This last week caused me to think a lot about blessings. It began last Sunday when we baptized Michael Hable and Solomon Chheda. I love baptisms - the sacrament reminds me of God’s endless love. It makes our faith in a no-matter-what gospel real. No matter what, we know God loves these children and will love them throughout their lives. And I get to hold a baby.
Then on New Year’s Eve I celebrated a wedding for two men - Eric and David. They live in northern Wisconsin and David grew up in the United Church of Christ. After twenty years, they decided to marry now that it’s legal in Wisconsin. It gave me great joy to bless their commitment.
Later that night I received a call, the sad news of Bea Hicks’ death. And yet, knowing her was a blessing in my life. This coming week we will gather as a community to lift up her life, commend her to God, and offer our thanksgiving for her love. Even in a funeral, we pronounce our blessings.
Baptism, marriage, death - this week I moved through each of these sacred moments in life. And in each of them were moments to think on blessings.
This last year, the Deacons spent time learning and talking about the practice of blessing. A reflection and video by Nancy Taylor at Old South Church in Boston, the church right where the Boston Marathon bombing took place, helped to shape our discussion. Old South is a congregation which offers blessings all the time. In worship they bless animals, backpacks for school children, hammers used on mission projects, athletes preparing to run in the marathon, church leaders and national leaders. In short, Taylor said, “we bless pretty much anything that moves and plenty of things that don’t.”
Over the last few years, we’ve begun to do more and more blessings here at Plymouth. We bless bread and cup and water, too. We bless babies and couples, confirmands and church school teachers. We bless people when they join the church and when they leave. We’re offering more and more blessings.
What does it mean to offer blessings? Nancy Taylor connected it back to Moses and Aaron, specifically a moment when God instructed Aaron to bless the people. Aaron lifted up his arms over the people to say, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you. And be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Aaron offered a classic blessing: power laden words which sustained the people, promising them well-being, connecting them to God, the source of all goodness.
The power to bless is not just the job of Aaron, not just the role of a pastor. We all are called to offering our blessings. To use our words to sustain people, promise well-being, and connect them to God. As Taylor explained, “[The act of blessing] is the secret, sweet, sacred power of the people of God. Superman can fly. Spider Man can cling to almost any surface. But you can bless…[you] are conduits of God’s power for love and mercy.”
It may seem like Nancy Taylor’s words get carried away - the act of blessing... a superhero’s power? And yet this Sunday we remember a blessing which took place 2000 years ago, the words of blessing and the gifts offered by traveling Magi, strangers, foreigners, followers of another faith, who visited a young mother, a dazed father, and their newborn child. “This child,” the Magi said, “is royalty!”
The visit of the Magi can help us understand two aspects of blessing. First, the act of blessing is, at its root, a family making activity. But instead of making a small, enclosed, nuclear family, blessing opens us up to broad, inclusive, expansive notions of family. The act of blessing transforms relationships. The onetime stranger comes close, the outsider draws near, the foreigner becomes a celebrated member of the community. When we blessed Michael and Solomon last Sunday, our congregation not only said “God loves you” but “we offer our love, support, and care.” We made them part of our inclusive family.
Something similar happened at the New Year’s Eve wedding. It was a small crowd that gathered, just myself, Mary, and a less than a dozen friends of the couple. Conspicuously absent were Eric’s and David’s parents. During the service we lit candles, like we do on All Saints. These candles represented the prayers and hopes of the guests for the couple, words they gave voice to. David’s uncle and aunt from North Carolina were among those who spoke. The words of blessing surrounding the couple with support and care, softening the absence of parents.
And that’s what happened in the visit of the Magi: Mary and Joseph went to his hometown - the town where all his relatives lived - but they couldn’t find a place to stay. Homeless in Joseph’s hometown. The Magi come in the midst of Mary and Joseph’s desperation; “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” They said the words Mary longed to hear from her mother-in-law, but didn’t. To a couple and a baby left out, the Magi offered welcome into their family. The act of blessing created an enlarged sense of family.
At the same time, the act of blessing helped everyone see what was already true. The Magi didn’t make Jesus holy; they recognized it. The act of blessing doesn’t change the physical reality of an object or a person, but it recognizes what’s already true.
It would have been so easy for Mary and Joseph to take to heart the rejection they felt in Bethlehem; to feel the curses of their neighbors; to feel alienated from the community. But the visit of the Magi helped them see the abundant love of God, to experience blessings overcoming curses.
So much of what we do as a church community involves small acts of kindness. A humble casserole taken to a family struggling to cope with illness, a simple card sent to a shut-in, canned goods brought in for the pantry, a call to someone not seen in worship for a while. These are acts of blessing which overcome the spirits of alienation and anxiety.
Just before Christmas, I stopped out to visit with Clarence Krause. Clarence hasn’t come to church in several years because of medical and mobility issues. But he loves Church. Before joining Plymouth, Clarence volunteered as church school superintendent at Mt. Tabor UCC for 50 years. He organized church school lessons and curriculum for three generations of his congregation. Now Clarence can’t get out to church. But he still feels the blessing of this community. As we talked, Clarence pointed out a large basket of cards, many of them received over the last year from people in the church. Simple cards with short notes. The kind of cards we send out after communion Sundays. Clarence teared up as he held the basket of cards, “they remember me.”
Such actions embody our blessings. This week we will gather back at church to mourn the death of Bea Hicks and to celebrate all that she meant to us and her loved ones. Many will come bearing gifts of food and drink for a reception after the service. And each of those covered dishes will speak words of blessing to Bea’s family, supporting them in our common loss, and promising God’s love even in the midst of gloomy times.
Words of blessing - offered in church, offered by Magi, offered in the cards and casseroles we send - remind people of what is always true: you are loved.
Both of these aspects of blessing point to the way the words we say create change. Blessing another enlarges our community and helps us see reality in new ways. The power of blessings to create change can be profound particularly when we feel our worst. That’s when we need a blessing.
I think of how this played out in the life of Princess Diana. Diana lived so much of her life in the public sphere - from her fairytale wedding through her very public problems with Prince Charles to her tragic death. Back in the mid-1990’s, as her marriage was clearly unraveling, a reporter asked her a pointed question, “Will you ever be queen?”
The question could only remind Princess Diana of all she thought would happen in her life; and all that in that moment she knew would not. Both she and Charles carried on extra-marital affairs, the Queen clearly didn’t like her, and everyone wondered when the couple would divorce. Her face registered all those thoughts.
But Princess Diana paused. In that moment, she thought of all the people her life had touched, in particular the way she advocated for people living with AIDS at a time when few offered acceptance. She’d heard words of blessing from those she touched; and so she could say, “Well, perhaps I’ll be queen of people’s hearts.”
Diana could have wept for the way she’d been dragged through the press and mistreated in the royal household. But instead she rose above it, buoyed by the crowds who called her queen of their hearts. The words of blessing changed how she saw herself at one of the great low points in her life.
And certainly that’s how the blessing of the Magi affected Jesus. The story of their blessing stayed with him throughout his life: in every moment of mockery he could remember their blessing.
In church we’re called to offer blessings all the time - to bless bread, to bless babies, to bless confirmands, to bless marriages, to bless volunteers, to bless beginnings and endings. It is a sacred power we can all wield. The power to sustain people, promise well-being, and remind them of the unfailing love of God.
The offer of blessing isn’t just something the Magi did long ago. It’s not just something we do in church. We can offer blessings all the time, in every part of our lives, so that all may know our love is wide enough to include them and God’s love abundant enough to support them. Alleluia and Amen.