by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim, praise and sing about the acts of the One who called you out of the night into the divine light— the marvelous light— of God.” — 1 Peter 2:9.
This church, the Norwich United Church of Christ, First Congregational, is now and has historically been known for its musicians, its music program, its support of music in the community. Indeed, many of our parishioners are musicians or know music well.
While some parishioners are not musicians let me go out on a limb with a generality: all our parishioners are at least familiar with music and/or have a deep appreciation of music, a culture of music. That’s one reason this church is known for its music. It’s a part of our culture.
That having been said, perhaps one reason I am the pastor with this congregation is because of my own background and appreciation of music. I have noted this here before, but let me say it again. I am a member of A.S.C.A.P., the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers as a lyricist.
Now, I think most of us know this about music but for a moment, let me lay out one basic. In choral singing, there are four primary parts: soprano, alto and variations thereof for women; tenor, bass and variations thereof for men. One voicing less well known is called countertenor— countertenor— one word not two.
A countertenor is a male singer but with a vocal range generally equivalent to alto. Indeed, I once had a chance to work with countertenor John Ferrante, best known for comedic appearances with composer Peter Schickele.
Schickele writes very funny music and is, of course, known as the fictitious character P. D. Q. Bach. P. D. Q.— the most dangerous musician since Nero. When countertenor Ferrante worked with Schickele on the P. D. Q. Bach canon he was known not a countertenor but as a bargain countertenor.
Back to the different vocal parts. Having mentioned countertenor, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, let me play some music for you. This will be an electronic adventure; let’s see if it works.
It is a portion of an aria from Giulio Cesare in Egitto— Julius Caesar in Egypt— by George Frideric Handel. The words are in Italian but it was composed for the Royal Academy of Music and first preformed in London in 1724.  
In the recording to which you just listened the singer sounded like a soprano and the singer is a soprano. The singer was Robert Crowe, a male soprano. Male sopranos— even less known than countertenors. I might add, male sopranos are probably outside of our cultural understanding and maybe even outside of our cultural acceptance.
In fact, when interviewed on National Public Radio, Crowe said his experience was people who culturally know something about western classical music question even the possibility of a male soprano. But those who culturally know nothing of western classical music seem to accept the possibility. In short, cultural standards can overwhelm reality. Needless to say, cultural standards are not necessarily accurate.  (Slight pause.)
We find these words in First Peter: “…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim, praise and sing about the acts of the One who called you out of the night into the divine light— the marvelous light— of God.” (Slight pause.)
When doing Bible study there are a number of basic precepts to follow. Three go hand in hand.
First, ask: ‘what is the social context, the accepted social behavior and standards of the time during which the Scripture being studied was written?’ Second, ask: ‘what is the social context, the accepted cultural behavior and standards of our own time?’
Third, ask: ‘how do those cultural standards, ancient and modern, influence us in ways which have nothing to do with theology?’ In short, ‘How do ancient and modern cultural standards influence us, alter in detrimental ways, what was written?’
An example: it’s pretty clear slavery is a common and an accepted social practice throughout the time Scripture is being written but not today. And it’s pretty clear you can find all kinds of support for slavery in Scripture. Does that mean slavery is sanctioned by God? No.
More problematic, however, is when a social practice is common in Biblical times and is also common today. An example: patriarchy, a system in which males are primary authority figures central to social organization, was common in Biblical times. Many see patriarchy as common today in various places and on multiple levels. Because we find patriarchy in both times, does that mean patriarchy is sanctioned by God?
The simple answer is “no.” But there is also a more complex approach which needs to be pursued: ‘how are cultural standards, common in Biblical times and common today— how are these cultural standards overcome?’ And can we, thereby— by overcoming the common standards approach an understanding of a place to which we are called by God?’
Put differently again, ‘how do we overcome what is merely cultural behavior, cultural baggage, and engage in theological behavior?’ (Slight pause.) Perhaps the first step is to try to identify what was simply and only cultural behavior in Scripture and what is simply and only cultural behavior today. (Slight pause.)
I would suggest and I don’t think I would get too many arguments about this. We live in a structured top-down culture. Therefore, people often hold offices of power. Hence, when we read about (quote): “a royal priesthood” we tend to think in terms of someone or some group holding an office with authority.
Culturally, then and now, in Biblical times and today, that’s what priesthood often refers to— someone or some group in an office with authority. But is this passage saying anything about an office of authority held by someone or by some group? I think not.
The imagery in this passage may seem exclusive since it claims us as a chosen race, a royal priesthood. However, there is an insistence on the unity of one body, one household, one race, one priesthood, one nation. There is an insistence on our unity as one people.
You see, the first audience of this letter were people who were displaced and dispossessed— spiritually, religiously, socially, economically, politically displaced, dispossessed. The author asserts in Christ God creates a place for those who have none.
This spiritual house is not a social club of like people which exists for its members. It is, rather, a household— at the head is God; the cornerstone is the Christ.
Those within this household have a new standing— no longer outcasts, no longer marginalized by social conditions. The language exalts this community as it stands before God striving to do the will of God. (Slight pause.)
Given the human temptation to convert a gift into a possession, we too often read passages such as this to mean our standing before God comes as a result of our own merit. We thereby exclude others from membership. The text grants no such license for exclusivity or condescension. God is, you see, the householder and not us.  (Slight pause.)
One of the things which makes this passage so powerful and so important is that in Biblical times top-down structure was a given. And yet this passage seeks to counteract a basic cultural message of that time.
This brings us back to male sopranos. Culturally a male soprano is a hard concept for us. And culturally, the very idea of equity— that we are all one before God— is a hard concept. But it is one of the bedrock concepts found in Scripture.
So, in terms of the passage I think the question with which we need to grapple becomes “who are priests?” And I think the answer is clear: all of us are priests. I also think we should not be honored or feel exalted by the office but challenged by it.
We should be challenged to seek the will of God and to do the will of God. Why? We— all of us— are one… and as one we are— all of us— chosen. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “As mentioned earlier, this afternoon I will be representing this Congregation at an ordination. And yes, authorized ministry is an office. But in our denomination authorized ministers narrow their responsibilities, generally to teaching and preaching. It is the priesthood of all believers— you, the Congregation, not the pastors— who are prime in accomplishing the multiple tasks of ministry in the church.”
BENEDICTION: Jesus assures us we will be empowered to do great works. We are, in fact, representatives of Christ, as we share the gifts God has granted us. And may the love of God the creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and the companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God and in the care of God this day and forever more. Amen.
 The analysis in several of the previous paragraphs is based on the information from Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV – Years A, B and C, the Electronic Version, from the commentary on this lection.