Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Living in the Thin Places: Blessings

Sunday, February 11, 2007

 

 

Genesis 12: 1-5a


Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Sticks and stone may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Not true, of course. Not true at all.

 

Words are powerful. Words can heal or wound…give life or destroy. Words are powerful beyond measure.

 

The ancient Israelites realized this. Their understanding of the power of words is seen in their beliefs about blessings and curses.

 

Blessings are words that empower, build up, connect, create, endow, enhance. Curses are words that nullify, impoverish, isolate, alienate, diminish.

 

There is nothing better than to be blessed and nothing worse than to be cursed.

 

Our Scripture lesson this morning says that the history of salvation begins with a blessing. God says to Abraham and Sarah, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…” (Gen. 12: 2) and everything that brings us to sit in this church together this weekend – that brings billions of people around the world together this weekend in churches, synagogues and mosques – begins with a word of blessing. Words are that powerful.

 

Our theme this Epiphany season is thin places. It is a concept from Celtic Christianity…the idea that there are places where the veil between the realm of the mundane and the realm of the eternal become transparent and permeable and we can almost glimpse and almost taste the divine.

 

Blessings are thin places. Words that empower and create and heal and connect are thin places. Blessings are “word places” where the material world and the spiritual world touch each other and are transformed.

 

No one of us can live without blessings. I literally believe that. I believe that literally.

 

It is the blessings of parents, teachers, Sunday school teachers, friends, relatives, neighbors…the blessings of God…that give us life. There is no one of us who would be who we are today without words of blessings that helped us know that we are capable, gifted, lovable, valuable, okay.   

 

Blessings are life.

 

Here’s the key thing I want to suggest about blessings as thin places this morning:

 

Blessings interrupt and repair and redeem the natural laws of cause and effect. Blessings transform history – human history but also our personal intimate histories, yours and mine.  Blessings are where heaven and earth meet, and life is transformed.

 

This is the message of the blessing of Abraham and Sarah. Blessings interrupt history and create new tomorrows. “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing,” God tells Abraham and Sarah. Blessings have the capacity to multiply.

 

One of the most difficult and debated aspects of the theology of the Apostle Paul is his insistence in the Book of Galatians that we are all born under a curse. (Gal. 3: 10-14) But I think this is a sociologically accurate observation.

 

Who of us comes through life not wounded and hurt and alienated by words that diminish us? Who of us is bright enough, caring enough, talented enough, obedient enough, pretty enough, straight enough, pure enough, disciplined enough, polished enough, something-or-another enough not to experience a sense of being cursed in some way or another?

 

For some of us, the sense of curse is almost overwhelming. I don’t know if it is still true, but years ago I read that the most common tattoo worn by convicts in prison was a tattoo that said “Born to lose.”

 

Being cursed is the common universal sociological experience. It is the human condition. This is what I think the Apostle Paul is saying when he says we are born under a curse.

 

The curse is as contagious as any disease. Rabbi Michael Lerner describes what he calls “a biblical theory of violence.”

 

“Cruelty is made possible,’ he says, “when human beings do not recognize in each other the image of God that is the essence of their own being – and hence turn away from others, do not hear their pain. Once this process begins, it builds upon itself, becomes a powerful force that is transferred from generation to generation.… As generations and centuries pass, the habit of cruelty becomes embodied in social institutions…Eventually people forget it could ever be another way.”

 

Racism of all sorts stem from this, he says – the subordination of women by men, the creation of slavery, and hierarchal orders of privilege.[i]

 

All this becomes embodied in the human psyche, Lerner says. The world’s cruelty is internalized by us all. The cruelty is “communicated in thousands of way from the moment [a] child is born.”[ii] We are cruel to one another personally and institutionally in thousands of ways and none of us comes through it whole.

 

This is the curse into which we all are born and that is born into us.

 

But Jesus, Paul says, enters into the curse – takes the curse upon himself – so that all of us – Jew and gentile…insider and outsider – might enter into the blessings of Abraham. (Ga. 3: 13-14)

 

Blessings interrupt and repair and redeem the natural laws of cause and effect. Blessings transform history – human history but also our personal intimate histories, yours and mine.  Blessings are where heaven and earth meet, and life is transformed. Blessings are our salvation. Blessings are a thin place.

 

When someone sees us and recognizes something of the image of God in us and manages to put that into language that we can hear we have been at a thin place. When we see another and recognize something of the image of God in her or him and manage to put that into language that he or she can hear we have been at a thin place.

 

Blessings are how redemptive change comes into our world.

I want to repeat two stories told by Rachel Naomi Remen in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings.[iii]

Rachel Remen loved her grandfather. He was a deeply spiritual man devoted to the study of the Talmud. From the time she was a very little girl, they discussed together the principals and teachings of Judaism.

When Rachel was six she had her first and only disagreement with her grandfather. It had to do with the nature of the minyan. In Jewish tradition any one can pray at any time but to have an official prayer service there must be ten men present. This group of ten men is called a minyan.

"Why grandpa?" six-year-old Rachel asked. He explained that whenever ten men are gathered together in the name of God, God is actually present in the room with them. By God being present in this way a minyan makes any room holy ground.

"But why only men, Grandpa?" Rachel asked.

"The law says ten men," he responded. I waited for further explanation, she says, but he said nothing.

"Isn't God present when ten women are present?” Rachel asked.

"The law says nothing about this Rachel. It has been ten men since the beginning," he responded.

Rachel was astounded and asked, "If something is very old does that make it true?"

"Certainly not," he responded.

Six-year-old Rachel said, "I believe God is present when ten women gather, too."

"This is not what the law says," he answered.

Rachel remembers being shaken by this conversation with her grandfather.

Several years later when her grandfather was terminally ill, Rachel would often come home from school and be permitted to spend a short time with him. She would read poetry to him, or read something from one of the books he had written, and sometimes Rachel would just hold his hand as he slept. One afternoon, as he awoke from a nap, he looked at Rachel and said, "Rachel, you are such a blessing; you are a minyan all by yourself."

This blessing from her grandfather on his deathbed empowered Rachel Remen to become a leader of feminist reformation within Judaism. 

Blessing is how redemptive change happens…how repressive and oppressive histories are overcome.

This is why to deny our blessing to anyone is such a serious matter. And, by the way, this is why our church Council is engaging in a discussion about the blessing of same-sex relationships, and asking all of us to engage with them in this discussion. Whom we choose to bless and whom we choose to deny our blessing is a very serious matter.

Blessings are very powerful. They are thin places.

But they are not necessarily sweet, sentimental places. Rachel Ramen also tells this story.[iv]

A friend told her about being married to a man who was highly educated and respected in his profession but who was physically and psychologically abusive to her, so much so that she lost her self-confidence, believing that his view of her as inferior was correct.

All of this changed one day on a street corner in New York City.  As Elaine and her husband were standing at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change, she had looked across the street and noticed a building with exceptionally beautiful prewar architecture.  She had called his attention to it. 

“Look, Melvin,” she had said.  “Isn't that building beautiful?” 

Thinking they were alone, he had responded to her in the tone of absolute contempt that he reserved for their private conversations.  “You mean the one over there that looks exactly like every other building on the street?” he sneered.

She had flushed with shame and fallen silent.  And then a woman standing next to them, a complete stranger who was also waiting for the light to change, turned and fixed her husband with a glare. 

“She's absolutely right, you know,” she said with a strong New York accent.  “That building is beautiful.” Then she added these words: “And you, sir,” she said, “are a horse's ass.” 

When the light turned green, the woman crossed the street and walked away. But she left behind a blessing that transformed Rachel Remen’s friend’s life. Hearing another women call her husband a horse’s rear end was a thin place. Blessings are not merely sentimental. They are powerful.

I want to tell you one more story this morning. It is from Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book Life of the Beloved, which he wrote right up the street from here at the Church of the Savior’s Servant Leadership School.

Nouwen served during the last years of his life as a pastor with a mentally handicapped community in Toronto. He writes that one afternoon a resident of the community, Janet, approached him and asked for a blessing. Nouwen, as priests commonly do, placed his thumb on Janet's forehead and made the sign of the cross. Janet jumped back and said, "No…I want a real blessing."

Nouwen, surprised, asked Janet if he could give her a real blessing at the community's evening prayer service. Janet agreed.

That evening, after prayers, Nouwen said that he wanted to give Janet a special blessing. Janet immediately rose, came to Nouwen and wrapped her arms around him. She was enveloped in his long rob and full sleeves. Nouwen said, "Janet, you are a precious daughter of the living God and your presence in our community all these years has been a joy. Your special gift of laughter has enriched our life and we a grateful and blessed by your presence among us." Janet paused for a moment, looked up at Nouwen and smiled, and returned to her place in the circle.

Somewhat to his surprise, several other members of the community immediately asked for a blessing and Henri held each of them as he spoke a sincere personal blessing to them.

Then he was amazed when one of the staff asked if he could have a blessing, too.

Nouwen wrote: "That evening I recognized the importance of blessing and being blessed and reclaimed it as a true sign of the beloved community. The blessings that we give each other are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity. It is the deepest affirmation of our true self." [v]

The curse of cruelty into which we are born in this world is powerful, but it will crumble in the presence of blessing. Blessings are powerful thin places where the glorious love of God shines into the world and transforms us and everything.

Bless you. May you be blessed and may you be a blessing.

 

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[i] Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (Harper Perennial, 1994), 27-28.

[ii] Lerner, 30.

[iii] Cited by Rev. Richard Fernandez at http://www.tabunited.org/sermons/03_07_13.html.

[v] Henri   J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual living in a Secular World (Crossword, 1992), 57-59.