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The Oil on Aaron’s Beard

October 6, 2014

“The Oil on Aaron’s Beard” Psalm 133; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 © 10.5.14 World Communion Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In the classic romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan and Bill Pullman are walking through a china shop, picking out sets of dishes for their bridal registry. As they stroll through, considering patterns, they talk about experiences they’ve had. Ryan says of one event: “You know, it was like kismet, but not.”

Surely that’s one of the more incomprehensible comparisons we could hear. But I think its cousin is found in the psalm for the day. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon…the beard of Aaron…. It is like the dew of Hermon….” “You know, it was like kismet, but not.” Huh?

What could the author possibly have in mind? We’d like to know if he has some special insight into how humans can live together in harmony or how co-workers can get along or the church can somehow get beyond its suspicion and brokenness and get on with ministry. The lines of gender, class, creed, nationality, age, viewpoint, lifestyle, and on and on divide us, separate us from those whom Jesus urged us to consider our neighbors. We talk past each other. We eye each other warily. We watch our backs lest we get stabbed literally or figuratively when we’re not looking. It seems sometimes as if people live on different planets, with languages and customs with no common reference point. The line that appears on so many divorce papers could describe our plight on this planet, in this nation, in our organizations, in the church far too often. Two words: “irreconcilable differences.”

“Help!” the Beatles said. “I need somebody. Help me, please!” That’s our cry as well. But is this obscure text the place to look for aid? Obviously I think so. Maybe the very strangeness of its imagery can break open some new insights for us.

The basic thrust of the text isn’t hard to figure out. People living in harmony is a good and wonderful thing. In saying that, the poet rejects the alternatives: warfare, bickering, rivalry, name-calling, taking revenge. A community that lives with getting along as its goal, that strives to heal the hurts and bring people together—well, that’s something to sing about, to celebrate.

Maybe the thought of such a celebration, of something good, led the writer to reflect on times when the community especially came together with joy and harmony. Surely one of those occasions would be the ordination of the high priest, the chief religious officer of the people. There’s hope for change in the air. The future seems bright and full of promise. A group of people who had to think every day about how to save money and make do could suddenly become extravagant. Oil was a precious commodity usually reserved for essential functions like heating and cooking and providing fuel for lamps. But when a priest was ordained, the liquid was poured over his head in great quantity. It ran down over his beard and onto his robes. Wasted. Gone. For this short time, the space of a few hours, a group of people who always had tomorrow on their minds could concentrate on the joy of the moment. They could act on faith that God would provide what they needed. Knowing that God was watching over them, they could afford to be, could choose to be, generous.

The other image—dew on the mountains—has a similar reference to blessing. In an arid land like Israel, any moisture was welcome and needed. Dew was a gift from the hand of almighty God, who took care of his own and all creation. Water and well-being were synonymous.

What the poet wants to say about unity and harmony begins to become clear. A community that lives in peace is one convinced of the blessing of God. It depends on God more than on its own efforts. People that are sure God will provide can reach out their hands in friendship to each other, because accepting someone who is different cannot threaten anyone who is in God’s care. Scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the life of such a community as “unguarded, careless, and generous.” He observes: “A community at peace is one with more than enough” (Texts for PreachingYear B: 281).

By contrast, when folk are frightened, when they have little confidence that their needs are going to be provided for, when the whole world seems to be crashing down around their heads, they exhibit the classic response: they flee or they fight. Their language is filled with references to “us” and “them,” with slurs against people from other races or religions or languages, another gender or some distant spot across the globe, all the isms and phobias we cling to in our day. They think primarily about how to build walls instead of bridges, where they can get the emotional or physical armor plate to protect themselves instead of the dinner plates to share a meal. They must find an enemy. Indeed, their whole identity depends on having an enemy against which to define themselves. A culture war against this or a holy crusade against that, a group to blame or an incident to exploit. For all its might, it’s the totalitarian system that’s really insecure. It must oppress the populace and suppress free speech and thought to maintain its hold.

I’ve become convinced from reading and experience over the years that the reason certain Christians don’t want to cooperate with other believers, much less Muslims or Jews or Buddhists, is because the faith of those brothers and sisters is really not particularly strong. They have to remain isolated and insulated or else demand cultural props and laws to support their beliefs because such faith can’t withstand the probing questions of reasonable people influenced by science or guided by common sense. Pull out one brick, like an inerrant Bible, and the whole building comes tumbling down. When your existence is that precarious, you see everybody as an enemy, even members of your own family, in this case, the family of faith. You’re constantly afraid something or someone is going to bring that carefully constructed edifice of doctrine and practice crashing down, and fear is the greatest threat to harmony and unity. That’s why the biblical writers sometimes said fear, not hate, is the opposite of love.

The apostle Paul certainly knew something about people living with fear and anger that led to conflict and disharmony. He wrote to a group of people who were constantly fighting each other. It’s interesting to look at the church in Corinth as a kind of case study in human relationships. These were people so filled with rage they were blinded to their own inadequacies. Their conversations had become shouting matches filled with slogans, when they spoke at all. They argued about everything: food, sex, church government, worship services, spiritual gifts, their favorite preacher, the church budget and how much to give to missions. Paul penned four letters to them, now cobbled together as 1 and 2 Corinthians. He tried hard to sort everything out. But nothing seemed to work. And probably Paul got blamed by a number of the members for all their problems; certainly his reputation was trashed over and over again by some powerful folk in the church. Finally, he simply said “Folks, I love you; my heart is wide open to you. Is it too much to ask that you treat me the same way?”

Paul’s appeal to his troubled church makes a fundamental point about human relationships that get into trouble. Especially relationships between people of faith, whatever their beliefs and traditions may be . It’s just this: there are never just two partners in a fight—us and them, you and me. There’s always a third, namely, God. When we fail to be reconciled to each other, we are also separated from God, whose heart breaks at the mess we’re in and who longs to hold us close or at least to hear us speak again in civil tones. It won’t do to claim you or I love God or follow Jesus when we can’t get along with each other in the nation, the community, the church, the workplace or the family. The way we live is an index of our commitment to the gospel that calls us to peace. It shows how dependent we are on the God who is able to provide for our needs. Remember: it’s people who believe their survival is threatened who can’t and won’t welcome another.

But when we’re secure in the knowledge and love of God, we’re open to the gifts that others may give. We’re free to love our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus taught us, to be hospitable and seek understanding. When we know that our lives, along with all others on Earth, are sustained not by our efforts, but by the God who sends the dew upon the mountains, we begin to give up our claims to power over others, our efforts to control, our insistence on our own agendas. And just maybe when we take steps to break the cycle of defensiveness and fear, others will give up their claims as well. Then we can begin to work and live for a larger common good, namely, the day when all humankind will know the blessed extravagance of reconciliation, the oil on Aaron’s beard.

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