Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
United Church of Christ
Sunday, October 27, 2013
“Abolish the Laity and Have a Party”
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for God has given the early rain for your vindication, and has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. ~Joel 2:23-32
Every so often, a movement pops up in the Christian church with a call to abolish the priesthood, abolish the clergy.
Today is Reformation Sunday on the Protestant calendar. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door on Wittenberg, formally beginning the movement we know as the Protestant tradition. Luther called for reforms of the priesthood, changes to the clergy. Later in the 1500s and into the 1600s, other Reformers, some of the Anabaptists and some of the Brethren groups took Luther’s ideas a step further and said, Let’s not just clean up the priesthood, let’s do away with it.
Later in the 1600s and 1700s, the Quakers came into being. They made having no clergy central to their tradition.
Then in the early 1800s, a group of Baptist and Presbyterians in this country established the Restoration Movement, a part of which became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). One of their ideas was to do away with the clergy, to abolish the priesthood.
In 1900, the Pentecostal movement began at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. Again, with an idea of no clergy.
What’s interesting is that each of these groups, in time, succumbed to the very thing they protested: With the notable exception of the Quakers, every group that has tried to do away with the priesthood or do away with clergy, has, in time, adopted its own form of the priesthood or clergy.
(Now, as a member of the clergy, I would like to say that is because we professional religious leaders are absolutely indispensable to the faith; the church can’t get along without us. I would like to say that, however, I won’t. Because it’s not true. I do not believe that.)
I think the reason these groups have failed in their effort to abolish the priesthood, to abolish the clergy, is because they are promoting exactly the wrong idea. Instead of saying abolish the priesthood, the rallying cry should be, “Abolish the laity.”
(I have a friend who has had a difficult time as a minister. He seems to find himself getting fired fairly regularly. He once said to me that his idea of a perfect church is one with a million dollars in the bank and no people in the pews. That is not what I am talking about when I say, “Abolish the laity.”)
By abolish the laity, I mean, make every church member a minister, make every church member a pastor. In short, I’m saying, we need to take our faith more seriously, much more seriously.
Jim Weaver, Joe Bush, Alexis, Sharon Graham, Bob Maddox, Brooks Ramsey, Jill Johnson, others here at Westmoreland – we have all had the fortune of very good theological education. We are all ordained ministers. We’ve taken Greek so that we can read the words of the New Testament as they were originally written. We’ve taken Hebrew so that we can read the prophet Joel and Genesis and the psalms as they were written. We’ve taken pastoral care and church history and theology and worship classes.
I do my best as a pastor to put that education to use so that you may receive some benefit from it as well. But I think it would fantastic if each of you had the benefit of that experience as well.
Imagine how the church would be if every member of our Board of Christian Education had read theologians like Calvin and Barth and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Sally McFague.
Imagine if every member of our choir had read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and The Didache of the second century.
What if every member of our Outreach Ministries had studied Walter Raushenbush and John Mbiti.
Chances are good that you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. You may not have any idea who John Mbiti or Sally McFague are.
And that is because the church has failed. The modern, mainline Protestant church has failed. Somehow we slipped into the idea that showing up for church for an hour once every two or three weeks makes a person a Christian. If you sat in a garage for an hour a week you would not be a car. If you told your employer that you would only come to work when it didn’t conflict with soccer or a nap, you would not long have a job.
But somehow we’ve settled for this milquetoast, blasé form of Christianity that honestly, ain’t much.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and this may get me in trouble, but here goes… Some churches and some church members – now I’m not saying Westmoreland, I’m just saying some churches and some church members love to have long drawn out conversations about church budgets – they love to haggle over $17 here and $46 there. Or they might have great fights over the color of the carpet – green, no blue, no red, no yellow. Or the height of the candles. And some church get all in dither about how to follow the By-Laws in the proper fashion.
I think those arguments, those conversations, are stand-ins. I think church members talk about budgets or the carpet or candles or church structure because they are scared to talk about what really matters. We are afraid to talk about the nature of our souls. What keeps you up at night? What are your fears? What fulfills your spirit? What gives you great joy? What is going to happen to you when you die? For what cause of justice do you plead? What makes your soul smile?
We have eight remarkable people who serve on our Governance Council. They meet once a month and talk about the details of the life of our church for a couple of hours. What if that group spent two hours a month talking about the things of which we afraid? Our personal worries?
Our deacons meet each month and talk about worship and communion and other matters. What if our deacons abandoned their agenda and said, Let’s spend an hour talking about our encounters with the holy? Instead of talking about serving communion what if we talked about actual communing, with each other and with God.
The Board of Membership and Fellowship, the Finance Committee, the Property Committee. What of those groups met and they weren’t allowed to talk about planning church events, or spread sheets or roof repairs? Instead, they talked about the incarnational presence of Christ in the world. Where do you see Jesus in our life?
What if, at coffee hour, instead of saying, How’re you? How’s work? Did you buy a new car? Where’d you go on vacation? We asked, How is the state of your soul? What is going to happen to you when you die? Where have you seen God this week? What brings you great joy?
Let me see, I’ve picked on the choir, BCE, Outreach Ministries, the Governance Council and the deacons, BMF, the Finance Committee, the Property Committee, people who go to coffee hour. Who have I left out? Oh, yeah, me, we ministers, the priesthood, if you will.
What if had the courage of my convictions? What if I said, I refuse to go to another meeting with another agenda that doesn’t include grace and peace in the minutes? What if just refused to serve on a denominational committee that sometimes acts as the church police rather than a group of Jesus-followers?
I’m afraid we’re asking the wrong questions.
The scripture we read earlier speaks of “years that the swarming locust has eaten.” Joel was describing a time of famine for the Hebrew people, maybe about 500 BCE. But could that be a description of the mainline Protestant church in 2013? Do we live in a time of spiritual hunger, spiritual famine?
I’m afraid, we, as the church, are asking the wrong questions.
In part, we’re doing that we because we haven’t invested in the right tools. We haven’t made the church a place for in-depth theological inquiry and meaningful conversation. We send people to seminary, but we don’t really engage in serious adult education at church.
In part, we’re asking the wrong questions because we are afraid. We’re afraid to go to coffee hour and say, Tell me about your fears. We’re afraid to turn to our colleagues on Monday and say, What do you think about forgiveness? We’re afraid to say to our kid’s friends, I’m sorry, we have to skip that lacrosse game or that sleepover because we go to our church to worship God every Sunday morning. We’re afraid to look weak or silly or maybe even afraid o look religious. We take ourselves too seriously. We want to impress.
And in part we’re afraid because we’re lost sight of our calling as priests, as God’s chosen people all of us. We’ve confused having an opinion with the priesthood of all believers.
We’re afraid and we’ve diminished our faith to a maybe-meaningless set of societal expectations that may be nice and pretty and almost-helpful, but miss the fundamental questions of life.
Despite that, in the face of that, this scripture that we read this morning offers a picture of hope for us.
The Hebrew people were living in a time of blight, a time of war, a time of fear and want. And God speaks through the prophet saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves…I will pour out my spirit. ….. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved…”
Joel, writing a full millennia before Luther and these Protestant ideas of the priesthood of all believers paints this beautiful picture of all people being equal before God, male and female, young and old, a picture of radical egalitarianism, where the walls between holy and divine come tumbling down, the lines between sacred and profane are wiped away so that all of life becomes a great feast. A picture of faith without fear, a party of life and hope for all people:
“Children of Zion,” Joel says, but he could just as well say, “Women and men, boys and girls of Westmoreland… Be glad and rejoice in God; for God has poured down for you abundant rain. The threshing floors of your life shall be full of grain, the vats of your souls shall overflow with wine and oil. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied. My people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, I am in the midst of Westmoreland Church, I am in the midst of your mainline middle class, self-important, self-doubting lives,” God might be saying. “I am with you. I am your God. And my people shall never again be ashamed. Do not be afraid.”
You are loved.
You are embraced with grace.
You are filled with Light.
Do not be afraid.