It is a Sunday in July. There are hammers on the communion table: brand new hammers just off the shelves of Home Depot … hammers with shiny steel heads and new rubber grips; and there are old hammers, their hickory handles worn dark and smooth.
You, Christians, you raise your arms toward the hammers, palms forward. You become a forest of arms raised in blessing over hammers … hammers soon to be carried on a mission trip where they will pound nails into freshly sawed wood, laying floors, building trusses, framing doors …
making things new … better.
It is Sunday, January 4th, 2009. Two days earlier an Israeli Airstrike on the Gaza Strip killed 19 people and destroyed 15 homes. The fear and hatred radiating from the Holy Land is so hot, blisteringly hot, it can be felt around the world.
You, Christians, you rise as you are able … Together we turn, facing in the direction of Israel, land of so much strife, so contested, so bloody, so beautiful, so ancient, so holy. Together we lift our arms in blessing and in prayer. We pray deeply and urgently. We implore God to bless Israel with what eludes it: peace. We beg God’s good blessing upon soldiers and civilians, upon mothers and fathers, upon children who learn the ways of the world amid the rubble and terror and blood of war. We pray words of blessing upon the injured, the dead and the grieving, upon Israelis and Palestinians.
It is the first Sunday after Labor Day. The children have all brought to church their school backpacks. So excited are they that many of them skip and dance into the sanctuary. Trying at once to see and to point to the pretty pink back pack on her own back, Allie Briggs twirls in dizzying circles …
The children clamber up the steps onto the Chancel. They lift their backpacks to you.
You, dear church—you aunties and uncles, you grannies and grampas—raise your arms toward the children, toward their backpacks, palms open, in an ancient symbol of blessing.
You can’t see what it looks like but the children see. Oh my, do they see. It is a wonder to behold: a forest of kindly and strong, adult arms lifted toward them in blessing. We pray:
O, God, bless these backpacks.
Make them strong for their job
of helping our children to learn.
May their straps never break,
Their padding never give out,
Their zippers never jam.
May they never be forgotten in strange places,
May the burdens in them be light,
And may the bodies that bear them be strong,
and growing, and whole,
and blessed, ever blessed, by your love.
In the name of the great Teacher
at whose knee we are all students, Amen.
We then present each child with a wee, child-sized flashlight. We tell them: “Gene, Allie, Miranda, Brendan, Audrey, Mae … you are the light of the world! Let your light shine!” They fasten their shining flashlights to their blessed backpacks. The children depart this house of God changed, enveloped in our love, blessed.
If you’ve worshiped here at Old South Church with any regularity, then you know we bless pretty much anything that moves and plenty of things that don’t.
If you have worshipped with us over the course of a year it is likely you have blessed animals, athletes, backpacks, hammers and money. You have blessed the waters of baptism and the bread and cup of Christ’s communion table. You have blessed confirmands, church leaders, and the leaders of nations. You have blessed friends and enemies. You have blessed new homes and new relationships. You have blessed shawls on their way to give comfort to the ill and the grieving. You have blessed round, ripe tomatoes warmed by the sun, heads of crisp just-picked lettuce, ears of corn and large green beans: produce from our urban church-yard garden on its way to the Women’s Lunch Place.
At times of national elections, when passions have run hot and high, together we have stood and faced toward our nation’s capital. Together, because there is strength in numbers, we lifted our arms in blessing. We stood in silence … each of us praying his or her own prayers … our blessings crossing and crisscrossing each other, winging their way across Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland … navigating the 440 miles from Boston to our nation’s capital.
This blessing thing: we didn’t make it up. We got it from God. It was God who taught it to us.
In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible … in Genesis, in the beginning … no sooner had God made earth and sea and sky, the four leggeds and the two leggeds, the swimmers and the fliers, that God blessed them. (Genesis 1:22, 28)
Moses’ brother, Aaron, was the first high priest of Israel. God taught Aaron how to bless. “Aaron,” God said, “lift your arms over the people, as if to embrace them, and recite these words:”
The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you.
And be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
Jesus came to bless. He blessed the bread and cup (Mark 14.22-23). He blessed children and meals. (Mark 10.13-16; Mark 6.41). He blessed the poor, the hungry, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, those who mourn, the peacemakers. He blessed his disciples and instructed them—us—to bless others, even those who curse them. (Luke 6.28)
Biblically and theologically speaking, a blessing is a transmittal of power, or goodness, or life.
The blessing originates in God and from God. It courses through the priest’s body and it lands on the designee … on the hammer, the water, the child, the dying one, the bread.
And here’s the thing: in this church, in this tradition of the Protestant Reformation, in the tradition of the priesthood of all believers, you are all descendants of Aaron. You are all priests! (Rev. 1.6, I peter 2.9)
You all are equipped to mediate the power and the blessing of God. You, church, are carriers of God’s power.
Describing the technical nature of what occurs in this holy act of blessing, Quinn Caldwell dispenses with the theological mumbo jumbo. Quinn says about what we are doing to the hammers and backpacks, the lettuce and the shawls, technically speaking … we’re “supercharging” them!
Hammers, supercharged by you, radiating God’s love and power, are then carried by our members into shanties and ghettos, Indian reservations and Appalachian hollows to build and bind up, to restore and to make new … to befriend and to companion.
This act of blessing is learned here. It is learned and practiced in the art of worship, in the house of God. But I know for a fact that it works even better beyond these walls. It works even better when you are out and about meeting and mingling in the world … when you are visiting a friend in the hospital and you place a gentle hand on her arm …when you snuggle the roots of a young plant into the earth and pat the soil around it… when you bake a meal—sift flour, kneed bread—and carry your gift to your neighbor in need …when parents first wave good-bye to their child on the child’s very first overnight … when a sister presses her palms against the glass separating her from her brother in prison … when you hold your lover’s face between your hands …
The act of blessing is a mysterious and priestly thing … an affirmation that we are flesh and blood, not just spirit … that our very bodies—your body—is a conduit of God’s love and power. This is the secret, sweet, sacred power of the people of God. Superman can fly. Spider Man can cling to almost any surface. But you can bless. You are supercharged. Your bodies are conduits of God’s power for love and mercy. You are made to bless!