A sermon preached on May 4, 2008, based upon 24:44 -53, entitled “Blessing”.
Years ago on a Sunday morning I was up early finishing off a sermon that involved encouraging people to inwardly, silently blessing people as we go out into the world. I went to the bagel store to get a coffee and bagel, and, and while I was waiting, I thought to myself, “Jeff, you should try to practice what you preach.” And so silently I said, “God bless this woman who is preparing my bagel.” At precisely that moment the woman sneezed, thereby allowing me to say the words out loud. God, I’m convinced, has a sense of humor.
When God brought forth creation, on the sixth day he made human beings in the likeness and image of God, and we are told that once God had made us, God blessed us.
When God called Abraham and Sarah to leave behind their homeland and to go into an unknown future, an unknown land, we are told that God blessed them, and that in that blessing they would be a blessing to all the world.
Later we hear about Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son, lying on his death bed, blessing his son Jacob, shortly before Jacob leaves home to set out into the world.
Twenty years later, on the night before that same Jacob returned home, he wrestled with the angel of the Lord, refusing to let go until the Lord blessed him, which he did.
And in this morning’s Gospel lesson we hear that the very last thing Jesus did before he departed to heaven was to raise his hands and bless his disciples.
And so I am lead this morning to ponder what it means to “bless” someone.
To bless someone is to intentionally seek to channel God’s love and grace to that person, that they may enter into the abundant life which God desires to give them. In order to bless someone, it is necessary for us to be able to bring our whole selves and full attention into the present moment of the blessing. You cannot bless someone if your heart and mind are divided.
As such, the practice of blessing someone generally involves some kind of ritual. Rituals doesn’t have magical powers, but they can aid us as we seek to bring our whole selves fully into the presence of God into order to be that open channel. Jesus raised his hands as he blessed his disciples not because the blessing couldn’t take bless without him doing so; rather it was a ritual action that helped focus the attention of everyone involved.
Is a blessing powerful? Yes. Is God’s love present apart from the blessing? Of course. But the act of blessing helps us tune into that love, to align ourselves with God’s love.
Rituals of blessing are particularly important at key times of transition in life, such as at birth, at marriage, in the midst of dying and death. Generally speaking, Roman Catholics have a greater appreciation than we do of the role of ritual, as well as a wider array of established rituals to draw upon.
But nothing says we can’t create our own rituals of blessing. For instance, when you move into a new home, or start a new job, you could create your own ritual for blessing. Set aside some unhurried time, perhaps inviting loved ones to join with you. Be creative: light candles, put on special music, create an altar to God’s glory, read scriptures, all for the sake of bringing your whole self before God in a desire to receive God’s blessing, and to bless the path before you.
In doing so we strengthen our desire and intention to live in harmony with God’s love, to live in the light rather than darkness, to provide space for God to dwell at the center of our lives.
You could create a ritual of blessing if you have a child starting her first day of school, or a new year of school. Or just before you set out on a vacation, to strengthen your openness to God’s love and guidance on that vacation.
If you find yourself truly desiring to change a bad habit in your life, a ritual of blessing can help enormously to strengthen your resolve and to invite God and loved ones to support you and hold you accountable in your new way of living.
In the act of blessing, we are often called to let go, to trust God. When a child leaves home, for instance, the act of blessing that child entrusts her to God, assisting the parent in letting the child go so that she won’t be held back from fully thriving on her new journey. This is, in essence, what Jesus did for his disciples, blessing them in his departure, that they might be free to move forward on their own rather than dwell in the past.
And there is a tremendous need for rituals of blessing in relation to dying and death. So often in our society death isn’t faced directly. It is not uncommon to have a person be dying, and neither the person nor their loved ones talk about the fact of their dying directly, and then all kinds of unfortunate things can happen. For instance, the person may reach a point where they are ready to die, but the family isn’t ready to let the person go, and so the dying person continues to cling to life, a mere shell of themselves, in order to accommodate the loved ones.
How many people die in this world without either first blessing the people they have shared this life with, or receiving the blessing of their loved ones? How many people in this world are handicapped because they never really felt like they received their parents blessing, or, that never really gave their parents their blessing.
What about the opposite of blessing, which would be, of course, a curse. Curses show up frequently in the Old Testament. There was said to be a curse brought upon the human race by the fall of Adam and Eve. Sodom and Gomorrah, is cursed by God and brought to rubble.
Is there power in curses as well? Yes. We can just as easily be a channel for destruction and hate as we can channel God’s creativity and love.
One of the most striking things about Jesus is that he forsook the practice of curses. One time, Jesus was passing through a Samaritan village with his disciples, and the people there, acting out of the longstanding hostility between Samaritans and Jews, were inhospitable to Jesus. In response to their rudeness, the disciples James and John, known as “the sons of thunder,” offered to call down lightning upon the village, like Sodom and Gomorrah of old. Jesus rebuked them, clearly dismayed that the disciples simply weren’t catching on to his way.
“But I say to you, listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27) And Jesus put his money where his mouth was when, dying on the cross, when if ever a person had a right to evoke a curse, Jesus certainly did, and we read that he steadfastly refused to curse, asking instead forgiveness by God of those who had nailed him to the cross.
The most challenging thing about following Jesus is his call to forsake cursing, which doesn’t mean using bad words, but rather giving up the practice of channeling revenge and hatred towards who wrong us.
Blessings and curses appeared in the news two times this past week that caught my attention.
There is a lovely song we Americans enjoy singing, “God bless America.” Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the song was sung frequently, and the words proclaimed all over America, an understandable reaction to the deep sense of loss we shared as a nation.
It is appropriate to ask God’s blessing on America. There is a problem, however, when people seek to withhold that same blessing from other nations, and sometimes “God bless America” is proclaimed in that spirit. I made a point following 9/11 to leave a message on my answering machine that said, “God bless America, and God bless the whole world,” because I think that is what Jesus would do.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Barack Obama, was in the news again this past week defending some of controversial things he had said in the past in his sermons. For instance, in a sermon shortly after 9/11, Rev. Wright asked “God bless America?” He answered, “No, God damn America!”
Rev. Wright’s point involved his conviction that America is not without sin, which is a valid point, and not one I wish to get into here. I think however that our instinct to be disturbed by such words coming from the mouth of a Christian pastor were correct, because, Jesus damns no one.
The other piece of news came from the General Conference of our own United Methodist Church, which was held the past two weeks in Fort Worth Texas.
Two people are drawn to one another in this life, and decide they want to live with one another for the rest of their lives, striving to love each other — to covenant themselves to one another in fidelity and faithfulness, to devote themselves to the hard work required to sustain a life-giving relationship over the long haul. Knowing how difficult this can be, given the fact that we human beings tend to be by nature rather self-centered, they come together before the altar of God to look into one another’s eyes and bless one another in the presence of God and of the community that loves and supports them, to make holy vows to one another for which they seek the blessing of God, that God might be the central partner in strengthening them and holding them accountable to keeping this covenant. We know how important a wedding ceremony can be in providing the ritual in which this blessing can take place.
Unfortunately, the delegates at our General Conference once again voted to withhold this blessing if the two people who desire to come to the altar of God happen to be gay or lesbian.
It distresses Jesus, I believe, the position taken by the majority of the delegates of our General Conference, but Jesus would not have me curse these delegates, rather, God bless these delegates.
I think it distressed Jesus when Pastor Wright said “God damn America,” even though I’m sure there are many, many things about America that God is distressed about, but I will not curse Rev. Wright, rather I will say, God bless Rev. Wright.
And I think that it distresses Jesus when certain church communions withhold the blessing of holy communion from those who are not their members, but Jesus would not have me curse such churches; rather, God bless these communions.