Dean Baxter: “On Being a Priestly Nation: A Response to the President’s Call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance”
The first lesson today focuses on the ministry and prophesy of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah, and he stood in the great tradition of prophets of the Jewish exilic periods. But Ezekiel was different than other prophets because he was a priest. As a priest he was not only a guardian of the community’s cultic and ritual life—including temple sacrifices and liturgies—but he was trained to perceived the power of holy symbols and actions that transcend the order of the material world, empower the faithful, and communicate with the divine (although Ezekiel was more from the tradition of a diviner, shaman, or mystic). Churches that have priest—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal—are examples of this sacerdotal tradition, a formation of transcendence. These are churches for whom ritual and ceremony has more than a theatric purpose or effect; there is a belief that something divine or holy is happening with every action.
For example, the Eucharist is more than a sermon, hymn, or a pastoral prayer. All of these ministries—preaching, musical performance, the prayers—are assumed to be inspired by God, either in the composing or in the performing; but the Eucharistic liturgy is solely the action of God. The words of consecration are not being spoken to the people, rather on behalf of the people to God. “On the night that he was betrayed he took bread” is not being said to the people but reenacting with God a timeless sacrifice that offers the transcending efficacy of divine grace and spiritual strength for us, for this time and this moment. In the transformed bread and wine made sacred we are thus each in “holy communion” with God.
Clergy with this kind of formation are not better or more holy than the Protestant idea of the “preacher” or “minister” or “pastor,” just simply different in the way in which they are formed, to carry out a tradition of ministry, and contribute to the broad and varied experience of the Christian ministry. Just think, where would we be in American Christianity without the powerful evangelical preaching of the Baptist emphasis or the scholarly biblical teaching of Presbyterian tradition; without the traditional prophetic and social justice insights of Congregationalist and Reformed ministers; or the pastoral and missionary ministries of Methodist or Lutherans. And whether formed as a preacher, teacher, prophet, or pastor, every minister in someway at sometime acts as a priest. But it may not be the essence of his or her ministry nor the tradition that shapes them or the central purpose of their ordination.
Ezekiel’s ministry was shaped by this priestly experience, training, and tradition of nurture, including being the son of a priest.. Although during the years of his exile he could not act as priest, his prophesies reflected a unique mystical and transcendent quality distinct from his counterparts. Isaiah and Amos, for example, focused on a messianic understanding and socio-economic justice toward the poor and the stranger. Jeremiah focused on the danger of dependence upon certain political alliance, militarism, and nationalism. But Ezekiel also focused upon the ritual unholiness caused by idolatry of adopting Babylonian worship, cultural values, and sacred symbols. Justice to God was more than the duty of faithfulness; it was a transcending sign and action that made Israel a usable sacrament for God. As God said to Abraham of his seed: “Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Furthermore, where other prophets stressed corporate responsibility for sins in terms of the action of a nation, Ezekiel also stressed individual responsibility: that Israel was a priestly people, whose religious duty was not limited to a geographic place, a cultural environment, a political reality, or a social or an economic condition. Priestly people are those chosen to act before God, on the behalf of and for others. As Martin Luther shaped Christianity with his conviction about the “priesthood of all believers,” so Ezekiel lifted up the responsibility of every Jew to take individual responsibility, to be a light to the world, even of Babylon, in its ethics and its understanding of God’s oneness and righteousness, faithfulness to the Law, and their covenant agreement with God, that it was to be a nation with God as its ultimate sovereign (rather than a king or prophet).
Israel’s exile in Babylon was actually not a materially harsh experience. Babylon was the cultural and political capitol of Babylonia, present day Iraq. It was a great city with a developed culture and civilization richer and longer than Israel had ever known. Exiles and captives were usually the “cream of the crop,” the best and brightest (as suggested in story like Daniel and the Hebrew boys and also Esther) selected to integrate and enrich their culture. They were granted freedom to partake of Babylonian life and prosper in the economic, social, political, and cultural riches of Babylon. Some of the greatest intellectual Jewish traditions, such as the Babylonian Talmud, come from Babylonian exile communities, as well as the education and skill of people like Nehemiah who rebuilt walls of Jerusalem in the post-exilic period.
But this privilege led the exilic community to an understanding that there was a social and divine connection between prosperity and religion. There was also the difficulty of remaining faithful under such duress of isolation; that is, the distress of emotional isolation from the symbols, culture, and environment of their homeland hundreds of miles across the dessert sands.
But during Ezekiel’s time the exiles had even more tragic experience. They learned that Jerusalem had been ransacked, thousand killed, and the Temple destroyed. The destruction of the great Temple was like having the White House and the National Cathedral destroyed at once by hostile forces. It was the symbolic seat of political and religious life. The exiles were devastated. Believing in their unique identity, and holding to the ideals of their culture and faith seemed futile. So given both the seductive privilege of Babylonian culture and the traumatic tragedy of Jerusalem’s destruction, one can understand how the comfort of Babylon and its symbols of success and security became their consolation.
But Ezekiel in his mystical, priestly way, prophesied the word of God. He prophesied as would a divine or shaman, revealing the word of God through poetic metaphors evoking the elements of nature (trees, mountains, stars, fire, and water); through bizarre and grotesque images of dry bones, strange beast, and heavenly images of wheels inside of wheels. He spoke with ecstatic rapture (stamping with his feet, clapping with his hands) and clairvoyant visions and transience. As a priest he believed not only in the power of proclaiming the Word of God but the transcendence of action, images, and intention.
Israel developed a “marketplace theology”: if the nation—even in exile—is doing well economically and socially, then we are absolved from our individual religious obligation (I can be spiritual without going to temple, making sacrifice and atonement, keeping the law and Sabbath, reading the Torah and prayers as did Daniel); exempt from sustaining belief in their covenant with God and unique role for which God had chosen Israel to serve among the nations.
From his ministry and the exile came the roots of the synagogue (the assembly of faithful) and the rabbi (the honored teacher of the law and tradition). No matter where a Jew was, in Israel or exile, they could be a faithful sign, a people, and a nation under God. Their individual faithfulness to religious and spiritual values in public and personal life was not just for themselves but for the nation—the community—and as part of God’s plan for the world.
Ezekiel stressed that the moral and spiritual well-being of the community and its role as a sacrament and symbol to the nations depended upon individual responsibility, not just the security and success of community. Each must live the values that held the nation together and not be swayed by the military strength, comfort of the culture, or the success of the economy in which they lived. I believe this truth is relevant for America today.
Our president has proclaimed this a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance” marking the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He has asked us to focus on remembering prayerful those lost and also what it means to be an American.
As Ezekiel did of ancient Israel, I believe America too is a priestly community that also is in covenant with God. I believe we are to be “a city on a hill,” “ a light to the nations.” Our covenant with God, as Americans in every generation, is to be priests of the sacred gift of democracy who believe in its divine inspiration and its transcending blessing beyond ourselves. We are a sign and symbol to each other and also to the world of freedom, justice, and compassion, and not just a symbol of economic success, cultural dominance, and overwhelming superior military power. In a dangerous, uncertain, and alien world of unstable markets, terrorism, and inescapable global interdependence, it is so easy to take comfort and identity in such things as make us the super power of the world and as individuals forego the hard, mundane, and sometimes messy work of building and sustaining a just democratic nation.
But I believe, most of all, and history teaches us that we are called by God as a nation to be a symbol of diversity—diversity of race, abilities, nationalities, colors, ethnicities, cultures, and even religions. “E pluribus unum,” from many, one! We believe in the many as well as in being one. And what makes us one is our constitutional belief that all men and women are “created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We do believe that we are “one nation under God,” the endowing creator who is the source of inalienable rights. Our society is based upon a “theology of democracy,” understood primarily through Judeo-Christian belief systems but open to the faith of all, including those of no religious faith but whose spiritual values and commitment embraces “liberty and justice for all.”
We are priestly because we are called by God to be a nation of diverse people who live not just for ourselves but for the community—including those who disagree with us—and for the world. We are reminded that no matter how good our state of living maybe, capitalism is not democracy. The well-being of the majority does not represent righteousness when a significant minority suffers abject poverty and hopelessness. Democracy does not depend solely upon a market place economy, military domination, or a sense of cultural superiority. Rather it most depends upon individual devotional acts of voting, public service, and religious and cultural tolerance. It also depends upon our willingness to make our voices heard for justice and to make use of our resources to demand equal rights not only for ourselves but for others and in the cause of peace.
As we contemplate the appropriate action of our nation toward Iraq we must also remember that peace is the true goal of democracy. I am a decorated Vietnam War veteran; I do understand that democracy and peace sometimes demand war and the sacrifice of our young. But I also believe that most often it demands responsible stewardship and stern but patient diplomacy.
Like ancient Israel grieving the destruction of their Temple, we grieve the destruction of our symbols of economic superiority, national security, and freedom of movement—in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and our great passenger jets. But our responsibility as a great democratic nation in convenant with God is not simply to grieve and retaliate; our responsibility on this tragic anniversary is also self-examination and renewed commitment to be priest of democracy.
What we do will be a powerful witness to the world. We must acknowledge that we are seen in ways that are not always faithful to who we claim to be. In many places around the world we are seen not as freedom loving but money loving. Not as moral people but through Hollywood, the Internet, and satellite television, as lewd and irreverent people without respect for the moral sensibility or cultural values of others. We are too often perceived as a people who take their power, security, and material privilege for granted; as an arrogant nation that feels that being the super power means that we can do what we wish without the support or consent of our partners. That we exploit the resources of the powerless when it suits our interest and bestow a mantle of righteousness upon other governments whose values and behavior harshly conflict with our sacred beliefs in “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” We set the tone or justification for many nations by our actions and values. A war against terrorism is a complicated matter, more than I know. But if we act unilaterally toward Iraq or other menacing targets, we set a precedent for unaccountable military behavior by others, as we have already seen in Israel and Palestine, and in India and Pakistan.
To be a priestly people is to be a city that sits upon a hill, a light to the world. Great preachers of our history, such as Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Roger Brown, and Sojourner Truth convincingly proclaimed this vision at formulative periods of our history. To be a priestly people is to know of God’s love for the world; to live beyond our own interest but also to be our brother’s keeper within the human community. This is not simply the responsibility of our leaders but more so of each of us as citizens to demand faithfulness to these divine principles. Peace always begins and ends with personal responsibility, risk, and sacrifice including simple things such as voting or offering our time and talents for unique American tradition of volunteer service. We must speak our voice on the issues of our passion and protect the rights of the vulnerable. We must pray for our leaders, especially our elected leaders who in this time face more difficult decision than we can know. But we must be willing to admit when we or our government has been wrong in attitude and action at home and abroad.
As Christians we must lead the way. We must not only counter the voices of hate, bigotry, and violence of radical Islamic fundamentalists, but we must counter the radical voices of hate, bigotry, and violence in our own Christian community as well. We must be prayerfully committed to the way of peace and understanding, in our homes, congregations, marketplace, and politics, and committed to act justly in our daily actions and attitudes.
So on this day let us prayerfully remember the dead and their loved ones who continue to suffer. Let us fight against this evil of terrorism that threatens the peace of the world. But let us also on this day of Prayer and Remembrance recommit ourselves to the priestly work of democracy, to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Amen.