Sunday, June 10, 2012
Blessing our Children Rachel Naomi Remen in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings tells this story about the poignant relationship between a Grandfather and his beloved seven-year-old granddaughter. She writes: On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table…After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming. When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, “Come, Neshume-le.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories—Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah to watch over me…” And then the author finishes her story with these tender words, “My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, “Neshume-le,” which means “beloved little soul.” There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.” And so the question is asked this morning: What does it means to be blessed, and what does it means to bless. For I have come to believe that blessing is a powerful thing. The Torah, the five books which are the foundation of our Judeo-Christian heritage, gives us an idea of this rich tradition of this idea. And in it we learn what it means to bless, and also the opposite, what it means to curse. But while there are several different variations on the word curse, several different Hebrew translations of the word, (people can be cursed, countries can be cursed, cursing can happen by God or curses can be offered to one another), there is only one single Hebrew word for bless. The word is barak, with the noun form being berakah. And the word derives its meaning from the word “to kneel.” When one received a blessing they knelt in respect, when and in turn, when one offered a gift they also knelt. The profound and inherent sacredness is acknowledged in the Hebrew word choice, and the posture of the body is important here and worth considering. For with each uttering of the word, one was reminded of the holiness of yielding, of being brought to one’s knees in sacred awe. Even the word would remind the listener that this blessing stuff was serious business. Bill very patiently read to you the long and involved passage of blessing which Jacob offered his sons as he lay dying, yesterday he joked with me wondering if my sermon would be shorter or longer than the scripture (I suppose the jury is still out on that, and I should have had you all time us and see). In the patriarchal and tribal world out of which the book of Genesis grew, there had to be a way for the tribe to understand who the next leader would be when someone died. And so the blessing, or curse, of the birthright was serious business. And these patriarchal blessings (and they were usually patriarchal, for the matriarchal ones didn’t quite pack the punch in this world that valued men), these blessings for peace, or health, or virility, or prosperity, or victory in battle, once offered, could not be revoked. And it is ironic that, Jacob, the one who deviously stole the birthright from his twin brother, Esau should be the one doing the blessing in this morning’s scripture (we can only assume he learned his lesson well and realized that he better shape up as he passed his blessing on and try to be even and fair). I can imagine the scene, can’t you? The twelve sons gathered in the dimly lit sick room where their father lay dying. The twelve sons who represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Their father, Jacob’s ragged breaths catching with each word as he motioned each of them to him and then pressed a blessing, or in some cases, a warning into each of his sons’ heads. One will be praised by his brothers, two will be used as weapons of violence in this war-hungry culture, one will be a haven for ships, one will be rich in food, another a fruitful bough, the blessings go on and on. Even in this most dysfunctional of families, where the favorite son was cast out and sold to slavery and where the oldest son slept with one of his father’s concubines, the tradition of blessing was maintained. And surely this is a relief to us all of these years later, for their family relationships could endure what would make for an awfully intriguing reality TV show in the twenty-first century, surely ours can survive. But, I digress… With the blessing, Jacob offered instructions of how he wanted to be buried, and how tradition should be maintained. And then Jacob, the father of this mighty clan that tradition maintains would lead the twelve tribes of Israel into the future “drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” The writer Annie Dillard once wrote of inviting blessing in this way, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” The power of blessing can be life-changing, and it is time that we take it seriously. As seriously as our ancestors did. The novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett tells the story of an African American housekeeper in Mississippi during the tumultuous days immediately before the civil right’s movement. All too often, African American women raised the children who might one day grow to be their oppressors. All too often, children were not influenced in ways that considered all people equal. And we realize some of what can happen if children are not shaped in their early years in the power of offering love instead of hate, grace instead of judgment. These loving domestic workers often adored their young charges, but realized that the culture of racism would not allow for that easy nurturing relationship to continue in the same way once the strict delineations of race and class which were evident in the deep south at that time had the power to assert themselves. In one poignant scene, Abilienne Clark, the domestic servant in the house of the Leefolt family, decides that she has to make a difference in the life of young 3-year-old Mae Mobeley, a child who Abilienne has raised since birth. A child who has often been criticized and ignored by her mother. Abilenne loves Mae as her own, but realizes that if she wants to make a difference in Mae’s future she needs to offer her an alternative to the angry words that she has heard, an alternative to the ugly culture which is asserting itself, an alternative to the criticism she has learned and witnessed in her home. And so Abilenne chooses the most simple and profound lesson she can impart. Each day she kneels at the feet of Mae and looks with love into her blue eyes and says to her with truth and honesty, “You are smart. You are kind. You are important.” Abilenne offers hope in the face of oppression. She offers faith in the face of doubt. As she kneels, she offers a blessing. And with her blessing, she creates the reality for which she prays for Mae. As a pastor, I am privileged to be ushered into those moments when blessings are sought. I am the one who is invited to stand at the front of the church when a couple is married. I get to be the one who holds the baby or child who is baptized and walk them through the church for you all to see. I am the one who looks into each person’s eyes as they receive communion, and who makes the sign of the cross in oil as I anoint in the name of Christ. It is a sacred and holy calling and I am mindful of the gift each time I do it. And I believe fervently that the moment a pastor forgets this privilege, or takes it for granted is the moment they should take off their stole and step out of this pulpit. But when I am at home, when I am not standing in front of this church, when I am just being a mommy, or a partner to Robert, or a step-mom, I realize that I all too often forget the power of blessing I could offer to my own family. I forget what it means to grasp the hands of my step-daughters and pray for their safety as they drive off into the night. I forget to cradle my son’s sweet head in my hands and beckon angels to watch over him as he sleeps. I forget to press my hands into the hands of my beloved husband before we have dinner at night and remember that the holy is in our midst. All too often I forget. Or perhaps, it is that in blessing there is an intimacy and a power that I don’t always know how to hold. Perhaps I am afraid that I am not worthy of invoking that kind of power. But here’s the secret, friends, we all can. And we all should. For in offering a blessing, we are ushered onto that holy ground which beckons us to kneel in awe. And I believe this world needs every blessing we can offer. May it be so. Amen. May the sending one sing in you, May the seeking one walk with you, May the greeting one stand by you, In your gladness and your grieving. May the gifted one relieve you, May the given one retrieve you, May the giving one receive you, In your falling and your restoring. May the binding one unite you, May the one belo’vd invite you, May the loving one delight you, Three-in-one, joy in life unending. Go in peace, my friends, go in love. Amen.
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
First Fruits It was a hot night in the month of July in the year 2003. I sat on the floor of my new kitchen in the home I had just moved into as a newlywed surrounded by Caphalon and Revere-ware pots and pans on my right, and ten or twelve glasses of crystal stemware on my left. But as I sat on the floor that summer night on Strathdon Drive I was not glowing and feeling that honeymooner’s bliss. Instead I was crying frustrated tears, and Robert was sitting on a chair nearby with his head in his hands shaking his head. Robert and I had been married for only three short weeks. Here we were, just beginning our new life together in wedded bliss, thrilled that after a year’s engagement we were finally moving into a home together something we’d been longing to do, and here we were blessed with an overabundance of kitchen paraphernalia as we combined our pots and pans. And all I could do that night was cry, for I was overwhelmed with how to handle it all. It was a delightful problem to have, really—and a little embarrassing to admit when so many are hungry and needy in this world. And I was enjoyed to be beginning our new life together and thankful for the abundance we had. But, with this joyful change came a responsibility of sorts, and a need to acknowledge one another’s feelings (even if Robert did have an unhealthy attachment to a set of particularly ugly potholders, and I had way too many salt and pepper shakers) We were thrilled about our good fortune, but we were also creatures of habit who had to learn how to live into this new reality. With joy and anticipation, came anxiety. With hope and prosperity, came the need to be open to change. And change, even good change, can make us nervous. This is some of what Paul spoke of in his letter to the church of Galatia. There had been rapid growth in the church. There was much to celebrate. But, there were tensions too, namely over whether Gentiles had to become Jewish before they could follow Jesus. As much hope as there in the promise of the new church, as powerful as the movement was, there was still anxiety about how tradition could be maintained, while allowing new ways to be adopted. As much joy as there was about the future of kingdom of God, there was still wonder about how to determine how decisions would be made. For even in the midst of excitement and hope, there was still change. And remember, even positive change can make movements nervous. And out of this anxiety, Paul rose to the occasion and responded as a true leader could. He reminded this fledgling flock to bring forth their finest fruits. The fruits of love, and joy, and peace. The harvest of patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. The crop of gentleness and self-control. For Paul knew that for the church to continue, they had to bring the best parts of themselves into their lives as followers of Christ. For the fulfillment of Christ’s mission to be complete, the church had to discern the mind of Christ. This morning we celebrate the First Fruits of our Renewing Peace campaign harvest. Peace United Church of Christ has now pledged just over $300,000. Can you believe that? $300,000. Money which will be used for much needed repairs on our building. Money which will be used to make our building more energy efficient. Money which will be used to fix things which have been breaking down around us. Money which will be given, happily and joyfully, to mission projects that we desperately feel called to support. Money which will ensure that Peace United Church of Christ carries on. But I don’t have to remind you, you who take your faith seriously, and who take seriously your commitments, that with this abundance comes tremendous responsibility. Stewardship, the stewarding of money and resources, is no easy task. And we cannot be too gentle and tender with one another as we enter into this season of celebrating the first fruits of our harvest. Our task now is to listen to one another well, to love one another abundantly, to seek the mind of Christ as we discern where and how to grow, to trust that God will work through the community as we walk together in this time of celebration and deliberation. For our efforts will be in vain if we do not grow in our faith through this time. Will we be anxious sometimes as a community if we disagree on exactly what color carpet we want in the sanctuary? Maybe. Will we all be of one mind on what the sliding door in the fellowship hall should look like? Probably not. Will we understand the intriciacies of heating and cooling systems and all want the exact same thing? It’s doubtful. But, more important than any of these questions are these: will we walk together with love and tenderness and patience and kindness and joy? And will we pray for the mind of Christ as we live in community? I believe we will. I believe we will because we are a people that value community, and we realize that the Spirit moves throughout our community. I believe we will because we are passionate about our mission, and we realize that to be true followers of Christ we must listen to his words about love. I believe we will because Peace United Church of Christ has a bright future ahead, and we are brothers and sisters committed to a future of hope, ready to listen for where God calls us next. May we walk together, arms clasped in unity. Amen.