Sunday, December 13, 2009





I.
    Hope, someone has said, is expectation moderated by probable estimation of a desired outcome.  Expectation moderated by probable estimation of a desired outcome.  In order for hope to be a strong enough feeling or force to matter, the one who claims to hope has to sense there is at least a pretty good chance that what she or he hopes for can come about.  If the chances aren’t at least reasonably high, it’s hard to hope.  At the same time, if there’s too much certainty that the anticipated result will come about the person hoping for and toward a specific outcome may well become complacent in her or his ability to hope. 
    Charles Revson, who founded the Revlon cosmetics company, said that what he sold wasn’t really cosmetics, at all but hope.  That initially strikes me as funny, but I guess the same could be said of any product we purchase thinking that using it has the potential to bring about a change.
    We call negative hope “fear.” Both positive hope and fear are forms of anticipation as we forecast the future and experience emotions in line with our predictions.
    It is important to point out, I think that the actual hope people feel does not necessarily match the real probability of success.   Sometimes we have high hopes even when there really isn’t much reason to have any hope at all.  At other times, we can’t manage to muster much hope at all even though the chances of seeing what we hope for are pretty good. 
    In some cases, we hope or not without any awareness whatsoever of possibilities or probabilities, and there are without a doubt folks who have a talent or a gift for being hopeful about positive results and who have made that a way of life.  These people don’t have it in them to be pessimistic, and while the overly hopeful person, if there is such a thing, may get on our nerves with pollyanna proclivities, she or he is much more pleasant--and maybe more healthy--to be around than naysayers, pessimists who speak against the possibilities that anything good can ever happen. 
    Have you ever seriously hoped when the possibilities were really slim?  I have.  I really hoped that I could be the drum major of our high school band.  I lived in the era when drum majors were male and really had some skill to direct the band members as they marched while playing their instruments.  Drum majorettes were just becoming known, and unbeknownst to me the year I tried out was the year that even Halls High School would embrace women’s liberation and put a woman in front of the band. 
    When the day for tryouts came, I did what the band director asked and wore all white, but I was the only boy who tried out.  Those against whom I tried out were the prettiest girls in the band, and next to them in their all white silk, satin, and sequins, I looked like an orderly who’d wandered out of the hospital and into a high school auditorium.  Known as a practical joker, which was how I entertained myself in Halls Crossroads, the band director thought I was just trying to irritate him.  He played along and laughed, knowing what I didn’t know in my high school hopefulness--that I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming the drum major.  I didn’t know for a while what the real dynamics were.  My good friend, Patsy Stooksbury, won the job, and she was magnificent.  That she won took some of the sting out of the embarrassing ordeal.
    Tiger Woods is hoping today that no more women come out of the woodwork naming him as their lover.  I feel really bad for him and his family--though one of his fellow pro golfers has said that it’s high time the world knew what kind of person he really is.  I don’t agree that a famous person’s personal life needs to be anybody else’s business, but I do believe that if you are not who you pretend to be in this nosy age in which we live eventually some version of the truth, and maybe not the one you hope for, comes out. 
    The legal action taken in London this past week is hilarious.  Mr. Woods’s lawyers got the High Court to agree to a series of limitations on the media that said, in essence, “We do not know of any nude or otherwise compromising pictures of our client in existence; certainly, he would not involve himself in such activities, but just in case some turn up, they may not be published or written about.”
    That’s like a kid saying, “Mom and Dad, I have a perfectly clean attendance record at school, but just in case the principal calls to say that I’m going to be suspended because of ex-cessive absences, I want you to know that she’s mixed up. 
    When I cast my vote in the most recent presidential election, I was voting more for hope than I was for a person.  I needed to be able to think that life in the United States of America wouldn’t continue the way it had been going.  I wanted a president who could clean up the economy and get people back to work.  I wanted a president with a vision for peace and a commitment to use diplomacy as his first line of defense.  I wanted a president who knows better than to get his personal religious perspectives tied up in policy-making and other aspects of governance; that is, I wanted the person I voted for to be a US president who understood the utter necessity of the separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state.
    In some respects our president has made a bold effort to live up to his promises, but in other ways he has become different from the person who won my vote during the tough-fought campaign.  In certain respects, he has clearly not lived up to his promises and representations, and the hope he inspired.  My hope in what the current president will do to follow through on some of his campaign promises most important to me is diminished at the moment.
    I fully realize that I’m completely naive about all the president must weigh in terms of war versus no war.  I’m certain that the intelligence communicated to him, which tips the scale in favor of more troops, is very different than what he knew as a junior senator while he ran for office.  Even so, he campaigned on a bring-home-the-troops platform, and I bought into that.  I did not cast my vote on the basis of a maybe we will/maybe we won’t get those troops home set of promises.  I hoped for a peacemaker president.
    Maybe I will understand more about this later, but I’m still shocked that President Obama used his speech accepting his Nobel Peace Prize to defend war, albeit so called “just war,” as necessary even for those who long for peace.  The group, Common Dreams, summarized our President’s speech in Oslo with three words:  “War is peace.”
    Ironically, President Obama remembered one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous statements:  “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones."
    I am going to keep hoping for peace, my dear friends.  If that makes me one of those irritatingly out of touch pollyanna people, I’ll live with it.  If that is not a view more widely shared, then why bother singing the Christmas carols that hope for peace on Earth and goodwill toward all people?  Is that hypocritical, or just silly?
    Our beloved carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem put to music.  Longfellow wrote the poem in the midst of the American Civil War and was like many Americans despairing.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
,  Their old familiar carols play,
  And wild and sweet the words repeat 
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
  The belfries of all Christendom, 
 Had rolled along the unbroken song 
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
  The world revolved from night to day,
  A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
 Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The next two stanzas were not included in the hymn:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Even so, Longfellow wrote on:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”


II.
    Aside from hope that the world might be a better place--or at least my corner of the world--hope is vitally important to emotional and spiritual health.  It is very difficult to live well without hope, and I say so knowing that hope comes in lots of varieties and in all shapes and sizes.  In a crisis, hope tends to become very focussed on living through or getting out of the current complicated situation; there is no perspective available in a crisis to be contemplating hope for all of humankind.  In this moment, I want to know that I, or the person or people that I love, can come through this challenge. 
    When life is better, or less pressed, we may be able to hope more widely.  We may be able to hope for the well-being of others, and our hopes may be more far-reaching as well--hope for world peace, hope for eradicating hunger, hope for eradicating child abuse, hope for eradicating illiteracy, and so on.
    The church is in the business of encouraging hope, as I see it.  Not the false hope, that empty wishful thinking, for which it has sometimes been famous, but honest hope in what human beings who believe in themselves can do when they turn their attentions to make good things happen--knowing that the ripple effect often follows.
    Religion has also been known to be one of the most destructive forces when it comes to hope.  Most of us know that side of religion too.  One of the ironies in our day, and the same kind of thing has come up from time to time in other times and places, is the equating of hope with benefits that can be seen and touched. 
    One expression of this trend these days is what has been nicknamed the “prosperity gospel.”  Simply put, the prosperity gospel teaches that all of those who are in good with God have nothing but good things happening to them.  Wealth, fancy cars, political prominence, and excellent physical health are all gifts from God to the faithful.  It’s an interesting game to play until someone who is faithful comes up on the short end of the stick. 
    Long before that happens, there’s the problem of what the prosperity gospel tells those, and not so subtly, who aren’t prosperous--maybe never have been, maybe never will be.   The clear implication is that if you are sick, God isn’t blessing you.  If you die, God has really given up on you or ignored you, having decided that you are no longer worthy of blessings.  If you lost your job, it isn’t the economy, it’s God cutting you off and/or teaching you a lesson.
    I would say that, in our time, the most highly regarded preachers are the prosperity gospel preachers.  People all over the world love their message.  Honestly, prosperity gospel preachers give a kind of hope; it’s called false hope.  They also fill their houses of worship to overflowing week by week making the “un-blessed”--you know, the poor, the hungry, the sick--feel
less than loved by God.  But the “unblessed” still come to those services desperately trying to find out how to be blessed, how to get blessed like the preacher who, amazingly, is always one of the blessed.  And if you doubt it, check out what’s parked in her or his reserved parking spot or in the hanger behind the church’s indoor “Jog for Jesus” track. 
    This week, we wound up another semester at Palmer Seminary where, as most of you know, I’m a preaching professor.  The zeal and sincerity and effort exerted by my students are remarkable.  This is usually how I feel about my preaching students overall.  Yet, many of them seem to be caught up in the prosperity gospel, which gives hope to the rich and famous and what amounts to hell to the homeless, the unhealthy, and others who have no happy stories to tell at the moment.
    I don’t often get involved in critiquing the theology of my students.  Often, we are at different places, and I don’t see it as my role to try to have them think more like I think.  They are responsible for their own theological development.
    The only time I speak to theological issues is when I think something preached just makes no sense for one reason or another.  Even then, the student is under no obligation whatsoever to adapt theological thinking to my perspective. 
    That said, remembering the high personal esteem in which I hold my students, I want to tell you what I wrote to my class last Thursday evening.  Oh, contextually, I should tell you that in two and a half hours each of the last two Thursday evenings, I’ve heard 14 mini-sermons, each one 8 to 10 minutes in length.  That’s a total of 28 sermons spread over the two class sessions.

Dear Fellow Preachers,
After our two week sermon blitz, I have some general thoughts to share before I get into sending each of you a paragraph of feedback on your oral and written final sermon for the term.
Overall, I've been thrilled with your gifts and your efforts to put into practice what I've tried to stress as important during the semester.  Some of you have absolutely amazed me.  Your interpretation of scripture, your on target application to the modern world, your creativity have been thrilling to experience.  I thank you for the excellence of your contribution to the course.
In the midst of my exuberance, I have an unresolved concern. Differences in theology are a fact of life in a seminary where we are both free and expected to think for ourselves.  In fact, most of the time I don't even bring up the issue because whether you and I agree on a point of theology is immaterial.  I will let you hash that kind of thing out with your systematics professors.  There is a matter, though, that concerns me enough to raise it--both because I'm a preaching professor and a pastor.  I've brought it up a few times with a few of you, and here I bring it up again.  Some of you preach a theology of safety and success, and you leave hearers who don't have those sensing that God cares nothing for them. I have to tell you that I think this is unfair, hurtful, and untrue. God is with me in my lowest points as well as in my highest points. Paul's thorn in the flesh was never removed.  Also, not every person who has a material boost is being blessed by God; the Mafia comes to mind along with the filthy rich thieves on and around Wall Street.  If I'm not mistaken, Jesus often didn't have a place to lay his head, and the cup over which he sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane wasn't removed.  He himself was never a person of means, and many of the rifts in his own family were never healed as far as we know.

I want you to think about how important it is not only to connect truly good gifts to God, since I believe that all good comes from God, but also to preach a God who loves the person who can't get well as much as the person who does, a God who loves the soldier who dies in battle as much as the one who lives to tell about it, a God who loves the person whose marriage failed as much a married person who never has to get through a divorce, a God who loves the person who loses her or his job or home as much as the person whose job is safe and who is in no danger of losing a home, a God who loves a prisoner as much as someone who never serves a jail term.  Frankly, I think some of you couldn't preach a sermon to a group of inmates at a jail or to a congregation gathered for worship in a hospice chapel.  I'd also like for you to be very careful in what you identify as important from God's perspective.  Those of you on a prosperity gospel kick need to look at God's views toward the wealthy and the powerful in both Old and New Testaments. Please ponder.

    Is there no hope for the poor except to long for wealth?  Is there no hope of divine embrace for the chronically ill person who just can’t get well?  If, in the end, hope is only for a handful of first world people, it’s not much good to humanity as a whole is it?


III.
    Much is made among those celebrating Christmas as some kind of remembrance of Jesus’ birth and not a materialistic maze and madhouse about the innkeeper who told Joseph that he and his pregnant wife couldn’t stay in his inn.  This tidbit has turned the innkeeper, for many, into one of the most memorable of the bad guys in the Jesus stories in the gospels. 
    In Christmas pageants all across the land, when the innkeeper enters, the music is in a minor key.  Congregations nearly hiss at him when he utters those fateful words, “No room in the inn,” as if he had something personal against the baby who was about to be born or his mother in labor or his frightened father.  I have spent time disliking the innkeeper myself.  How dare he not make a place for baby Jesus to be born!
    Facts can be so frustrating!  They uproot our deeply held beliefs by confusing our biases with truth!
    First thing is, the guy is hardly mentioned.  There are only two accounts of Jesus’ birth in Christian scripture, and they are very different.  In Matthew, there are no shepherds; there is no innkeeper, and no barn with a manger in which the baby Jesus slept. 
    In Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth takes less than a verse to tell; the writer is more concerned to tell how Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until after Jesus was born than he is to provide any pageant material.  In Matthew, the Wise Ones, the Magi, show up at Jospeh’s and Mary’s house when Jesus is about two years old.  Magi at the manger is not biblical; even so the Magi manage to make to the manger of Jesus at the Silverside creche every single year.
    We have to turn to the Gospel of Luke to find shepherds at the manger, angels singing in the heavens, and that bare mention of the innkeeper.  Despite how much it ruins Christmas pageants, and the fun for the kid who gets to slam the door in the face of Mary and Joseph, I have to tell you that the innkeeper was a good guy.  In fact, he was the first person ever to show graciousness to Jesus, graciousness even before Jesus made it out of the womb.
    If you wonder why in the world Joseph decided on a road trip when his fiancee is at the very end of her first pregnancy and who is in great discomfort just sitting down, much less riding a donkey, it’s not that he was callous and uncaring.  It’s that he was required to take his family to his place of birth to be counted in a census.  Showing up yourself and bringing a list of your kinfolk and slaves, if you had any, living under your roof didn’t count.  The census people could only count those whom they saw with their own eyes, and if you tried to botch the count or reduce your tax responsibilities, you could do to jail.  So, the reason they were doing what they were doing was that they had no choice.
    The other little background piece, though not an insignificant bit of info, is that everyone else who’d been born in the village where Joseph was born had to do the same thing.  We’re not talking a huge number of folks, but a lot just the same; and how many inns could a small town have had?  That’s right.  Not many.
    The inns that were there were larger open rooms where people slept on the mats they carried with them.  The innkeepers might have provided some meals for a price, but not much; and nothing fancy.  Most travelers would have brought along with them the food they thought they’d need. 
    Let’s get back to this large open room thing.  There was no such thing as a private room and, naturally, no private toilet.  In fact, you couldn’t even get a private path to the great out of doors when you had to go.
    That was no place for a woman to deliver a child.  Only in the modern world do women want to be photographed, filmed, and observed while they bring a baby into the world so that they can show the pictures to their friends at cocktail parties.  Women in Mary’s time barely showed their faces in public.  You can bet they weren’t about to deliver a baby with an audience.
    When the innkeeper told Mary and Joseph, “No room,” he may well have meant no room for any more families, but he may also have meant no room to put you where you can have a baby in private. 
    It actually makes sense.  He was a sweet guy, really, a thoughtful man.  He probably had animals of his own, and certainly those who traveled and stayed overnight in his inn had animals that had to be cared for while their owners rested inside the inn.  This is where the stable or barn came in.
    A separate, free-standing wooden barn didn’t exist.  There are two possibilities for what this barn was where Jesus was born.  Some scholars say that all barns were caves, as close as possible to the homes of the owners.  That’s a viable option and an interesting thought, but a more likely alternative is that the barn was attached to the owner’s house--in this case, the innkeeper’s house.  Dr. John Killinger brought this possibility to me several years ago, and I’ve not found since then any option that seems more likely to me.
    It wasn’t that the innkeeper said in a diminishing or angry way, “You can’t stay inside with us, but you can stay out back with the animals if you like.”  What he implied was that they could stay in a safe place where they could have privacy.  They weren’t in an out building; they were in an attached barn.  I don’t know exactly what that might have looked like, but I do know that when we lived in Switzerland, many of the older homes in the village where we stayed had human living quarters over a barn where horses and carriages had once been kept. 
    Another thing you may be worried about is how cold Mary and baby Jesus must have been.  Well, to ease your minds, you need to know that Jesus wasn’t born in a cold December, but in the spring of the year, Aprilish some scholars tell us.
    The prosperity gospel preachers hate the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.  The barn was a humble place of birth, but even in the inn, had there been room, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth would have been humble.  Exterior circumstances didn’t change much for Jesus; when he grew up and began his ministry he often had no place to lay his head at all, not even in a barn.
    Do you think that Jesus felt loved by God and blessed even though he was never rich?  Do you think that as Jesus grew up with Mary and Joseph telling him time and again the story of where he was born and of the gracious innkeeper who made a place for them when lots of busy innkeepers might not have taken the time to do so, do you think Jesus felt hopeless and left out?  Did he think that such a lowly start should keep him from achieving something great for God?  Do you think that God loved the rich children who were born that night more than God loved Jesus? 
    My dear friends, part of the ways we have heard and told the Christmas story hides hope instead of instilling and encouraging hope.  A baby born in a barn can grow up and become a powerful, pivotal teacher of God’s truths and, as a result, can change the world--though he remain poor and persecuted.  His opportunity may be to sacrifice himself for the well-being of the others.  Shouldn’t what we hope for most be to make the world a better place for all people, including for those who hurt the most?  Dare we hope for the privilege of carrying the good news of God’s love to people who have been written off by mainstream society and saying to them, “We don’t want you hungry or homeless, and we are going to do our best to help with that, but you don’t have to be rich and wealthy to be loved by God.  We want you to get well, but if you can’t, God loves you just as much as the people not presently struggling with compromised health conditions.”
    Hope is no where more evident in our world than in the innkeepers scattered across the globe who say to strangers and strugglers, “I’ll make a place for you in my barn where I keep my beloved animals.  You’ll be safe.  You’ll be dry.  You can have some privacy, and you can get your baby off to a good start in this tough old world.  It doesn’t matter if you remember my name, but remember that you mattered to me.”  Hope.
   
Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion, speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.

Save us, your people, from consuming passion, who by our own false hopes and aims are spent (Dr. Georgia Harkness).

Sunday, December 06, 2009



"Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth" Sadao Watanabe





I.
A blessing is an affirmation; it is a word of encouragement.  A blessing is a vote of confidence; it is an act of empowerment.  A blessing is a compliment; it is a signing off on someone’s character and/or competence.  A blessing is a declaration of what I believe you deserve; it is a means of conferring something that recognizes future possibilities on the basis of past achievements.  
Sometimes a blessing is called a blessing per se; sometimes it has other names, but is no less a blessing.  A blessing can be bestowed by God on a human being or a group of human beings or, yet, the whole human family.  There are instances, though, of human beings blessing God.  A blessing can be bestowed person to person, or, as some of the pet lovers among us might attest to, from pet to owner.
A blessing may involve some material benefit--immediately and/or long-term, but a blessing may be entirely intangible, having an impact on us only emotionally or spiritually.  A Christmas bonus is a blessing of sorts, a material blessing, but so is a heartfelt Merry Christmas wish a blessing.  
When Alice Walker left home to go to college at the age of 17, she began to get her few things together for her journey from her life of near-poverty in south Georgia, Eatonton, northwards to hope for a better life in Atlanta where she would consistently displease administrators for two years at Spelman College.  Alice received several gifts that turned out to be symbolic blessings.
The poor folk in her community, many of them sharecroppers  and domestics like her parents, got together the $75 she needed for a one-way bus ride; this financial gift was also a blessing reminding Alice that those involved in her upbringing would always be contributing to her accomplishments, whatever they might be.  She was given a luxurious piece of luggage, which became her blessing to travel the world.  She was given a sewing machine, a blessing that she could be independent not only by making her own clothes, but also, as her mother had done, by making money sewing for others if the need ever came up.  Alice Walker was given a typewriter, which was a blessing to write the stories her mother had told her and more.
Life is better for us if the proper blessings are offered to us, but some people have to get by without out them because they weren’t offered.  If parents can bless their children, the children will always have an advantage in life; similarly, life is typically more challenging for the kids who didn’t get a parental blessing; this remains true when the kid who never got a parental blessing grows up and becomes the adult who never got a blessing from her or his parents.
A parental blessing isn’t a one-time event; it can be a culmination of many blessings across many years.  It may begin in childhood and continue as long as the parent lives.  The finest of parental blessings is unconditional love.  Building on that, parental blessings convey any number of gifts to children.  You are gifted; use your gifts to bring happiness to others and yourself.  You are competent; you can do what you set your mind to learn how to do.  You are independent; you are capable of making wise choices even when I, your parent, am not involved.  
One of the ten commandments reminds adult children, “Honor your father and your mother....”  Children can bless their parents too.  They can offer the blessing that says, “I am grateful for my upbringing.  You taught me well, and even if we should end up with different opinions on some subject one of these days, I will still always respect your views.”  Children can offer their blessing of ongoing contact.  They can say, “I not only love you because of what you did for me in days gone by, but for who you are as an important part of my life today.”
The conferring of a degree is an institutional blessing; it’s a way of saying to a former student, “You have met your degree requirements; now, we, your teachers, believe you can use the skills you learned with us to operate on your own out there in the professional jungles.”  This kind of blessing becomes more powerful and more intimate the further one goes in the educational system.  By the time a student earns a doctoral degree, there is often a particular bond with one’s major professor.  At some schools, not only does the doctoral student get a diploma, but also a “hooding” ceremony takes place.  The doctoral hood is placed on the student by that major professor, and that blessing says, “You’re a peer now.”  That is very powerful.
My doctoral professor blessed me in a number of ways, and I remain grateful for that to this day.  At the time of my graduation, though, he was not happy with an editorial job I was going to do in addition to staying on at the seminary to teach preaching.  Now, this could have been entirely coincidental, but I don’t think it was.  He didn’t come to my graduation ceremony.  He had a routine eye exam that day, at that very time of day.  I felt it as a slam, and honestly I didn’t feel his full blessing until many years later when one of my books of sermons was published.  The publisher unbeknownst to me had asked Dr. Cox to read the manuscript and offer a commendation to be used to promote the book.  When I got my copy of the finished product, on the back of the book I saw, “Some of the best preaching I have seen.  Dr. James W. Cox.”  The fullness of his blessing I finally felt; I waited twenty years.  The absence of the blessing hadn’t kept me from pursuing my career with gusto, but on the inside I felt much more complete as a professional.
I have known people who didn’t get the blessing they thought they needed and deserved, and it incapacitated them.  I know someone who was a gifted artist, and her parents never blessed her art.  They were religious professionals who believed that nothing much mattered in the world except relating to people through their religious organization.  Their daughter’s art was praised widely, but the parents never blessed it; at best it mildly amused them, and at worst they treated it as a frivolous waste of time.  Eventually, the daughter got the message.  There was to be no blessing from her parents unless she did something more akin to what they did so she cast aside her art and went to seminary, and suddenly the parents blessed her.  That blessing was no good, though.  Do you see that?  It was no good because it didn’t bless who she really was; it blessed her as who they wanted her to be, who they thought she could become if she got her values straightened out.  Very late in life, this artist was finally able to say to her parents, and she did so in a very loving way, “Trying to work in the world of religion makes me miserable.  I’m not going to be miserable any more.  My artistic gifts were given to me by God, and I can’t appreciate God’s blessing until I do what God has equipped me to do.  Therefore, I’m getting out of religious work, and I’m going to be an artist, even if I have to be a starving artist.”
Sad to say, the parents, though they weren’t angry, never learned to bless art, but the artist finally found a way to love life realizing that she couldn’t put off her life any longer.  Sometimes, we have to live without the blessings we think we need and let the blessings we have coming from elsewhere substitute for those we’re never going to get.




II.
I think my favorite John Rutter arrangement, and there are many to choose from, is based on a couple of verses from the sixth chapter of the book of Numbers.  Many people in Jewish and Christian tradition also join with me in loving this moving passage, but have no idea where it came from or what prompted its initial utterance.  That is very typical of us in church and out of church--to take something written or sung, an out of context snippet, and embrace it though we have no idea of its origins.  
One example of that other than the passage I’m about to read is the beautiful sentiment expressed by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, but read at weddings these days as if they have always been words for married couples: 

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you (Ruth 1:16-17 NRSV). 

These are beautiful, powerful thoughts.  I wouldn’t take away from them for anything, but I think it’s important to know where they were originally used and why and by whom.  If we want to use them and adapt them for another context, that should be fine, but they don’t suddenly at our finger snap become something other than what they were intended to be.
Back to my favorite John Rutter music used to make melodies of scriptural words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites:  You shall say to them, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make the divine face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up the divine countenance upon you, and give you peace.” So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Orthodox Jews still today do not look at those who pronounce this priestly blessing upon them, and they refrain from looking for two reasons:
  1. According to Jewish tradition, when one is being blessed, she or he isn’t supposed to look at anyone or anything other than the ground or the floor so as to avoid being distracted.
  2. When the great Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the Jews believed that the divine presence would shine through the fingers of the priests when they raised their hands to indicate that a blessing was being bestowed.  Out of respect for God, knowing no one should attempt to see God, they looked away.
When I lived in New Orleans, Rabbi Ed Cohn and I collaborated on many activities.  If I had to choose just one of those as what I enjoyed most, it would have to be how we together pronounced the benediction, this very benediction, at the ends of services in which we both participated.  He would speak the original Hebrew, and I’d follow him, phrase by phrase in English. 
They were words the writer of the book of Numbers said God told Moses to have Aaron and his sons speak.  Why Aaron and his sons and not Moses?  Well, initially, because Moses said he was a stutterer so God had promised that Moses’ brother, Aaron, would have the public speaking responsibilities; also because Aaron became the first high priest of Israel--and Aaron’s sons because sons most often were expected to keep on doing what their fathers before them had done.  Eventually, one of the twelve tribes of Israel would be given the responsibility to bless people “professionally,” if you will.  The tribe of Levi was set apart to pronounce blessings in God’s name.
Terms for blessing abound in ancient Hebrew scripture; there are more than 600 references to blessing in one form or another embedded in that collection of disparate writings.  The primary terms used to describe a blessing or the process of being blessed are related to the word meaning “to kneel” since the most ancient practice was to kneel while being blessed.  
Three common themes are present in formal blessings as we find them in Hebrew scripture. 
  1. First, the more powerful usually blesses the less powerful, but that is not the case 100% of the time.  
  2. Second, the blessing is a sign of special favor that is intended to result in prosperity, success, and well-being. 
  3. Third, the blessing is actually an expression of hope that the person to whom the blessing is directed will open himself or herself up to receive the blessing.  A blessing is of no value unless the recipient receives it.  This principle applies when a person is wishing not her or his blessing on someone, but rather God’s blessing on someone.  “May God bless you,” or, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” means in the Hebrew idiom, “May you open yourself up to receive the blessing with which God is attempting to bless you.”  Such a statement is not a way of obligating God to do something special for someone that God isn’t willing to do, and in fact has already tried to do, for the well-being of all. 
As the book of Genesis is organized, creation takes place, and, then, humanity falls into a series of mishaps--one after another.  God is obviously not pleased with human bumblings rooted in self-centeredness and power-seeking; yet, this cloud that seems to hang over humanity almost from the get go doesn’t keep God from continuing to express God’s optimism about humanity’s worthwhileness and capability.  Thus, the cloud begins to dissipate because of God’s belief in and good will toward the human family.  This is seen no where more clearly than in the promise that God made to old Abraham--that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him.  
That’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?  Why would the people be blessed through Abraham and not directly through God Godself?  The answer to that question is tied up in the role God assigned Abraham--to be the father of many nations.  In ancient Hebrew thought the status of a parent was passed on to a child so if a parent had been regarded as having been blessed so would the children unless they botched it up somehow.  This is one of several reasons a son sought the formal blessing of his father at some point in the son’s adulthood.
Scholars tell us that for the ancient Hebrews, the institutions of society, family, government, and religion were the means by which ceremonial blessings were received. Within the family the father blessed his wife and children--and especially his sons in passing along the blessing of divine favor on their family. In the government context, the ruler blessed her or his subjects. Those who possessed a priestly role--Aaron and tribe of Levi types--were bestowed with the privilege of pronouncing blessing in the faith community.  
Wouldn’t it be a great gig to be called of God to be a blessing pronouncer?  Yes, it certainly would, and you should know because you have.



III.
One of the perspectives that the early Christians had was that a blessing--or it’s dark cousin, a curse--was never just an empty word or wishful thinking.  People believed that words were very powerful, and the average person had the power, to some degree, to bless or to curse.  
Jesus himself, not pondering any divinity that was accorded him by admirers, believed that he like any other person had the personal power to bless or to curse.  Ironically, he turned the typical way of thinking about blessing on its head in those teachings of his that we now have in summary form and that we call by the nickname the “Beatitudes.”  People in his tradition, generally speaking, thought that those who were blessed would have and SHOULD HAVE visible signs to prove it--like the person around here driving a big Tiger Woods Cadillac Escalade with a specialized license plate reading “Tither.”   Jesus said, “The people who ride those upscale donkeys may very well be blessed by God, but if they are their transportation is not a sign of that blessing.”
Jesus said to multiple congregations--in all likelihood not just one group one time, “Let me tell you about some people who are blessed, and you don’t know it; and they don’t know it because all of us have been looking at the wrong proofs of blessing.”  Then Jesus would develop his sermons by taking one of the key words for “blessing” and using it in an idiom that no one today is absolutely sure of in regard to meaning.  
The standard translation of the idiom sounds something like, “Blessed are.”  Blessed are...those who mourn, those who are persecuted, those who struggle in poverty.  And people like us are sitting there saying, “The guy has lost his mind.  If this is what it feels like to be blessed then let me try a few curses on for size!”
The late Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, was also a brilliant Christian scripture scholar.  Dr. Funk’s translation of the idiom that begins each of the Beatitudes is, “Congratulations!”  We’re stunned.  “Congrats you folks who are mourning! God’s blessing to you is God’s presence that will comfort you.”  We need to keep in mind that God’s conception of blessing has nothing in the world to do with wealth and fame.  If those come, it’s fine, but God doesn’t dole out such rewards.  
Some of those willing to be martyred in the years following Jesus’ own martyrdom caught on to what he was saying, and they counted it a blessing to be able to die for their faith, to be able to die for having been accused of being a follower of Jesus.  When’s the last time any of us felt blessed while we were afraid or even slightly inconvenienced?  Sometimes, a divine blessing rests upon us requiring us to take risks we’d just as soon not be bothered with.
Christian tradition draws us to a very important blessing as we approach the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Mary is told by a messenger of God that she is to bear the little boy who will grow up to be God’s unique child.  This was one of those mixed blessings--an honor on the one hand, but, as Jesus’ contemporaries told the story, a burden for Mary on the other.  
Mary has no one to whom she can speak about this except her older cousin who was already pregnant so Mary goes to see Elizabeth, and as the story is told the second Mary finishes her story Elizabeth’s baby kicked.  This put Elizabeth in a spirit of thanksgiving, and she speaks of this experience as proof that God is blessing Mary.  Said or sung, Elizabeth is spewing forth blessings right and left upon Mary:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

This episode is followed by Mary’s song of response, which we call “the Magnificat.”  The Latin text of the original written version in Greek has as the first word of this passage, “Magnificat,” which means magnifies.  She, Mary, sings that her soul magnifies God for the mixed blessing that will be hers.  And it was a mixed blessing, wasn’t it?  An honor to be the mother of one who will be so closely associated with God, but what about the pain?  She would see him hurt and finally put to death.
This, for me, raises the issue of how we can receive a blessing. 
  1. I think receiving a blessing begins with a willingness to accept the blessing whatever that may involve.  Mary had no idea what being the mother of Jesus would mean, but she said, “Yes,” anyway.  There were high points and low points.  There were joys she could never have imagined and pain so deep that she was certain she couldn’t endure it.
  2. Blessings must be received with humility.  Mary didn’t respond to the messenger by saying, “Well, it’s about time God got around to doing something half way nice for me and my family.  We’re good people too.  God owes us!”  There’s probably not a more celebrated singer on the Planet at the moment than Susan Boyle.  I heard Matt Lauer interviewing her the other evening and blessing her in his way; no one could have been more humble. 
  3. With humility comes courage.  The reason I say this because we have learned that God doesn’t bless so that someone may hoard a reward.  Any financial advantage or opportunity that comes our way isn’t sent our way to make us gloat--or simply to make us richer or more famous.  Any blessing that comes to us with tangible benefits attached to it has to be shared tangibly.  If I have the privilege of learning to read, then I should be about helping someone else read.  Sharing with others what has come to me may well require courage.  My grandparents served a couple of years on a mission assignment in Mali, West Africa.  My grandmother is a nurse, and at one point she was the only medical person at all in hundreds of miles in every direction.  We had no idea until she returned just how dangerous some of the areas she had to go into were.  At their commissioning ceremony sponsored by United World Mission, we sang a song with words by E. Margaret Clarkson that was new to me at the time.  On the one hand, my grandmother more than my grandfather felt blessed to have been given this opportunity of service; on the other there were the words to the song, presumably words God would have spoken:  
So send I you to labor unrewarded, 
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown.  
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing.  
So send I you to toil for me alone.

So send I you to bind the bruised and broken,
O'er wand'ring souls to work, to weep, to wake,
To bear the burdens of a world a weary,
So send I you to suffer for My sake.


That is precisely the way it worked for Mary and, by the way, for the baby who’d be born to her and Joseph when he grew up.  That’s the way it also works for us if the blessing we’ve been given is a blessing from God. Privilege is always coupled with responsibility.