I could tell that he had been badly injured in the accident. I'm no medical expert, but I could tell by the pallor of his skin that he was near death. The attending nurse said, "I think we ought to send for a priest." I stepped forward and said, "Can I be of help? I'm a pastor." The nurse looked me over and said, "I think we ought to send for a priest." But I am a priest, I thought. Even though I am a Protestant and a pastor and a Methodist, I am a priest: someone called by God in the church to intercede for God's people, to represent their lives before the throne of grace. I am a priest, in the words of Deuteronomy: someone who ministers in the name of the Lord.
No wonder we expect our pastors to be holy. It is an awesome task to stand in the pulpit and preach God's Word to people; to preside at the altar; to break the holy bread; to sit by someone's bed in time of need and hear her prayers. It's an awesome responsibility.
We expect a priest to be perfect.
In the Old Testament, the high priest of Israel was special. He wore a golden breastplate on which was inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. When he went into the dark, inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, it was as if he brought the whole nation with him to atone for their sin. The priest wore a gorgeous turban on which sat a crown of pure gold. Inscribed on the crown were the words, "Holy to Yahweh."
The high priest had to be free of all physical defect and deformity. He had to be a member of the tribe of Levi. In other words, priests were born, not made. Yet he was held to a rigorous standard of holiness. A priest who committed adultery was killed on the spot. In order to enter the Holy of Holies on the day of Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of the people, or to pass the judgment of God upon some troubled life, or to speak a word before an inquiring congregation, or to break the holy bread and pour the sacred wine, a priest had to be holy.
A few years ago, I wrote a book on burnout among clergy. I tried to identify those factors that often make pastors leave the ministry. I discovered after many conversations that many clergy just cannot take the pressure of being that special, holy person on whom everyone depends for so much. I remember a pastor somewhere in the Midwest saying to me, "My people expect me to work sixty hours a week, preach brilliant sermons on a weekly basis, be good with the youth, visit the old people, and still never lose my temper at a church meeting." What merely human being can fulfill such demands of perfection?
Charles Merrill Smith wrote a popular satire on the life of clergy called How to Be a Bishop Without Being Religious. In a section dedicated to the pastor's wife, Smith writes that the pastor needs to select an attractive wife who will be a source of pride to the congregation. But by all means, she must not be so attractive that she is in any way desirable or beautiful. Also, pastors are required to have a couple of children, but not too many, because people just don't like to think of their pastor involved in that sort of thing. People like to believe that if a pastor has children, says Smith, they've somehow arrived through immaculate conception.
On a more serious note, one young minister explained his struggles in his first parish. Despite his efforts to minister to his people and give them the kind of leadership they needed, they complained that he was not attentive enough. "But I've been going through weekly chemotherapy for my cancer," he said to them. "That's no excuse," they said. "You're the pastor."
If you think about it, you can see their point. After all, it is this pastorthis priestwho must somehow gather up our needs in the palm of his hand and bring them before the altar of God. This priest enters the dark Holy of Holies to intercede for our deepest needs; this person has to be specialwithout spot or blemish, untouched by the cares and burdens that wear down merely mortal peoplewith celibate, pure, unspotted hands.
We expect a priest to be unsympathetic with our needs.
A young man was thinking of going to seminary, and he wondered if he had what it took to be a pastor. He said, "You see, Dr. Willimon, I like to have a good time. I enjoy being with people. I love to party. My question is, can you be a pastor and still like to have a good time?" I answered, "No, son, if you're going to be a pastor, you've got to be sober and serious and dignified, like me."
A priest is special. We can't have a stand-up comedian handling the holy Word of Godsome clown prancing around the altar of God with our prayers and petitions, our anguished cries and deep needs. We need a priest. The question laid before us from Hebrews 4:1416 is: Do you need a perfect priest? How high and lifted up can a person be before he or she becomes irrelevant? How can the utterly pure and spotless hands of a priest hold my grubby little life before the throne of grace?
In great anguish, a young man poured out his soul to me. He was in utter torment, stretched across the ever-widening gap between his passions on the one hand and his high Christian ideals on the other. "Dr. Willimon, do you know what it's like to love somebody so much that you want to take them, to possess them, and abandon yourself with them in boundless passion, and yet know that to be wrong? Do you know what that's like?" I said, "No, son, I don't. I'm a priest." And he went silently away.
I tried to stand beside her. I had been beside her in her struggle with the bottle. As her pastor, I'd sat up with her into the late nights. I had encouraged her in her wrestling with that demon. I'd encouraged the church to come forward and help pay for her treatments. But she was unable to conquer her alcoholism, and that day as she was in torment, I pled with her. I pled with her for the sake of her family, for the sake of her children, for the sake of her own life. I pled with her to stop. She sat in tears. "But, preacher, you don't know what I'm going through. How could you know? You've never been hooked."
She was right. How could I know? I have my little failings and foibles, my little compulsions and obsessions, but I've never had that monkey on my back. How could I know? I'm a priest. I went into her hospital room and offered a little cheery prayer: "Oh, Lord, we pray that if it be thy will, that this sister shall be restored to health. We pray that this person might be restored to your work and to your service, et cetera. Amen." As I was leaving the room, I heard her mumble, "I'll never get to see my children grow up."
"What can I do with my life?" another young man cried to me in desperation. "If God will just speak to me clearly, I promise to God I will go. I will do." Then this uncertain student looked around my gothic office at the diplomas, the ordination certificate, the robe with stole and hood hanging in the corner, the nameplate on the door that read "minister's study," and sighed. "I guess it's hard for you to remember what it's like to be 21 and not know what to do with your life."
Our perfect priest can sympathize with our needs.
What good would a perfect priest do you? Hebrews says it this way: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are." He's talking about Jesus, the Priest. He is the great High Priest who has passed through the heavensbut not before he walked upon and suffered through this earth, this life.
He was entombed on this earth. Isaiah said, "He was oppressed. He was afflicted. They made his grave down with the wicked. He was put to grief. He bore the sin of many. He made intercession for the transgressors." You need a priest. You've got to have a priest, but you do not need a priest who knows not what it's like to live in this world. And so, with this great High Priest, when he talks to God about you, he knows of what he speaks. There is absolutely no temptation with which you wrestle, there is no pain that you bear, there is no dark, lonely path that you walk that he has not walked before.
Are you alone? Forsaken by people? You remind him of Gethsemane. Are you tried? Tested? Tempted? You remind him of his forty days in the wilderness. Are you in pain and anguish? You remind him of Golgotha. He is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. You can tell him whatever is on your heart. Don't hold back your prayer.
Here is a great High Priest whose idea of holiness has absolutely nothing to do with distance, aloofness, or unspotted, pure detachment. His holiness is precisely in his daring to be so close. They named him "God with us" when he was born. "God with us" enables us to be with GodEmmanuel.
She was in the last stages of lung cancer, gasping day after day for breath. She was in great pain, wasted away, exhausted by fighting. She clutched a crucifix daily. It was given to her by her grandmother when she was a girl, carved by some monk in Europe. It was a symbol of all that her Catholic faith meant to her. When I entered the room that afternoon, I could see she was very near the end. "Would you like me to pray for you?" I asked. "Would you like me to summon a priest for you?" With her last ounce of energy she held out the crucifix to me, which depicted the body of Christ nailed to the cross. She said, "Thank you. But I have a Priest."
"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).