a sermon through from beginning to end when I preach.
Before we get to my sermon, here's a link to a documentary called Transmen about transgender issues in Tennessee (look for the March 1st posting). I was interviewed for it and appear in this trailer. Tiffany Gibson from Middle Tennessee State University has created it, and it looks like she has done a great job. Can't wait to see the whole thing.
The Priesthood and Prophethood of the Believer
Even though Unitarian Universalism has evolved far beyond our Christian roots, there are some principles that have great value for us today. While Christianity has much to answer for, there is also much good. Is this not true of any human endeavor? Today I want to share how the offices of priest and prophet apply to modern Unitarian Universalists.
In the days before the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church taught that priests (the clergy) were intercessors between the people (the laity) and God. In fact, this is still the official doctrine today, though many within the church don’t believe it. Sins had to be confessed to priests, who in turn had the power to prescribe acts of penance, and more impressively had the power to forgive sins. Since it was evident to even the most ardent Catholics that there were bad priests, the church even had to develop a doctrine that sins were really forgiven by a priest regardless of the priest’s personal piety or beliefs. A priest could actually be an unbeliever, merely pretending to be a good Christian for economic or personal gain, but the power to forgive sins was still there, due to the power of the office.
Priests could officiate at communion and had the power to administer communion, performing the rites that turned bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. Christians who partook of this communion had all their sins forgiven (up to that point in time). Again, the actual morality or belief of the priest was irrelevant.
But with this power of the priest came oppression and corruption. People were forced to believe church doctrine under threat of death, and corruption was rampant. Many Christians bridled under this arrogance, and finally a reformation began.
In 1520, three years after he nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Martin Luther wrote:
If they [Rome] recognize this [that we are all priests] they would know that they have no right to exercise power over us except insofar as we may have granted it to them, for thus it says in 1 Peter 2, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom." In this way we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians. There are indeed priests whom we call ministers. They are chosen from among us, and who do everything in our name. That is a priesthood which is nothing else than the Ministry.
How similar this is to our fifth principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Martin Luther argues that ministers are chosen by the people and act in the name of the people. This is a radical departure from the hierarchal organization of the Roman church. In fact, it would be fair to draw parallels between the American Revolution and the Reformation. In one instance the people wanted representative democracy; in another they wanted representative ministers. There would be no Pope, no High Priest, no church hierarchy that would dictate to the local congregation what they must believe or who must be their priest.
Another aspect of the priesthood of the believer that applies to us today is the idea that no one stands between us and God. We may define God differently today and may not believe in a theistic or personal God at all, but the principle remains. No one stands between you and the Devine, the sacred, the unknown. No one speaks for you or clears the path for you. No one makes you right with the universe. It is true that Martin Luther was no lover of heretics, and would have little love for Unitarian Universalism. But the principles of the Reformation are the seeds from which the Free Church and our liberal religion grew.
The final point to make here is that there is no special class of people who are closer to God, more spiritual, or more righteous than the rest. The distinction between the sacred and the secular, between priests and lay people, was simply one more way to elevate one group over another and thus grant power to the elite. Ministers were viewed differently than Catholic priests; they were merely people chosen by the congregation to serve, and were not inherently better or possessing special spiritual authority. All Christians were priests! We would do well to remember this even today. Ministers are merely people chosen by the congregation for specific roles in the church. Whenever a religion or denomination sets its religious leaders up as something special, trouble is sure to follow.
Odds are if I asked you to name a prophet, you’d think of someone who claimed to be able to foretell the future. Nostradamus often comes to mind. Biblical prophets like Daniel (of the Lion’s Den fame) or Elijah or even the Muslim Prophet Mohammed are examples. But there is far more to being a prophet than foretelling the future; in fact, that is not even a required part of the job description. Rather, a prophet is one who speaks the words of God, or one who speaks for God.
Prophets spent most of their time calling people back to God and away from a life of sin or worshipping false gods. They would call leaders, both political and religious, to task for their sins. They often warned of God’s judgment unless the people repented and turned back to God. Let me tell you a story about a prophet you probably haven’t heard of.
King David, the second king of Israel and most famous for slaying Goliath, was walking on the roof of his palace one spring afternoon (this story is from 2nd Samuel 11 and 12). This was the time of year that kings went to battle, yet David was home instead of out fighting with his armies. As he looked down on the surrounding homes, he saw a beautiful woman bathing. He sent messengers to get her, they committed adultery, and she returned home. Later she sent news to David that she was pregnant.
Bathsheba was married to Uriah, who was in the army and was off fighting. David, realizing he was in a pickle, sent for Uriah. When Uriah arrived, he asked how the people were faring and how the war was going. He then told Uriah to go home and get cleaned up. But Uriah would not go home, and slept at the entrance to the palace.
David was understandably perturbed. He needed to get Uriah to go home and have sex with Bathsheba, so she could pass the baby off as Uriah’s. But Uriah told David that he would not go home while his fellow soldiers were at war. So David had Uriah attend a feast and got him drunk, hoping this would get Uriah in the mood. But alas, Uriah, even when inebriated, refused to go home.
The next day David wrote a letter to Joab, the commander of the Army, and sent it back with Uriah. In the letter, David told Joab to place Uriah in the area of the hardest fighting, and then to pull back from him so he would be killed. Joab complied, Uriah was killed, and as soon as the period of mourning was over, David married her. Problem solved.
But now a prophet enters the picture. Nathan is sent by God to confront David. Nathan tells David a sad story. A poor man had only one ewe lamb. He raised it up along with his children, he kept it fed even though he was poor; it slept with the family, and was loved like a daughter. Nearby, a rich man with many flocks had a visitor. The rich man wanted to prepare a nice meal for his guest, but did not want to kill one of his own animals, so he took the poor man’s lamb and killed it instead.
David was enraged! This man deserves to die! He shall give the poor man four lambs!
“You are the Man!” cries Nathan, who then pronounces judgment on David. The baby shall die, and the sword shall never depart from David’s house. David firstborn son Amnon eventually rapes his sister. Another son of David, Absalom, murders Amnon, and eventually leads a rebellion against David. Things are never good in David’s home again.
Nathan as a prophet was speaking out against injustice. While there was also an element of foretelling the future, the main point is that he confronts a great evil. He spoke the words of justice and condemnation of evil. This is the act of prophecy.
James Luther Adams, perhaps the most pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist theologian, writes:
We have long held to the idea of the priesthood of all believers . . . We need also a firm belief in the prophethood of all believers. The prophetic liberal church is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to the few. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in light of their faith. . . all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history instead of being pushed around by it. Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.
To Adams, prophecy is essentially speaking against evil, and for a better, more just future. This is a definition I think most in our church would be comfortable with. It is certainly an aspect of ministry that we talk a great deal about in seminary. I am afraid that some people focus solely on this, seeing themselves as a modern Nathan, accusingly pointing their finger and pronouncing judgment. But notice what Adams says. It is a common responsibility of persons who think and work together. Each of us is involved. It is not the role of the minister to do this alone; it is the role of everyone.
If we are to take seriously the idea that we are each a priest and a prophet, then we should leave here knowing and believing the following:
1. No one stands between us and the divine, no one tells us which spiritual path to take. You, and you alone, are responsible for your search. In this, no one is your master!
2. Ministers are representatives of the congregation, not of a larger power structure. Any authority a minister has is given by the congregation, and can be taken away. Ministry is representative, not authoritarian. There is no room for elitism in ministry.
3. As prophets, we must speak for the future. We must care about the next generation, the health of our world, and the ecosystem that gives us life. We must try to shape history, not be kicked around by history.
4. Each of us has a prophetic responsibility. This can be done at the simple level of interaction with friends, neighbors, and family. While we individually struggle to know how best to live our lives, we also struggle collectively each time we come together. We must never stop thinking about justice or about the future we are creating today. We can never abdicate our role in this process.
With that I encourage you to go forth and live as priests and as prophets. Take seriously the responsibilities of our faith. Through the sacrifices of many, we are free to think for ourselves. Through the love of this congregation, we may freely share our thoughts and hopes. Through our deeds and our writings, through our lives and our words, as priests and prophets, may we work diligently for a better world.
Amen and Blessed Be
Paco and Abby are both available for adoption. Seems like Paco has been here forever, and he is quite a loving dog, though still with some fear issues. Abby is ten years old, and would be very happy as the only dog in the house. She does not like sharing her people with other dogs.