Where's Your Altar?
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 29 January 2023 [Epiphany 4/A]: Micha6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12 Where’s Your Altar? From this morning’s epistle: Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. [1 Corinthians 1:26-29] From the reflections of the late Frederick Buechner: The first ministers were the twelve disciples. There is no evidence that Jesus chose them because they were brighter or nicer than other people. In fact the New Testament record suggests that they were continually missing the point, jockeying for position and, when the chips were down, interested in nothing so much as saving their own skins. Their sole qualification seems to have been their initial willingness to rise to their feet when Jesus said, “Follow me.” [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. p. 62] From the Prayer Book’s Catechism: Q. Who are the ministers of the church? A. The ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. [Book of Common Prayer: “Outline of Faith”, p. 854]
Ministry. I remember sitting in the Marple Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning, in the mid-1960’s, with my entire family. My mother was in her customary place, seated with the choir, which left my dad to take me and my three younger brothers to church, which is what our family did on Sundays – religiously! On this particular occasion, my father directed us to the very first pew, which (as in the Episcopal Church) was unquestionably available. Yet, sitting right up front was not the norm for us. In retrospect it occurs to me that my mom must have had some special part to play in the choir ‘s offering that day – perhaps a solo. In any event, her five “men” were clearly and resolutely stationed where she and we were in direct contact. “You go, Mom!”
Having recalled the setting all these years later, what I most distinctly remember is that my youngest brother, Peter, was sitting to my father’s left, when the minister of the congregation – someone I still recall with gratitude and favor – entered the worship space during the organist’s prelude. Peter, wide-eyed four- or five-year-old that he was, immediately caught sight of this black-robbed entrance; and in a stage whisper that echoed off the back wall of the church, asked my dad: “Is that the manager?” “Minister”, “manager”: close enough.
Forty-four years ago this past Thursday, on the rarely recognized feast day of St. Paul’s loyal assistants, Timothy and Titus, I was ordained a priest of the church. In the words of my youngest brother, I became a “manager”. And to the extent that young Peter’s question contained much more than I realized at the time, the yeast in that question raises the issue of who or what do I manage as a priest; and what does this have to do with you and me and St. Philip’s? The answer is, a lot! Let me explain.
In his pastoral correspondence with the Christian community in Corinth, Greece, St. Paul notes that not many in the congregation had impeccable credentials to be “ministers” of the gospel. Not the smartest, not the most skilled, not the most socially or economically elite, the key to what Paul reminds those unruly followers of Jesus in that ribald, Grecian seaport is that (appearances to the contrary) they are “ministers” because God has called them to ministry, to service. In a very real sense, Paul speaks from what you and I here at St. Philip’s have called our three-part theology: God-in-Christ has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves; say “thank you” for the gift; share (don’t hoard) the gift. “Minister”, “manage” the gift. So, what do you make of the fact that in the Prayer Book’s catechism, the very first category of minister is the “lay people”, followed by those who are ordained: bishops, priests, and deacons”? The answer I offer forms the central point of this sermon, and it starts with baptism.
In baptism, we promise to R.S.V.P. to God-in-Christ’s reaching out to us by representing Christ in who we are and what we do. To the question of “what does God look like?” the answer is this. [Outreached arms]. When we acknowledge this invitation, this call, our lives are no longer limited to our own ideas, plans, fears, and failures. In baptism, we say “Yes” to God’s beckoning to us, which is a constant, loving call for us to know who we are and Whose we are. And here’s the deal.
When we hear and respond to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”, we in fact share in the Lord’s “ministry” – but more precisely, we share in Jesus’ priesthood. Perhaps you have heard of the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers”. In the 16th century, the “protesting” reformers in the church – Martin Luther being the foremost – reclaimed this baptismal ministry and responsibility. At that point, the church had gotten its sense of ministry and mission all tangled up, focusing the authoritative ministry on the ordained so that the clergy did “manage” just about everything, making the laity, the People of God passive recipients of the God-life, of which the clergy were the official conduits.
“Clericalism” is still a problem and a challenge to a healthy and faithful understanding of the church. A profound and dreadful example is the issue of pedophilia and the role clergy have played in this destructive abuse. When the laity – when the laity allow the clergy to be viewed as closer to God by virtue of their ordination, of their being set aside, then things get all twisted up. Then, the Body of Christ, the Church, is viewed as dispensing holiness as a commodity within the monopoly of the ordained. Consequently, the laity are reduced to consumers and not partners.
It is a matter of what the 16th century reformers were getting at (but mostly lost): namely, If a priest is someone who represents God to the people and the people to God, the essential question for everyone who seeks to follow Jesus is this: Where is your altar?
Now, let me back-track a bit here. What I am trying to clarify is not a matter of which of us gets to stand behind this sacramental table and wear these unusual (if not special) garments. Not at all! And here is the faithful understanding of ministry and ministers. The church ordains (sets aside) certain people like me – and like Bob Miner – to a ministry that is meant to equip you, the People of God and essential members of the Body of Christ, to fulfill your baptismal promises. In other words, what folks like me are supposed to do is remind you of your baptismal priesthood and to support you in representing God to the people and the people to God.
This is what the question of “Where is your altar?” means. How do you represent God to the people and the people to God? As a teacher, as a clerk, as a spouse, a neighbor, a friend, a parent, as a banker or plumber or engineer – in your everyday ordinariness, where is your altar; and how do you do that work? What does it take to do this work in your life?
With God’s grace and mercy, ordained people like me are set aside and authorized by folks like you to be the pastoral and spiritual coaching staff. In a very real sense, you are the players on the team. And the telling thing about players and coaches is that players operate on the field, and coaches are penalized, if they go out on the field. My job as an ordained priest is to do what I can (and what you will allow me to do) in order for you to succeed in representing God to the world and the world to God.
In a manner of speaking, I know where my altar is; and I know what I am supposed to do at that altar. But your task, as lay folk – your task as members of “the priesthood of all believers” is (I think) harder and more challenging. Your altars are usually much less visible or even less available – certainly less clearly defined. Nonetheless, your altars are essential if the church is to be what God always calls it to be: an experience of God’s life, hope, mercy, and redemption in our midst.
I am honored and grateful to be your priest and to have this altar, and I am humbled by who you are as Christ’s public representatives and how much you do to share the God-life with one another and with those beyond these walls.
It all matters so much. Thanks be to God. Amen.