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God Annoints Our Smallness

The following sermon was preached by Paul Friesen-Carper, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, April 7, 2011.


1 Samuel 16:1-13

 “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.”

As catechumens everywhere await the proclamation of these words over them at Easter, and as we prepare for the baptismal celebration of the Easter Vigil, we read this most memorable text of anointing.  God calls Samuel to take a horn of oil and go to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king for Israel now that Saul has been rejected.  And just as so often happens in scripture, it is not the elder brother, but the younger brother who is chosen: not Esau, but Jacob; not Reuben, but Joseph; not Ishmael, but Isaac; not Eliab but David.  And once David has been called from the flocks like Cinderella after her stepsisters, God tells Samuel to anoint him and God’s Spirit comes down upon him mightily.

Our service of baptism reflects this story.  After a person is baptized the presider marks the sign of the cross on her forehead with oil and says the words those words of anointing.  Our orthodox sisters and brothers include oil more fully in their rite.  Just before a candidate is baptized the priest marks the sign of the cross on at least their head, back and front.  And after the baptism the Holy Spirit is sealed with chrism in a greater proliferation of fragrant oily crosses so that it includes almost every body part.  Now, don’t get me wrong – Lutherans can do this, too.  In the ELW there is a rite for Welcome to Baptism that includes the option for 12 beautiful oily crosses.  But it is included more out of hope than out of necessity.

Maybe you can recall your experiences of anointing?  I was baptized when I was 15.  And I know that ought to remember being sealed by the Holy Spirit… but I don’t.  Maybe that’s because, where I grew up, anointing consisted of a rancid cotton ball stuffed onto a holy ring-pop worn either for baptisms or the odd and uncomfortable healing service.  I do remember when I first came to LSTC that my hands were anointed with oil from a small cup and I was told: “Let these hands be the hands of Christ.”  I may have had other experiences, but this pretty much sums it up: the oil seemed innocuous at baptism; it ought to have been inoculated when used for healing; and seemed small for the huge task being assigned me at a commissioning of sorts.  Yet these are not the only experiences to be had.

An intern went to the supermarket wearing his clerical collar one Wednesday evening in Lent after leading a worship service and Bible study.  He had run out of salt or pepper and it was convenient on his way home.  He walked into the spice aisle with his mind somewhere else, and suddenly he was interrupted by a woman shouting, “Thank God, a pastor!  You gotta help.  She’s got it bad, she needs an anointing!”  There, next to the spices was the olive oil.  The woman grabbed a jug of olive oil, tore off the cap, and began to pour it over the other woman’s head, and nearly grabbed the intern by the wrist to put it in his hands.  As politely as possible he did what any good Lutheran would do: he grabbed his salt and pepper, made a beeline for the checkout and shouted over his shoulder, “I’ll pray for you.”

Anointing is scary, maybe even dangerous.  We resonate with Samuel, “How can we go?  Saul will kill me.”  A glance at the development of anointing in Israelite tradition will help us understand why Samuel was scared.

It begins as a sign of fealty.  What scholars consider some of the earliest mentions of anointing in Hebrew Scripture are the other anointings of David, one by the elders of Israel and one by the people of Judah.  It was a sign of their submission and their fealty to him.  So we see that Samuel’s act is treason.

But our story is theologically scary for us too, because it gives the distinct impression that God is the one who anoints David.  Does God swear fealty to David?  Can David have God in his hip pocket?  That’s certainly what Israelite royal propaganda suggested.  It’s the idea behind the Davidic covenant.  God was on the monarch’s side politically, militarily and ideologically – so much so that his title was “the one YHWH anointed.”   Well, if that’s the case, what about us who are called “Christians,” us little christs, us little anointed ones?  Have we been given power over the omnipotent?  Is this some bizarre twisting of our freedom in Christ?  Wouldn’t it be safer just to say anointing is only about healing or commissioning?

You see anointing is unsettling.  We prefer it fix us or give us a task – or better yet, leave us alone.  We stand at the gate with the Bethlehemite elders to question the one carrying the oil.  “Do you come peaceably?”  Can I trust you?  You’re not going to unleash that power here are you?  What happens if you do and something dangerous happens?  Will you be responsible for it?  Isn’t anointing for those Pentecostals and charismatics anyway?  Couldn’t you just leave and go play with Benny Hinn where I can watch from the safety of YouTube?  Anyway, we’re concerned with good order here.  Don’t you know that anointing is messy?

Yes, anointing is messy.  It runs off the head, down the neck and onto the robes.  Like the water in LSTC’s font that baptized the basement, it doesn’t go where we want it to go.  Not to Eliab, not to Abinadab, not to Shammah.  Not to anyone we brought to the sacrifice, but to the one left behind, to the smallest one (the Hebrew is ambiguous here, meaning either “smallest” or “youngest”), to David.   Not to our successes, not to our degrees, not to our institutions, not to our intentions, not to our beautiful and tall selves, but to what we keep on the other side of these holy walls, to the part we try to hide from God, to the unworthy part, to the failure, to the fringe, to our unpresentable selves, to what we’re ashamed of – that is where the anointing goes.

And just like David, what God calls to be anointed is ruddy is rare and paradoxically beautiful.  God sees with eyes that penetrate our moral, physical, and social constructions of righteousness, attractiveness, and propriety.  God takes hold in the anointing of what is weak, of what is hidden, of what is last, of what is broken, of what is rejected.  And God finds it beautiful.  In the anointing, God takes what had no power and promises to be its overflowing power.  In the anointing, God takes what is hidden and honors it in the midst of what is presentable, just as God takes the cross and makes it a sign and an instrument of grace.  In the anointing there is also healing and purpose, but first there is God’s unbounded power poured out to overflowing into our smallness.  There is God’s divine royalty brought low enough to raise up our most discounted self.

As we near the end of our Lenten journey this spring, let us enter into the mystery of anointing. What do we leave behind when we come into the presence of God?  Is it a gift we have been told not to give? A belief we’ve been counseled not to have? A personal characteristic we’ve come to regard as a flaw? A hope we’ve been told is unrealistic? A mercy we’ve decided is only for others?  What hidden, small, discounted part is it we leave behind?

For God seeks out that hidden thing.  God sees its beauty.  And God anoints it. God takes what has been crucified and raises it up.  God sees you beautiful. God takes hold of you, O anointed one, claims you, and pours out the Spirit upon you mightily, with power and with healing and purpose. And the Spirit’s rich, fragrant oil spills off your head, down your neck, to your robes, across every part of your body and overflows into every hidden crack and cranny of your heart.

 “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.”

Amen.

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