On October 31, 1517 a priest named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to a door in Wittenberg, Germany. That act is usually cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—and it’s also the reason I’m wearing jeans to church tomorrow.
So Martin Luther realized that the church had missed the mark on a lot of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He had 95 problems with how things were going, and one of them was the artificial distinction the church was drawing between priests—those set apart and above to lead and do ministry—and everyone else who worked to pay the bills. Martin declared that Jesus called all his followers into ministry. God gives each believer different gifts and talents and calls each one to distinct and holy work. Theologians call this idea a doctrine and named it ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ People have been psyched about it ever since—and it makes Presbyterian-flavored Christians especially excited. It’s pretty cool to think of yourself as a priest, you know? Makes you feel special and holy, doesn’t it? Like people should listen when you talk; like special parking place and a reserved pew status; like folks should leave the important decisions up to you. It’s good to be priest.
Only—priesthood wasn’t ever supposed to be about special status or elite assignments, not in the way we imagine those things. In fact, it started out as exactly the opposite. Our Jewish ancestors understood that perfectly. The temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth—and every Jew had a sacred obligation to go there and worship. Priests were in charge of that worship, which made them pretty essential. Theirs was the sacred responsibility of preparing for the divine-human encounter, leading and supervising worship, presiding over the sacred rituals. But—that didn’t mean preaching a sermon or teaching. In those days, worship meant sacrificing animals. Placing a living sheep or goat or dove on the altar and offering it to God by killing it. Which means the majority of a priest’s job entailed…cleaning. Cleaning dirt and blood and fur and…everything else that comes out of an animal at the moment of death. It wasn’t elevated theoretical work. It took messy, sweaty, smelly manual labor for a priest prepare the place and encounter between God and humans.
I’m so grateful that Martin Luther was brave enough to tell the truth that all God’s people are called to ministry. We, every one of us, are priests. But I hope we can remember that a priest isn’t the one who knows all the truth about God and sits in the elevated seats. A priest is first and foremost the one who is willing to do whatever is necessary to facilitate an encounter between people and God. And sometimes that takes work.
And the reason I’m wearing jeans to church tomorrow is because after worship we’re all going to do some ancient priestly work. Because, while we don’t sacrifice animals at the Grove (please, let there be NO confusion about that) we do provide a space and time for people to meet God—in worship, in community meals, in the gardens and soccer fields, in afterschool programs, AA meetings and girl scout meetings and dance classes and..the list is endless.
And sometimes we priests need to set apart some time and show up dressed to do the sweaty labor of making that happen—moving file cabinets, organizing closets, cleaning cobwebs out of unnoticed corners, preparing classrooms, whatever is necessary. So tomorrow, I’m coming in jeans—and after worship, I’ll be ready to work. Because in our church is an altar where neighbors meet Jesus and become family, and no job that’s part of making that making that happen is too small to be sacred.
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