Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mustard Seeds

Mark 4:26-34

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

            We know that violence breads violence, that hate breads hate.  We know this, and this last year has shown us this in abundance.  As more and more school shootings happen, as the numbers of suicides grow, as the hate speech escalates… we are reminded and see again and again that negativity can be contagious and can spread like wildfire. The uncaring that is becoming so rampant, especially as children are separated from their parents and caged which is so incredibly inhumane, and the fact that people are numb to this, are not standing up against it, shows that the negativity has spread so far that people no longer care about the most vulnerable people in the world: our children. People are suspicious of each other, angry at each other.  We see this at a much smaller level every single day just in our cars: road rage causes more road rage.  And the negativity is growing, is spreading…

            But todays’ scriptures, such as these two beautiful parables from Mark also point out that the reverse is equally true.  God can take the smallest seed, the smallest bit of good, and once it is planted, it can grow and grow into things that are beautiful and wonderful and awesome!  The parables tell us that little seeds grow into big plants even without help.  God’s love is like that, God’s care is like that.  Our good actions are contagious.  With plants we don’t have to pull on the stem or say magic words. Plants grow because they have been made to do just that. We can choose to be part of helping them to grow by watering them, putting them in the sun.  But our care is minimal to the miracle of each seed becoming something wonderful, something big, something beautiful.  Even plants that aren’t cared for such as all the trees and plants in our forests and wild areas grow completely on their own. 

            So it is with all the good things we do, all the good efforts we make, all the simple acts of kindness.  Kindness, too, breads more kindness.  It grows, it spreads, it is contagious.  Warm hearts warm our hearts.  Sunny dispositions can melt the coldness in our beings and bring out the best in us, the best of who we are.

Thomas Merton put it this way: “Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women.”

            We are invited into love, into justice, into kindness, into being mustard seeds.  Church services, by the way, are supposed to provide the soil for the seeds to grow, the richness of the earth so that after church we have the strength and motivation and energy to spread, to plant other seed, to go out in the world and to bring love and kindness, to do the work of God.  We should be producing fruit.  Church itself, worship itself, is not actually the point of our faith or the end of our faith.  It is merely supposed to feed us so that we can BE the church in the world, doing the work of God in the world.  If your faith ends here in this place, then the church has not been a fertile soil for you in which you are nurtured. Worship is just the resting, nurturing ground that gives us the strength to enter the world with conviction, with love, with compassion, to follow Christ, to do the call God has given us to do.

            Our acts of kindness, of compassion, of love and empowerment of others – our actions of care towards one another are little seeds which God can grow into big plants. I don’t know that we often take the time to think about what we want to spread, who we want to be in the world, what we would like to pass on and pass forward.  So I invite you into a time of reflection.  Who are the people that you most admire and why?  How do they handle adversity?  Confrontation?  Who do you want to be in the world?  Who do you think God wants you to be in the world?  Think about this past week.  What are acts you did this last week that reflect who you want to be?  What are actions in this past week that you wish you’d done differently.  And if so, how do you wish you would have behaved? 

            What are little things that you do…that are seeds which, when nurtured can grow into big and beautiful trees?  What are kindnesses that you don’t do that you might be willing to try, willing to challenge yourself to do?

God can take our acts of kindness and make them big.  God can take our good things and made them into things that feed others, help others.

I think about the people others have told me are their heroes, are their mentors.  These are people who changed us for the better by their actions.  And most of the time, it is their kindnesses, their actions for the justice and empowerment of others, their ability to put aside anger or respond to hatred with love and grace that move us, that change us.  We can choose to be like that as well.  God can take the desire within us to do good, to be kind, to have mercy and justice; and God can grow it into a beautiful blooming plant of grace.  I remember Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith.  He shares about being asked to walk with a Rabbi who wanted Mitch to do his eulogy at this funeral.  Mitch made the comment, ““And is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one".”  He went on to describe a man who was kind, who was generous, who was loving.. .and through all of that changed who Mitch was.  I think about my own heroes, one of whom is Mr. Rogers.  The way he dealt with hardships, the non-anxious, non-defensive presence that he used with others inspires me daily.  It is a seed waiting to grow, as many of you know, but one that gets watered and nurtured every time I read one of his quotes or see one of his programs.  We have that opportunity to be kindness for others, to teach that to others, to practice it and watch it grow.  There is a Facebook page called “clayton Kindness” that is just kind, nice words.  It is helpful too, as it reminds us to treat each other well.  Little seeds, that God can grow.

            Every time we do something God asks us to do: to bring justice and care to these children I mentioned, for example, we plant a seed that can change the world.  I remember a Joan of Arcadia episode in which Joan was asked to do a small thing: to join AP Chem by the God character.  She didn’t understand why, but she did it.  And in the end God showed her how that one act had changed so many lives for the better.  Because of meeting someone in the class, she had introduced that person to her father who was a police officer.  As a result, the father talked to the boy’s parents who knew about a car for disabled drivers.  As a result, her disabled brother had gotten the car.  The God character went on to point out other results: catching a murderer, building important relationships between people who had previously not trusted each other, bringing down a crime ring.  As God was explaining all of this, Joan turned to God and said in astonishment, “How far does this go?  How far does the one act of following your request by joining AP chem go?”  To which God replied, “It goes all that way, baby.  All the way.”  “Always for the better?” Joan asked.  “Yep.  That’s how it works with me,”  God replied.  That’s how it is with God.

In the story Lord of the Rings, there is one moment in which Frodo is so angry about Gollum still being alive.  He makes the comment, “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.”  Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”  That kindness, that pity, that grace, that mercy… that was, in the end, the saving of Frodo.  We just do not know how far kindness goes, or in what way it returns to us.

God’s ability to help a seed grow can even use those parts of us that we see as flaws:

An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. 'I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.' The old woman smiled, 'Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side?' 'That's because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.' For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.'  Each of us has parts of ourselves we consider to be flaws, but when we give them to God, God can take even the cracked seeds and made beautiful flowers grow from them.

            Sometimes we don’t see or understand the gifts God has given us, the seeds God has given us to plant.  I heard about a woman, recently, who has the gift of dance.  She is a wonderful dancer, but more, her dancing gives her great joy.  However, she became convinced that God wanted her to give up this gift because she loved it so much.  I don’t believe in a God who asks us to give up the very gifts God has given us.  We are called, always, to use our gifts for good, for love, for joy for others and ourselves.  That does not mean giving that gift up.  You may all be familiar with the story of Cat Stevens.  A similar one: he came to believe that somehow his singing was not what God wanted and he stopped sharing the amazing gift he had that had brought so many people joy, and had brought so many people close to God.  I think about his piece, “Morning has broken” and the joy that has given to so many, the invitation to appreciation of all God has done and made that invites each of us to be our best, most grateful, most aware selves.  I felt at the time he stopped singing that he had misheard God’s call.  Fortunately, he, too eventually came to that realization and he is singing again.  But he missed years of using God’s best gift to him and to those who would hear his words, his voice and his commitment to faith.   I’ve shared with you before about a woman I knew who refused to allow laughter into her home, feeling that silliness was also ungodly somehow.  Laughter, too, is a great gift from God: the gift of joy, the gift of relaxing, the healing that comes from laughter.  Squandering God’s best gifts – that is a sin.

We are called to use the gifts that God has given us.  But Kindness is a particularly wonderful gift because we can all claim it.  We can all GROW it.  And that kindness can change the fate of the world.  God can use it and grow it beyond our imaginings.

            God gives us seeds, gifts, beauty to use and to share and to plant.  God can take the best, and even sometimes the worst, of each of us, the seeds, the gifts and will grow them into something magnificent.  All we have to do is plant, and watch, and pray and wait.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Attacking what we don't understand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Mark 3:20-35

The people of Israel didn’t understand God enough to trust that they could have only God as king and not need a human king.  And when they didn’t understand, they responded by attacking what they didn’t know, demanding something different, refusing to listen to the warnings coming their way. The Pharisees assumed that even though he was actually healing people, Jesus must have been doing this by the power of Satan.  They didn’t understand how Jesus could successfully have driven out the demons, so they attacked and accused him of evil, even in the face of the amazing good he was doing.  Even Jesus’ family, when they didn’t understand his behavior, decided he must have been crazy and tried to get him away from the people. 

We do this too.  When we don’t understand another person’s perspective, or what is happening around us in the community, in our country, in our world, it is so easy to simply attack that which we don’t understand.  If we can vilify the other, then we don’t ever have to understand it.  We can simply discount it as evil or crazy.  How much harder is it to actually listen to another opinion, to actually pay attention to what someone else says just for itself without our preconceived ideas.  How much easier if we don’t have to look, don’t have to listen, and don’t have to be open to learn or to grow when we can just discount the other as evil or crazy or just completely wrong.

We all do this.  No matter where we stand theologically or politically, there are things all of us don’t understand and therefore refuse to even consider.  These may be things that scare us, things that don’t fit in with our vision or our worldview, things that may challenge us at our core, things that make life feel that it might not be the safe, contained, organized world that we know – all of these we may refuse to even consider. I would like to invite you to take a moment and think about what you won’t even entertain.  What will you not allow your mind to even consider as possibly true?  As possibly accurate?  As possibly good? 

I want to remind you that as we see in Jesus, that it is in the unknown, the uncomfortable, that which we would never consider in which we find God.  God shows us this in Jesus, who was completely other than what the people of God, the religious people of the time, expected.  He healed those deemed unworthy and rejected by the people.  He cared for those whom others knew it was illegal by law to even interact with.  He appeared crazy and even evil to the Pharisees, who again were the religiously righteous of the day, and even to his family.  That’s where God is: God is in the unexpected, the unknown, the unseen.  God is in the mystery, those things we don’t understand: those things that are beyond our understanding and sometimes those things we refuse to consider. The Israelites were God’s people but they could not see or accept God as the only king they needed. The Pharisees were the religious people of the day and yet they who were most faithful to the synagogue and the religious laws of the time could not see that the healing Jesus did was by the Spirit.  If we think that we are better than these faithful people, we need to look at ourselves again.  What is it that we block out that God could be saying to us, speaking to us, calling us to notice, see, love, and take in as God’s people?

I shared with you before that Scott Peck describes evil in his book, “People of the Lie.” He has a psychiatric practice, but he is also a strong Christian who believes in the existence of evil, as well as the power of love to confront it, overcome it, and change it.   As he worked with people, both the victims of evil and those who perpetrated it, he came to believe that people who do evil are people who simply cannot accept truth.  They cannot accept the truths of their own sinfulness and they project it out onto others and then try to destroy it in others.  As he puts it himself, “it is characteristic of those who are evil to judge others as evil. Unable to acknowledge their own imperfection, they must explain away their flaws by blaming others. And if necessary, they will even destroy others in the name of righteousness.”  We see this happening on a regular basis: televangelists who condemn and criticize a certain behavior only to be discovered engaging in the very behavior they condemn.  Politicians similarly who push for certain rules only to be found engaging in the behaviors they are working so hard to make illegal.    We see the truth in this as we learn that people like Hitler who may have had Jewish blood himself.  We see this reflected in our literature, such as the way Voldermort was trying to kill anyone who was not “pure blood” when he himself was only half-Wizard.

Dr. Peck also put it this way, “evil is…the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion – in order to avoid spiritual growth.”  And also, “(those who do evil have) a brand of narcissism so total that they seem to lack, in whole or in part, this capacity for empathy…..This narcissism permits them to ignore the humanity of their victims as well….There is only one particular kind of pain they cannot tolerate; the pain of their own conscience, the pain of the realization of their own sinfulness and imperfection….  They never think of themselves as (doing) evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others…evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil.  The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil.  Instead of destroying others, they should be destroying the sickness within themselves.  As life often threatens their self-image of perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life – usually in the name of righteousness.  They are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity….  Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world, they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault.  Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad.  They project their own evil onto the world.  They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.”

Richard Rohr echoed these ideas in his column, “Jesus: Forgiving Victim.”  He wrote, “Fighters are looking for the evil, the sinner, the unjust one, the oppressor, the bad person "over there." He or she "righteously" attacks, hates, or even kills the wrong-doer, while feeling heroic for doing so (see John 16:2). Philosopher RenĂ© Girard sees this tendency to scapegoat others as the central story line of human history. Why? Because it works, and it is largely an immediate and an unconscious egoic response… We are all tempted to project our problems on someone or something else rather than dealing with it in ourselves. The zealot--and we've all been one at different times--is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away his or her inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence.  As long as the evil is "over there" and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else … then we feel at peace. …Playing the victim is a way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and having been offended. You don't have to grow up, you don't have to pray, you don't have to let go, you don't have to forgive or surrender--you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.   (Another way to deal with our pain is to)… refuse s to live in the real world of shadow and contradiction. (Some) divide the world into total good guys and complete bad guys, a comfortable but untrue worldview of black and white. This approach comprises most fundamentalist and early stage religion. It refuses to carry the cross of imperfection, failure, and sin in itself. It is always others who must be excluded so I can be pure and holy.… These patterns perpetuate pain and violence rather than bring true healing.”

Richard Rohr goes on to explain how Jesus is the opposite of this because he takes our hatred without returning it, nor does it use it to play the victim. He suffers without making the other suffer..

 The thing is that most evil works from a place of fear.  We fear our own sinfulness.  We fear the other out of a place of not knowing them, refusing to really get to know, understand or have compassion for the other, for that which is different.  But as we know, fear leaves no room for beauty or grace or anything truly good.

I found myself thinking about the movie, “The Devil wears Prada”.  The movie’s main character, Andi, starts as a person with goals and integrity.  She wants to be a journalist, and she has written about injustices such as poor work conditions.  She is in a committed relationship and values her time with her friends and family.  Her values do not include high fashion, expensive things, or working to the exclusion of everything else.  She is down-to-earth, centered, and knows where she is heading and what she wants.  When she first applies for the job as Assistant to the Director of Runway Magazine, she is appalled by the value system that surrounds her – the emphasis on accessories that make no real difference to one’s well-being, the insistence on being thin, on looking “right,” on dressing “right.”  But when she takes the job, she finds her values and her identity being slowly pushed, slowly and subtly undermined.  She finds herself giving up more and more of her time with her friends, family and significant other.  She finds herself being pulled into the drama of fast paced work and eventually into valuing the clothing and accessories she didn’t used to care about.  The choices she is faced with – to choose depth and relationships, or to choose appearance and achievement are subtle, but she finds herself choosing for the latter again and again, and she finds herself saying to those who would challenge those choices, “well, I didn’t have a choice!” She says that when she hurts her friend by going in her place to France because the boss asked her to do that.  She says that when she misses her boyfriend’s birthday.  She says it when she has no time to spend with the people who love her.  She loses and gives up more and more, and slips down the slope into being a person who has thrown out her own deeply held values, all with the phrase, “I didn’t have a choice.”  She didn’t realize that she was choosing “evil”, even when she did something that devastated another human, that took away another human’s hopes and dreams.  She told herself that she had no choice because she had to keep her job.  But that lie that she told herself, that the job was the most important thing, that lie led her more and more into “hell”…she lost her friends, she lost her significant other, she lost her sense of self and her values.  She refused to see the sin in her own behavior and projected it outwards, harming others.  As her boyfriend breaks up with her, she receives a phone call from her boss, and she says, “I’m sorry.  I have to answer this,” STILL not realizing she is making a choice.  She couldn’t see evil.  She couldn’t see she had a choice.  She couldn’t look at herself or consider the idea that maybe there was a different choice for her to make.

Bonhoeffer put it this way, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” 

While the talk of evil or evil people may not be comfortable language for you, I think it is something we have to look at.  We attack what we don’t understand.  We attack what we are UNWILLING to understand – sometimes parts of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, parts of ourselves that we would deny, parts of ourselves that simply make us uneasy.  But in attacking what we are unwilling to understand, we refuse to confront the sinfulness or errors or bad choices in ourselves, to change it, to grow.  We ignore the opportunities to grow more deeply with God.  We also injure others, we attack good things, as the case of Jesus and the Israelites show us, we attack that which is godly, which is holy, God’s own children who are different from us but whom God still loves.  We attack that which is bringing life to others of God’s people. 

If the Pharisees had been willing to consider that Jesus was a man of God, their lives would have been changed for the better; they would have met God, they may have found healing for their own souls.  If the Israelites were to have relied on God alone to be king, they might have learned faith and trust at a much deeper level, they would not have risked being exploited by their leadership, as Samuel warned them they would be, they might not have found themselves exiled over and over again.  And if we might be willing to consider that which we refuse to consider, we might find ourselves making friends and crossing bridges with those who are different from us, we might find ourselves called into action that helps those we normally don’t even see, we might see God’s face in an unexpected stranger, and get to know God at deeper and fuller levels. 

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

But the good news in this is that there is hope, even when we don’t want to see, even when we don’t choose well.  Because God is a God of love, of healing, and of hope.  And if we turn it all over to God, to really spend time LISTENING to God, there is hope, there is movement, there is possibility for us as well.  Love truly can overcome evil or pain or hate or fear.  We just have to be open, and let God do God’s work within us.  Amen.

Monday, June 4, 2018


(For those actually in service yesterday, you will notice that I really didn't preach this... but here is a part of what I intended to say...edited so it is slightly closer to what I actually preached.  (sigh).  The challenges of not reading a manuscript...)
Luke 6:20-26  

Luke 18: 9-14

               Life is a circle, we have times that are full of joys and times that are full of pain.  Which of these are the blessings?

               I want to read to you an article that I found that I think says it better than I could:  (Scott Dannemiller article).

               I say the same thing pretty regularly – that our challenges are also blessings, though this can be hard to recognize. 

               But I also want to say what I have said many times before and that is that this doesn’t mean that I think God intentionally causes us hurt.  I think hurt happens in this world and God wants to bring the highest growth and highest good out of that.  But I don’t experience God as Santa Claus rewarding the good and punishing the bad. I also don’t believe God is just a mean school teacher, testing us, and sitting up there somewhere saying, “Oh, you thought you could handle that?  Well let’s see how you handle this!”  though I’ll admit sometimes it sure has FELT that way to me.  And while I think the beatitudes are an accurate description of what happens to us in life – those who are in pain will find comfort, those who are comfortable will find pain – I don’t believe this is because God is wielding out punishments and rewards.  I think, instead, that it is an accurate description of life. 

               But God in this is about teaching, healing, growing us into the most whole people we can be, if we are open to that.

               Frankly, it is really bad theology that describes God as a kind of Santa Claus, rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  And scripture shows us something very different.  We have the beatitudes, which do not discuss deserving and people getting what they deserve, but rather describes that those who are in pain will feel joy, and the reverse.  We have the story of Job, who, despite his righteousness, lost everything that mattered to him.  We have Jesus reminding us that the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  We also have passages such as Mark 10:17-31: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”  “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”  Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”  The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  This shows that it is not God rewarding us with riches.  Those riches come, and will be taken away.  They impede our ability to connect with God.  They themselves are not blessings from God.

               The reality is that we who are comfortable have a hard time feeling, knowing, experiencing our real dependence on God.  It is often only through the struggles, through the times of difficulty, the times of loss, that we learn to experience God fully and to depend on God for everything.  But it is hard for us to feel blessed by those hard times.  I understand this.  It is tough.

               We celebrate the good things, calling them our blessings.  But when it comes to the hard times, we complain and feel life is unfair.  We focus on the pain and forget to be grateful for the challenges or to seek out the possible gifts or learning or growing that we can do through the pain.
It is hard for us to rejoice in, learn from, or really self-reflect and grow into the challenges.  But that is the call.

               So we can take the beatitudes as a message of fear: only if you really suffer will you then find “blessings” by which we mean good things, riches, comforts, luxuries.  Or we can take them as a description of life, reminding us that God is with us whether we are focused on the joys or focused on the pains. We can take them as a reminder that often it is through the gift of the hard and painful times that we remember to turn to God and to really come to trust God and the deeper gifts of community, support, and help that are available.  We can remember that in being in solidarity with others who are struggling, as well as through helping to empower others and improve the lives of others, that we come to know and experience God at deeper levels. We can learn to let go and to truly depend on God.  But we also learn that blessings can come in many forms and that we are surrounded by them every single day, just as in every moment we are surrounded by God’s love. 

               Those blessings we experience in this way, in times of great need, are often the ones that we also learn most deeply to share with others.  There was a social experiment done a few years back in which a man went around asking strangers for hugs.  “Normal” people would not hug strangers.  But when the homeless were asked, none said “no”.  They gave to others, probably from that place of knowing their own lacking, experiencing their own rejection, knowing what it was to not “have” what many of us take for granted.  From that place, then, they were able to bless others.

               Henri Nouwen also tells the story of coming to understand blessings differently when he began to serve as a chaplain for a community of people with intellectual disabilities.  He talks about a woman, Janet, who was struggling and came to him asking for a blessing.  He tried to make the sign of the cross on her forehead, but she wouldn’t accept it and said, “I want a real blessing!”  He didn’t know what to do but that evening at their prayer service, he told the community that Janet had asked for a special blessing and he invited her to come forward.  She came forward and wrapped her arms around him, giving him a tight hug.  He was surprised but hugged her back and said to her, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter.  You are precious in God’s eyes.  Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are.  I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”  Janet left with a huge, satisfied smile. Afterwards the other members of the community all raised their hands asking for a “blessing” too.  That giving of love; that giving of time, and care, and attention; that seeing of one another; that appreciating one another – those are the blessings that God has given to us and that we can pass on to others.

               Going back to the first article.  I don’t believe it is wrong to say, “I have been blessed” or “I am having a blessed day.”  When I am challenging here is the idea that “blessings” are only the good things we experience and have in life.  In many ways, as the scriptures we have read today and the stories I have shared point out, the greatest blessings we can have and experience are the challenges we face in life.  I remember a wise woman once saying to me, “A blessing is something that brings you closer to God.  It is not something that brings you closer to fulfilling American cultural values.”  Material wealth is not a blessing, your car and your house – these are not your blessings, your gifts from God.  What are your blessings your gifts from God, are the times you have with God, the opportunities to grow, the gifts of love, faith, appreciation, gratitude, peace, hope, compassion, grace, trust.  These are the blessings that God gives so freely.