A Household of Priests
| Psalms 34
1 Peter 2:2-10
|Sun, May 2, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Two o’clock in the morning. The baby’s cries rouse you from a deep sleep. "On schedule" you say as you fall out of bed. Picking her up from the crib her loud cries cease as you move to the rocking chair. There she begins to suckle and to drink the life-giving milk that she longs for ... the milk that satisfies her hunger pangs and nourishes her rapid growth. She longs, also, to be suckled and held close and rocked gently back to sleep. This is the scene, says Peter, each time we gather here to open the Bible to be fed on the Word. He conjures up those Easter mornings in the early church when Christians are immersed in the Baptismal water and, then, newborn are given milk mixed with honey to drink. Milk and honey. Symbol of the Promised Land, God’s Kingdom come, into which they have been born anew. We imagine that it is our children who must be fed on baby food ... sitting on the carpets at the front, acting out the nativity, visiting First United Church ... while we get into the ‘meat’ of the hard questions of Christian faith. Peter imagines something else. Peter imagines that we, too, long for the pure, nourishing mother’s milk of God’s Word. He portrays a community that longs all week for the moment when the Book is opened and the Word is spoken, preached and sung ... a community that longs for the way in which the milk and honey of the ancient story takes away our hunger ... knowing that without such sustenance we cannot possible "grow into salvation" (I Peter 2:2).
The longing is familiar. Not only in us but in every human heart. The longing for the pure milk of God ... the milk of which the Psalmist sings: "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). Yet how often in modern times we create our own ‘formulas’ for growth and nourishment. The modern world devises methods to replace mother’s milk. We invent ‘infant formula’ and then market it in lands where unclean water pollutes it and where poverty-stricken mothers thin it to make it last. And the babies die. Here at home we invent every sort of pleasure and diversion to feed our longing to be filled, to be held, to be loved. Marketers of every stripe fall over one another to tell us that we ‘deserve a break today’ ... that their bottled drink is ‘the real thing’ ... that all we need is a new car and a stretch of country road and we can be like a baby in her mother’s arms. And we who consume these formulas wither and die. These human substitutes, unlike mother’s milk, provide no immunity to the diseases that infect so many ... cynical greed and hardened hearts, compulsive addiction and soul-destroying abuse. This is why we return here ... with our silent cries ... cries in a frequency beyond the range of human hearing ... but well within earshot of a mothering God. The demanding, even desperate cries of an infant at two in the morning ... longing to be fed.
Peter takes this experience of infancy for granted. Nearing the end of the second millennium we find such language strange. The church seems so old, seems always to have been here, seems anything but newborn. Peter speaks to a church newborn: "Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people", he writes, "once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (I Peter 2:10). Peter’s church can see that he is right. They can recall not being a people. They remember the time before they were on the receiving end of mercy. Peter can remember it, too. He can remember the sound of the cock crowing in those early morning hours on a darkened Friday. The bitter taste of denial would still be fresh in his mouth if it were not for the sweet taste of forgiveness that has cleansed his palate, cleansed his life. This pure, sweet milk of grace that restores new lives and sustains this new community.
Peter and the first generation of Christians are not alone in wondering what is taking place in their midst. Others look through these windows on a Sunday morning and think:"There’s the staid old church ... same old same old". Inside looking out, we cannot deny the newness that has caught us by surprise. We, too, have seen the signs of the church’s apparent demise. We chart the declining numbers, the lessening influence, the marginalization of the Christian faith on campus and in the culture. We are led to believe that the church is on its death bed. Yet we are discovering something else ... something totally unexpected ... something that the passing world seems not to see. Namely, that the church ... and us with it ... is in the process of being reborn. We have entered a new world. A world in which we no longer have to shoulder the ‘adult’ burdens of maintaining the moral order of society. The church is no longer the ‘conscience’ of the nation. We are a newborn infant of a church ... not yet sure of our purpose in life ... longing only to be fed and nourished so that we "may grow into salvation".
In the meantime, like Peter, we have "tasted that the Lord is good" (I Peter 2:3). When all is said and done, that is what brings us here. We have tasted the sweet forgiveness of God who has not given up on us in spite of who we are and where we have been and what we have done. Picture that early church as it listens to Peter’s letter read aloud: Jews and non-Jews ... together; women and men ... together; slaves and free ... together. In the world of the 1st Century a suspicious, unlikely and very strange gathering. In Peter’s eyes "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (I Peter 2:9). Peter is not the only one to witness the surprising formation of a church before his own eyes. Martin Luther discovers in this verse the key to the radical reformation of the church. Here he roots the protest against a two-tiered Christianity of those who are priests and those who aren’t. "The priesthood of all believers" becomes the rallying cry of the protests that erupt across Europe ... protests that are the labour pangs of a newborn ‘protestant’ church. To the surprise and dismay of the corrupt caste of priests and bishops and cardinals, Martin Luther actually takes Peter - the first Pope - seriously. He believes that each baptised Christian ... each person who has tasted and seen the transforming grace of God and been reborn by it ... is a priest. To have been saved by grace is to have been chosen by God. Not chosen as better ... not chosen as deserving ... but chosen to bear the news of God’s goodness in one’s whole life.
In one week from this morning, in the ice arena in Castlegar our own Gail Miller and Bill Booth will be among those being ordained as ministers of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care. Notice that they will not be ordained as priests. No. Next Sunday Gail and Bill will be set aside by the church to train, to nourish and to care for priests. That is what we ministers do. We preach the word and break the bread and shepherd the flock of priests. And we baptise - we ordain - priests. But, to be honest, sometimes we forget to remind you that this is what we’re up to! So you can be forgiven if it comes as something of a shock to think of yourself ... to think of this congregation ... as a priest. A priest: one who is a mediator between God and humankind. Priests are ‘go-betweens’. They offer sacrifice on behalf of the people to God ... sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love. They offer prayers, too ... troubled and anxious prayers for healing and for peace. Listen to the ‘Prayers of the People’ and you will hear the voice of a different priest each week speaking on the world’s behalf. But priests also act on behalf of God in the world of people. Priests take confession ... sometimes over coffee, sometimes on the phone, sometimes long into the night ... as you do. Priests can be trusted ... as you are. Priests give their life as an embodiment of the grace of God in the world ... as you will. Because, you see, "you are ... a royal priesthood ... in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (I Peter 2:9).
This is, of course, easier said than done! One minute we are spiritual babes, nursing at our mother’s breast ... the next minute "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". Babies ... and priests!? Like our neighbours we long to taste the goodness of God. Yet, we are priests who have been mysteriously elected to share the bread and the cup of God’s good harvest and vintage with the world. We wonder how it is possible to be both babes in arms and holy priests at the same time. Peter wonders, too. Peter whose name is ‘Petra’ ... ‘Rock’. Peter whose name is filled with irony. Jesus says to Simon: "Your name is Peter and on this rock I will build my church". On this rock. On this rock? This rock who runs at the first test of loyalty. "I don’t know the man", says Peter, "I don’t know him". This rock looks more like sand. On this rock Christ will build his church? Yes. On rock such as this Christ constructs his church. On rock that has been rejected by the builders. On rock that has been taken for sandstone. On lives that are flawed and misshapen. This is what Peter sees when he looks around at the church ... this newly born community of folk who were, until recently, total strangers. They are, you see, like us. They are not ‘the beautiful people’. They are not ‘the elite’ or ‘the educated’ or ‘the best and the brightest’. But they are, like Christ, "chosen and precious in God’s sight" (I Peter 2:4).
Like Christ. This is the key and the cornerstone. Christ is rejected ...considered of no worth by the world, then and now. He is like a stone that the builders set aside as unusable. Yet, in the wisdom of God, he has become the corner on which the whole household rests ... the keystone in the arch which keeps the whole from collapsing in on itself. This unlikely stone, this human Christ, who was crucified and left for dead ... this is the one whom is "chosen and precious in God’s sight". And if God’s household can be founded on a rejected cornerstone then surely God can make good use of sandstone lives like Peter’s ... and mine ... and yours. This is precisely what Peter urges the church to come to trust. Trust that your life ... our life ... is worthy, that God is constructing something useful and precious from this odd collection of peculiar lives. Bring your life, says Peter, as misshapen and out of square as it is ... and allow it to become a part of the whole: "Come to him, a living stone ... and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house" (I Peter 2:4-5). Living stones? Spiritual houses? Peter continues to mix strange metaphors. Then you recall that there is something that can make a house a home ... something can transform the bricks and mortar, the boards and nails of a house into the ‘spiritual home’ of a family. There are houses ... classrooms ... offices ... and churches that are interchangeable boxes, forgotten as soon as we move on. Then are the homes and rooms and sacred spaces that we never forget ... the addresses etched forever in our minds. This is the kind of household that Peter would have us long to become. A peculiar congregation of people whose life appears flawed and unworthy. Yet, on closer inspection, a household whose open doors welcome the world’s outcast and prodigal children home. A royal household of ‘living stones’ that even the oldest and wisest long for ... the way an infant longs for its mother’s milk.
Suckling infants. Royal priesthood. Living stones. In the middle of the week, overwhelmed by Peter’s collage of images and wondering how they could be made to fit into the narrative flow of a sermon, I called for help. I sent out a distress signal over my email network of fellow preachers. And on Thursday night a note arrives from Mike in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. He writes: "The need for hope in places like Littleton, Colorado <and Tabor, Alberta> makes me think of children who once suckled but now are thrust out of their innocence and into the darkness ... the darkness of a world that desperately needs a royal priesthood that can show the way to being reconciled with a Heavenly Parent ... a priesthood that proclaims the mighty acts of the one who calls out of that darkness and into his marvellous light."
Then, an unexpected email arrives from Littleton, Colorado. It is from the pastor of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. Abiding Hope. Can there be a more appropriate name for a household of ‘living stones’ in such a grief-stricken community? Pastor Barger is grateful for the hundreds of messages of concern that are now posted in the church narthex for the youth and community to read .. .and one cannot help but think that they are messages from God’s royal priesthood. He describes the scared and grieving young people who finally escaped their bullet-ridden school physically uninjured but traumatized and often ignored in the rush to aid the physically wounded. One senses that they long for the spiritual milk that can nourish famished souls. He ends by writing: "Ever since our service for the community last Wednesday night, my prayer has been the third verse of our opening hymn:
Cure your children’s warring madness, bend our pride to your control.
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage lest we miss your kingdom’s goal"
And you realize that it is a prayer on behalf of the whole earth ... offered by a household of priests ... priests who, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good, have become God’s chosen messengers of abiding hope in the world. Priests like us, perhaps. Yes, priests like us.