44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Opened Minds and Blessings for All Occasions, Even the Rough Ones
Today Lord we ask for a blessing and opened minds
Simple and sincere
Other days we may ask for other things
But today, this will suffice.
Luke’s Gospel ends with a strange final journey, “Jesus took them out as far as Bethany, and lifted up his hands and blessed them.”
Jesus took them out as far as the town of Bethany. Bethany, the name literally means “house of the poor,” it was where Jesus met Mary and Martha and the dead man Lazarus, it was where Jesus met people with that dreaded disease leprosy, Bethany, the house of the poor, the home of lepers and dead men, that is where Jesus led the disciples and blessed them and left them.
Think on that for a moment: Jesus leads the disciples to the site where he encountered the diseased and the dead, the literal “house of the poor,” and there he blesses them.
Not in Jerusalem amongst the fancy temples; not even on a mountaintop like in some of the other Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus takes the disciples to the place where they probably encountered people the world would think of as least blessed and there he blesses them.
We think of blessings as being these wonderful gifts of goodness in our lives. We think of them as these joys we’ve been given, “Our house is a blessing. My children are a blessing. And today on Mother’s Day, mothers and mothering as a blessing.”
And there’s reason for that. Here once again the English language does us no favors, blessing is derived from the Old English “blesian” from which we get the word “bliss” as well as the word “blessing.”
But we’ve confused bliss and blessing in this world.
You know, I was preparing for a wedding sermon one week at the little coffee shop I frequented in Chicago, and I was sitting there and a couple walked in around 8am with their Northface jackets on, their golden lab on a leash, and they came in and got their coffee’s to-go so that they could continue their stroll and the barista said, “When’s the big day?!” to which they happily exclaimed, “Tomorrow! Tomorrow we wed!” And I thought to myself, man, they think they’re blessed…
But they were blissed, not necessarily blessed. And we should enjoy the bliss moments of our lives, the lovely, care-free, Mary Tyler Moore throw-the-hat-in-the-air moments of our lives. They are blessings of sorts.
But the absence of that kind of bliss does not indicate an absence of blessing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the act of blessing, of speaking words over a situation to set it apart, can’t happen in moments without bliss.
Because I think the wise, old Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof is correct: there is a blessing for everything. Even if sometimes the blessing we speak upon a situation is “May this never happen again,” and “May God keep this far from us.”
In the Celtic understanding of the word, “blessing” is that thing that is intended to “strengthen human presence.” That’s how the poet and author John O’Donohue describes blessing and the purpose of blessing, whose book To Bless the Space Between Us offers a blessing for just about every conceivable situation. In his wisdom he’s constructed a blessing for the savory and the most unsavory times of life: for suffering, for failure, for exile, for exhaustion, for the breakup of a relationship, for the death of loved ones, for lost friends, for destructive encounters, and even for someone who did you wrong.
Blessings are not just those things that we feel good about, but rather they are intended to strengthen us even in the face of those moments when all hell is breaking loose and we don’t know where to go. They provide words to say and a benediction to speak upon everything, from the great to the grief.
And when I think of my own blessings, the ones that I’ve given, I can name so many: blessings to new babies, to your children as they come up in the communion line, over married couples, and even over those who have died.
But I think the blessing that I’ve given that stands out the most in my mind isn’t even one that I gave as a pastor, but rather just gave because, by God, it needed to be given.
I was on vacation in Denver, Colorado with my college roommates, an annual get-together we’ve entitled “Mancation.” Seated around the mancation table you’ll find a doctor, a lawyer, a financial advisor, a teacher, an artist, and a pastor. We mostly stay friends to make sure that we have all our bases covered in life. And we were at this great little brewery called The Great Divide, sitting there, having a pint of local beer. (for a link to a more complete telling of this story, click here)
And off in the corner was this guy, about our age, standing by himself smoking, listening to us talk, waiting for a chance to jump in the conversation. And sure enough he did, and eventually sat down with us there, and we introduced ourselves to one another. His name was Wit, shorthand for Dewitt.
We told him we were just visiting Denver and asked him if he lived there. “No,” he said, “I’m just visiting too.” “For what?” I asked. And he took a drink and said, “Treatment.”
And then I put it together. He was rail thin, his collarbone showed outside of his baggy black t-shirt. And sometimes he’d adjust himself and I’d get glimpses of little red cuts on his waist and upper arms.
And he looked at me and said, “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?” Stunned, I asked back, “Do you think you are?” He never really answered my question, and no one knew what to say. Moments like that swallow your words. Moments like that swallow your words, and spit them back out and the only thing that comes out again is some sort of cheap platitude which, no matter how sincere it is, is nothing but cheap and useless.
He’d left treatment over what he called “differences of approach” to therapy. We changed conversation topic and as the foam gathered at the bottom of our pint glasses, we bid Wit adieu as we made plans for our next stop. Everyone left the table except for me and Wit, and something made me linger, and I don’t know what it was but as I passed behind him to leave the patio I stopped and put my hand on his bony shoulder and I said, “Hey Wit, I don’t want you to give up on treatment, OK?”
And he looked up at me and asked again, as he took out another cigarette “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?” and I said, “Wit, I don’t know how to answer that. But I don’t want you to have to worry about it anymore, OK?”
And he grabbed my hand and he pulled me down into this huge hug and he just cried in my arms.
And, I think, that is the most important blessing I’ve ever given.
Blessings are not just for when our life is smooth, but when the road is rocky. Blessings are not for people who have it all together, but for folks who are afraid they’re falling apart and need more than dumb luck and optimism to hold it together.
They need a divine blessing; to to be strengthened in their humanity by another human’s presence who reminds them of God’s Divine presence.
Jesus leaves, and all that is left is a community of people in Bethany, literally the “house of the poor,” at the site of trauma of leprosy and the tragedy death and the scent of Jesus’ grace instead of a stinking tomb, who are now emboldened and empowered with a message that doesn’t say “Everything happens for a reason;” who don’t say “whenever God closes a door he opens a window,” but instead leaves them with the message that says, “You are witnesses.” Witnesses to a God who doesn’t skip over death and pain and suffering but goes through it and comes back on the other side to be with us still to remind us that God is with us through anything and everything and that, as St. Paul says, “whether we live or we die we are God’s.”
Witnesses to a God who went through a lot of trouble to remind us that God is present even when we’re going through a whole lot of trouble.
Witnesses to God’s love as being so powerful that it can handle the worst that life throws at us and still cause life to happen. Witnesses of that blessing.
Witnesses to Wit and all of us who wrestle in life to have our minds opened to an idea of blessing that has less to do with our bank accounts, the sight of our bones in the mirror, what others think about us, or even the states of your heart, and has everything to do with a God who will not let you go, for Christ’s sake.
These past weeks in the sermons Pr. Dave and I have been suggesting that, if Easter is real, then we can love more radically, trust more radically, forgive more radically, and live more radically than the mundane ways we usually do. Our love is cautious, our trust is timid, our forgiveness is stingy, our life is to be preserved, or so we think.
But if Easter is real, then God has plopped us down in the house of the poor, the place where the grieving weep, where the untouchables need touching, and continually reminds us that we are to be a blessing here and to speak God’s blessing instead of vacuous platitudes.
Blessings like “I’m here with you no matter where you go.” Blessings like, “The Lord is our shepherd, you shall not want.” Blessings like, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I’m gonna stay right here with you and make you dinner tonight.” Blessings like, “May God keep this from ever happening again.” Blessings like, “I’ll cry with you.” Blessings like, “I’m going to pray with you as we eek a blessing from this madness.” Blessings like, “We’re one body of Christ, in this together, and it is good you exist, and I’m praying for resurrection and peace.”
Blessings spoken to a young guy that go like, “I don’t want you to have to ask yourself these questions anymore, because God loves you better alive than dead, so I don’t want you to give up…”