Chrism Eucharist sermon, Liverpool Cathedral, 2019

The Breath and the Oil

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Hildegard of Bingen,  1098-1179. Saint and Doctor of the Church.

Listen.

(Female voice:) Listen; There was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I a feather on the breath of God.

Look around. Here we are, ministers of the Gospel; baptised, some of us commissioned, some of us ordained.

Look around. See yourselves as God sees you. You are, all of you, pillars of the Church, great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.

You preach the word and you minister the sacraments. You have asked God faithfully for the bigger church that makes the bigger difference, your life is spent on pilgrimage as you make the inner journey and the outer journey, as you pray, read and learn; as you tell, serve and give.

I trust you. You have trained, and studied, and reviewed and refined your ministry. You have offered your lives to God in God’s church and the offering has fed and nourished you. And you have spent yourselves in service and have become weary in well-doing. You are built up and you are worn down, because you responded to the call of God.

Yours is a calling without end, you whose lives are fragile and freely offered. Yours is an infinite calling, you who are finite. Your ministry is demanding of your spirit.

Some of you are tired, and some of you are beyond tired.  Some of you suffer stress, some of you suffer severe stress, in your mind and heart because of your love for God’s people, God’s wonderful, ungrateful, supportive, demanding, exasperating, blessed people, the people God has chosen and has given you to love.

So you come today after a year of carrying the weight of your ministry.

And you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength.

(Female voice:) Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I a feather on the breath of God.

The Bible tells us about Jesus. Read the passage printed below. In that version St Luke says: “Jesus opened the book; he found the place where it stood written: A breath of the Name upon me because of which he anointed me to announce good news to the poor.”

Luke reminds us that Jesus’ ministry began with a breath of the Name upon him. His words are an echo. In Isaiah we heard the words first, you heard them read today. In Hebrew the reading is this, Ruach Adonai, and then a word, and then alay.

It says Ruach, the movement of the air, the wild wind of the desert and the gentle human breath. It says Adonai, the Lord, because there is another word there in Isaiah, the Name of God, the word our elder sisters and brothers in Judaism usually don’t speak. When you see that name in the scripture you say, Adonai. And when you see that same word and it’s not in the scripture in worship you say haShem, the Name. It says alay, on him.

In the Authorised version it says, “the Spirit of the Lord GOD…” In the English we heard and we usually hear, it says The Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. So the anointing comes first, and then the Spirit comes upon the anointed one to give strength for the ministry already given.

Whenever the Bible talks about Holy Spirit it means Holy Spirit. But beyond that phrase the church can get a bit churchy about this Hebrew word, ruach, this Greek word pneuma, these Bible words that the scholars tell us can mean Spirit, or wind, or breath; and can mean any of these things anywhere.

So perhaps it’s this, as it’s written in the extract printed below: “Jesus opened the book; he found the place where it stood written: A breath of the Name upon me. A breath of the Name upon me because of which he anointed me to announce good news to the poor.”

Jesus is a feather on the breath of God, borne along by his Father, borne along, sustained, beloved. The Son does nothing by himself, Jesus said in St John, the Son does only what he sees the Father doing. To Nicodemus Jesus said in St John, God’s breath blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Breath.”

So perhaps it’s this, a breath of the Name upon him, and that came first. Because of which he was anointed to announce, to proclaim, to send, to proclaim. Perhaps the breath came first and then the oil, the choosing first and then the anointing, beloved first and then appointed.

(Female voice:) Listen; There was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.

Here we are, then, we who are pillars, great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory. Here we are, ministers, Appointed. Baptised. Commissioned. Ordained. Consecrated to the service of the King sitting on the throne. Here we are, responsible. Accountable. Entrusted. Here we are with the burden that we agreed to bear. And I see you, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.

And Jesus said to you, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and bear fruit and so that your fruit could last.”

Jesus appointed you, the Spirit anointed you. Anointed; mashach, this word from which we get meshiach, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. The One who was anointed has chosen and anointed you. You share in the burdens of the Christ, you share the anointing of the anointed One.

Jesus said that his burden would be easy. It does not always feel that way. And yet scripture says that we are to receive ”…the oil of gladness instead of mourning…”. So we are commissioned for joy and for an overcoming hope.

And this anointing is the presence of God in us that enables all our actions, to announce, to proclaim, to send, to proclaim. To spend, to nourish, to build up, to wear down.

And in the ordinal the bishops say to the ordained, and today I say to you all and not only to the ordained, “you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength”.

(Female voice:) The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I a feather on the breath of God.

We follow Jesus. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. A breath of the Name upon us, a breath of prayer to pray, a breath of the word to read, a breath of wisdom to learn, because of which he anointed us to announce, to proclaim, to send, to proclaim, to tell, to serve, to give. The breath came first and then the oil, the choosing first and then the anointing, beloved first and then appointed.

And we come today to lay our appointment once again before God, for a fresh breath. So that together we can remember our belovedness, we can remember before one another, we can reconnect to that sense of belovedness that is the wellspring of our ministry and our first love.

We are sent to give of our lives, we are responsible for that giving, we are held accountable for that giving, and so here as appointed ones we recommit ourselves to our promises; but here first as beloved ones we receive again the life of the One who loves us.

We receive life in our own companionship, crystallised as we share peace together in a moment and as we share lunch together later.

We receive life in the promise of God’s grace extended through the church, crystallised as we pray together for one another and as, if we wish, we receive again the anointing for service, from our sisters and brothers who like us are sent to serve.

We receive life from God where God promised life would be, the life of the God in Christ, the God in the anointed One, who gave God’s own self so that we might live, crystallised as we receive the blessed sacrament at this table in a moment.

And all this takes place today. Today it has been fulfilled, this writing, in your ears.

In the Bible you feel the shock of the words in the Nazareth synagogue, on the day that St Luke calls the day of the sabbaths, perhaps it was a high and holy day, certainly it was a religious day, but surely it could not have been “today” when it was fulfilled.

And I pray God for all of us here, that we too feel that shock, we who have the Spirit, the breath of the Name upon us, when we hear that today it has been fulfilled, this writing, in our ears. That we go from here to our communities in the power of the breath –  beloved, appointed, fulfilled.

Listen:

(Female voice:) Listen.
There was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour.
Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along.
Thus am I
Thus are we
Thus are you

A feather on the breath of God.

 


Bible passage adapted from Richard W. Swanson, ‘Provoking the Gospel Storytelling Project’.

Luke 4:16-21

16  Jesus came into Nazareth

where he was brought up.

He went in,

in accord with his custom

in the day of the Sabbaths,

into the synagogue.

He stood up to read.

17        It was given to him:

a book of the prophet Isaiah.

He opened the book;

he found the place where it stood written:

18                  A breath of the Name upon me

                           because of which he anointed me

                                to announce good news to the poor.

He sent me,

to proclaim

to exiled captives:

release;

to blind people:

seeing again;

to send those who have been crushed
into release,

19                      to proclaim a year of the Name acceptable.

20        He rolled the book.

He gave it back to the attendant.

He sat.

The eyes of all in the synagogue

were staring at him.

21        He began to say to them:

  Today it has been fulfilled,

                       this writing,

      in your ears.