Asbury First United
Juan Hernandez stood in front of teeming poverty in Tegucigalpa. Smiling, flecks of gray decorating his dark hair, he said to us and to you, “thank you and God bless you.”
A pastor stood this week over the bedside of a very ill friend, praying in the face of death, and saying, “God bless you.”
Norman Rockwell’s memorable painting, ‘Breaking Home Ties’ (its original suddenly rediscovered this week), shows a boy eager to leave home, and his father’s furrowed brow, as they sit on the running board of an old Ford. Dad’s eyes say, “God bless you.”
Atrocious news from Duke was telecast in front of the University Chapel, its illumined gothic arches mutely conveying a muffled and besmirched word of life, “God bless you.”
On September 11, 2001, as we now see in last week’s newspapers, valiant efforts were made by telephone emergency call operators, each fumbling communiqué in the hour of crucifixion carrying the same message, “God bless you.”
Communication is a delicate art, most delicate when most needed, as in the Sunday sermon, the announcement of good news. The openness to hear or say a good word, perhaps a saving or intervening good word, while not a ticket to fortune or fame, may just be the path to life.
On the path of life, Palm Sunday, blessings abound. The happy church of Palm Sunday is a blessing. The remembered word of the throng, misunderstood and misspoken, “Blessed is he”, is another kind of blessing. The palms themselves, soon to become ash fodder, are a kind of Sukkoth physical blessing. This great church, Asbury First United Methodist Church of 1040 East Avenue Rochester New York, is a sacred blessing. You are a blessing. As your pastors, how proud we are of your ministry. In worship, as fine an offering of the praise of God as you will find. You have given yourself to vibrant worship, and so blessed your neighbor. In education, as creative a range of potentials for growth as you will find. You have given yourself to excellent education, and so blessed your neighbor. In care, as loving a set of services for kindness and justice as you will find. You have given yourself to real care, and so blessed your neighbor. (Bob, Laurie, and Paul will further challenge you at the end of the service.) Your real blessing for the future lies in a decision on your part to tithe, to sacrificially support worship, education and care. Tithe.
Yet the gospel for this day is a blessing of another kind. Palm Sunday, and the days of Holy Week, declare a blessing in the presence of evil. Here is the Sunday you tuck back into your pocket for that moment or memory of the worst thing that happens to you. “God bless you”—a promise held by faith when all is lost.
For generations you have blessed others by providing a setting for preaching—support, time, respect, expectation. You expect the preacher to translate the tradition into insights for faithful living. The week progresses, an hour of study for every minute in the pulpit, as Fosdick famously taught. Here a little biblical study. Now some history and theology. There a little news and philosophy. A time for prayer. Then the sense of something and an intention to describe. The sermon is envisioned, outlined, written, rewritten, titled, re-titled, memorized, practiced and delivered. As Erma Bombeck said of Thanksgiving dinner: 20 hours of work consumed in 20 minutes.
March 5 completed such a weekly cycle.
The alarm rings at four. By four-thirty the preacher is awake and rehearsing, for the last few times. Then a long morning jog to crystallize the message. At 8 o’clock he says goodbye to his wife who is using the exercise machine, and watching the news. Says she, “Oh, I just learned that …bai means ‘god bless you’.” News and excercycle muffle the report. “Did you say that Dubai means ‘god bless you’?” “God bless you”. “You mean the middle eastern country?” “IT MEANS GOD BLESS YOU”. How interesting! This newsworthy country has a name meaning ‘God bless you’…
I report that to the gathered clergy and laity before communion. They nod and look puzzled. I announce this moment of education before an afternoon koinonia group. They receive the news with some perplexity. Then, at the end of a lovely long Sunday, around a gracious table, as a fitting conclusion to the hospitality of table fellowship, I proclaim the same message: Dubai=God bless you. I turn in time to see Jan. Jan is gesticulating wildly, not pleased, red and upset. But since much of what I say and more of what I do regularly draws this very response, I think little of it and happily proceed down an even more elaborate pathway of religious observance and definition: Dubai means God bless you. The car door has barely shut when she shouts. ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t say Dubai means "God bless", I said, "Good Bye’ means God bless you….”
You see, communication is a delicate art. Nor is ‘goodbye’ such an easy word to say or define. A syllable of mistake can mean a long journey into misunderstanding. How we say goodbye, how we leave, can be just about the most important thing we do. And who knows how much we really hear each other anyway, particularly when we are eager to say a word of blessing in a time of trouble?
Palm Sunday begins our annual hard look at evil, and our communication of truth about trouble. Reaching as we do, in this time, for a syllable of blessing in a season of brutality, we are perhaps doomed to some measure of mistake. The first Palm Sunday is an occasion of confusion, misunderstanding and maladroit definition. The crowd calls out a blessing, “God bless you!”…
John’s account is different from the other gospels. (Again, with this week’s discovery of a Gospel of Judas, we are reminded of the long tradition and history of reinterpretation in which, truth to tell, every sermon does stand.) Gone are the long scriptural citations. Omitted is the mention of the Mount of Olives. Discarded are the garments thrown in the other texts. Muted is the expectation of political triumph. Admitted are the misunderstandings of the disciples. Changed is the motivation for the parade—here it is the raising of Lazarus that has drawn the crowd. But the tradition of mispronunciation continues. It is in the hour of what John calls glorification, that is, in the hour of crucifixion, that the disciples remember. What they learn from this is not clear, at least not in this passage. Perhaps they learn that the moment of glorification brings the rain of humility onto the desert of pride, the fire of courage into the ice of sloth, the sunshine of truth into the fog of falsehood. That even in the inherited tradition, Jesus is the crisis, the judgment of this world…Towering o’er the wrecks of time…
There are times when Christianity may seem too good to be true. Christmas, Easter. Then there are times when Christianity may seem too true to be good. Palm Sunday, Good Friday. In this church we assess evil with utter honesty, utter realism. We do not forget Rachel weeping for her children, in Scripture or in Tsunami. We do not avoid the destruction of the city, whether in Jerusalem or in New Orleans. We do not suppress reports of the slaughter of innocents, whether in the Roman Coliseum or in Iraq. In some inscrutable way, this week, we remember the glorification, the cross, which is the reach of blessing into, or at least toward, the worst experience of life.
Can the name of God ever be spoken after Auschwitz? Can a word of blessing ever be offered after 9/11? Can a word of blessing touch the memory or moment of your worst experience?
In this age of violence, we need to be careful in our pronunciation. In the cross of Christ we glory, towering over the wrecks of time. But be careful….
It is not suffering that bears meaning, but meaning that bears suffering.
It is not the cross that carries love, but love that carries the cross.
It is not Golgotha that defines Jesus, but Jesus who defines Golgotha.
It is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses—even—crucifixion.
As Bill Coffin, today himself mortally ill, so often said, “There is more love in God than ever there is sin in us.”
Our greatest collective experience of hurt is still 9/11. After three weeks of study and reflection, I find it stunning just how pervasive the unpronounced influence of this event continues to be. Globally, nationally, denominationally, congregationally, and individually, our choices have been influenced less by the intention to meet violence with patient justice, than by a reactive violence and impatient injustice, a hyper caution, and layers of undigested anxiety. 9/11 is our demon. May the demon be exorcised.
Last weekend the newspapers carried the communication of telephone emergency operators from that day. These valiant women and men tried to speak words of blessing in an hour of great tragedy. Some of their advice, in retrospect, was mistaken, but virtually all of it was tellingly and movingly given with an urge to bless, a longing to bless. Some offered prayer. A few named the name of God. One recited with his interlocutor the opening phrases of the 24th Psalm. Yes, there was much avoidance, mistake, denial, mispronunciation.
One operator found the courage though to speak a real word of blessing. Find and do what is helpful and true. When all else was said, before signing off, he simply advised, the broken grammar in fact making the blessing all the more memorable and compelling, “Listen…was you able to call your family?” What a world it would become if every one of us, in the face of tremendous tragedy, could summon the courage and faith to find some practical, particular, helpful, hearable word of blessing, which might bring at least some good out of evil, and so at that one point deny terror any further posthumous victory.
We shall meet violence with patient justice. We shall meet change with courage. We shall meet every dark corner of hurt with some sunlight of opportunity, some word of blessing.
Change is hard but good. God bless you.
It is terrifying to leave behind the zones of comfort. God bless you.
It is exhilarating to open a new chapter in life. God bless you.
Brutal poverty may mock God’s image in Honduras, but the word still is heard, in the voice of faith. God bless you.
Anguished reluctance may mar the necessary departures and breaks in life, but the word of blessing still is spoken, in a painted parent’s farewell. God bless you.
Tears of pure pain may mark the hour of a friend’s untimely death (and what death is ever timely?), but the word of blessing is still uttered, ‘we are in God’s hands’. God bless you.
Confusion and miscommunication may infect the preaching of the gospel, but the word of blessing stands, well or ill spoken. DUBAI. God bless you.
Fear, waves and layers of undigested anxiety filtering through all our days may fall like ashes from the towers of 9/11, but specific blessing, acts of genuine love, particular and imaginative are still possible. Find and do what is helpful and true. As did the one operator who said “Was you able to call your family?” God bless you.
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified
Peace is there that knows no measure
Joys that through all time abide.