Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Living in the Thin Places: Anointings

Sunday, January 21, 2007

 

 

I Samuel 16: 4-13

Luke 4: 14-21


Rev. Dean Snyder

 

When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE, Christianity began to take on the values and organizational principles of the empire. But there were places far from the power centers of the empire and the church in Rome where alternate expressions of Christianity emerged…places like Ethiopia, and India, and the Celtic regions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

 

Celtic Christianity existed for centuries as an alternative to the more hierarchical Christianity of the Roman Empire. One of the concepts cherished by the Celtic Christians was the idea of thin places.

 

Thin places are places where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted…where it becomes so thin that we can almost see into eternity and catch a glimpse of the glory of the divine. In the Bible, mountaintops and wildernesses were often thin places.

 

Specific geographical places can be thin places. I know people for whom Paris is a thin place. Rome. Africa.

 

This coming week Jane and I are going to visit our daughter in Guatemala. When Nancy was a teenager she traveled to Mexico as part of a youth mission project working with children in the refugee camps at the U.S. border. Ever since, she has been drawn to Central America again and again until she finally just moved there. Central America is a thin place for her.

 

But thin places aren’t always literally places. The arts are sometimes thin places for some of us. Music. Poetry. People can be thin places. Marcus Borg believes one of the best ways of understanding Jesus is to think of him as a particularly thin place where the transcendent reality Jesus called the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven shone through.[i]

 

One of the emphases of the Celtic Christians about thin places is that they are porous and permeable. Marcus Borg says: “They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable.” [ii]

 

It is this “porous and permeable” image that I would like us to contemplate this morning.

 

Thin places are places where we can glimpse the realm of the eternal, but they are also places where the eternal can seep through and touch us.

 

The biblical name for this is anointing. When the holy and transcendent and divine manages to seep though the wall between us and it and touches us, we are anointed. Part of the spiritual life is being anointed. Thin places are porous and permeable. Not only can we touch and taste the divine but the divine touches and anoints us.  

 

In biblical times anointings were an ordinary part of life. They happened for two reasons:

 

1. Anointings were for the purpose of comfort and healing. The biblical people were a desert people. They lived in sand and wind. At the end of the day or at the end of a journey, after experiencing sand blown in their face and body all day, when they arrived at their destination, they were greeted by being anointed with oil to soothe the sting of sand and wind. It was a soothing and healing thing.

 

The writer of the 23rd Psalm says “Thou anointest my head with oil.” This was a metaphor for God’s comforting healing presence.

 

Because oil was used to sooth and to heal the sting of sand, wind and life, it became a symbol of healing. It was an early Christian presence that when people became ill, the leaders of the church would gather around them in prayer and anoint them with oil. We still do this.

 

In some parts of the church, anointing is a sacrament, although it unfortunately sometimes came to be called last rites because it was reserved for the moments just before death. But this wasn’t the original intent. It was a sacrament of healing.  

 

Thin places are places where we are comforted and healed. They are porous and permeable places where God’s comfort and healing can get through to us.

 

2. But anointings were also expressions of enthronement and empowerment. Kings were made kings by being anointed. Long before David became king of Israel, he was anointed by Samuel with oil from the horn of oil.

 

This is a profound thing, I think, that biblically the expression of comfort and healing is the same expression used for empowerment. Biblically we are comforted and healed for the purpose of being empowered and energized for the sake of service and leadership in the world.

 

Anointing is for the purpose of comfort and healing but it is at the same time for the purpose of service and leadership.

 

This concept of anointing is a core concept of Christianity. The Greek word christus – Christ – literally means “the anointed” or “the anointed one.” When the first Christi called Jesus of Nazareth the christus – Christ – they were calling him Jesus the anointed.

 

We can’t live as disciples of Jesus without sharing in his anointing.

 

Before Jane and I leave on Friday for Guatemala, I will be spending three days this week at the Board of Ordained Ministries’ examination retreat where we interview the candidates from our conference for ordination into ministry.

 

At these interviews candidates speak a lot about their call into ministry, and calls are important, but every Christian is called. I think the more important question when we interview candidates is “Are you anointed”? Do you have the energy and empowerment for ordained ministry?

 

We all live in the desert. Life is full of wind and stinging sand. Thin places are porous and permeable places where the oil of God’s spirit can seep through and touch and heals, and the same oil of the spirit that heals us energizes and empowers us for service and leadership.

 

Where are the anointing places in your life? What are the anointing experiences? Who are the anointing people?

 

Jesus began his ministry by standing up in a synagogue and reading a passage that said:   "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [the holy One] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [The holy One] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  (Luke 4: 18-19)

 

He began his ministry in the power of his anointing. He came to the synagogue, according to Luke, directly from the wilderness where he had been tempted but also where he had been ministered by angels.

 

The wilderness was a thin place for Jesus where the veil between the mundane and the realm of glory becomes porous and permeable and an anointing can get through.

 

All of us have a call upon our lives and, in one way or another, it is the same call that Jesus heard – to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

 

But the anointing is what heals the stings and hurts that keep us too self-absorbed to live out our call, and the anointing is what empowers and energizes us to live out our call.  

 

And I want to add this. Thin places are not always quiet and soothing and romantic. Certainly this was not Jesus’ experience in the wilderness when he was tempted. Thin places are sometimes places of tension, conflict, and change.

 

But we come away from thin places with a new energy and power.

 

We’ve all been thinking this past week about the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. King said he had been to the mountain top and had looked over and seen the Promised Land, he was talking about a thin place experience. Martin Luther King’s life included a number of very powerful thin place experiences. He came from these thin places anointed –healed and empowered and energized.

 

Life is draining experience. We need to be filled. Life is a stinging experience we need to be soothed. Where are the thin places, the anointing places, in your world? They are there. Heaven is eager to touch us if we will put ourselves in the places where it can get through to us.

                 

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[i] Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), 250.

[ii] Borg, The Heart of Christianity (see http://www.uuloudoun.org/ThinPlaces.html).