You Anoint My Head with Oil
You anoint my head with oil… When Elizabeth and I were dating in college, we alternated going to Presbyterian and Episcopalian worship services. As a lifelong Episcopalian, Elizabeth was jarred by how often the Presbyterians would mention things happening in the world around them. It wasn’t that they talked about politics, but they would mention specific events in the world and lifted them up as ways to pray and be involved. They never did that at her home church, so it took some getting used to.
For my part, I struggled with the “smells and bells” of high church: incense, processions with the gilded cross, the Anglican aerobics of standing, sitting, kneeling, jumping, and so on. But what really got me was the one Sunday they announced a “healing service”. The congregation was invited to stay for a service of the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. Boy, the benediction couldn’t come soon enough for me. My head had left the building five minutes ago – I had to sprint to catch up with it.
Growing up in the South, even in Atlanta, my only frame of reference for this kind of worship was Benny Hinn: faith healers who seemed to me like charlatans, who claimed to give the gift of sight to the blind by planting a face palm on them. When the priest announced an Episcopal healing service, he might as well have broken out the snake cage and started passing the rattlers around.
Now, I am pleased to say that Elizabeth is a patient woman. She was willing to give me time to figure out what is now quite obvious to me, that there are worlds separating the charismatic practice of faith healers from the ancient liturgy of anointing. Those of you who have been here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian for some time know that our deacons lead an annual healing service each January where we practice the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. And not once have I run screaming from the sanctuary.
You anoint my head with oil…
From where I sit, the Presbyterian church has changed a great deal from the church of my childhood. And the biggest change that I have noticed is a willingness to consider practices from other denominations. And this change has stretched me. Where I once had a knee-jerk reaction to things as being “not Presbyterian”, I have now realized the possibility that richness and depth can actually lie outside of our Scottish roots. Offering wine in communion will not shake the foundations. Holding a worship service with Taizé music or songs by U2 will not stir the wrath of God. The ceiling will not cave in if we use an instrument other than an organ. Singing praise music will not bring about Armageddon. It makes little difference to God if we say “amen” or clap or sit in awed silence: what matters is that we know that God is the source of what we celebrate.
The uniqueness I have come to recognize here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is that we embrace a wide variety of practices and expressions of faith. And we know that not everything we do will resonate with everyone. It reminds me of the story of the pastor who was greeted at the door with the line, “I really didn’t care for that second hymn.” Without batting an eye, the pastor retorted, “Well, it’s a good thing we weren’t singing it to you!”
The health of Oglethorpe Presbyterian lies in the perspective we share that worship is ultimately not about us. And that’s the heart of all of these so-called “non-Presbyterian” practices: what is faithful is what gives God the glory. And among the many practices the church has used through the centuries, this tactile, hands on practice of anointing with oil is simply one way to remember the Lord who is the source of it all.
Our two lessons this morning stand as reminders of this ancient ritual. The psalm is a brief one, one of my favorites. It was written to be sung by worshipers as they made their way up to the Temple, rejoicing in the power of faithful fellowship. It is so wonderful to be together, the psalmist writes, as wonderful as that oil poured upon the head of Aaron, our first priest! There was so much of that precious oil, in fact, that it poured down from his head, onto his beard, and ran off onto the collar of his priestly vestments. The psalmist picks up on this idea of plenty by comparing the oil to water, coming down from on high as a trickle, building into streams and rivers by the time it waters the thirsty lands.
The priests of old, the prophets, the kings, the leaders of the faithful, were those who had been chosen by God. They were anointed with oil, a physical action that mirrored the spiritual one of being made clean, set aside for God’s ministry and service. And it was from this practice that the word “Messiah” sprang.
To be “Messiah” is literally to be anointed. The Hebrew word from which “Messiah” comes, “Mesheach”, translates into Greek as “Christos”, from which we get “Christ”. And our New Testament lesson recounts Peter’s early recognition of Jesus as Messiah, as Christ, as anointed. Jesus has gone away with the disciples into the quiet calm of the mountains of Caesarea Philippi in the north. And there, sitting next to the springs that give life to the land below, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Is he, as some people say, John the Baptist reanimated? Or Elijah, the prophet who mysteriously disappeared, returned to lead the way of the Messiah? Or another of the prophets, come back from the dead? It is Peter who sees the truth as clear as day: Jesus is the one. He is the one that Scripture has promised, the coming Christ, the Messiah, the one to be anointed so that the kingdom of David is restored. Israel will return to her former glory, throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression.
It is from this proclamation that Peter gets his nickname. He is no longer Simon the one who hears. He is Peter the Rock – not to be confused with Dwayne Johnson or Alcatraz: Petros, the rock, is the symbol of sound faith. And on this kind of faith, the church can be founded, and remain sure-footed.
And yet, no sooner has this happened than Peter is put in his place. As Jesus begins to explain to the disciples what it means to be Messiah, Christ, Peter is deeply disturbed. Instead of talking about the reinvigoration of the great Israelite nation, Jesus tells them about suffering, betrayal, death, resurrection. Peter is so sure that Jesus has gotten it wrong that he takes it upon himself to correct Jesus, which Jesus takes about as poorly as one can. Simon the Hearer become Peter the Rock is now Satan the Adversary. Peter is rebuked, told to set things right: “Get your mind off the things that other people want. Start focusing on what God wants.”
How often do we do that? How often do we focus on God’s desires rather than our own? Or worse, how often is it that we think about God’s favor instead of popular favor? How often is our action guided by the question, “Does this please God?” And how often are we more worried about what the neighbors will think?
Friends, this summer we have been looking at the 23rd Psalm, phrase by phrase. And while each section has something to say to us about faithful living, I believe it is today that we get to the heart of who we say that Jesus is, and who we say that we are. If we call ourselves Christians, if we are followers of this one we call Christ, Messiah, then we ourselves are anointed! We are set aside. We are called to faithfulness and to particular roles in the building up of God’s kingdom. God anoints our heads with oil: and while the outward sign is an important one, it is the inward action that truly changes us for good. Just as in baptism or communion or anything else we do where we invoke God’s blessings on the material, we know that God is at work in ways that are far beyond our ability to summon or create!
So the question for us today is simply this: what is it that we have been anointed for? For what purpose has God set you aside, called you? There is a quote from the great Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner, with which some of you are probably familiar. He says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where is that place? Where is the world hungering for that thing that gives you joy? What does it mean for you to put away the thoughts of people and focus on the things of God?
After worship today, we gathered around the table of fellowship. And just as those ancient worshipers celebrated being together, our time today was a blessing, like that precious oil running down the beard of Aaron the priest. Today, we particularly wanted to say thank you to those who make ministry possible here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, and there are so many of you to thank. You support this church’s work with your time, with your hands, with your money, your voice, your presence, your love and prayer and care. And as we say thanks today, we know that we are ultimately saying thanks to the Lord who is the source of it all.
I also know that some of you are looking to be involved, to be a part of God’s amazing work, not only here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, but way on out into God’s wild world. Or maybe it is that are already actively engaged; but what you are doing no longer feels like a calling. Instead, it has become a burden. You are looking for something new, something that doesn’t drain your life, but gives you life.
If this describes you, I hope you will take this moment as an invitation, a reminder of your own spiritual anointing. God has gifted you! The question now is, what will you do with that gift – or rather, what is it that God wants you to do with that gift? Will you keep it to yourself? Or will you allow God’s blessings to flow through you, like a gentle trickle from on high that can build into a river of living water, quenching a thirsty world?
If this resonates with you today, then I invite you to one simple thing. Write your prayer as a comment below. And be sure to write your name. If you do, don’t be surprised to hear from me later in the week. More importantly, though, don’t be surprised if you hear from God, pointing you in new ways, opening new doors for you.
Friends, God anoints your head with oil! May it be so, not just today, but always.