I preached today at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church. My friend Lori Pistor is the Interim Pastor there. Those good people are reading my book for Lent and invited me to help kick things off. It was a wonderful day. Here’s what I had to say.
“Blessed From the Beginning”
A Sermon for West Raleigh Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015
I’d like to start this morning with a question much like I asked the children earlier: what comes to mind when I say the word blessing? You don’t have to answer out loud; just hold the question for a moment . . . .
The dictionary says the word has to do with “God’s favor,” with “making something holy,” “to call on God to protect,” and, of course, “the prayer said before meals.” All of those are true and I think there is something missing in those definitions that is a vital part of the way we find our places in this world. Blessing someone is a way of saying, “you are good, “you are worthy,” “you are enough.” It’s a way of reminding one another we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.
We are all looking for a blessing.
As I started thinking about what it means to give and receive a blessing, my mind went first to the Seinfeld episode about Festivus, Kramer’s alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah. Some of you may remember. George’s father latched on to the holiday and everyone showed up for the celebratory feast. After dinner, Mr. Constanza said, “And now it’s time for the Airing of Grievances, which is when I go around the table and tell everyone of you how you have personally disappointed me this year.”
Blessing would be at the other end of the continuum, as in the words Jesus heard during his baptism: “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Blessing.
Both our passages deal with water, wilderness, and blessing this morning. After forty days of rain, and then all the time it took for the water to recede, Noah and his family let the animals out of the arc and saw the rainbow—God’s sign of covenant and blessing.
Jesus came to the Jordan to find John, who was baptizing people as a ritual of forgiveness and reconciliation, preparing them for the coming Messiah. In the other gospel accounts, John was puzzled that Jesus came to be baptized. What Jesus came for was the blessing: you are my beloved child . . . .
Both blessings come in the midst of barrenness, of wilderness, and both are followed by times of trial and difficulty. Blessing is not simply a free pass or a sign of favoritism; it is a mark, a claim on our lives: you are mine and I love who you are. For Noah it was the beginning of building a new world. For Jesus, it was the beginning of his ministry. From the moment God imagined us into existence, we are loved. We begin with a blessing and, much like our stories today, it is followed by trial and difficulty.
Here is one of the ways in which Christian community is essential: we have the power to bless one another, to remind one another of forgotten blessings, or perhaps to offer the first blessing someone has ever really heard. Let me give you an example.
When I was in tenth grade, my family moved to Fort Worth, Texas. My parents were missionaries and we had lived in Africa. We were on a year’s leave and went back to Texas where our families were. I was fifteen, five-two, and I felt round and out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of the bed in the room of the rent house and looking in the mirror and wishing I could be someone else—anyone else.
The youth minister at the church we attended was a man named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: tall, handsome, athletic. We had a Wednesday evening youth gathering at the church, so after school I would walk from the high school to the church and hang out until time for youth group. One afternoon he said, “Flash—which was his nickname for me—let’s go shoot some baskets.” We went out on the church parking lot where someone had nailed a backboard to one of the light poles. I shot and missed everything. The ball rolled across the parking lot away from us and I said, “You go get it” with a less than kind tone.
He chased down the ball and came walking back toward me. “Let’s go back inside,” he said. As we crossed the parking lot, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Flash, one day Trish and I are going to have kids, and when we do, I hope they turn out exactly like you.”
Blessing. I think I made it through high school on his words. And yet, if I could find Steve today my guess is he would not remember that story. He was not trying to create a life-changing moment; he was simply being attentive and being himself and working to find a way to let me know I was loved. It worked.
The opening line of Mark’s gospel reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I had always thought it was simply the opening sentence: here’s the beginning and he went on to describe John’s arrival and Jesus’ baptism. One Sunday many years ago I heard a sermon by a colleague named Skip Waterbury who said that first line was not an opening sentence but a title: the entire account of Jesus’ life was the beginning of the gospel; we are the continuation of that story. As Jesus went through life looking for ways to offer healing words and touches, so are we to heal. As Jesus proclaimed the good news to those flung to the edges by the centrifugal force of life, so are we to tell the good news. As Jesus blessed those who had been told for far too long that they were not good enough, that they didn’t belong, that they were sinful because of who they were, so are we to bless. We—the Body of Christ—are the incarnation of God’s love in these days. The gospel story continues in what we do and say.
One of the people who keeps reminding me I am loved is my friend Burt Burleson. We have known each other since college days. Several years ago, when he was pastoring a church, he called one day and said, “I need a poem for Sunday about blessing,” and I wrote one and sent it to him based on an experience I had sitting in Boston traffic one afternoon. It’s called “Daily Work.”
The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.
I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives —
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.
I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.
I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.
Yet–if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.
The story of creation begins with God saying, “That’s good.” The story continues in the life of Jesus with God saying, “You are mine and I am pleased.” Here today, the story continues calling us to find every way we can to let one another know we are loved, we are really, really loved. May we take every chance we get to bless one another. Amen.