TEXT: 1 Peter 2:9-10; Exodus 19:1-6
As you might have guessed, back when a lot of people in the country were eating "Freedom Fries," the fries on my plate remained quite French. Recently, however, I have begun to reconsider this in light of the proposal by French President Jacques Chirac to ban religious symbols and clothing in state schools and hospitals. I'm thinking that now I may have to start eating Jesus Fries. I don't directly address a lot of social issues from the pulpit, but I do want to talk about this one as a way of prodding you to think about the way your own faith is made visible to others.
The French proposal is a tricky issue in this world where separation of church and state is a confused and volatile issue. On the surface it might look like another version of the prayer in schools debate in this country, but I believe the core issues are vastly different. The issue in prayer in public schools is whether a state-run school can formally have a religious moment as part of its program. I don't know about you, but when the government starts having to approve my prayers, I get very nervous. The greatest atrocities across the Christian faith have occurred when adherence to faith has gotten all tangled up in the power and politics of the government in power. It was our Baptist brothers and sisters who first sang the separation of church and state song, and having been raised Baptist in the state where that denomination began, I tend to support that position.
The French issue, however, seems different to me. It is not about the religious expression of the state; it is about whether an individual can express their faith in a way that is noticeable in the public sphere.
My objection to the proposed French law is that it fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of faith, at least as it is understood by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I can't speak for all faiths everywhere, and I can't even speak to the faith of Jews and Muslims very well, but I can say that one thing those three faith traditions have in common is that our inward faith is supposed to be intimately tied to our outward actions. When a Jew refuses pork or a Muslim wears a scarf or a Christian goes to church, these aren't just optional things that we decide on a whim to do or refuse. They are part of what it means for each of us to live a life faithful to God. They are not just symbols that can be shown or hidden at will.
When I was in Jr. High and High School, I wore a cross...a pretty good-sized one...every single day of the year. It was my witness and my identifying mark. Hopefully people could tell my faith through my actions as well, but if someone wanted to know why I was taking time to talk with the kid everybody else made fun of, they had only to look around my neck for the answer.
So with the Muslim scarf and veil. They are not a woman's way of saying, "Hey, look, I'm a Muslim." It is an act of obedience and witness to their faith. You can agree or disagree with the reasons behind the commandment. You can object that it is subordination of women and say that women shouldn't put up with it. But you can't just go outlawing the practice without committing violence against those whose faith says to wear it. It is like forcing an orthodox Jew to eat pork or forcing a Christian to burn incense to Caesar. Chirac is quoted as saying, "Secularity is one of the republic's great achievements." (CNN Wed. Dec. 17, 2003). I would say that failing to understand the nature of religion is potentially their greatest blunder.
I'm talking about the French ban because I want to help you come at the question of what is distinctive about your own faith. I've titled this sermon "Holiness," because this question is really about what it means to be holy. The word "holy" in Hebrew means "set apart." When God called the Jews to be a holy people, it meant they were a people to be set apart. A people who were to be noticeably different so that their difference would stand as a witness to the world of a better way. Holiness doesn't mean doing it better or doing it right. Holiness means doing it altogether differently so that people will stand up, take notice and ask questions that will lead them to God.
Peter takes this call to the Jews in Exodus and claims it also for Christians. We, too, are to be a holy people...a people set apart...a people who do things so differently from the way the world does them that people notice. We are to be the ones who forgive when others won't, to love where others hate, to give when others hoard, to hope when life seems bleakest. Mature faith should be obvious to others.
Peter talks about Christians as a "royal priesthood." Let's talk for a minute about priests. There is a category of people in today's world called the Priest. They are professionals in certain religious groups, both Christian and otherwise. The general role of a priest from the earliest times has been to connect people to God...to be the mediator between earth and heaven. When I served the church in Cross City, Florida, I was the pastor of the local United Methodist Church, but I found that in many ways I was seen as the parish priest. The town was small and as the first woman pastor ever to lead a congregation of any type anywhere in a 50-mile radius, I was somewhat of a celebrity. The church ran an ad in the local paper every week that had my picture in it, and I could go very few places without having someone stop me and say, "Hey, aren't you that lady preacher?" Yup, that's me.
Because they knew me, and perhaps because my gender set me apart from the others, there were people with no connection to our church who sought me out when they seemed to need God but didn't know how to connect, were afraid to be near God, or otherwise had religious issues. At times of death or tragedy or fear, when the ultimate questions popped into their heads for the first time and they didn't know what to do about it, they came and knocked on my door. They wanted a priest. They wanted someone to take their plight before God and to help them connect with a deity that they had never known and were often somewhat fearful of. In its most general sense, that is the role of a priest.
What Peter is saying here is that being a priest is not just for the religious professionals. We are all to be holy, to live a life that sets us apart as surely as a clerical collar sets apart someone who is a priest by profession.
The priesthood of all believers has been a belief of the Protestant Church since we split from the Catholics 500 years ago. The role of the priest is to mediate between God and people. The Roman Catholic tradition has said that only those ordained by the church can serve that function. Protestants have believed that Bible passages like this one support the claim that it is the calling of all of God's people, ordained or not. Each of us can speak to God directly, and each of us is called to live a life that will help others find their way to God. Peter says that we are called to be holy, called to be priests "in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." It's not about us, it's about God and the way that God is made known to the world. Be holy. Be a priest. Don't put your light under a bushel. Same thing.
How we live our lives matters because it is our witness to the nature of the God we serve. Here at the beginning of a new year, at the time when lots of people make resolutions and decide to make their lives better in some way, I invite you to think of French laws, Jesus Fries, and the age-old question, "If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" If Christian expression were outlawed, would it affect your lifestyle? What is your version of a clerical collar that identifies you as a priest for others?
Perhaps the most distinctive thing that Christians do is to gather around some bread and grape juice and ask God to make those elements be for us the body and blood of Jesus. It's our way of saying that you are what you eat and of affirming that, no matter what our differences, we come together as one at the table. It is our prayer that although none of us are worthy to share a meal with God, we are willing to be made holy...to be set apart as a royal priesthood to serve in the parish of the world. That willingness is all that is needed. Amen.
(c) 2004, Anne Robertson
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