May We Be Blessed

May We Be Blessed

Glynn Cardy

Sun 27 Sep

I begin with a blessing, for this sermon is about blessings.

Blessed are those brief moments of gift,

when the serendipitous slips into the sacred,

when a lucky coincidence becomes

a strange warming of the heart.

Blessed is the hand there to be held and

the one holding, both on to the life that flows,

in, through, under the expected, hoping…

as the beeping monitors serenade.

Blessed is the untimed arrival of a friend,

sitting, watching, serene, presence as prayer,

wordlessly knitting a sacred garment of moments

past with moments present.

Blessed is that bird on the outside sill,

visiting each day, as if to say, ‘Are you okay?’

No wonder holy spirits are oft ornithic,

leaving a gift, a crevice in time.

Blessed are those brief moments of gift,

when the serendipitous slips into the sacred,

when a lucky coincidence becomes

a strange warming of the heart.

The context of this blessing was sitting with an old friend – I think we met when we were ten-year-olds – and with whom I’ve travelled many a road into places of deep joy and deep suffering.  Right now he clings tenaciously to life.

Yet this blessing isn’t just about him or me.  The first verse acknowledges how the chance encounter, the chance word or gesture, can touch us, warming our heart (as John Wesley might have said).  The sacred can surprise us. 

The second and third verses are about holding – holding hands, holding hope, weaving the present presence with the present past and future.  I use the word ‘holding’ a lot to talk about prayer, partly in order to counter the prevailing notion that prayer is primarily words.  When you hold a friend’s hand you are not only giving and receiving touch but memory, not only warmth and solidarity but hope.  And you don’t have to say a thing.

The fourth verse refers to a bird on the outside windowsill of the ward, and I allude to our Jewish and Christian tradition of frequently portraying the spirit of G/god as a bird.  The serendipity of the sacred is not limited to human-to-human interactions.  As those of us who have had the experience of being owned by a dog or cat know, they can have a ‘sixth’ sense when it comes to the suffering of others and reach out to comfort and to hold us in a way that feels sacred.  And it’s not just animate creatures, there is something mystically other for example about trees – guarding, nourishing, and contributing to what we call sacred.  Others would say the same about mountains, rivers, the ocean.

This blessing, written for my old friend, contains some of the key concepts of what a blessing is.  There is an acknowledgement of the sacred (which could be called G/god) in both religiously expected ways (like prayer) and religiously less expected ways (like chance, and a bird).   There is also an acknowledgement that this sacredness is found in the ordinary, everyday things of life, and in the breadth of human experience including suffering.  And existing throughout – maybe hinted at in the first word ‘Blessed’ – is a sense that life and relationships are fundamentally a gift, and with the words of a blessing we are invited to acknowledge that gift.

The second reading today from Exodus is composed in such a way to make the casual reader think it is a piece of history, and maybe it does have a historical origin.  But more importantly this is a theopoetical piece about something life-giving (water) emerging from a harsh and desert environment.  It is about the appearance of hope in the context of hopelessness.  And is not water from the rock a metaphor applicable in our age to address our soul’s need to find nourishment and sustenance in the arid canyons of demand consumerism and the adulation of things?  ‘More is better’ we are told, as we are fattened on lies and the earth suffers.  I would suggest that water from the rock is theo-poetry which shrivels up when subjected to a rational ‘did-it-happen-and-how’ critique. 

Water is a blessing, a gift.  It is sacred.  Yet we are involved, like Moses, in whether it flows and, like the Israelites, what happens to it.  And God?  Is this story primarily about God, or sacred water, or do the two flow together?

I grew up and spent many years in the Anglican religious world where at the end of each service a priest would say (quoting in part Philippians 4:7) “May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the love and knowledge of God, and may the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you now and forever.”  The Presbyterian equivalent, using the synonym ‘Benediction’ as a point of difference, also Pauline (2 Corinthians 13:14), was “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”  And these words continue to have the comfort of familiarity about them.

But let’s look at these words for a moment.  The Anglican one talks about God’s ‘peace’ and leaves it up to us to try to define it or give examples of such serenity.  Then the Blessing is wishing us to be kept in the love and knowledge of God which the Church over the centuries has interpreted as obedience to its teachings, and the laity has often been rightly wary of.  Then it concludes with a Trinitarian affirmation. 

Similarly, the Presbyterian Benediction is short on specifics and seems more a theological statement about God.  Most of us however, rebellious Protestants that we are, take the words ‘grace’, ‘love’, and ‘fellowship’, and interpret them into the context our relationships and community, and thus ground the Benediction in the here and now.

In the 1990s I was engaged in a controversy around blessings. It hinged on who is blessing and what is a blessing.  So is the Minister, the Church, or God doing the blessing?  If, let’s say the Minister is speaking on behalf of the institutional Church (and the Church’s teaching), then he/she can only bless those the Church’s teaching approves of or allows.  If though the Minister, immersed in the context of their local church, is speaking on behalf of God (who might be thought of as more than Church teaching!) then she/he might bless all sorts of ‘undesirables’.

As you might guess the controversy was about blessing the relationships of same-gender couples.  And I and colleagues like me, were running afoul of officialdom, by acknowledging that G/god blesses love and vice versa – or as I would frame it now: mutual love that cares, supports, respects, and encourages the other is sacred regardless of who is doing the loving.  A blessing acknowledges and affirms that the relationship was sacred, or blessed, before the Minister or Priest actually said anything.

So, in this and other contexts a blessing is not about dispensing God’s approval.  It is simply about acknowledging the sacred reality in which we ‘live, move and have our being’ (another Pauline quote). 

The traditional Blessing and Benediction, and here I would also include the Aaronic blessing (‘May His face shine upon you, etc), are heavy with God assumptions – primarily God as a male being, with a son, and a spirit.

I don’t want to delve too much into images of G/god for those of you who have listened to me over the years have heard my criticisms of making male beings (or any being) into God.  Recently, for example, I mentioned the work of Gabriel Vahanian who saw the Hebrew name for G/god YHWH as a deconstruction/iconoclasm of Pharaoh-type Gods (male beings with immense power). 

An alternative to those power-over-us type of big Gods are those who see god as a small weak power known in mutual and life-giving relationships.  This is like Lloyd Geering’s definition of G/god as the ‘symbol of our best values’ – like love, compassion and hospitality.  The so-called ‘weak theologians’ point to metaphors and stories in our tradition that emphasise loss, giving away, gentleness, and the wisdom of the insignificant – things that make no sense if your vision of life is to accrue wealth, power, status, and followers.

I think this sort of reimagining G/god is more faithful to the Jesus way of upsidedownness.  But to me G/god is more than values, or symbols of the same.  I find a kindred spirit with mystics who talk about God as both around, in and through all, but also other, mysterious, & beyond.  It’s like that old story of the two fish swimming out past the Hauraki Gulf and one says to the other, “Where’s the ocean?”  Well, like with G/god, we are in it.  As Eckhart says G/god is closer than our breathing.

So words of the poet John O’Donohue, like in our first readings today, take understandings of encouragement and kindness, and also the awareness of the natural world, and weave them together in a lyrical fashion so they inform, speak to, and nurture our souls.  And this too is a purpose of blessing – namely to nurture the soul.

I close with another blessing.  Also written in that context of the journey called suffering, and the things/the grace that can aid and comfort us.

May the blessing of a shelter be ours,

a place that finds us when the turbulence of loss

seeks to throw us, tip us, tumble us,

and leave us laid low, forlorn, and alone.

May the blessing of a grace inhabit that shelter,
someone who will offer us timely comfort,

a touch of kindness, a cup of calm,

and be there as our soul’s fractures mend.

May the blessing of serenity when life is askew,

spinning, wobbling, collapsing… find us too;
a word, a look, a smile that reaches into our misery

and offers us a staff to hold; your hand maybe.

May the blessing of the litter of hope be blown

into that shelter, detritus of long-ago memories,

when that exuberant pup called optimism

demanded our participation; and we played.

May the blessing of a soft light find us,
offering, in our frightened and insecure moments

(moments we hide well), a home to head towards,
where we can lay down pretence and be loved.

And may shelter, grace, serenity, hope, and soft light,

surround us and scatter the chilling darkness of the long and lonely night.