A Minister Out of Place

Prophets and priests have served rival and often contradictory roles throughout history, with priests officiating at society’s rituals and prophets addressing society’s injustices. Recently, the Rev. Howard Bess found himself in a position to serve both functions.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

June 12, 2011

Those who know the Bible recognize that there were both priests and prophets in Israelite communities, and that they played significantly different roles. 

Priests were in charge of the temple and took care of all the religious rituals.  Prophets were not officiants at religious rituals and had no particular responsibilities around the temple.  Rather they were speakers of the truth, who were not limited by institutional rules or boundaries. 

In the life of Jesus from Nazareth, he was seen as a teacher (rabbi) and a prophet, but never a priest. As far as we know, he never baptized anyone, never officiated at a wedding, and never conducted a funeral.  His role was to speak the truth of God. 

There also is no evidence that he ever taught in a building called a synagogue. As an adult, he made one visit of record to the Jerusalem temple. On that occasion he was disruptive and vented his anger about temple practices.  

I am a defender of religious institutions, which have an ability to maintain traditions that are vital to healthy communities. Someone needs to do the baptizing, the burying, and the weddings.  

Religious institutions do an amazing job of creating fine colleges and universities, hospitals, and social programs to help people who are poor, who are disabled, or who are homeless. I honor those who baptize, marry and bury. 

I myself have been and am a part of institutional religion. I have cared for many hundreds of funerals; have officiated at hundreds of weddings; and have baptized many hundreds of people. But when I take note of the simple teacher/prophet from Nazareth, I ask myself “have I left undone the things that I ought to have done?”

A great disconnect is taking place between young people and religious institutions. There is no evidence that young people are not interested in religious issues and issues of values and meaning.  Indeed, that interest was illustrated by a wedding in which I was involved in the recent past. 

My involvement began with a phone call from the prospective bride. She knew me only through her mother with whom I have been friends for several years. Her husband-to-be was in the Army National Guard and his unit had been called up for active duty in Afghanistan.

The couple had been “together” for two years and had a six-month-old son. But the Army would not recognize the soldier’s partner and son for benefits unless there was a piece of paper that said they are husband and wife. 

The groom was raised in a devout religious tradition, but had left his church of origin. The bride’s church connection was loose at best. They did not ask to become a part of my religious tradition or religious world. I was being asked to be a part of their world for the purpose of obtaining a piece of paper from the State of Alaska that would be acceptable to the U.S. Army. 

This was hardly a priestly function covered by a denominational book of order or the Book of Common Prayer.

The distinct nature of the event was enhanced by its unusual location. Our young couple was being married in the warehouse of our local recycling center. I had never before officiated at a wedding in a recycling center.

 It might have been more understandable if either or both of my new friends had been previously married.  The marriage was a first for both. 

It turned out that the bride’s mother is a manager at the recycling center and was very proficient at running a forklift to move bales of recycled cans, plastic bottles and paper.

To create the setting for the wedding, the bride’s mother stacked bales of recycled aluminum cans to a height of about 20 feet. The colored crushed cans sparkled from the glow of the overhead lights. It was a work of art.  

The handsome groom looked sharp in his dress Army uniform. The bride was beautiful in a simple white dress. The six-month-old son was happy in the arms of grandma. The minister was out of place as a priest, but was exactly where a prophet should be.

In the ceremony, I pointed out what Jesus taught. Love is not a mushy feeling; love is a profound choice and promise that is good for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, so long as they live with a priority given to their young son.

Possibly I was not out of place at all.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].