A Holy Priesthood

Excerpts from Exodus 28
October 29, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Wow, as I listen to the long descriptions of the priestly garments that God orders Aaron to wear, I can’t help but think, “I’m glad I am a Protestant minister and not an Israelite priest. Those robes must have been sweltering in the desert heat, not to mention the sheer weight of all of those stones on the shoulders of the ephod and jewels on the breastplate.” The elaborate descriptions of the priest’s vestments may baffle and bore us here in Exodus but these descriptions were important to the Israelites because the priest’s clothing was understood to be a visual reflection of the brilliance and the glory of the God he was approaching, and just as importantly, these garments were to hide the frailty and mediocrity of the human priests wearing them. The Israelites knew that no person was pure enough to stand unashamed in the presence of the most holy God and so like Adam and Eve in the garden, the priest was to cover himself before God, and the covering he was to wear was to be made of precious jewels that bore the names of all of the tribes of Israel. In other words, when the priest stepped into the tabernacle, symbolically all of Israel stepped in with him. What seems like a tedious account of clerical style here in Exodus 28 is actually a description of the relationship between God and the people and the clergy that assist in that encounter.

Ministers don’t often preach about the purpose of the clergy maybe because we are afraid that if we aren’t convincing enough we might preach ourselves right out of a job. Some traditions have in fact decided that professional clergy are not necessary to a life of faith: there are house churches that rotate the leadership of worship among their members, the Amish select their ministers by lot from the community, and the Society of Friends (Quakers) allow anyone moved by the Spirit to speak the Word in worship. Moreover, the very early church didn’t have professional clergy: each congregation met in the home of a patron and appointed a number of men and women to provide care, teaching, and spiritual help to one another. It wasn’t until the second or third generation of Christians, when they realized that Jesus wasn’t coming back immediately, that the church began to appoint official ministers and even bishops to lead the congregations. It is quite possible then, to have a worshipping church without a designated pastoral authority which begs the question: why am I here?

At the end of this sermon, I will come back to that question and what this passage may tell us about the answer, but before I talk about that, first I want to talk about why you are here. What does it mean to be a Christian and what is the role and the purpose of a congregation in helping you to live the Christian life?

A friend of mine told me a story of a time that he had stopped to help a woman with a flat tire. After the tire was fixed, the woman thanked my friend, and then said, “You have been so polite, nice, and helpful. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

My friend, because he is polite, said, “Sure. What is it?”

The woman said, “Are you a Christian?” and then she continued, “You just seem so nice that I thought you must be a Christian.”

My friend was a bit taken aback so he laughed and said, “It’s because I’m half Canadian!” but when she pressed him, he acknowledged that in fact, he does go to church. The woman was delighted and said, “Oh, I just knew that such a polite young man must be a Christian,” and she then spent several minutes sharing her thoughts about how Jesus turns out such nice people, until my friend finally interrupted and said that he had to be on his way. What he didn’t want to tell her was that he had been growing increasingly uncomfortable during the conversation.

“One of my colleagues is a Muslim,” he told me, “and he too is polite and unfailingly helpful. And I have several atheist friends who would have changed her tire without a second thought. Do Christians have a monopoly on kindness? Besides,” he added, “if simply being polite is the earmark of a Christian, it seems to me to be a very low standard for faith.”

My friend didn’t mean to suggest that Christians shouldn’t be kind — I would certainly hope that as Christians, the least we can do is treat one another with kindness — but my friend is right in saying that to be a Christian means more than just being a nice person. To be a Christian means to place Christ at the center of your life and make his teachings the organizing principle for all you do. It is to see yourself as an ambassador not just of simple human kindness but of Christ’s grace which is a powerful and challenging compassion that insists on going places that even nice people may be reluctant to go. While the politely pious of Christ’s day treated their neighbors with charity, they showered scorn on the prostitutes and the unclean because nice people don’t hang around with prostitutes, but Christ’s grace embraced those sinners and welcomed them into fellowship with him. While the religiously upright may have been nice to their fellow Jews, they despised the Samaritans as dangerous foreigners, but Christ’s grace challenged the xenophobia of the perfectly religious and said that the Samaritan was closer to heaven than they were. Jesus wasn’t just nice; he was extravagant in his grace. He insisted on such consistent compassion for all people that it made the righteous uncomfortable and upset the polite status quo. And Christ called us, his followers, to do the same. Christ isn’t particularly worried about whether you are a nice polite person because when you insist on showing Christ’s face of grace to everyone regardless of race, religion, sexuality, income, educational level, political affiliation, personality type, or fashion sense, you may be judged by polite society to be a difficult troublemaker who is always rocking the boat.

We must be careful not to reduce the Christian life to being nice. Christ wasn’t crucified because he was too nice a guy; he was crucified because he refused to reserve his compassion and grace for the polite and the acceptable, the orderly and the respectful. His grace was for all people — for you and me and that person over there that we really just cannot stand and if we are honest are a little disgusted by — even for them. Being nice is about who you are, but being Christian is about who Christ is and about our call to show Christ’s face of grace to all people.

A woman on an online blog shared a story of a conversation she had with her four year old son about his faith. After talking about what he had learned in Sunday School that day, the mother asked her son,

“Benji, would you like to have Jesus in your heart?”

Benji thought for a few minutes and then rolling his blue eyes answered, “No. I don’t think I want the responsibility.”

This charge we have taken on is a lot of responsibility but we know from the experiences of life that nothing worth doing is going to be easy. If you want to play an instrument, you have to be willing to give up hours and hours of your week to practice. If you want to have fulfilling relationships, you can’t just take them for granted: you have to learn how to listen to your spouse, how to discipline your children with wisdom, and how to sometimes compromise your own needs for the sake of others. Nothing worth doing is easy and that’s why we need the church. You can certainly serve Christ without joining a congregation — you don’t need to be here to be a Christian — but having a church under your feet can keep you steady when you are in danger of falling and can keep you moving straight ahead when the peculiarities of your own personality threaten to drag you off into some weird side alley of belief that benefits no one, let alone God. We all have our eccentricities and the church helps to temper us sometimes as well as encourage us in our faith.

Before God says one word about priestly garments and what color Aaron’s robes will be when he stands in the tabernacle, back there when the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai, God pointed a finger at the whole congregation and said, “You are my priests. I choose you. I call you. You are the ones who will show the holiness of my grace to the world.”

Or in the words of I Peter 2, “Come to Christ the living stone… let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”

So, you are here because God calls you to make your life into a vessel of God’s grace, to create a life that is worthwhile, and good, and holy, and because here in this church you hope that you will be better able to stay consistent to that calling with the help of these people: they will support you when you fall, teach you when you need to learn, correct you when your ideas get a little bit peculiar, and enliven you once again when your spirit threatens to wither and die.

That’s why you are here.

And I, as your minister, am here simply to try to help all of that to happen.

When Aaron steps into the tabernacle arrayed in his ephod of linen and his breastplate encrusted with jewels, all of those stones are engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel. Aaron carries the names of the Israelites on his shoulders to symbolize the responsibility that the priest bears for the people. In other words, if a congregation fails to express God’s witness to the world, the priest, or for Protestants, the minister, must shoulder the responsibility of that failure. The minister can’t stand before God and say, “You know, it wasn’t me! It was the people’s fault. I wanted to be a witness to Christ but it was the people who chose to be insulated, selfish, and stubborn.” The minister’s job is to remind the congregation of their calling as a church and take responsibility for ensuring that those choices fulfill the church’s mission and covenant with Christ. Aaron, however, also carried the names of Israel fixed to his breastplate, over his heart, the seat of compassion to show that the way in which the minister fulfills that calling is not through standing over and above the congregation but by standing with them in compassion. The minister encourages the people in their service, helps them to believe in their gifts of the spirit, supports their efforts in their own ministries, and tends the flames of grace.

When I was in seminary, one of the assignments we were given was to symbolically draw our understanding of the relationship between the minister and the congregation. I drew a group of people each engaged in individual tasks of service but bound together by string representing, as the hymn says, the ties that bind. And then I drew myself as the minister with these huge glasses walking around the group inspecting the string to make sure everything was holding together.

I was 23 at the time I drew that, fresh out of college and having never stepped into the pulpit, and if you asked me to draw that assignment today, I’d draw exactly the same thing. I don’t have a monopoly on Christianity. I don’t have the inside track to salvation. I don’t have the keys to heaven to dangle in front of you insisting you do things my way or I won’t let you in. We are in this together and when I stand in this pulpit, or sit at the table of communion, or hike around town in the rain with our kids collecting coins for UNICEF, I carry you all with me. Your job is to follow Christ, the church’s job is to support you in that charge, and my job as your minister is simply to stand back a little and check the lines to make sure that we are still holding it together in this holy calling!

A church in California called Grace Community Church believes that the pastor’s job is to equip the saints for ministry and they embrace that idea so wholeheartedly that when a reporter described the church in an article, he called it “the church of 900 ministers.” The people say, “If you want to be comfortable as a mere spectator, Grace Church is not the church for you.”

The Union University Church may not have 900 ministers, but I hope that we have 70-80. All you have to do is listen to our announcement time to know that if you came here to be a spectator, this is not the church for you. We are a spiritual house, a holy priesthood. This church isn’t about me and it isn’t about you; it’s about Christ. Let us stand before God bearing the names of one another on our shoulders and on our hearts so that through us, Christ’s grace made me made real in the world.