Many of you were in worship last month when we celebrated communion. John invited all to receive communion and then, if you so desired, to come to the rail and kneel to receive an anointing and a blessing. When we planned it, John and I were not sure how many people would respond. Well, the response was amazing. The lines were backed up on both sides. I was brought to tears seeing the bent knees and the bowed heads of so many young and old, wee ones and teenagers.
Numerous people told us they had been moved by the experience of receiving a blessing. Many asked if we could include the anointing with every communion.
There is power in the act of blessing!
One parishioner shared that she was at a friend’s church and when they went to the rail, the priest moved one by one to offer the bread and the wine and also to bless the person, if he or she desired it. She told me that when she saw her friend first be prayed over, she quickly pulled back her own bangs as if to say, “Do me! Do me!”
Young or old, we long to be blessed.
It’s a delight and one of God’s greatest gifts to put a hand on the soft head of a baby or child and give a blessing. But when does that stop? At what age, and why? There’s that soft, tender place inside each of us that still craves blessing.
Life is so hard around the edges. Hurts and frustrations, disappointments and bitterness. At times it feels like we are living in a parched land…a land that offers more curses than blessings. But a blessing given to us by another can become cool water for our dry souls.
A small group of women gathered to pray for a friend who was facing health challenges. We joined in a circle around her to bless her and to pray for God’s healing. I brought the anointing oil and the Prayer Book with me. Our prayer book has in it a liturgy and ritual for “anointing with oil one who is in need of healing.” This tradition goes back to ancient Israel. Reference to gathering elders together to anoint and pray for the sick is found in the New Testament. The Church has been practicing this anointing and blessing for two thousand years. But Presbyterians? Eh, not so much…therefore most people don’t know that we actually have a ritual for such a service.
This ritual isn’t only a pastor’s call either. Each person is called to pray for another’s healing. All of us are priests in the church of Jesus Christ and each of us can invoke the power of God on another’s behalf.
Anointing is what our Directory of Worship calls “Enacted Prayer.” It is a visible, tangible, tactile way to invoke God’s blessing. The Directory of Worship says, “Prayer enacted by the laying on of hands and anointing calls upon God to heal, to empower, and to sustain [the person in need].”
A blessing is an invocation. Through prayer and touch we call forth from within God’s power and energy that already resides inside of us.
So, it has nothing to do with being a faith healer like you see on TV. It has nothing to do with the holiness of the one giving the blessing. It’s about God’s holiness. It’s about God calling each one of us, each beloved child, to wholeness, to shalom, to peace and healing in body, mind and spirit. It’s about God reminding us about who we are and whose we are. We become the incarnate reminder for the person in need.
The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, wrote, “A blessing can transform the world.” (To Bless the Space Between Us)
Tim and I listened to the novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett as we drove to and from Massachusetts last week. The story takes place in Mississippi in the early 1960s and one of the characters, Aibileen, is a maid in a wealthy, white woman’s house caring for the little daughter. The white mother is cool toward her little girl, and at times even cruel. But Aibileen loves that baby, so Aibileen makes a covenant to hold that baby each day and remind her who she really is. She says: “Baby girl, you are a kind girl. Baby girl, you are a smart girl. You are a good girl.” Aibileen’s blessings, she hopes, will shape reality for the baby girl in a different way than her parents were. Children need their parents’ blessings.
One day, I was in the a department store check-out line watching the clerk who ended each transaction by looking each customer in the eye and saying, “You have a blessed day.” And she said it like she was a priest bestowing God’s grace on each shopper. I love that one stranger can bless another stranger. Even though to some it might sound like any other “goodbye and thank you for shopping with us,” I think that when it’s given with fullness of heart and sincerity, it affects us.
A blessing can transform the world around us.Think about it. An angry word spoken to us can ruin our day. It can affect the way we think and feel about ourselves. Even when it comes from a total stranger! If I accidentally cut off another car in traffic and he curses me–or gestures in an unkind manner–it hangs with me. It’s hard to let go of that!
A hurtful word spoken in haste can hang in the air with a force and power of its own. A word spoken in the unguarded moment can cause a fracture in a relationship.
So, then, a kind word, or a warm smile when someone enters a room, or a soft gesture of generosity of spirit, or even a touch on the arm, can change someone’s day…or life…who knows? It can be a balm for healing.
I was at the drugstore one early morning, and I was clearly harried and rushing through the store picking up things I needed. I headed to the pharmacy counter to get the medicine I had called in the night before. Now, I am talking 7:30 a.m. and I am already frenzied! Seeing this craziness, the calm pharmacist looked me in the eye while handing me my bag and she said, “May you be kind to yourself today.” A few generous words stopped me dead in my tracks. I felt like God herself spoke those words. Of course, I immediately welled up with tears and whispered, “Thank you.”
A blessing is powerful. It can bring a micro-shift to our day or our very selves.
A form of the word blessing shows up hundreds of times in the scriptures. God blesses the people. The people bless God. The people bless each other at God’s command. God willfully gives the power to the people to be vehicles for God’s blessings. In Deuteronomy 30:19 God says to the people of Israel:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”
In our story: Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, were Jews who had left Bethlehem – their homeland and their people – when a famine was upon them. They went to the land of Moab and there they raised two sons. Their sons took wives from the Moabites who were not Jewish. The Moabites had their own gods.
According to Leverite law, when a man died, his next male kin was obligated to marry the widowed sister in law so that she would be taken care of. But when both sons died there was no husband for either Orpah or Ruth.It also meant Naomi’s well-being was in jeopardy because her husband had died as well. Naomi decided to return to her hometown, Bethlehem, where her extended had lived.
When Ruth and Orpah set out to follow her, Naomi stopped them and said, “Go back to your mothers’ homes.” There were absolutely no guarantees for them in Bethlehem. Naomi stood between the two young women whom sh loved and with much anguish embraced them and gave each of them a blessing: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them.
They wept loudly and clung to each other. Each woman had a choice to make. With Naomi’s blessing, Orpah chose to return to her mother’s home. But with a blessing, Ruth chose to embrace Naomi’s God, and to journey with Naomi into their not-so-certain future.
Naomi did not judge either woman’s decision. She blessed them equally. And Ruth’s decision became a blessing to Naomi.
The practice of blessing is central in many religious traditions. Celtic religions have a blessing for everything – common daily routines and tasks, the comings and goings of life. Muslims not only give thanks for the meal on the table, they also bless the animal that gave its life. In Judaism, there are blessings for every act and ritual of daily life. Native American, Buddhist, and the Sufi traditions also have blessings.
Why are blessings so central to religions? Because blessings infuse the world of the ordinary with the sacred; they invite us to be mindful of God and to be grateful. If we routinely practice blessing God, and blessing others, and blessing the decisions that we ourselves make, it’s nearly impossible to allow our lives to apathetically go by, to live idly, to be bored.
I once was given the advice to bless every letter I wrote before sending it. That was before email. But think about that: before you seal a letter or hit that SEND button, ask for God’s blessing upon what you wrote. Whoa. That prayer might cause you to re-think and edit your words; or at least help you wait a while before you send it. Sending our words with a blessing rather than a curse might actually help us to hit the DELETE button altogether.
Today is All Saint’s Day when we remember loved ones who have died. We remember the blessings they gave us while alive, and even in their absence our memories of them can bless us.
Living a life that blesses God, and blesses others, returns blessings to us – that’s how it works – blessings continue to enfold us.
So this morning, we invite you again, if you desire, to take the bread and the cup and then come to the rail to be anointed with oil and to receive God’s blessing.
I’ll end with this familiar benediction given by God to Moses to give to the people: Num. 6:27
The Lord bless and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you;
and be gracious unto you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.
This is God’s will. Thanks be to God.