The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2018

You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:6)

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As many of you know I once served in a large morning prayer parish attached to a school where I also had the privilege of teaching.  One of the things that happens in parishes with schools is that there’s a broadening of community--there are folks who come to church, and then there are folks who come to school and the requisite chapel services--and then there is a smaller subset of folks who do both. 

And all of those constituencies think of the church as their own.  “This is my church,” folks will say. 

And that sort of identification with a sacred place, with a building, is a good and holy thing--but sometimes it gets separated off from time and space and from the actual community, the Body of Christ, that we’d think of as Church…  And sometimes it leads to some complicated situations, as you might imagine.

Part of my work was often when an old family would come back--that is, someone who had been to the school but hadn’t been a parishioner at the church--when someone like this would come back for a wedding or a funeral, I would often get to work with them to plan the wedding or funeral--and often, because I served both in the church and school, I could make a connection--and smooth out any rough edges--and make sure the planning and the service went well for all involved--the old family--and the current parishioners and staff.

One time this didn’t work as smoothly as I’d hoped.

The granddaughter of an old family came to be married at the church; her grandmother and great uncle had been students in the school, and this was, for an unchurched family, the very best semblance of the church that they could think of--this beautiful building, with an excellent address, that would look so very good in pictures, after all.  And as the planning went on, I got to meet the grandmother, and the great uncle, and we had time to reminisce with them about the wonderful experience they’d had in the school, the warm memories they had.  And everything was a warm and lovely walk down memory lane until the grandmother brought me up short, as she asked, “Now, who are you?”  And I explained that I was, in fact, the priest who would be officiating the marriage between her granddaughter and her intended! 

The grandmother, a very elegant woman indeed, tall and slender, wrinkled her aquiline nose and looked ever so slightly down it at me, questioning, “But what, indeed, is a priest?”  I stumbled, choked a bit, sat there in my cassock and collar wondering what to say to this woman who had just told me her favorite hymns in the 1940 hymnal, thinking that surely she was making a joke, or trying to make me laugh, but no.  As I gazed into her eyes I realized she was taken aback--that she really didn’t know what I meant.  And so I sputtered something about how a priest was a bearer of sacrament, that I preached and taught and celebrated Holy Communion and marriages and…  Then she cut me off and rather helpfully interjected, “When I was in school, we had ministers.  Mr Van der Hoff--he was our minister!  He was a wonderful man!  Whatever happened to all the ministers?”

Whatever happened to all the  ministers indeed.

We can wax on about the Anglo Catholic triumph that is the 1979 prayer book, a book that I’m quite fond of and that I’ve used for all my priestly ministry.

But her question is an interesting one--and I think it was, for her, quite earnest.  Or at least I’m choosing to believe so.  And it might even be a good question for us to ask ourselves.

What, indeed, is a priest?

We hear in the epistle to the Hebrews today the verse, referring to Jesus, “You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” (5:6)  But who is Melchizidek?

If you remember the more obscure bits of Hebrew scripture in Genesis, you may recall a victory by Abram--before he’s called Abraham--against Eastern rulers who had taken Abram’s nephew Lot and his family and belongings.  Abram and his allies prevailed against the invaders, reclaiming his family and his property, and he returned to the valley of Shaveh, where “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of [El Elyon] God Most High.  He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Genesis 14:18-20)

What we receive in this passage is the image of a priest as one who mediates relationship--who we might say even bears sacraments, bears blessings.  Melchizedek blesses Abram on behalf of El Elyon, the Most High God, and Melchizedek on behalf of Abram blesses God. 

This certainly fits with what we think of as priest--someone who makes the appointed sacrifices, who blesses and gives blessing, who mediates the relationship of the holy and the profane, all on behalf of God Most High. 

Your former interim, my dean, Fr Joseph Britton used to remind us to remember our ABC’s.  Those, Joe said, were the only reasons priests were ordained--to absolve, to bless, and to consecrate the sacraments.  And that makes sense.  Those are the only things bound only to the priestly order by ordination.

But if we’re too slavish in our understanding of what it is to be priest, we can end up subjugating the priesthood to a quasi-professional role.  Priests are strange things with collars that come out of their enclosures to perform mysterious sacramental rites.  The model of priest as professional can go so far that priesthood, like religion, can become separated from our broader lives--tucked back in a corner, a boutique service to visit for weddings and funerals.  I suspect that’s what was going on with our grandmother in the earlier story, and if you haven’t noticed this phenomenon yourself, remind me to tell you the story of how, after a pastoral interaction, and as smooth as if he’d been thanking the maître d’ for a good table at a fine restaurant, palmed me a hundred.

Our focus on priest as profession can sometimes lose track of the main goal of all of what we do as the Body of Christ--the spread of the good news of God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ--and can pull us away from the truth of whose job that is.

Last week Martin Seely, the bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich in the Church of England, gave the Cheney Lecture at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.  Bishop Martin took as his topic the purpose and nature of theological education.  Digging deep into the history of the Christian movement, Martin suggested that the entirety of theological formation, from the beginning of the Christian era, has always been about the education and formation of the Body of Christ--that is, of all the baptized--in the story of Jesus.  That is to say, everything we write, and preach, and teach, and do is all and only about helping people--the holy people of God--to know Jesus better--so that they may make his love known in all the world.

I found this an immensely helpful reminder--and it’s something we talked about in our acolyte quiet day yesterday.  Everything we do--the liturgy, the music, the prayers, the Sunday forum, the newsletter, the preaching, Church School for children, and even coffee hour--all of it is to help all of us--you and me and the person sitting next to you and even the person who’s not here this Sunday--all of it is to help us come to know Jesus better.  To know the story of God’s incarnate love.  Of God’s salvation for us and for all of Creation.  And to share the story of how we’ve come to know Jesus’s love with the whole world. 

That’s it.  That’s all we’re doing here.

Of course theological education is about all the baptized--because all of the baptized--all of us, you and I together--are part of the Body of Christ.  We die to sin and self and everything else in our baptisms, as Christ has died in his crucifixion.  And we rise with him, joined to him, in our baptisms--out of the waters of the open font as he rose and left the empty tomb--rising to inhabit the world, to fill it with his holy presence, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

So, too, we rise--to carry Christ’s presence into the world.  Fed with the Body of Christ here at the altar, we leave, the Body of Christ, to go into the streets of New Haven, to carry the love of Christ to all whom we meet.

For if Christ is made a high priest, according to the order of Melchizedek, then we too are joined with Christ, through his death and resurrection, through our death and new life found in the waters of our baptism.  We, too, brothers and sisters, are all priests according to the order of Melchizedek--blessing God, and carrying God’s blessing into the world.

Yes, there is a difference in the work that Fr Carlos, Mtr Kathryn, Fr Kent, Fr Ken, and Fr Bob and I are called to do.  We are particular priests that absolve, bless, and consecrate.  But all of us together—you and I and your priests—are the priesthood of all believers--the Body of Christ, who is the great high priest, moving in the world.

What might that look like?

I was immensely pleased that Bishop Martin’s talk dovetailed with another paper--one of three really good papers given at the Society of Catholic Priests conference in Manhattan three weeks ago.  (The papers will be published in an upcoming issue of the Sewanee Theological Review.  Keep an eye out.)  All of the papers were good and helpful.  But the really provocative idea was one raised by Bishop Neil Alexander, the dean of the seminary at Sewanee, an Episcopal school in Tennessee, and coincidentally my diocesan bishop when I was ordained here in Christ Church.  Bishop Neil reminded us that ordination, the thing that makes a deacon, bishop, or priest, comes from our baptism--that the work of the diaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate--the work of deacons, bishops, and priests--is just three specialized, particularly ordained orders--but that all people have holy work to which they are called by God.

What is the thing you’ve been ordained by God to do?  Perhaps it’s teach, or heal, or make things, or deliver things.  Maybe it’s to make music to delight God and God’s creation.  Perhaps it’s to be an outside impartial observer and listener--to help organizations do the work the people in them are called to do more effectively.  Perhaps it’s to encourage, or to speak truth to power, or to raise up the lowly.  Perhaps it’s to minister to a family, or a loved one, or a community in need.  All of these things, and many more, may be the work that’s ordained for you to do--or the work that you enjoy right now, for this moment. 

But all of us share in the one great work of our lives--to tell the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ with the world.

If you’re unsure of who can bear Christ to the world, let me share a story that Mtr Margaret Gunter tells in her book Holy Listening.  Mtr Margaret tells of a time when she was ministered to by an unexpected person—a time when she met Christ on the C train:

It had been a long day, filled with intense conversations and other people’s pain.  I didn’t want to talk to anybody, and I certainly didn’t want to listen to anybody…  I was off duty and looking forward to the anonymity of the subway, to immersing myself in my paperback.  Then a shabby, disheveled, not very clean woman sat down beside me.  I thought, “How can I escape?  She’s already eyeing my clerical collar; she’s spotted me for a soft touch.”  Sure enough, “How are you, sister?”  Then the words rushed out.  In a matter of minutes, I seem to have heard the story of her life, her struggle with addiction, her hopes for a new beginning in a rehabilitation center.  I knew that I wasn’t off duty, after all, so I said what I thought were the right things and felt very holy to be so kind.  When she got ready to leave, I knew she was going to ask for money and assure me that it was for nourishing food, not drugs.  I went through my inner argument: should I, shouldn’t I come up with a quarter, maybe two quarters?  Then, as she stood up, she leaned close to me and pressed a subway token into my hand.  “God bless you, sister.”  And she was gone.[1]

That woman had borne blessing for her. She had been a priest of our most high God. And friends, you are priests, according to the order of Melchizedek.  We are the Body of Christ, those ordained as the apostles were to take the good news of God’s love out into the highways and byways, the subways and the underpasses, the homes and the concert halls, the shelters and the hospitals of our place and time.  We are the ones who have been called.  Will we answer?

And lest you think this is easy work, I assure you it will take our whole lives.  Over and over we will come back to our baptisms.  Over and over again we will come to this altar to receive again the Body of Christ. 

When Abram met Melchizedek and received God’s blessing--when Melchizedek and Abram blessed God--Abram gave a thank offering of 10% of all that he had--a tithe.  That’s what that word means.

Will we offer our own lives, our own talents, our own financial gifts--to God?  Will we give our lives as the priesthood of all believers to take the message of God’s love into the world?

We are the unlikely priests that he has called, you and I. 

Let us come to this altar, to be fed once again with the Body and Blood of our Lord.

Let us go forth in the name of Christ to love and serve.

And let us never forget that all that we do here -- all that we do with our whole lives--is to spread the love of God to all whom we meet.

In the name of our Most High God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.  +

[1] Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: the Art of Spiritual Direction. Plymouth (UK): Cowley/Roman & Littlefield, 1992.