SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
BENEDICTION: The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings no audio available
Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 133
Pastor Donna Buell
This morning we come to the last in our series of sermons inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. Throughout the fall we have been invited to consider practices that can help us gain a richer awareness of God’s saving presence in our lives. And this morning we are invited to consider BENEDICTION: The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings.
It seems fitting that Taylor would end this book with a chapter on Benediction. One of the most well-known benedictions in our Judeo-Christian tradition is the one Tom just read for us. We are told that God gave these words to Moses for his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons. In their role as priests, they were to pronounce this benediction over the Hebrew people at the end of daily worship. In this way, God’s name and God’s blessing would rest upon the people.
These ancient words are the oldest fragments of written scripture that have been found to date. About ten years ago archeologists discovered two tiny silver scrolls in a cave, along with a cache of other items that have now been dated to more than 600 years before the time of Christ. There is a picture of one of those scrolls on the front of your bulletin. When these silver scrolls were carefully unrolled scholars were able to identify the markings on them as being Aaron’s blessing in a very early written form of the Hebrew language. It is believed that these tiny scrolls would have been threaded onto a leather cord and worn around the neck as an amulet – symbolizing God’s blessing and protection.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.
Now it seems odd to hear those words in the middle of worship, for as a benediction they are meant to be the last words spoken in worship – sending us forth from this time and place set apart for congregational worship, into all the other times and places of our lives, so that we might be blessed with the knowledge that God goes with us.
The structure of the benediction is quite intentional. Each phrase contains two parts, an action on the part of God and the resulting experience in our own lives. When we are blessed by God, we sense God’s care and protection/God’s keeping. When God’s face shines upon us/when the light of God’s attention is turned toward us, we experience the unmerited gift of God’s grace. When God’s countenance is lifted upon us-when God gives us that favor and acceptance, we experience a peace that is deep and abiding. And when we experience God’s blessing in our own lives, it can lead us to desire that blessing for others, and even more importantly, to be a means of blessing for others.
Jewish culture is steeped in blessing. And these blessings always begin by blessing God, the source of all blessing. Traditional Hebrew blessings always begin with the phrase “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe” before going on to name the particular way in which God has blessed the particular moment. And this spirit of blessing and benediction continues in our Christian tradition. We see this especially in Paul’s letters which always end with words of blessing, such as the familiar words found at the end of II Corinthians, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The Celtic culture of Ireland and Scotland is steeped in blessing as well. In colorful language, these blessings call us to attend to God’s presence in all the ordinary things of daily life.
The language of blessing is invocation, a calling forth. Blessings and benedictions are not words of instruction or command, or even requests made of God. Blessings do not cause God’s favor to rest upon someone. Rather, they give voice to our desire for the experience of God’s blessing. This is why blessings usually include or imply the word may. To use the word may is to have a future in mind which is, in this case, characterized by God’s presence and God’s favor, God’s grace and God’s peace, and then to desire and will that future for ourselves or for one another.
Unlike the Jewish and Irish cultures, American culture is not particularly steeped in blessing. Sure, if you sneeze someone will probably say “God bless you.” But there aren’t many places in our lives where we truly experience blessing – that deep sense of being seen and received for who we are and not for what we can do for someone else – that sense of being embraced and accepted as we are, rather than being critiqued for all the ways we fail to live up to others’ expectations of us.
The poverty of blessing in our culture is never more obvious to me than during a campaign season. It gets to the point where I don’t even want to turn on the television because of all the calculatingly deceptive half-truths and outright falsehoods that are thrown around. And I think you’ll agree that this campaign season was particularly painful, and continues to be. There has been far too much speech that has generated a whole lot of heat, but shed precious little light on the very real issues that face the people of our nation and our world.
Now the church does pretty well with blessing at threshold moments. That’s why people have a tendency to come around when they want a wedding or a baptism, when they want their adolescent confirmed or their loved one buried. They come to the church or to some other religious institution because they recognize that these threshold moments call for something greater than our culture is able to provide.
If they stick around they may experience other blessings, such as when we give bibles to our children and their parents as a reminder to nurture God’s Word and God’s presence in their lives, and when we send our seniors forth at graduation time reminding them that God’s presence will be with them wherever they go. And we bless one another each time we welcome one another with grace, each time we engage with one another in meaningful conversation, each time we hold one another in our hearts and in our prayers, each time we offer our own gifts in ways that help others to experience a sense of being seen and heard, accepted and embraced, enriched and empowered. We bless others when our presence has helped them to experience God’s presence, God’s love, God’s blessing. Tagore put it this way: “After you had taken leave, I found God’s footprints on my floor.”
This morning’s Psalm compares the experience of blessing in community to the experience of being anointed with oil. In word pictures the Psalmist helps us to imagine an experience of blessing that encompasses body, mind and spirit. Even in English translation you can hear and see and feel that soothing sensation of oil pouring down, marking that sense of sacred presence.
“It is like the precious oil
running down upon the beard
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.”
We need that sense of blessing…we need it badly. Not just when we sneeze. Not just when we graduate. Not just on our wedding day. In our every day lives we need to be reminded that we are not alone, that God is with us…in all times…and in all places…and in all circumstances. And we need to help each other in this, making it easier for one another to experience that blessing, not harder. We all need to have that experience of being seen and heard and embraced and accepted for who we are. And when we do, it is a beautiful thing – a precious thing – a saving thing.
Rachel Naomi Remen writes about her personal experience of blessing in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessing.” Each Friday afternoon after school she would arrive at her Grandfather’s house, where he would serve her tea at the kitchen table. And after tea he would set two candles on the table and light them. She goes on to tell the story with these words:
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 me and 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 …
These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
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 my 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 [my grandfather’s] eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.
Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they had meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly, “I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel,” she told me. “I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud.” “My Grandfather’s Blessing,” Rachel Naomi Remen, pp. 22-24
Would that each of us had someone who would bless us by their presence in our lives, and who would have the wisdom to do it out loud. That is the practice that Barbara Brown Taylor is writing about in this final chapter of her book. She is not writing about the saving experience of receiving a blessing from others – as important and saving as that may be. No, this chapter is about the saving experience of pronouncing blessings – of speaking them out loud. It is about being the one who gives voice to those deep desires for the well-being of another, so that they might know and experience God’s love and blessing in their own lives. So she encourages us – no matter who we are – to practice pronouncing blessings, because she recognizes how unfamiliar we are with the language of blessing and how foreign it is to us to bless other people. We actually do this every Sunday when we turn to our neighbors and bless them with the words: “May the peace of Christ be with you.”
This practice of pronouncing blessings doesn’t come naturally to all of us. It makes us self-conscious. And for some of us it is hard to find the words. But we don’t have to use our own words. We can use words of blessing that others have spoken or written.
A few years ago I picked up a book by a United Methodist Pastor named Jan Richardson. “In the Sanctuary of Women” is a graceful and gracious book of daily reflections on the lives of particular women of faith from different periods in history. And at the end of each daily reflection Richardson has written a blessing for her readers. There are hundreds of them. So to help us practice pronouncing blessings this morning, I have typed up a number of Richardson’s blessings as well as some Irish blessings. And as you leave the sanctuary this morning, I will be at the door with a basket full of these blessings. I invite you each to receive one of these blessings as a blessing for your own life. But I also want you to use this blessing as an opportunity to practice pronouncing a blessing upon someone else. And so some time today, right there in the Narthex, or during the fellowship hour, or on your way home, or around the dinner table, I encourage you to speak that blessing out loud to someone else, that they too may be blessed.
“What’s saving you?” That is the question that led to this book of spiritual practices that we have been reading this fall. Barbara Brown Taylor ends the book with a quote from Rumi: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” And indeed there are hundreds of altars in the world. There are hundreds of ways by which we may experience and honor the saving presence of God in the midst of our daily lives. And so I want to offer a benediction for this whole series of sermons, using these words of blessing from Jan Richardson:
May you find the practices
that offer you a doorway
into the heart of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.