Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 23rd February 2011
“Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” Psalm 72:17
Being a Christian is to be blessed and to be a blessing. The Hebrew word, barak, means ‘to bless’ but also ‘to kneel’ – which sounds like the opposite of blessing, but is about bringing a gift and kneeling out of respect, and so blessing the other person. So we have this sense that God blesses us and that we bless God.
As Christians we trust we are blessed by God, that we enjoy his happiness, but we are also called to be a blessing. How often do we expect the former while neglecting the latter? How often do we expect blessing without being a blessing?
Asking for a blessing demands a conscious decision; sometimes, though, we can be a blessing without even being conscious of it.
I remember conducting a house blessing in 1997. There was no crowd, just myself and the lady who was moving into the house. It was a fine new red brick house, the work of the Housing Executive in the North which has built the best public sector housing in these islands.
The lady was delighted at her new house, although had not intended to move, and had not even applied for a house, feeling that such fine new places should be for families. Her move was forced by a fire in the fifteen storey block of flats in which she lived.
The flats were grim, but her flat on the top floor had been a place of comfort and welcome. One morning she had opened the door to the girl from across the landing. The girl, standing drying her hair with a towel, announced that the flat that she and her boyfriend occupied was on fire and could she use the lady’s phone to call the fire brigade.
The lady had been wary of her neighbours and became convinced afterwards that the fire had been deliberate, “When they claimed £40,000 for the contents of the flat, I knew they had set fire to it”.
Anyway, by the time the call was made, the landing was filling with smoke. The girl left but the lady was frightened to leave her flat. Driving into the town, I saw smoke and flames billowing from windows of the top floor of the block and swung into the car park, fearful for the safety of the lady. Would anyone know that she was there and that she lived alone?
I stood in the car park and looked up and prayed silently. The lady stood on the balcony of her fifteenth floor flat looking down at the scene of red engines and flashing blue lights. She just stood looking down. The building was being evacuated and the crowd looking up gradually grew larger, and the lady still stood looking down. Eventually, two firefighters appeared beside and she was led down to safety.
I heard later that the lady told one of her neighbours, “When I saw the Rector standing there, I knew I would be all right”. I didn’t have the heart to say that I didn’t have the same confidence!
The prayers at her house were prayers on arrival at a new place, but also prayers giving thanks for the safe departure from the old – a conscious blessing to follow an unconscious blessing.
Being blessed, are we a blessing?
When we look at Saint Paul, we see that being a blessing is something he expects of Christians; he is concerned that the Christians in Galatia have gone astray and he asks them in Galatians 4:15, ‘Where, then, is your blessing of me now?’ Within the church, we are to be a blessing to each other, how often do we come along on a Sunday and look around and think, ‘I am to be a blessing to all the people here’? I know, when I’m in England that I go along to Holy Communion at 8 o’clock in the morning so as to avoid having to speak to people; I don’t like services where you have to shake hands with the people around you at the Peace; and yet I also know that being a Christian is not something private and personal—how can I be a blessing to people if I try to avoid them?
Saint Peter takes the expectation that we be a blessing a step further; it’s not just that we are expected to be a blessing to other Christians, Peter instructs that we should be a blessing even to those who would do us evil. ‘Repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing’ he writes in 1 Peter 3:9.
To inherit God’s blessing, we are to bless those who hurt us—it’s not easy stuff, but it is in accordance with Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. When we looked at the Gospel reading last Sunday, Saint Matthew 5:38-48, we encountered Jesus saying to us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”. The similar teaching in Saint Luke’s Gospel reads, ”bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”.
Most of us will be happy in trying to be a blessing to people like the lady trapped in her top floor flat, but, if you are like me, are not so certain about blessing those who curse us.
I think Saint Paul tries to appeal to the more hard-headed side of our nature in Romans 12:20, pointing out that being a blessing was a clever piece of psychology, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
But being a blessing to those who hate us draws on something much deeper: it brings us to the difference between Law and grace.
Do you remember the story we were told in childhood days about the contest between the sun and the wind as to which was the strongest?
If people could have been compelled to be righteous, if they could have been changed by force, then Jesus need never have died; it is by God’s grace that we are changed. Grace is freely given to us, yet it is also costly; because we know of God’s blessing to us, because we know what he has done, then, out of gratitude we should be a blessing to others, even to others who treat us with contempt. In 1 John 4:19, John writes, “We love because he first loved us”.
If you are like me, you probably listen to all of this stuff and nod politely and disagree; if I was listening, I would disagree. Studying the history of the 1930s and the 1940s, I would find it very hard to believe that Jesus’ teaching would have worked if they had been applied to those violent times. But perhaps the problem lies on the fact that the situations arose in the first place; had there been more blessing and less cursing, perhaps the situations would not have developed as they did.
How do we respond? The idea that the word ‘barak’ is associated with both blessing and kneeling has a lesson for us—it reminds us that blessing sometimes means that we have the upper hand and sometimes means that we are humbled. We are blessed by God and through a sense of waht he has done for us we bless God. Our challenge is to take the blessing we have received out to the people we meet, even the ones we don’t like!