Elements of Worship: The Benediction
(Following is a transcript of a sermon given on November 26, 2017 by Amy Norton. No audio is available.)
Scripture: Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 26-35
Today wraps up our fall sermon series on the elements of worship. Let’s recap what we’ve heard and learned this season: we’ve explored what it means to be truly welcoming, for we never know when we may be entertaining angels unawares, we’ve learned about confession and assurance, how to take comfort in acknowledging when we get it wrong and trusting that God will always welcome us back to try and get it right.
We’ve talked about the passing of the peace and what it means to build our relationships with each other as we build them with God; we’ve delved into the ways that the scripture can enrich our lives and learned about the relationship between sermon and audience. We’ve talked about the importance of asking for help and trusting help to be given, We’ve explored what generosity is, the idea that all our wealth ultimately comes form God, and we’ve shared communion over a table that commemorates Jesus’ risky love and his call to join in. We’ve moved through a whole service and now we arrive at the benediction, the end of the service.
Has anyone ever wonder why the end of the year, university graduation service is called commencement? Anyone know why and willing to share? That’s right- because it’s marking the ‘beginning of the rest of your lives’, as the commencement speaker or valedictorian often reminds us. The benediction is similar, in that it may happen at the end of the service, but it’s more than just a pretty or poetic way to wrap up the last hour and bring it to a close. It may feel like the bow atop a present, but I think it’s really the present itself.
And I mean that not only to break out the Christmas metaphors, but because I want us to try thinking about the benediction as something tangible that we receive and take out into the rest of our day or week. That the benediction is the offering of a valuable gift. And I mean this relationally as well as theologically. It is a gift in that we never have to earn God’s love, but rather God’s love and blessings are freely given.
There’s nothing transactional about unconditional love. I also mean that the benediction, or blessings in general, are like a gift in that there is always a giver and a recipient. Someone who wishes well upon another person, or group of people. That’s actually the meaning of the word, benediction, ‘bene’ for good or well, and diction- for say. One gives a blessing as one would a gift, out of love, care, and genuine ‘well wishes’. Blessings are valuable.
Who better to demonstrate this perspective than Jacob and Esau, siblings and rivals since before they were born. You may remember this story in Genesis, that Jacob and Esau were Isaac’s sons, and that Isaac was Abraham’s son and the ‘founder’ so to speak, of the Jewish people. Jacob and Esau were twins, and Esau was born first, with Jacob gripping his heel. That’s actually what the name Jacob means seizing by the heel, or supplanting. Esau was his father’s favorite; they shared a love of hunting and being physical; Jacob, a quiet man who preferred to stay home and live in the tents, was his mother’s favorite.
And so one day when their father Isaac was in his old age and sensing he may soon pass on, he calls over his strong, hunter of a firstborn, to offer him his blessing. But their mother Rebekah overhears and together with Jacob devises a plan to trick the nearly-blind Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob instead.
As we heard in the scripture reading, the trick worked, and Jacob received the blessing (and the privileges of the birthright) that was meant for Esau. Now, given that the blessing was tied in with the birthright, it’s easy to see why Esau would be so distraught over losing out. But he doesn’t try and negotiate for some of the benefits back, or for a more equitable inheritance. Nope, he begs his father to bless him, too. So what is it about the blessing? That’s what a benediction is, really, a special blessing to the group of worshippers or celebrants that have gathered for the service.
Blessings in the bible are all underpinned with the knowledge that, as we affirm in our doxology, all blessings flow from God. Much like during our service about the offering we talked about the idea that all our material blessings, our wealth, is God’s and we are merely stewards of God’s bounty.
So if all blessings flow from God, when we offer a blessing, we are saying, ‘may God provide you with XYZ.” We see this pretty clearly in the priestly blessing in the Hebrew Bible, “May God bless you and protect you, may God cause God’s face to shine upon you, and may God be good to you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace”. Always the emphasis that God is behind all of these blessings- the well wishes are ours, the genuine love and care, but the blessings come from God.
So…with that in mind, this is going to be an…interactive sermon. Later on we’re going to build a benediction together, but first we’re going to practice blessing one another. I’ll ask you to be just a litttttle vulnerable with each other, if you find this scary you can think back to my sermon about asking for help…So you’re going to turn to your neighbor or someone near you and state a need. “I need patience,” or “I need hope,” or “I need sleep” or “I need easier homework”.
And then your neighbor will offer you a blessing according to that need, “May God give you patience” or “may you find hope,” or “may sleep come easily,” or “may you learn and grow with every academic challenge”. I want everyone to get a chance to both receive and to offer a blessing at least once, and then we’re going to talk a little bit about what the experience was like.
What was it like, to offer a blessing? Anyone want to share? Or what it was like to receive a blessing?
Is anyone familiar with the term “liturgical year” or “liturgical season”? It’s church-jargon for the way the Christian year is divided up around holidays and themes. The year starts with Advent, then Christmas and Epiphany, then Lent, then Easter, then Pentecost and the oh-so-humbly named “Ordinary time”. Next Sunday we start a new Church year with the beginning of Advent, the period of watching, waiting, and hoping for the light of Christ to be relit in our lives and within our hearts as we remember Christ’s birth two thousand some-odd years ago.
So much like Jacob and Esau, who were on the cusp of a new stage in their lives as they each hoped to become the patriarch of the family, and much like we all are at the end of every service, when we are poised to move from worship in this sanctuary to service in the wider community, Christendom at this year is at a moment of transition, we’re closing out and reflecting on the year behind us, and preparing to step into the year ahead of us. I like to think of the benediction as an aid to the transition- in my college a cappella group we used to talk about absorbing all the energy from the audience, and then sending it back out at them!
Similarly, I like to think that the benediction gathers in all the spiritual energy from the service to call upon God’s blessings and sends it out into the days to come. Or that Isaac’s blessing was meant to prepare his son for his new position as patriarch, the benediction is as much preparatory, forward-looking as it is reflective. I want us to gather up our spiritual energy from this past year, and direct them into a benediction that we can take with us into Advent, into this new year in the Christian calendar.
Often, you see, Advent is caught up in the Cultural Christmas season- the shopping and the cleaning and the decorating and the shopping and the cooking and the candy and the shopping and the traveling and did I mention the shopping? And while as anyone on the staff or the exalting team could tell you, for me there is no such thing as “too much Christmas,” I’m always grateful for the opportunity to slow down and step really deliberately into Advent.
In the first of the ‘Deepening into Advent’ conversations that Kate Baker Car is leading, we talked about what advent means for us and what kind of spiritual practices we want to adopt this season. I want to do something similar here, but with a slightly different focus.
Now that we’ve had a little practice giving prompted blessings to each other, I want us to think about the people in our lives- our family, our friends, our church community, the cashier we always chat with at the grocery store, our children’s school bus driver, anyone with whom we have some semblance of a relationship…And as we hold these people in our hearts, I want us to think about what blessings we would have God bestow upon them. What gifts from God we hope they receive.
And then once we’ve thought about it a little bit we’re going to share these blessings, benediction style. We’ll offer them in the affirmative, for as one pastor says, a benediction is caught somewhere between a beatitude (blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of god) and a prayer (God, please help our leaders pursue peace), a benediction is more than both or either of these. A benediction says, “May our community and our world know peace in our lives”.
They can be simple and specific, like “may my best friend find a sense of purpose in her job,” or “may my family enjoy our time together before our eldest leaves for college”, or “may the bus driver for the children I babysit be aware of all the gratitude that the parents have for his dedication”. Or they can be general, “Grace and peace to all those who find themselves far from God in this season,” or “May all who hunger be fed.”
So which brave soul would like to go first?
A United Parish benediction for the end of Ordinary Time: