Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Practice of Pronouncing Blessing

Sermon for April 7, 2019 

Read Numbers 6:22–27 and Mark 2:23-28  

This week I want to talk about the practice of pronouncing blessings. To many people the idea of blessing something sounds vaguely mystical, and something that is better done by a member of the clergy. Now, when I was living in the south, I heard phrases like Bless your heart often, but usually they weren’t blessing anyone. 

No, for most people, a blessing is done in a church by a pastor, usually at the end of the service. Blessings happen at weddings, baptisms and funerals. They aren’t everyday occurrences. 

And yet, they can be. For instance, how many of you say grace before a meal? That is one of the oldest forms of blessing and it is one that many people practice on a regular basis. 

It might help to talk about what a blessing is.  When I "bless" you, I am asking God to increase your health, wealth, happiness or whatever it may be, to shine His light on you; in essence, I am asking God to give you more of Himself. 

In one of her classes, Barbara Brown Taylor tells her students to read Wendell Berry’s poems. If you have never read Berry’s work, many of them are blessings upon the natural world.  Then she tells them to go out and pick a tree during break to read the poem to. While it is initially treated with skepticism, this activity can help many people understand blessings in a way they couldn’t before. 

Taylor says of Berry, "Reading him, you come gradually to understand that the key to blessing things is to know that they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing. You do not always have to use magic words either." To bless something is to notice what it is and to name it. 

In Hebrew, a blessing prayer is a brakha. The root of the word means, to increase, or to bring down divine abundance. Blessing is about increasing what is already there. When you bless a strawberry, you are noticing how amazing a strawberry really is.  A blessing does not confer holiness, but instead noticing the holiness is already there.

Like all of the practices we are talking about this Lent, the best way to understand it is to try it. Begin by blessing the ordinary, everyday things around you. If you need a starting point, it is helpful to look at our spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people. 

An observant Jew says at least a hundred blessing prayers a day. There are prayers to be said upon waking up in the morning, before setting out on a journey, at seeing a comet, and when wearing new clothes. There are prayers for pastries, fruit, vegetables and wine.

And all of these blessing prayers begin the same way: Baruch Atah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech, Ha-Olem, which means Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe. 

To bless that strawberry, I would say, "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit from the ground." I might go on to say "May its flesh be sweet and provide nourishment to the eater."  Or, it more every day language, I could say, "Blessed are you God, for you have created strawberries for us to eat, and blessed is this strawberry for being sweet and juicy."

But what I’m really saying is a lot more than just "thanks for making this strawberry." I’m saying, "God presence in this world has been made that much greater, has increased, through this fruit You created that I am about to enjoy."

I’m declaring that whatever it is I’m making the blessing for – whether it’s a food I’m enjoying, a roll of thunder I heard, or an evening with friends  – is increasing God’s presence in the world, through my recognition of His role in creating or commanding it.

We can all pronounce blessing. Blessings are good, true, and beautiful words conferring divine favor and help, and they both comfort and challenge the recipients. And in blessing, we are recognizing and increasing the presence of the divine around us. 

Taylor writes: "God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not. When Christians speak of the mystery of the incarnation, this is what they mean: for reasons beyond anyone’s understand, God has decided to be made known in flesh. Matter matters to God. The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility. Pronouncing blessings upon them is the least we can do." Offering blessing lets us recognize the holiness in the everyday. 

If reading a poem to a tree is not something you think you can bring yourself to do, you can start smaller. Begin by noticing  the world around you. As we move into spring, I can see almost daily the changes in the trees and bushes. Bless the new daffodil that is budding, or the crocus whose blooms offer color on dreary days.  A favorite blessing of mine is to notice people in a grocery store, or an airport or a restaurant. Know that each of them have their own life as complex and intricate as yours. Try offering silent blessings for their lives.  

But I’ll warn you, when you begin to bless the world around you, the way you see the world changes. Taylor writes, "To pronounce a blessing on something is to see it from the divine perspective. To pronounce a blessing is the participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity. This may be why blessing prayers make some people uncomfortable." Offering blessings for a stranger, draws you into their lives. Makes you closer to them. 

We often forget about the challenge of a blessing. The Abrahamic blessing, the foundation of God’s covenant with his people, is not a blessing of special privilege for his family to establish a private refuge from the world in which God’s gifts continue to shower upon them alone. Instead. the blessing is for the whole world—all creation, in fact—to share. Blessing bestows favor and comfort but also commissions us to pass on the blessing to all creatures great and small.

So this week, offer blessings. Bless your family and friends with love. Bless the food you eat and the wine you enjoy. Bless the trees you walk by and your feet for taking you there. Offer animals blessings alongside pets, and bless strangers as you pass by. And see how your perspective changes.