23 April 2014

Blessing Those Who Bless You: Easter 2014

The Beginning 

Where to start...I suppose in divinity school when I learned if you didn't want communion you could be blessed by the priest. I suppose during a seminar discussion at Hinton on the need for blessing.  I suppose it had something to do with my Jazz Fest Prayers/Blessing station.  I suppose while reading Gilead.  I suppose on Ash Wednesday when I felt as a vessel of spiritual power (I have no way of communicating this other than I felt the power of God passing from me to those who came forward for the ashes).  I suppose during the "stations" on the 5th Sunday in Lent when I had this desire to go around and bless every congregant.  I suppose when I realized there was no communion bread.

What in the World Am I Talking About?

Leading up to Lent I had been on a streak of preaching for social justice.  I was saying things I had always believed but never spoken out loud.  Then Lent came and no matter how hard I tried to preach on social justice I couldn't, every sermon dealt with personal religion: loving what God loves. Only when we start loving what God loves (ourselves) can we begin to love our neighbor and enemy.  I was surprised by this turn but thought for sure I would be able to gather back by social justice momentum for Easter (especially with the proximity of Earth Day).  But that sermon never arrived.

The sermon that arrived was about blessing.  And that is what I am talking about.


On Good Friday the question and comforting thought occurred to me, "I wonder if the woman who prepares the communion bread received word that there will be communion for Easter Sunday?  If not, no big deal I'll either make a loaf or pick one up this weekend."  Saturday evening I thought, "Be sure and start a loaf of bread before you go to bed."  But I forgot.  Then Saturday night my youngest child was up sick.  Easter morning, it was all I could do to get ready and peddle to church.  As I coasted down Lyndale Avenue and crossed 46th St. I knew for sure that there would be no communion on Easter.  Why?  I decided to bless everyone.

Major thanks needs to go to the Rev. Dr. Kirk B. Jones for encouraging all to adopt a more playful, spontaneous, and experimental aspects into pastoral ministry.  

The Ritual

I preached my sermon on blessing (which is my interpretation of Resurrection)
Judson Sermon 20140420 "The Unfinished Business of Easter" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

After the sermon I invited those gathered to come forward and receive a blessing.  I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, said their name, followed by the simple blessing: The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

While attending a MCC worship service ten years ago I cried when I heard the minister offer communion to all those who were gathered.  She voiced the invitation in such a tender and sweet way, nothing like the judgmental way I had experienced the call to the table.  Since that day I have advocated that on "high holy days" we offer communion because I am sure there are those present who have been turned away from the table.

On a practical note, by offering a blessing instead of communion we did not have to fret over gluten free or gluten full bread options.  We also bypassed the debate of the nature of communion.  As Baptists I like to think our theology of communion as the lowest common denominator, but not everyone agrees with me on this.  

The Reaction/Response

I thought maybe 20 people would come forward (there were 200+ in worship).  I believe almost every person in attendance came forward.  I should say before the service I approached a congregant and asked if she would help me bless people too (one of the many perks of having a bakers dozen ordained folk in the congregation).

People came forward crying (I cried too).  New people came forward and told me their name before I blessed them.  Kids that heretofore had not come forward came forward.  And to my surprise people blessed me back.  Some people put their arms on my shoulders, around my waist, or on my forehead.  It was an amazing moment.


Marilynne Robinson is correct.  Perhaps the most meaningful act we, the ordained, can do is bless people.  But why do we not do it more often?

Here is a text of the sermon.

The Unfinished Work of Easter
Genesis 12:1-5 & Mark 16:-8
Resurrection Morn – April 20, 2014
Judson Memorial Baptist Church – Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

I don’t know how & why chocolate became associated with the Resurrection of our Lord, but I’m glad it did.  And I’m glad three women went to the tomb early one morning with expectant bodies, minds, & souls.  Tuned with the ears of our hearts, may the expectancy continue this morning.

            Let us pray.  Rising, Living, & Courageous God
In this moment, place your love on our lives, blessing us, reminding us of your trust in us.  Take our eyes and see through them, take our hands and work through them, take our minds and think through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.  Amen. 

Let us start off with a few questions?
How many of you were (or are) the favorite child of your parents?
How many wish they were (or are) the favorite child of your parents?
How many had a relative, a boss, a professor, a neighbor that you liked but they never really liked you? 
Do you have a favorite child, grandchild, or person in your life?
How many of you are living your days with an unmet need for a blessing? 
Or how many are withholding your blessing from someone?

he Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis, is full of cagey, sneaky, and conniving stories of folk trying to obtain a blessing.  Right from the get go the Torah reveals the journey of humanity as one seeking, being denied, and living with or without a blessing.  We are the heirs of that journey, seekers of that gift, always holding out the hope of Abraham to be blessed/to bless.  We spend our days doing amazing and surprising things trying to obtain a blessing.  I would say all of us here this morning are seeking a blessing, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

At the conclusion of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer winning book Gilead, the elderly Rev. John Ames blessed his middle aged godson John (Jack) Ames Boughton.  After the blessing Rev. Ames reflected, “I told him it was an honor to bless him.  And that was absolutely true.  In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”  The act of blessing for all involved is a liminal and luminous moment, it is to be present in those “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth is palpable. 

About 15 years ago I began the ordination process at my home church in West Virginia.  I knew at the start that it was a terrible idea, but I reckoned with some charm, good-old-boy-glad-handing, and smooth talking I could wiggle my way through slippery details of theological disagreement.  They saw right through me.  Before anyone could say no, I withdrew. I spent the next few years trying to come to grips with the situation, sleepless nights, bouts of melancholy, talks with chaplains and counselors, etc.  I knew the gulf between what I believed and what they believed was deep and wide, but they were the ones with whom I began my journey.  Looking back on it now, I didn’t expect us to agree, I hoped we could acknowledge the gifts of one another. 

One day while at a retreat I asked the spiritual director, without fully knowing what I was asking, if she would bless me.  She did.  We held hands, she prayed for me, and blessed me.  By blessing me she did what I desired/needed my home church to do.  This act did not solve all of my problems but it did untie the knots in my soul.  I felt like a new person, like I was reborn, I experienced Resurrection.

Technically, resurrection is the physically raising of a previously dead person into the bosom of God. 

Figuratively, it is the surprising pronouncement of discovering the imaginative acts of God:
where there is death, life;
  where there is war, peace;
    where there is hate, love ;
      where there is alienation, community ;
        where there inequality, justice;
          where there is enmity, reconciliation. 

Practically, it is announcing a blessing to the world in action, and in words, and with our bodies
that God has not given up on us,
  that God continues to put God’s trust in us,
     that God has us wrapped in a love that will not let us go. 

To be truly blessed by God –
  to feel in your bones, marrow deep,
    it is to know with every cell that you are loved by God,
      that you are good in the eyes of God,
        that you are one in whom God trusts. 

,000 years ago three women - not Peter, James, and John and definitely not Paul – began sharing the gift of blessing with the surprising good news of the Resurrection: he is risen.  We have their names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – that is all we have.  Take all the nouns to describe these women and add a few verbs and you can contain all we know about them in a few short sentences, that’s it. 

Yet what they did was so powerful and amazing the gospel authors made sure their names were kept for eternity by including their witness in the Easter story.  We read them each and every Easter keeping their witness alive and present. 

Although we do not hear or see any mention of these tree women until the middle of the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel we know they were with Jesus since the inception of his ministry in Galilee in chapter 1.  They were Jesus’ shadow, disciples with equals.  Therefore, it is only natural and right that they are the first evangelists of Easter – announcing the gift of God. 

            On the one hand you may view their act as a brave and courageous act, which it was.  Three women defied the authorities when they lingered around the cross, when they watched from afar while Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body to the tomb, when they bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body, and when they went to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for eternal rest.  All of their actions were commendable, copious, and courageous. If we only came to that conclusion all would be fine and good. 

But there is a subterranean movement missed if we stopped there.   
            On the other hand, their act was even more astonishing.  They bought spices to anoint Jesus, with no intention of using them.  They went to the tomb knowing full well they could not move the stone from Jesus’ tomb. And when they do not find Jesus in the tomb, drumroll please… they were scared, yes, but, but not disappointed. 

            They went to the tomb expecting resurrection.

Let us linger with their fear for a moment. 

Who wouldn’t have been scared? 

Have you ever held a new born baby?  The little thing all scrunched up & wriggling, covered with afterbirth, simultaneously you are overjoyed and terrified that you will drop it. 
Or have you held the hand of a loved one when they die.  That last breath, rising like wafting incense you are so thankful to be there but also deeply saddened that you will never feel the warmth of those hands anymore. 

            A better translation of the word fear would really be something like an ecstatic state.  They were on an emotional, spiritual, bodily high.  Their holy moment, it is what the bible refers to when it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
To stand in awe of the holiness of life,
  to feel grace unfolding before your heart,
    to feel within your loins that your only response is
thank you. 
            In the moment of ecstasy the messenger of God shoos them away, now get you going, go and tell the world that Jesus is risen, he is not here.  The directive from the messenger echoes the conversation/deal between God and Abram eons ago, get you going, get busy sharing the gift of blessing with creation.  Get out of the empty tomb and get busy announcing to the world of Jesus’ resurrection, get busy sharing the gift, get busy blessing the world. 
 don’t know how much time you spend analyzing the scriptures each week, my hunch is not that much – no judgment here, just stating the obvious.  So maybe you do not know that the gospel of Mark that we read this morning has not one, not two, but three endings. 

            The most obvious ending, the longer ending of Mark, which ends at verse 20, then there is the shorter ending, which ends at verse 9.  Then there is the original ending which ends where our reading ended this morning, at verse 8.  Most of the ancient sources of Mark’s gospel end at the end of verse 8, but some in the early church found that ending too drastic because there was no appearance of the resurrected Jesus, just an empty tomb! 

            I wish they would have left the original ending at verse 8.  Because it places the onus on me and you to continue the work of Easter,
to announce,
  to bless,
    to do whatever it takes to affirm in others that God loves them,    
      that God has not given up on them,
        that they too are created in the image of God,
          that God trusts them to carry on the work of healing and
mending the world. 

            Mark’s original ending invites us to take up the unfinished & open-ended work of Easter – for there is a world in need of resurrection, in need of blessing, in need of being loved into a new existence.

n closing, the past few Easters I have taken advantage of this day to make bold announcements for justice, for healthy liberal theology, and calls for action.  This year when I took in account of the renewed vigor for social justice in this congregation I felt I needed to go as deep as possible on this day. 

Much will be required of us, we will have to offer the world bread not stone;
something deeper and truer than yelling;
  something deeper and truer than just being angry;
    something deeper and truer than just being against policies,
    practices, and people. 

We will not change the world by shaming others, by yelling, or always reacting. 

We will change the world with Easter as our guide:
loving with surprise,
  gracing with imagination,
    hoping with wonder,
      blessing with fascination,
        resurrecting with astonishment
          freely sharing/announcing the gifts of God. 

This morning I ask that you receive the gift of blessing, or resurrection, of new life, that you begin again, or anew, viewing your self as a creature created in the image of God. 
For if you can love what God loves, if you can love yourself, then you can love others, your neighbor, your enemies; if you can bless what God has blessed then you can bless others; and if you walk your days looking for resurrection, you’ll find it. 

Let us open the ears of our hearts to the open-ended and unfinished work of Easter. 

            The Lord bless thee,
and keep thee:
            The Lord make his face to shine upon thee,
            and be gracious to thee:
            The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
            and give thee peace,
            both now and forevermore.

Brothers and Sisters Happy Easter.  Amen & Amen. 

15 April 2014

Blessing, Baptism & the Brief Joys of Ushering

For reasons beyond my understanding I picked up Gilead again the other day and read it again.  I love that book.  I tried to read it when it first came out, but that was during my "death period" family deaths and a string of deaths at church - I couldn't take anymore about death.

During my fictive sabbatical I picked up Gilead again and read it.  My memory from the first read was way off: I had John Ames's son as a daughter & the story wasn't even in Iowa.  Robinson's sentences were so sweet, thick, and soothing that I wanted to take it in as quickly as possible (for the record almost every work I read that year I read quick-like).  This time I took my time.  This time: I was right back, emotionally, at the place when I first tried to read it - my chest was heavy, I cried and cried, and found each sentence to be a balm.  The one sentence that stuck out dealt with baptism as blessing, how ministers (especially in free church traditions) overlook the power of blessing.

Last Sunday I baptized two youths, with the sentences of Marilynne Robinson lapping over almost every sentence of the day.  The baptism was a blessing.

As I baptized them I thought about baptizing my daughter last year, all the baptisms I have done thus far, and my own baptism.

Funny thing about baptisms within the Baptist tradition: the one thing that defines us we dont pay that much attention, liturgically speaking, to the act.  So I pour all of the attention I can into the day.  Oh how I wish someone would have talked to me more about baptism, given me a charge, given me a blessing.  So I did just that this year.  Here is a video of the charge, the blessing is part 2 if you want to see it also.

Judson Charge to the Baptized "Service With a Smile" 20140413 (1 of 2) from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

As I laid in bed the other evening, thinking of my own baptism, I remembered the forgotten joy of being an usher.  Shortly after I was baptized my grandmother and great aunt bought me a suit.  The suit was my ticket to becoming an usher.  One Sunday, after my baptism, a well dressed elderly man approached me and inquired if I wanted to be an usher.  Sure.

Being an usher meant that I got out of Sunday School early.  It also meant that I did not have to participate in the first 1/2 of the worship service.  Ushers sat people, opened and closed the doors, watched coats, passed out bulletins, took calls from the pastor (more about this in a moment), took up the offering, and (wait another moment for the last part).

The Phone: My home church was quite large, anywhere between 250-400 every Sunday.  Beside the chair where the pastor sat was a secret phone that connected to the the narthex where the ushers hung out.  Oh the fun the ushers had ignoring the calls from the pastor.  During an anthem or a hymn he would pick up the phone and call the ushers and they wouldn't answer (on purpose), and the pastor's face would get red and they would laugh and giggle, and the pastor would get even angrier, then finally they would pick up and make up some tale about not hearing the pastor's call.  And now here is the greatest part of ushering: the after offering gathering.

After we took up the offering we descended steps that took us under the sanctuary & into a special Sunday School room.  A Sunday School room that was filled with coffee, orange juice, and donuts.  It was amazing.  And now here is the best part: we ate donuts until the sermon was finished.  Each week someone would stay behind in the narthex then run down and tell us when the last hymn started. By the third verse began the entire army of ushers were standing ready to open doors, take bulletins, help with coats, and say goodbye to the exiting attendees.  This bliss lasted for about three months until the spouse of one of staff members caught wind of this bliss.  Apparently, she thought I had not suffered enough listening to below average sermons about hell and perdition.  She suggested that I not usher any longer.  

Who knows maybe what she did was a blessing?  Perhaps if she had not made me relinquish my donut bliss I would still be an unknowing conservative Baptist.  In fact, I would think that church was greatest church in the world, who wouldn't?  Donuts > Sermon.  She blessed me, only probably not in ways she imagined - but that is the nature of grace, untameable and unknowable.