Saturday, July 4, 2020

Bless - and Curse - Jesus Style

"Bless - and Curse - Jesus Style"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 and Matthew 9:35-10:20

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha olam.
Blessed are you, O YHWH God, Sovereign of the universe.
This is the phrase that opens nearly every Hebrew blessing. It is certainly in Jesus' mind when he taught his followers to pray. If we understand the formula for prayer that is laid out in Matthew and Luke to be an outline of prayer rather than an instance of prayer, this is probably what Jesus was thinking in that opening phase that we know as “Our Father who is in heaven….” Blessed are you, O YHWH God, Sovereign of the universe.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
In the first church I served as a pastor, a mostly white congregation in West Los Angeles, one of the head ushers, Uly Griggs, had grown up getting into trouble in the Black community in South Central LA. Eventually he got himself through college and a Master’s degree at UCLA, with the persistent help of mentors who did not give up on him, despite his predilection for getting in trouble. They blessed him. They did not curse him. When I knew him, he was an advocate for persons working with disabilities. Whenever asked, “How are you Uly?” his unwavering response was, “I’m blessed.” And the way he said it was a blessing to everyone who asked. He blessed us. He did not curse us.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
Last Sunday after our Zoom fellowship time, on our short walk from the sanctuary to the parsonage, Mary and I were talking about privilege and gratitude, and remarking that here, in this least ethnically diverse zip code in the state, that I do not have much opportunity to work with people of color. Remember, privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a designated person or group. As a straight, cis-gendered, white, male, mainline pastor, I have a weight of privilege – you might say a burden of privilege – though not as heavy as the burden of those who have paid the price for my privilege – mostly people of color since 1492. Though, I have been blessed by meaningful interaction – you might even say friendship – with three Native American women over the past four years. More broadly, I have been blessed – and cursed – by interactions with marginalized persons who suffer dehumanization because they appear different, frightening, or unclean.
I mentioned to Mary that we had been seeing more of Paul Becker lately. You may remember that he attended worship with us in person several times last year. He is heavily tattooed, missing many teeth, and has suffered stroke or seizures resulting in heavily slurred speech. I had thought he had found some housing, but apparently that had fallen through, as we have seen signs of him camping around town. As Mary and I approached the front porch of the parsonage, we saw him sitting there. I thought to myself something like, “Dear God, this business of following Jesus is often a curse.” Fay and Tegan had answered him at the door, given him cold water to drink, and boiled water for us cup of ramen. I sat with him on the porch. He talked for a bit, asked me to bless him, and then moved on.
Thus began a week of more than daily interaction with Paul. Monday he stopped by, asked for prayer, and left. Tuesday he came again. I wasn’t home. Fay and Tegan were home, but understandably and appropriately didn’t answer the door. Wednesday morning he knocked on door again. I asked how I could help him. He said he just wanted to talk. So, I listened. He talked for about 20 minutes, got up, started weeping, prayed over me, handed me $10 for the church, and left. Again, Thursday morning, he came to the door, handed me $10, and asked for help making a poster about how stereotyping is wrong. So, we went over to the Education Building porch and I made the poster for him. He said “Is stereotyping OK? I get stereotyped all the time.” I said it’s wrong because it assumes you know someone when you don’t. So, asked me to write “STEREOTYPING IS WRONG. YOU DON’T KNOW ME!”
As I was working, he told me an older brother had started him drinking when he was 5. He was sober for 19 years until recently. He wants to quit. He asked me for prayer for release from substance abuse, so I prayed. Then he wanted me to take his hat. I said “No, it’s raining, you need it.” He said “I can always get another hat.” So, I took the hat and it had $20 in it. I said “You don’t have to do this.” He said “Don’t get used to it.” Then he left. Earlier that morning, as I worked out at the reopened gym, two friends asked about William’s truck, which has been in our parking lot again for over a month. They said, “Of course, it makes sense he’s there. You take care of people.” I assume by you, they meant us. I said “I never thought when I became a pastor that I’d know the street people so well.” They said “Well, you’re doing the Lord’s work.” Blessing is the work of followers of Jesus. I blessed Paul. Paul blessed me. I did not curse him. He did not curse me.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
Ronald Rolheiser’s sixth invitation to mature discipleship is “Bless more and curse less.” I’m not satisfied with his elaboration on this invitation, but I agree it is near the heart of Christ. As if to give me a better illustration of this invitation, perhaps the Holy Spirit was with me in my encounters with Paul this week. Parenthetically, I believe the Holy Spirit has been powerfully present this week in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. The Spirit is present always and everywhere, but is powerfully manifest in times of anxiety, unrest, and turmoil. The Hebrew Bible is packed with references to blessing and cursing. I learned this week that the literal meaning of the Hebrew word בּרךְ – bless – is “fill with power” or “empower.” What a wonderful discovery! When we bless someone, we are empowering them. When we ask God’s blessing, we are asking for God to fill someone with power.
As followers of Jesus, we believe that God’s power, essence, and being is love. God blessed Sarah and Abraham with an heir – even though Sarah had previously distrusted God’s promise and had taken her own action to give Abraham a son. Jesus empowered the twelve to do everything Jesus was doing: “These twelve Jesus sent out after giving them the following instructions: “Don’t visit Gentile regions, and don’t enter a Samaritan town. Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The reign of heaven has drawn near.’ Heal those who are sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons. You received freely – now freely give. … Look for worthy people in whatever town or village you come to, and stay with them until you leave. As you enter a house, bless it. If the home is deserving, your peace will descend on it. If it isn’t, your peace will return to you.” What sort of home is deserving in Jesus’ estimation? Well, especially those that have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, comforted the ill, and kept company with the captive, imprisoned, and enslaved – both physically and spiritually. The litmus test of this empowerment is mutual hospitality, as is illustrated by the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah where the residents had infamously been inhospitable to strangers who were different, frightening, or unclean.
Blessing. Blessed. Bless.
As followers of Jesus, we are also called to curse. Let me explain. The Hebrew Bible is also filled with curses. The literal meaning of the word קִלֵּל  – is to reduce or make of little account. The Greek equivalent means to make barren, unproductive, or of no effect. We must curse the evil the evil of racism. We must become courageously and sacrificially anti-racist. We cannot do this alone, … or even together, without the troubling, guiding, unsettling, comforting Spirit that Jesus bestowed on his followers. We need to curse the three powers that Dr. King enumerated in his speech “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma” to the Hunger Club, a place where sympathetic white politicians could meet out of the public eye with local black leaders, who were excluded from many of the city’s civic organizations. King addressed the club on May 10, 1967. “Somehow these three evils are tied together. The triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The great problem and the great challenge facing mankind today is to get rid of war … We have left ourselves as a nation morally and politically isolated in the world. We have greatly strengthened the forces of reaction in America, and excited violence and hatred among our own people.”[i] These evils are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. They constitute an engine that transfers privilege to some and suffering to others. … Jesus, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Perhaps, one day, history will look back on our time as a jubilee year.
Jesus cursed as well as blessed. He seems to have been profligate in his blessing, bestowing the power of love on anyone and everyone. He reserved his curses for those who wielded worldly power – in other words, privilege. The words bless and curse come together in only two places in the Greek testament – the Gospel of Luke, and the Epistle to the Romans. They both express the same meaning: “Bless those who curse you.” So let us be profligate in love and bold in deconstructing evil.
Let us bless – and curse – Jesus style.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World: Racism was only the first.”, The Atlantic Magazine online, This article is an excerpt of a speech originally titled “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma.” © 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, © renewed 1995 Coretta Scott King. All works by Martin Luther King Jr. have been reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., care of Writers House as agent for the proprietor, New York, New York.

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