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“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).
What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?
Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment.
What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.
The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.
Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.
The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”
I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.
Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.
So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.
1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.
Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.
Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines.
Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.
Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.
But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.
This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.
Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.
Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.
2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.
By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.
Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.
3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.”
You can be that blessing.
This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.
My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love?
This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
 Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.
 This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).
 Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.
 Ibid., 95.