Homily: On (not) Giving Clergy their Due

Homily on 1 Corinthians 9:2-12

Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? (Excerpt)

Pani and I went on vacation this past weekend. I spent part of that time wearing civilian clothes and going by my first name, Doug, rather than my middle name with title, Fr. Anthony. Something interesting happened when we were hanging out with some of the other people from New England: they started talking about religion and, more specifically, about priests. You can imagine that my ears perked up. I learned many things that day, but one of the things they talked about is relevant to today’s lesson.

Pretty much the whole discussion was in poor taste, but it got much worse when they began berating an acquaintance’s priest. It seems that he had the nerve to go on vacation when their acquaintance wanted a service done. Their point was a good one: the church – and thus the priest – should be available to meet the needs of the people he serves all the time. I get that.

But I was amazed that they were so quick to condemn this priest that they were unable or unwilling to consider him as a man first. After all, they were condemning him for this while they were, themselves, on vacation. The irony of them sharing their outrage about clerical incompetence was not lost on their listener, a priest who himself had abandoned his flock to get away for the weekend.

The conversation then turned into a whole litany of priestly scandals: the availability of the rectory as a priestly perk, the absurdity of the priest’s request to have an alarm put on the rectory, and even the outrage of the expectation that parishioners donate to their parish, despite the fact that so much of their gifts just go to enrich the priest.

I want to point out that I am not really picking on these particular people: they are generally nice and are certainly well within the norm for Rhode Island. I am sharing their comments because I believe they are representative of New England culture: remember this region was settled by anti-clerical Puritans. We live among people who seem to believe that it is just fine to complain about and slander a whole group of people in public among strangers.

Should there be any wonder that it is so difficult to find men for full-time service in parish ministry?!

I am happy to say that, after Pani Tina outed me as a priest, I was able to direct the conversation towards more edifying theological topics. I did not point out the irony of their earlier complaints, so I just have to wonder whether their hearts were softened at all by first seeing their neighbor as a man and then as a priest.

Rhode Islanders were not the first to miss this point. It seems that the Christians of Corinth were also petty enough to be tempted to complain about clergy and their families – and grouse about supporting them. It is a difficult subject: the priest is called to imitate Christ in all things, to include his suffering on the cross. It is completely proper that parishioners chastise clergy when they fail to accept the cross that is every Christian’s calling. But it is a strange and twisted world when parishioners themselves see it as their right to put him there.

The fifth commandment… the curse of Ham… there are so many reminders of how we should treat our elders and spiritual guides. Is it such a sacrifice for us to treat them well or to, at the very least, refrain from treating them so poorly? If we can’t love them, can’t we at least refrain from tearing them down with gossip and slander?

After the tailgate party and football game, we went straight to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church. What a contrast! Whereas earlier I had head terrible things said about priests, here I saw priests being treated with reverence. And this was not just because the two priests who serve that parish are holy men. Even I, a stranger there, was the recipient of their respect.

Where do you think healthy parishes will grow best? In a culture that honors those who lead them in worship and serve them in sickness; where the monastic and priestly professions are recognized as sacred and as valuable and worthy as any secular calling; where parents dream of their sons and daughters giving up their lives in full-time ministry? Or in one that treats its clerics as a bad manager or factory owner treats his employees, where priests and monastics are the objects of scorn and ridicule; where they are fair game for gossip around the dinner table and tailgate?

Where do you think it is easier to grow a healthy in vibrant parish – here, where such anti-clerical attitudes are widespread; or in a place like Colorado Springs, where the people love their priests and the Eucharist he shares with them enough that asking his blessing and kissing his hand seems right and natural?

We have a choice about what kind of culture we want to create and be a part of. We can reify the culture of the world around us, one that has no patience for piety or respect for God and his servants, or we can work against that wickedness and create a culture where godliness becomes the very air we breath. Having the latter will take a conscious choice – it will take effort.

I mention these things not for my own benefit: I have no complaints about how my family and I are treated. You treat us well and we are happy here. Even those bits of disrespect and gossip that do turn against me are only small bits of the scorn that my pride has earned. 

I mention these things because, like St. Paul, I desire your salvation and the growth of this community.