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‘As Christ to You’

October 22, 2012

“‘As Christ to You’” Hebrews 5:1-10 © 10.21.12 Ordinary 29B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a wonderful story about the inspiration for one of the 1960s’ greatest songs. The tale recounts how Bob Russell of the band The Hollies came upon a child carrying another one. It seemed to Russell that the boy was struggling a bit under the load. So he asked: “Isn’t he a little heavy for you to carry?” The question brought this response: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

Russell took that line and worked it into the lyrics of the classic song that some of you may remember. They go like this: “The road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where. But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother. So on we go. His welfare is my concern. No burden is he to bear; we’ll get there. For I know he would not encumber me. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother. If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another….”

Out of the mouth of a young child, as so often happens, came wisdom for all humankind. To carry another for whom we care is no burden. It’s a choice we make, a privilege we cherish, a service we perform for the sake of love. On this journey we need each other. Especially in the community of faith, the church, we’re called to exhibit in our lives the care that little boy showed his brother. It’s a summons from God to be priests for and to each other.

The call comes in baptism, whenever that occurs for us. In the washing of water and the touch of oil, we’re cleansed and anointed for our life of service. We’re gifted with God’s Spirit and set apart for ministry. Whatever our life’s work turns out to be, whatever our other relationships, we’re claimed by God’s grace for this role in his family.

This notion of the priesthood of all believers is a cherished one in the Protestant and Reformed tradition. We often emphasize how you and I have the privilege of going directly to God through Christ alone, and that’s true. But we may forget that a priest is someone who acts and lives on behalf of others. This calling is not about privilege; it’s about sacrifice and surrender.

The text before us this morning gives us some clues about how we may be priests for one another and indeed, for the world. For instance, a priest represents others in God’s presence. Concerns and cares, joys and celebrations, hurts and hopes—all are brought by the priest who stands before God on behalf of those whom he or she has been given. Another way to put it is that a priest shoulders the burdens of other people and lays them all at God’s feet, willingly taking up the task, saying in effect, “he ain’t heavy; he’s my brother, she’s my sister.”

Of course one way we all act as priests for each other is in prayer. When someone says “pray for me,” that’s a request for this sort of ministry. It’s time then once again to go into God’s presence and plead, cry, beseech, even scream for justice, for healing, for answers, for comfort, for strength. We may be praying for a close friend or a family member or someone we hardly know, even some cause or person halfway around the world. But we do it because we’re called to, because we’re claimed by God, because in our lives we make concrete the love and the presence of God, because we’re bonded in baptism and community with those for whom we pray.

But there are other ways of exercising our priestly ministry. Perhaps you know of the discipline called “spiritual friendship.” Two people agree to be mutually accountable to each other for their spiritual lives. They meet regularly, in person, by phone, by e-mail and/or social media, and share their inmost thoughts and feelings. They pray for each other; they read Scripture. They seek advice and counsel. Even confess their sins to each other. In Montevallo, AL, when I was pastor, there were two ladies who did this over the phone. Bennie and Eva called each other every day, and when Eva died, their friend Freddie took her place. They undergirded each other with a structure of caring and also built up the church by their life of devotion.

But whether you or I become part of some formal relationship or not, when another trusts us with life concerns or secret problems, we’re being regarded as a priest. When your friend came to you the other day and said “I have something I have to get off my chest, and I can’t tell anyone but you,” you were a priest. And should you seek his or her support later for help in dealing with some crushing blow life has dealt, you would be asking for the same ministry in return. The problems shared may be long-term, and priestly ministry may require a great deal of patience, listening, and work. It may inconvenience you or me, but we do it for love of Christ and the sister, the brother in faith.

We’re also being priests when we engage in advocacy and defense of another. We hear some slur on another’s reputation and vouch for his or her integrity by saying “that’s not true. He would never do that.” Or we admit “Yes, that did happen in the past, but she’s a different person now, by God’s grace.”

But if priestly ministry happens through personal encounters, it also takes place as we gather and work in community. Worship itself is a priestly act, as we bring prayers and praise to God. We represent the world before God, bearing the burden of its suffering and need into his presence. So we come confessing sin, pleading for God’s mercy on us and all the world. We hear concerns and offer prayers for everyone from a member in the hospital to a world leader facing a momentous decision. We share bread and cup, serving each other, even as we long for the day when all will be satisfied with justice and peace.

We’re priests when we become advocates for and work on behalf of the most vulnerable and needy in our society—children, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the despised. This ministry happens at the Food Pantry or when you serve on a community group seeking a solution to some concern. It takes place when the love and hospitality of God is demonstrated to someone who is very different from us or strange to us, and rejection gives way to acceptance and care. We’re priests whenever and wherever we give, even sacrifice, time and talent and dollars for God’s cause, which is to say, on behalf of any who are lonely, needy, and hurting.

It’s an honor to come before God in such ways, to know we’re invited into the presence of the Almighty. And human nature being what it is, we may begin to believe that somehow we have a right to come before the throne of our Sovereign, that some merit within us gives us the privilege. In the terms of the text, we may be tempted to “glorify” ourselves, to “presume.” But that would be a serious mistake.

Back in the day, I heard of a church board that was considering a number of new projects for their congregation. One recommendation was that a counseling center be opened on the church premises. Debate went on and on, until finally the patriarch of the congregation spoke up. “We don’t want people with problems in our church,” he said. His opinion carried the day, and the counseling center was denied the use of the building.

What a tragic tale that is! Those officers, it would seem, saw themselves as strong, free of problems and needs. And in their arrogance, they robbed themselves of a true source of strength for ministry. They were charged, no doubt, with the care of a congregation. They were called to be priests for priests. Yet they had not taken even the first step in carrying out such ministry, which is to recognize their own brokenness, like the priests of old offering sacrifices for their own sins. Their failure to be vulnerable, even to admit vulnerability, distinguished them from Christ, from whom they had received the ministry. He suffered for his people, learned obedience, even went to his death for their care. Could those men and women not learn from their great High Priest or even from the priests of Israel that the ability to deal with the needs of others emerges, not from one’s own strength, but precisely from one’s weakness?

Those board members, and especially the patriarch, could not put themselves in someone else’s place. But that is an essential quality of leadership. In her book The New Religious Intolerance, University of Chicago law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaum sets out three principles for hospitality. Her third principle is what she terms “sympathetic imagination” that has the capacity to see the other as alongside one’s self. This means we have to nurture our eyes to see others differently—and eventually demonstrate a “‘willingness to move out of one’s self and to enter another world.’” Reviewer Walter Brueggemann notes that “She makes the case that we remain blind unless our ‘inner eyes’ are educated to practice a ‘participatory imagination’ that is an antidote to fearful narcissism” (http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-09/new-religious-intolerance-martha-c-nussbaum).

Hard experience sometimes opens our inner eyes. Maybe you have seen the 1991 film “The Doctor” with William Hurt, based on the autobiography of surgeon Ed Rosenbaum. At the beginning of the movie, we see him in several situations in which he is terribly insensitive to his patients; he treats them more as specimens than as people. Then he is diagnosed with throat cancer. Through the experience of illness and treatment, he discovers what his patients have had to endure, especially at his hands. The film ends with Hurt teaching his medical students by having them check into the hospital for tests. We leave them as they are objecting to having to take off their clothes and get into hospital gowns. The doctor had become what the late Henri Nouwen once called “a wounded healer.” He had become a better physician because he had been in the place of his patients.

We may fulfill our calling as such wounded healers as individuals or in our corporate life. But in either case, we embody the priestly ministry of Jesus with and for each other, for our neighbors, for the world. As the song by Richard Gillard puts it, we become Christ to each other. “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?” the singer asks, then adds: “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.” He goes on to describe what we’re called to be and do with and for each other: “We’re pilgrims on a journey, we’re travelers on the road; we’re here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joy and sorrow, ‘till we’ve seen this journey through” (“The Servant Song,” © 1977).

Or, returning to Bob Russell’s lyrics: “It’s a long, long road, from which there is no return. While we’re on the way to there, why not share? And I’m strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

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