It will come as a complete shock to my friends to hear that somehow, between the study at home and my study at the Center (in other words in the short walk through the living room, out to the car, from the car in the parking lot upstairs to the office), I completely lost the manuscript for Sunday’s sermon. I have the computer file, of course — I just lost all the emendations I scribbled onto it as I read, reread, and improved it before the service. I’m pasting a version of it as best I can reconstruct it in the extended section.
And not only was Debra installed Sunday, but several of my Chicago-area students were priested: M.E., Susan, Heidi, Corinne, and Jeannie (and Janey, too, further afield). It was a busy weekend for the Holy Spirit!
Now, to square away some loose ends and finish our gift-shopping. . . .
Ezekiel 37:1-10/Ps 133 & 134/1 Cor 12:12-31/John 14:15-21
The Celebration of a New Ministry
Installation of Debra Bullock
December 16, 2007
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!
In the name of God Almighty, the Blessed Trinity on high — Amen.
The psalmist evidently thinks that you and I will instantly recognize that when something really great is happening, when the sky is blue and the sun is warm, when laughter bursts forth in torrents, when the taste of good food fills your mouth and light spirits thrill your heart — the psalmist thinks we’ll recognize in an instant that when we experience these good times, it’s like fine oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
Now I ought not presume to speak for you, but I do not think of “exultant joy” when I hear that vivid description of a church leader — let us imagine Debra in this role — anointed with such an abundance of scented oils that they do not only style the hair, but they roll down her cheeks and chin, dripping luxuriantly upon her robes. My first thought is, “I sure hope that oil will come out of the robes,” and my second is “Who pays the dry cleaning bill?” My third probably would be, “Was anyone taking pictures for the parish web site?” In fact, you would have to go through a very, very long list of reactions before you came to the response, “Wow, that must be a really great feeling!”
The limits of my imagination, though, ought not obstruct our view of the captivating delight set before us. The psalm bespeaks the excitement, the thrill of squandered abundance — of a joy so intense that we express it by pouring out precious gifts. Where is the most costly perfume we have? Let’s spray it all over everyone in the congregation? Where is the finest drink, the most glorious food? Let’s pull out all the stops, because when brothers live together in unity, in harmony, in cooperation, there’s nothing like it.
The psalmist is singing along with James Brown in these verses: “I feel good,” he sings, and this afternoon we feel good, and Bishop Councell feels good, and Debra feels good, the confirmands feel good, and it feels good to me, too, to see you call a student whom I respect and care for so very much for this important ministry. It feels good, like oil on the head, pouring down from the beard — hey, even dripping down on the robe.
That deep kind of joy bursts forth from when we recognize flesh and blood aligning with the Spirit of God, and there’s nothing like it. Sometimes it makes itself known by tongue speaking and uproar, sometimes by momentous changes that redress ancient wrongs, and sometimes that holy joy arises as we encounter God in sacrament and faith. It feels good, oily good, and by that joy God signs us with an authentic, take-it-to-the-golden-gates, eternal divine signature. Sometimes that we recognize that heavenly presence indirectly, but in several of our sacramental rites we put God’s own oily fingerprints on our sisters and brothers. When we lay on hands for healing, we say, “George, I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.” When we baptize, we say, “Debra, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever!” At such holy moments, God’s tremendous joy charges our words and actions, and as we recognize God at work in us, anointing us, we feel good indeed.
God anoints us for unity, as the psalmist teaches: bringing Jacob to reconciliation with Esau, restoring Joseph to his brothers, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility that separated Israel from the Gentiles and making of two divided peoples one body in Jesus Christ. Jesus warned us against imagining that God’s unity embraces only the people we approve of — “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” The ecstatic joy of God’s indwelling wholeness rushes in when we allow that God’s love and God’s embrace promise us the true unity greater than any unity that we cobble together, greater than whatever we good we gain by winning in this or that struggle. The good news, the oily joy announces not that we prevail over others, but that God prevails over everybody’s short-sightedness and willfulness. That’s part of why St. Paul reminds us that all have erred and gone astray; we rely on God to set us on the right path, all of us. And when we’re walking right, God promises that we’ll find a unity with hitherto hostile sisters and brothers, a harmony that brings irresistible joy to our hearts.
God anoints us for new and limitless life, building from the bleached bones of mortality a spiritual body equipped for goodness: Our flesh wearies, our bones ache, our wills falter, and in this life we run up against limit after limit after limit. God promises Ezekiel that it need not be that way. God warns that as long as we rely solely on human capacities we will certainly encounter frustration and disappointment and death; humanity can’t raise itself out of the valley of dry bones on our own power. But by God’s life-giving grace, dry bones take on flesh, grow strong sinews, breathe and walk. By grace, lifeless clay learns not to cling to the things that are passing away, as though by overstuffing our mortality we could transform it into immortality; no, by God’s grace dry bones learn something greater than possessions, pleasures, power and privilege. Bones, dry bones, dead dry bones have no bank accounts, no SUVs, no regal vestments, no McMansions. Dry bones have got nothing going for them but the grace of God, but by God’s grace they leap up rejoicing in a greater, heavenly way of life.
God anoints us for obedience and cooperation, waiting patiently for us to overcome our stubborn determination to have our own way. The Body of Christ doesn’t work that way — it doesn’t live that way. The Body grows as all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. In this Body, hands do the grasping and holding; feet do the balancing and pushing onward; eyes do the seeing, ears the hearing, and they can’t afford for the nose to start telling the hand how to do its job better. The psalmist’s ideal of living together in unity envisions genuine togetherness, not like sulky teenagers rolling their eyes in the family Christmas photo, not like the chilly arm’s-length politeness with which you greet your ex-girlfriend, but unreserved, heartfelt, joyous togetherness that flourishes where people release themselves from the hostilities that arise over difference. Sisters and brothers, God wants us different! “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” God made us different parts with different capacities and different priorities, and we attain the wholeness of the Body of Christ when our parts operate harmoniously, together.
When hand and foot work together in harmony, when sister and brother live together in unity, when bone and sinew and flesh and spirit live, knit together in grace, then it feels good, better even than when oil pours out on the head, and runs down the beard. It feels good when your bishop raises up a gifted, strong, loving vicar for this wonderful congregation, and it feels good when your new vicar greets you in the name of the Lord. It feels good to come out to St Barnabas, to hear your hymns of praise and to share in communion with you, with the confirmands, with Debra, with Bishop Councell.
But it feels even better when the gospel shines forth from these walls, warming wintry hearts and illuminating darkened eyes, strengthening weak hands and making firm the feeble knees. It feels better when we show the whole world that — not on our own strength, not out of sanctimonious superiority — we can keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loved us, anointed in our love by the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence. In the power of that Holy Spirit, the demanding vocation of feels good to us, and we can keep Jesus’ word.
It’s not that there are no limits — but the only limits to what God will do here at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay in Villas, New Jersey; or at St. Mary’s, Stone Harbor; or in Trenton, or Princeton, or anywhere in the world, the only limits come from us. We run into limits where we impose our awkward efforts to determine on God’s behalf where joy should be permitted. When we try to set the terms for joy, when we try to control joy, we stifle our joyous discipleship under the grim determination to make everyone do it our way. The plans we make to coerce others wind up entangling us, shackling us to the narrow horizons of our purposes, our willfulness. That’s the way we can set limits on the joy that flows from God’s saving grace: to impose them on ourselves, which we most often do when we hands and feet and toenails and shoulderblades try to do the decision-making that belongs to the Head. But just as the limits arise only where we build them, it’s part of that blessed liberty for which Christ has set us free, that when we let go of our proud self-determined temptation to control, when we open our hearts to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us, to bring out our greatest gifts and set them in harmony with each other, then God’s grace surrounds us and breathes life into us. Now, that feels even better than when oil flows down your beard!
Discipleship and ministry that flow with oily joy cannot be stopped, sisters and brothers, cannot be limited, can never be suppressed. When it comes to God’s joy, there can be no oil shortage. And when a congregation is overflowing with that good and pleasant feeling, the spiritual vitality will shine like a beacon, the boneyard all around us will rattle and the rise up, a vast multitude coming to share the Spirit by which you thrive. And here, sisters and brothers, each of us exercising our ministry in concert with the rest, joined and knit together as each part is working properly, partakes in the new and unending life of the Body of Christ — and Bishop Councell, Debra, friends from St. Barnabas and St. Mary’s and all around, that harmony, that cooperation, that new life feels good, even better than oil running down your robe!