Good morning! This is
“B” Sunday of our PB&J Sunday, and B stands for
. . . Blessing. It’s a word and a concept that as a pastor
I use a lot. I try to end every message I record on our Phone Tree
prayer chain with “God bless you”; and when I forget,
you let me know you missed it. I often end conversations -- especially
about pastoral care -- by saying God bless you, or blessings to
you. I sign off on text messages and sometimes emails by writing
Blessings for the day. I tell friends and strangers “Bless
you!” when they sneeze. I am not apologizing for any of this
-- it is appropriate and sincere -- even though I know that the
sneezing thing has its roots back in the times of the bubonic plague.
It never hurts to bless someone.
Of course, blessing can be used ironically. I especially associate
this with Southern women who tack the phrase on to nasty criticism
or gossip in order to give it veneer of good will or gentility.
As in, “she and her children are complete trailer trash, bless
their hearts.” It’s much like prefacing a juicy piece
of slander with the words, “I don’t like to gossip,
but . . .” Forms of the word blessing: bless, blessed, etc.
are so widely used that we may not even connect it to its Judeo-Christian
context. I have chosen Old Testament texts for each of our PB&J
Sundays because the Christian understanding of Praise, Blessing
and Joy come from that Hebrew tradition: the Old Testament is the
ground where those legumes grow and the vine where the grapes for
the jelly are rooted.
The Hebrew Bible mentions “blessing” almost 400 times.
About a quarter of the time, that is God blessing the people; the
rest of the time it is people blessing other people, but they are
often sharing God’s blessing in the name of God, as in today’s
text. This text from Numbers 6 is one of the best-known blessings
in the Bible: it’s known as the Priestly Blessing, or the
Aaronic blessing you may even know it from memory, especially if
you are familiar with a musical setting of it:
The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine
upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance
upon you and give you peace.
I am not a Hebrew scholar, but the research I did emphasized that
this blessing loses some things in the translation from Hebrew to
English. Specifically, the Hebrew text is more literal and concrete
-- remember, this is thousands of years old -- while the English
is fairly abstract. I want to highlight some of the key words or
ideas in Hebrew so we can reflect on what that means for our own
understanding of blessing.
The Hebrew verb “bless” as in The Lord bless you is
barakh and it means to kneel, show respect, or give something of
value. So as strange or uncomfortable as it may sound to us, a blessing
from God means God is kneeling before us with a gift. The word keep
as in bless and keep means to guard and protect -- as shepherds
did with their sheep. Out in the desert they would literally stack
thorn bushes to make a hedge to protect the flock.
The idea of the countenance of God, or God’s face shining
upon us is a little bit involved. Tim McFadden and Tim Morphew had
a conversation last week about this piece of bread with PB&J
on the chancel. My husband assured Rev Morphew that it is not my
image of the face of God -- at least , he didn’t think so.
My husband is correct: the face of God is not a smiley jelly face.
No one knows what God looks like, in part because the Hebrews thought
that looking directly at the glory of God could be fatal. Even Moses
caught only a glimpse of the back of God as God passed by, and even
that made Moses’ face shine when he came back to the people
of Israel. The Hebrew word for face is a metaphor of the presence
of God: we may not be able to literally see what God looks like,
but we can experience the illumination of God’s presence to
provide healing, help, strength and protection. This goes far beyond
God merely ‘smiling’ at us, it is the power and the
comfort of the presence of God.
The Hebrew Bible presents the face of God many times, but it is
in blessing, not for cursing or judgement. The prophets hear and
convey the voice of God with words of warning or rebuke, but God’s
face is for blessing and comfort. One source I read compared God
lifting up God’s countenance to us like a father lifting up
his child and looking up in at that child with joy. That is a wonderful
image of God’s blessing: notice, there is no stuff involved
-- no sports cars or groceries or utility payments -- we are blessed
by the presence of God and that we are claimed and held by God.
The last word of this blessing, “peace,” is the Hebrew
word that is probably the most familiar to us: shalom. We translate
this most often as peace, but shalom is more comprehensive than
that. It means wholeness, completeness, harmony, prosperity and
welfare. It’s also used as a greeting or a farewell, in the
same way that “good-bye” is a contraction of God Be
With You. It’s a blessing all on its own. It is a wish that
we might be in harmony with ourselves and God, and that may be whole.
So when we expand the meaning of the words in Hebrew, the sense
of the blessing is more like this:
YHWH will kneel before
you presenting gifts and will guard you with a hedge of protection.
YHWH will illuminate
the wholeness of his being toward you bringing order and he
will give you comfort and sustenance.
YHWH will lift up
his wholeness of being and look upon you and he will set in
place all you need to be whole and complete.
That, brothers and sisters, is a powerful affirmation of who God
is, and what God wants for each of us.
I want to share some other words about blessing from a variety
of sources [Slides about blessing]
Here are some of the stories you have shared with me about Random
Acts of Kindness. I won’t share names with all of them, but
knowing the people will give you context which is helpful in some
cases These stories show how respect and kindness from strangers
can contribute to our shalom: our sense of peace, welfare, and wholeness:
Several years ago, on the one-year anniversary of Keith Vardaman’s
death, Kurt and Lisa and Jan -- who was still living with them at
the time -- spent the day together in remembrance. Group from local
church who had been sent into the neighborhood to pray. Led to look
for “something white” car which was not normally parked
where it could be seen.
Kurt Vardaman in hospital visited by John Longenbaugh
Woman traveling on foot from Downtown Elkhart to a camp south
of town -- not Camp Mack, but still a lot further than she thought.
Knocked on doors, doors shut in her face. Creekside member gave
her a ride -- a different neighbor called the police. Safely to
Couple from Creekside traveling home from Chicago in snow storm.
Family owned restaurant. Fed, slept in a bed. Returned payment with
a note that said, “If we accepted your money, our kindness
would have meant nothing”
Blessing is God’s will for each one of us -- this is different
from calling on God so that we can get what we want: to “name
it and claim it” or “call it and haul it” -- God
wants us to be surrounded with the presence of protection and safety
and well-being. Our work is not only to acknowledge and accept that
blessing, but to experience the shining face of God so that we can
reflect it to others. We will never see the literal face of God,
but as Scott reminded us in the children’s story a couple
weeks ago, God’s image surrounds us every day in the faces
of other people. We also have the opportunity and the responsibility
to be the image of God to the people around us: friends, strangers,
co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ. RAKs are one way that
we can reflect the blessing of God to others. There are still PB&J
cards left on the ushers table -- if you don’t have time to
write them on Sunday morning, pick up a few and take them home,
or simply tell someone how important their gifts are to you or to
this family of faith.
This morning we will have the service of anointing, oil for confession
of sin, strengthening of faith, and for the shalom which comes with
healing of mind, body and spirit. Placing oil on your forehead is
a sign of God’s presence, and a literal way of making your
face shine. After our sisters and brothers have been anointed you
may stay where you are, and we’ll end by having Ron lead us
in this blessing from Numbers 6 as our words of blessing and sending.
You may come forward for anointing as we sing the final hymn.