A sermon for Easter 5A Psalm 31:1-5,15-24 (Part 2 of Nouwen series)
Tuesday morning I was sitting in my office downstairs when suddenly, I heard an explosion. Blasting, someone told me. They are blasting over there, I told a visitor later that day, waving my arm in the general direction of Depot Street.
I haven’t been in town three weeks yet, but I can see—and hear—the impact of commerce on the town and, by extension, this church. I have to admit that before this month, I have never known Freeport other than as a place to go shopping. Oh, shops have come and gone. I remember being a faithful visitor to the Laura Ashley store in the late ‘80’s. I remember any number of configurations of LL Bean. But this is the first time I’ve really seen—and heard—the blasting. And I found myself wondering, when is a blasting a blessing, and when is it not?
When I was a new pastor, and my family had just changed to the UCC insurance program, and I called the number on my card to ask a question. In those days, the number took you directly to the Pension Boards, rather than to Blue Cross, but I didn’t know it. After a pleasant conversation, the woman on the phone closed by saying, “Have a bless’d day.”
Huh. This was something different! I wondered what she meant, exactly. What is a bless’d day? And is it different from a blessed day? “Blessed be” is a phrase that is sort of the pagan “Aloha,” a phrase that means farewell and amen and hello all at the same time. I like to roll words around in my mind and try to find new ways of understanding them, and her farewell presented me with a challenge. Could I find the blessing in it?
Last week we explored the idea of being chosen by God, and this week we move on to part two of a four part series based on the work of Henri Nouwen in his book “Life of the Beloved.” Nouwen felt that we could describe our spiritual life with the formulation we hear each time we share Communion together, that like the bread, we are taken (or as Nouwen prefers, chosen), blessed, broken and given. Nouwen believes that we are all chosen by God, but he goes further and says that is not enough for us. We need to know that we are also bless’d and blessed.
So the question arises, what does it mean to be blessed? We used the word so casually in my family growing up, saying “bless you” to the one who sneezed or “ohh, bless it!” while rubbing the stubbed toe or the banged elbow or even while applying the home cure of crushed ice in a bread bag to a bump on the head. It was the sort of thing an old man character in a movie might say while wiping a tear from his eye, “Well, bless my soul!”
When I began to hear the word in deeper ways, I felt suspicious of it.
Because there are plenty of claims of blessing out there, and some of them are anything but.
When we learn that a person who has been ill for a long time has died, or an older person goes quickly, we might say, “It’s a blessing.” I know I heard this when my father died, with no warning other than a vague sense that all was not well and a trip to the hospital, all on a Wednesday morning. “It’s a blessing,” people said to me, but I did not believe it. The blessing was not in his quick and, for him, rather frightening, death.
We have a strange way of looking at things sometimes.
You see, the blessing was in his life and in his love, the admiration in his eyes when he spoke of my mother’s beauty, the guidance he gave my mischievous little brother, the patience and support he gave to me every step of the way, the humility he showed in his later years when he thought back over his rather wonderful life and named the things he wished he could have done a little better. He blessed us all.
God’s blessing may seem obscure, especially if we don’t equate it simply with material blessings. It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that many churches nowadays, and a preponderance of those you’ll find on TV, seem to be focused on God’s blessings as primarily, if not exclusively, material. Follow my lead, a preacher will say, and you WILL have material success!
I’m told that this is nothing new. In Portland, 30 years ago, a pastor told his congregation that God wanted every one of them to have a Lincoln Continental.
But I don’t believe blessings are about possessions or worldly successes. Jesus taught us over and over again to care for the poor, so surely they are not outside the reach of God’s care. And that is the real blessing, the feeling of presence that fills our hearts and lives, when we realize that God cares for plain, ordinary us.
Have you noticed how ordinary the troubles of people are in the Psalms? There are a handful of themes that repeat throughout them. For the people of Israel, long ago, the Psalms were a form of prepared prayer that people used in a ritual form, speaking to God in words that represented the human condition, even if might not be the same as the personal condition. They began by declaring injustice or illness, continued by asking for recompense or healing and ended with a statement of certainty about God’s presence; all these components worked together to give people who prayed the Psalms a sense of connection to the Creator, otherwise too large and too far away to be of much direct help. Somehow the Psalms worked to make a difference.
God’s blessing can seem obscure, and so we put God in the parental role and imagine a sort of kindly grandfather who not only cares for us but has the power to give us what we need and want, and the power to punish us when we stray, and the will to use that power.
But it is the less tangible blessing that the Psalms lead us to feel, that singing a favorite hymn or hearing a favorite verse or seeing a familiar and beautiful sight can remind us about, that sense of being filled with joy and light that children feel so often and that adults both crave and, in some cases, fear, more than just a little.
Sometimes it comes in a flash when we experience God in a new way. In 2001, my husband took me on my first trip to the Southwest. When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, I stood at the rim at an observation railing completely speechless, which as you get to know me better will only become funnier.
For such a long time that he began to worry.
God is indeed our rock and refuge, and in those purple rocks I felt God's blessing, older than time, for all of us.
21Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
Sometimes being blessed means letting go of all the old ideas we had
about what might work, about what God wants, and even about what we
Irritating, isn’t it? Bless that!
I’m thinking about your town and your church, mine, too, for the time being. Tuesday’s blasting reminded me that to some extent all churches are under siege from a world that largely ignores them, perhaps finds church quaint, or even finds churches harmful or dangerous. Businesses have brought a certain kind of prosperity to Freeport, but we know very well it’s not all a blessing, or that a blessing to some is a blasting to others. And no one wants to be blasted, eliminated as if being there in the first place hadn’t meant very much.
No one wants to be blasted by explosives or by words. To be blasted or cursed feels terrible. It may not cause a fatal physical wound, but it can cause a long-lasting wound of the heart and the spirit.
15My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
Last week we spoke about being chosen and about choosing to acknowledge being chosen. We human beings can be so complex, can’t we? Now we contemplate being bless’d, or blessed, and there is once again a choice involved. Will we own up to being blessed by God? Can we know God’s blessing without immediately associating that blessing with getting our own way or being better than someone else?
You see, God has blessed plenty of people who did not meet the qualifications for success in the eyes of the world. It’s not a car or a computer or a new roof or central air conditioning that mark us as God’s.
And God has blessed many people who did not miraculously recover from disease or injury, for the truth is that the blessing is not found in any results we can measure.
The blessing, as the psalmist knew, is God’s steadfast love, a light that shines for us when there are no other lights close by, when all is darkness, when the world shakes with the blasts of “progress” or disappointment or loss. Even then, our times, our lives are in God’s hands. God’s face of love shines on us.
Blessed be God, who blesses us. Bless’d we are, and blessed be. Amen.