Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Blessing



"Blessing"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 3, 2018

Psalm 134; Mark 2:23-3:6


The Psalms of Ascent are travelling songs. The pilgrims have been travelling for days now, on cow paths and dirt roads, perhaps on a bit of Roman highway, probably walking and carrying whatever is needed. No credit cards or global positioning system. A tent? Maybe, if there’s a pack animal. A pack animal? Maybe if they’re unusually well off. An arduous journey. One not undertaken lightly. Dangerous. Uncomfortable. Only for the able bodied. Not for anyone who lives in poverty. Only a narrow slice of the population that could make the trip.
Psalm 134 is the concluding Psalm of Ascent. When read in the context and canonical order it conveys impending arrival. The goal is in sight. The journey has been long, but it’s not quite over yet. It addresses the servants of God who are awake in the night, keeping watch. Imagine the pilgrim travelers pressing on to the next safe stop – an inn or a farmyard or somewhere a little off the road. Twilight is waning. The pilgrims are weary, steps plodding, backs and necks weary, calves and blisters throbbing – but press on, thinking ahead to those in the temple, keeping watch, tending the flames, sweeping the courtyards, perhaps also singing to gladden the heart and mind in gathering night. From well before Jesus’ time and ever since, Psalm 134 has been part of evening rituals of prayer – vigils, vespers, compline. It’s a glad song for a quiet time.
It is woven together in two ways. One way is through repeated invocation of the intimate name of God – YHWH. In these three short verses – comprised of only 23 words in Hebrew – the Divine personal name occurs five times. The pilgrims would never utter that name aloud. We are accustomed to hearing “the Lord” in our English translations of the Hebrew Bible. “The Lord” is the literal English translation of “Adonai” – the Greek term for a slave owner, a master, or anyone of noble birth or powerful status. Today, Jews say “ha-Shem” – or “the Name.”
Grammatically Y H W H may mean something like “being” or “existing” or “becoming” – in a form that is reserved for the Divine. Scholars are unsure, and wisely defer to the mystery implied by such an unpronounceable name. The pious Judean would not say the name aloud, but in the pilgrim’s heart there might take shape a whispered name known only to the pilgrim and to the Divine.
The reticence to name God aloud is like the veil that screens beauty and wonder from view. Its purpose, though, is not to protect God and God’s beauty and wonder, but to protect us from the purity and brilliance of God’s presence, God’s love, God’s power, and God’s expectations for us to live into our potential as creatures made in God’s image and likeness, filled with the breath of the Spirit, and called into a reconciling relationship – a salvific relationship – healing the cosmos.
There is a seductive intimacy in this mysterious, first-name-basis relationship with God. Through it, the pilgrim – the servant of God in the night – calls out to the Source of Being, and the Source of Being calls back – by name. We have a push/pull relationship with the Divine, a compelling attraction to, and an overwhelming terror of, absolute power and love. We also have a desperate need to be known and a very real fear, that being truly and fully known, we will not measure up – that we will somehow be disqualified from the grace that is the source and sustenance and salvation of the cosmos. The Psalms bear/bare our souls – both exposing them and carrying them.
Forest Park Double Dutch
Psalm 134 is both invitation and command. Like a game of double-dutch – we cannot stand on the sidelines forever. The rhythm calls to us. We wait for our name – both eager to be drawn in and terrified that our clumsy attempts will somehow disrupt the music of the cosmos. But we dare not stand and watch, yet be unwilling to jump in when the Divine calls our name.


Psalm 134 is about blessing – the pilgrims blessing God and God blessing the pilgrims. More precisely, it is about the pilgrims calling on the servants who wait upon God to bless God, and for God to bless those servants. The verb “bless” – bärákû occurs in each verse. Bless. Bless. Bless. It is like the soft breaking of the waves on the sand. And like the waves, that blessing ebbs and flows. It is a call and response of blessing between God and the servants of God who remain alert as night falls. It recalls the antiphonal singing of the seraphim in Isaiah’s theophany – Isaiah’s encounter with the terror and majesty of the presence of God in the celestial temple. Holy. Holy. Holy. But now from a distance – from around the corner of the world – from the high place of Zion down to the pilgrim road at night.

Like many words that are loaded with theological meaning, blessing sometimes escapes our notice. We use it glibly. We say, “You have my blessing” to mean permission or even disinterest. Southerners say, “Well, bless your heart” as a dismissal or even critique of ignorance. But blessing is in fact all about power and love. A blessing is a transfer of power and love. The pilgrim in Psalm 134 is calling on the servants of God to relinquish their power and love to the Divine – the source of all power and all love. The consequence of this transfer is the circulation of power and love back to the servants – an ebb and flow between the Source and the creation.
Psalm 134 hints at another aspect of blessing. It is embodied – incarnate. Those who bless YHWH raise their hands. They are instructed to lift their hands to YHWH. It is meant to be taken literally. We are supposed to raise our hands to bless. That might mean for some the raising of hands as praise songs are sung on Sunday morning. But it means much more than that. To bless God is to put one’s hands to work – to embody the exchange of power and love that ebbs flows between Creator and creation.
Jesus tells us, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” He’s telling us, “The Sabbath is a blessing.” It is a transfer of power and love between the Creator and the creation. Jesus, of course, is full to overflowing with the Spirit – the same Spirit that troubled the waters at the outset of all things. Jesus is the provocateur – literally “one who calls out, one who challenges.” On the Sabbath, he and his closest students casually nip the buds off the heads of grain in the field, and he brings healing to a withered hand – both of which technically constitute “work.” But the disciples are not starving, and the man’s withered hand is not preventing him from observing the Sabbath – nobody is in immanent mortal danger.
Theologian Wendy Farley points out that “Jesus invites us into a terrifying form of faith in which time-honored practices are relativized by healing power, compassion, and joy. The rather terrible implication of this story is that normal and natural religious commitments render us indifferent to human suffering and true community…. The story reminds us of the terrible price that is extracted when these commitments become idolatry…. We lose the power to cherish the people of God.”[i] Jesus’ critique is not of Judaism, but of the way that religious people get bound up in commitments that are well intended, but which ultimately cut us off from cherishing – from blessing one another.
Every age presents a challenge to people of faith. In every age Jesus presents a challenge to those who call themselves Christian. It has taken many forms – the appropriate participation in systems of governance and economy, the struggle to end chattel slavery, the campaign for women’s suffrage, the role of a follower of Jesus in a time of war. Currently we seem to be confronted by many intersecting challenges simultaneously. As with every time in history, they are all related to the dispensation of power and love. A persistent question in any age is this: “How will the flow and exchange of power and love be blessing and not curse?” When power and love are held tightly they become violence and envy. When they are boxed up, they become a destructive force or a dead sea. We can, I trust, employ this query in all circumstances from the most intimate to the most cosmic. “How is my participation in the exchange of power and love a blessing to God?”
This congregation began to answer that question two years ago when it decided to declare that it is a Reconciling Congregation. Let’s read our reconciling statement together:
“Considering the extravagant love God lavishes on us all, we at Vashon United Methodist Church extend our welcome to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, family structures, economic situations and faith histories. Our desire is to be known for mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion. We follow Jesus, who offered radical hospitality to the lonely, hurting, hungry, and homeless. Come, explore this great love of God with us, and work beside us to transform the world.”
It is clearly both a blessing and a challenge. We will never quite arrive, like pilgrims at the temple. The journey has been long – and Jerusalem, the City of God’s Peace, is still distant.
Many of you know our denomination is engaged in a battle that has been seething for half a century – a manifestation of that perennial question, “How will the flow and exchange of power and love be blessing and not curse?” Decisions will be made in the coming year that will set our course for decades to come. Each side in this conflict attributes blame for the decline of our denomination in numbers and influence in its fifty-year history as “The United Methodist Church” on the other side. The traditionalists say that we are in decline because we have given in to a sinful and permissive morality that is unfaithful to doctrine, history, and scripture – I would call that the institutions of the Sabbath – in which humanity serves the Sabbath. The progressives say we are in decline because we have betrayed the core messages of the Gospel – love and justice – in which I believe the Sabbath serves humanity. I’d say we are in decline because of our tepid spirituality – a result confirmed by the Natural Church Development survey we did a year ago.

I’m not proposing a middle way – the middle way is often no more than a muddle. Instead, our community of faith will thrive as each of us nurtures an ever more intimate relationship with God – one in which we whisper God’s name constantly in our heart – and God calls us by name into the rhythm and swirl of life. If you don’t already set aside 20 minutes every evening for centering prayer, start now. Make it a prayer of one word only – your own intimate, unpronounceable name for God – a name you never dare to speak aloud. If you can’t sit still, walk as you pray. Do it alone or together. Maybe even lift your hands in blessing. And as you pray, imagine your upward path toward the City of the Peace of God, where God’s servants await.



[i] Wendy Farley, “Proper 4B Theological Perspective” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 96.

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