Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?
Sometime in the 12th century, this phrase, or something like unto it, was reputedly said by King Henry II to his courtiers. They interpreted it as a command to murder Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been challenging the king in matters of property and legal authority.
In contemporary usage, the phrase serves to remind political leaders that their wishes may reasonably be interpreted as commands by subordinates. So two weeks ago when Senator Angus King asked James Comey, deposed director of the FBI, “When the president of the United States, in the Oval Office, says something like ‘I hope,’ or ‘I suggest,’ or ‘would you,’ do you take that as a directive?” Comey replied, “Yes. It rings in my ears as kind of ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
Priests are problematic for autocratic rulers. Or at least we ought to be. And by we, I really do mean all of us priests. Just because you’re not up here wearing all the steaming hot vestments doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. The author of Exodus intended for the whole of community—not just the priestly caste—to hear God say “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples… you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
I may be a priest for the church, but you are all priests for the world. Since this week happens to be the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, as well as a time when senators and justice department officials are unexpectedly referencing medieval English clerics, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some characteristics of the priestly calling which belongs to all of us.
Priests are called, and also called out. In the Episcopal Church, we ask candidates for holy orders—that is, people seeking to be deacons, priests or bishops for the church—to articulate their calling. Which has a lot of us waiting anxiously for clouds to part and God to say aloud “go be my priest, Jim or Julia.” But in reality clergy come to recognize our vocation in many ways, just as you do yours. When you knew—really knew in the center of your being—what you were supposed to do, how did you know it? Maybe some of you heard it loud and clear, but I’m guessing that for many of you it was a small inner voice, or an abiding desire, or maybe it was someone you knew and trusted who gave you more authority than you thought you had and sent you out to do what you had no idea you could do.
Which brings me to the question of being called out. Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot were sent into towns and villages to do the work of Jesus with little more than their names. And that’s not insignificant, because in the Bible naming and calling go together. Think of Abraham, or Jacob renamed Israel when he wrestled with God, or Jesus called Beloved at his baptism.
To know your true identity is also to know your calling. Even if you don’t happen to hear the voice of Jesus telling you to go out to Gresham or Hood River to proclaim good news, the very fact of knowing your true identity may compel you into the public in ways you didn’t ask for. On this day of the Portland Pride parade, I’m reminded of friends whose God-given sexual orientation called them out of closets to proclaim themselves, and their community, fully worthy of inclusion and the love of God.
Priests are called and called out, and—characteristic number two—priests make sacrifices. Now that’s an old-school Bible word that deserves some unpacking. It may conjure up for us images of burned and bloodied animals if we’re reading a lot of Leviticus, or if we’re reading critical social theory perhaps images of generations of woman or people of color who were asked to sacrifice themselves for the dominant culture. But at root, the word sacrifice means simply to make holy. Sacer facere in the Latin. Which sometimes does have the effect of requiring that we forego ego for the greater good, but only when it’s a sacrifice that is integral to our naming and calling, as it was for Jesus. Whose faithfulness unto death served the purpose of reconciling us to God, as Paul pointed out in the letter to the Romans.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Sometimes the consequence of a life lived for justice is indeed loss of life, but in the grand Biblical trajectory, God is far less interested in the sacrifice living things than in the surrender of our disinterest and our deafness “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?” asked the prophet Samuel.
The discipline of listening to God—the same listening that allows us to hear ourselves called—is what equips us to sacer facere: to manifest the sacred purpose of all created things. When we recognize the holy we can communicate the holy. So when priests of the church like me do ancient rites like baptize and bless and break bread, we are not making people or food into something they are not already, but rather we are ritually manifesting what we already know to be true. People are holy and made for God’s purposes, and bread and wine embody God’s live-giving love. Those are truisms, with or without the church rites that identify them as such. It’s the ministry of laity and clergy alike to continually name and claim that the world and all that is in it are God’s good creation. We make sacrifice by virtue of our truth telling, and by giving ourselves over to curing, giving life, cleansing, healing as the apostles themselves were sent out to do.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in these divisive days, priests proclaim good news. In the face of abundant bad behavior and more bad news, our vocation demands that we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and insist that God’s intentions are good, God’s love is everlasting, and God’s people can rise to the challenge of reconciliation. In his installation as our 27th Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry reminded us that God has not given up on the world, and God is not finished with The Episcopal Church yet. So we don’t have the privilege of despair: in spite of everything, we will remain joyful in the Lord, as the Psalmist says, giving thanks and calling upon God’s name.
How do we Episcopalians live out this shared priestly vocation? First, acknowledge that we can’t do it alone. Our Exodus reading makes it clear that priesthood happens in community: either we are a priestly people together or none of us are priests. Which means that it is incumbent upon all of us to listen and respond to our particular callings, and then support each other in living them out. Most especially when our vocation sets us apart, or sends us out of our comfort zone.
Which happens all the time in this community, in small and large ways. I’m thinking this day especially about the LGBTQ people in our community who have bravely proclaimed that love is not leprosy. I’m also thinking of the everyday ministries of biological and surrogate fathers who cure the sick and cast out the demons of danger to children. I’m thinking of those of you who feed the hungry, listen to the lonely, embrace the outcast, protect the vulnerable, bind up the wounded, and hold the powerful accountable. You are apostles and priests.
Bill Countryman, a father and a married gay man who also happens to be an Episcopal priest and New Testament scholar, says ” priesthood is a fundamental and inescapable part of being human. All human beings, knowingly or not, minister as priests to one another. All of us, knowingly or not, receive priestly ministrations from one another.” Which is another way of saying that we really are meddlesome lot. All of us. So together let us claim our calling, manifest the holy and bear the good news. Because we need each other, and it’s not so easy to get rid of us when we stand together as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.