Saturday, May 28, 2016

Don't Trouble Yourself

Luke 7:1-10
May 29, 2016
Ordinary 9
William G. Carter

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and the slave does it.’ 

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

For Memorial Day, Luke remembers a soldier. He was a centurion for the imperial army of Rome. He was stationed in Capernaum, the small fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. You might not think that is a plum assignment; it’s not the seaside city of Caesarea, nor is the political hot house of Jerusalem. But Capernaum had a history. It was on the general route stretching between the ancient powers of Babylon and Egypt. If one empire planned to march upon another, they would travel through Capernaum, the little fishing village where no much happened.

This particular centurion, who is unnamed, is remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s not merely because of his military record, which was probably significant. He is a military commander. “Centurion,” as in “century,” signifies a hundred. That is, he commanded a hundred soldiers. No one is given such a command through incompetence. No, this guy is a lean, mean fighting machine, the best in the Roman Empire. He has great responsibility and significant authority.

But here is the remarkable thing: he has friends. Specifically, this Roman fighting man has friends. I looked up the word in the Gospel of Luke to make sure. Yep, that’s what Luke says. The centurion has “philos,” friends, and he sends them to Jesus. It’s hard to imagine a military commander with friends – you don’t get an army promotion by having a lot of friends. But this man has people in town who like him.

Not only that, they are Jewish religious leaders, and their friendship is unusual. It was the Jewish Mishnah that said, The dwelling places of Gentiles in Israel are unclean.”[1]  There was a firm racial boundary established between the people of Israel and the Roman soldiers that occupied their land. But they liked this guy. “He built our synagogue for us,” they said. What an incredible act of generosity!

So maybe that’s why they reach out on his behalf. One of his household servants is very sick, close to death. The centurion has heard about Jesus, how he has gone about healing the sick people in the region. He says, “I value this servant very highly. Could Jesus come to heal him?” This is his request. It’s not an order, it’s a request. And that, too, is remarkable. This is a man accustomed to giving orders.

When a seminary classmate said she was going to enlist in the military, a few of us wondered how it was going to turn out. Margaret has a pleasant personality, she’s very kind and compassionate, and she’s a little bit short. As I recall, when she preached her senior sermon in the chapel, she may have needed to stand on a box for people to see her. It was an impressive sermon, she is an impressive person.

After basic training, she was assigned to the Marine base at Quantico, and then Camp Lejeune. Margaret became the first female chaplain at the Naval Academy. In time, she became the chaplain of the entire Marine Corp, and then the chief chaplain of the United States Navy. These days, she is a Rear Admiral.

Some time ago I asked her, “What’s the best thing about your work?” She said, “When I tell somebody to do something, it happens.”

This centurion is accustomed to getting his way. He says “jump,” they ask, “How high?” This man has extraordinary authority. But he can’t make his favorite servant well. So he makes a request of Jesus, that unusual prophet who speaks in parables and heals the sick.

And his friends make the appeal. You have to do this, Jesus. He’s a really good guy. He loves our people. He loves his adopted homeland. And for goodness’ sake, he built our synagogue. He is worthy.

It’s that last word that sticks out – worthy. He is worthy. It’s the strangest description of a centurion in the whole Bible – the worthy centurion. If it’s not a contradiction in terms, it is certainly a paradox. And we know from the parables of Jesus, he liked a good paradox. He told stories about the unjust judge, the humble tax collector, the prodigal son, the dishonest manager, the rich man who went to hell, the grateful leper, the good Samaritan. Now, here is a worthy centurion!

This gets Jesus’ attention. The soldier has made his request, his friends say, “Jesus, you have to do this. He’s a really good man, a worthy man . . .” -- if only all of us might be worthy of the healing touch of Christ!

But then something happens. Did you hear what it is? As Jesus draws near, the centurion tries to slow him down. He sends even more friends (for a Roman soldier, this man has a lot of friends!). And the friends speak on his behalf and say, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself. I wasn’t worthy to come to you, and I’m not worthy to have you come to me.”

Now, what’s all this about?  There is some debate among the scholars. Some of them say he’s being modest. Perhaps he has second thoughts about having a preacher in his house. Do you really want a holy man to come that close?

Others point out the awkward differences between them. The centurion must live in a big house. He has servants, and as a Roman soldier, he could take any house he wanted. And here’s Jesus, the itinerant preacher with no permanent place of his own (9:57-58).

Still others remind us of the racial differences between them. Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. They inhabit different planets. If Jesus came under his roof, that would signal they are neighbors, that they have more in common than what separates them on the surface. How extremely awkward for a rich Roman soldier to beg the mercy of a poor Jewish carpenter, and then to have that be the story that gets written down forever in the Bible!

Yet when all the mixed feelings are sorted out, the soldier’s misgivings are easy to explain. He is accustomed to getting his way. He understands the nature of authority. If the person in charge says, “do that,” it gets done. This centurion can direct and control a hundred soldiers, but he cannot control a life-threatening illness that might take the life of somebody in his own household. So he hands over the matter to the One who does have the authority. Somehow he can perceive that, even though the two of them never meet.

“Just say the word,” the centurion declares to Jesus, “and I know my servant will be healed.”

When a story like this is told in the Gospel of Matthew (8:5-13), the centurion comes out of his house and appeals directly to Jesus. In most every other way, the story is identical. But Luke says he does his talking through his friends. The appeal is second-hand, probably out of respect. When the friends try to convince Jesus to heal the man’s servant, they squeeze it to say, “He’s worthy.” Yet the man says, “I am not worthy.” There is some distance maintained between the one who makes the request and the One who has the authority to grant it.

Yet here’s the thing: Jesus heals the man’s servant, regardless of whether or not he is worthy. That’s the essence of grace. If God-in-Christ had to wait until all of us were “worthy,” none of us would ever be healed of any illness, none of us would ever be forgiven, none of us would ever be given a second chance, much less a first chance. Because it is never about how “worthy” or “unworthy” we are; it’s only about how good is the God that Jesus embodies.

Christ doesn’t wait for the centurion to shape up before he does something kind for him. Please take note of that. But also take note that the centurion asks for help. He may be in charge of a hundred soldiers, but he is not in charge of the universe. He is skilled in commanding a battalion, but he has no command over the illness of somebody he loves. So he hands over the matter to Jesus and says, “Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Just speak the word. There are a lot of situations where we want him to speak. Every person who gets written down on our prayer cards is a person who needs a word of healing. Every person who gets put down or pushed aside is a person who needs a word from Jesus. The girl with the screaming headache, the man with the spot on his lung, the senior who gets confused, the parents still waiting for their kid to come home – at some time or another, all of us need a word from Jesus.

For there is so much in our lives that is out of control. We try not to let it show, but we hunger for somebody to take charge, for somebody with the authority to make us well.

In a way, then, this is a story about prayer, because prayer is the practice of handing over control. We ask the God that we meet in Jesus to speak the healing word, to accomplish what we cannot do. We call on him from a distance. Sometimes we even rely on our friends to relay the message.

Sometimes we even downplay the request, so that we won’t be disappointed. “Don’t trouble yourself, Lord.” I call it “putting cushions on the floor,” because if you put a cushion on the floor, you won’t fall quite so far.

But here’s the final detail I want you to notice. For Jesus, reaching toward us in grace is really no trouble at all. It is the essence of his mission to the world to give the joy, the peace, the healing, and the love of God. He might not always “fix” us or do what we command, but he is present with us always and this is our healing. He does discriminate between Jew and Gentile, worthy or unworthy.

In fact, did you notice how the story ends? He heals that servant without even saying the word. The friends go back to the centurion and the servant is already healed.

I tell you, this is the grace of God. It is not restricted to something that happened a long time ago. There is grace all around us, given freely from the generous heart of God. And the Lord of life is going to do what he can to make all things well, both for those who believe themselves worthy, but especially for those who don’t.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Jesus in Context, Bock and Herrick.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

What We Don't Know Yet

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
May 22, 2016
Trinity Sunday
William G. Carter

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live…
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

We hear people say it sometimes. In the late winter, our nominating team looks for church leaders. We might ask someone to be an elder and she will say, “Let me think about it.” She may drop by to see me, chat for a bit, and then blurt out the reason, “I don’t know enough yet.”

There are plenty of people who are too busy to go to a lot of church meetings. Maybe they were leaders before and it wasn’t a blessed experience. Or they are already involved in a lot of other things. Or they have gotten their eyebrows singed from a small conflict here or there, and reluctant to go through it again.

But if you get to the heart of the matter, a significant resistance to serving God is a feeling of inadequacy: I don’t know enough, I’m not good enough, there are lapses in my understanding of the Bible, my faith isn’t always strong enough, or simply there’s more to all of this faith stuff than I can comprehend.

Biblically speaking, that attitude is the beginning of wisdom. There’s more to all of this than I can understand. In the Bible, that attitude is often called “the fear of the Lord,” not a “phobia” kind of fear, but proper reverence. God is so great, we are so small. We sang it in the Psalm. The psalmist goes outside, looks to the heavens, sees the enormity of God’s glory, and exclaims, “Who do we think we are, that God should pay any attention to us?” (Psalm 8:4) God is so great, we are so small. There’s so much that we don’t know.

It comes up in the Gospel lesson. Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and return to God’s side. He declares, “There is still so much I want to tell of you, but you can’t bear to hear it yet.” (John 16:12)  He doesn’t say they are dummies, just that they don’t know everything. Wow – there are no experts in the ways of God! Christ promises the continuing presence of God’s Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, to keep reminding us of his teaching, to keep deepening our love and broadening our embrace.

Beneath the Psalm and the Gospel lesson is the reality of what Proverbs calls “wisdom.” Wisdom is God’s first gift to the world, created to provide order and continuity and creativity to the world. Wisdom is out there ahead of us, waiting to be found. Wisdom is bigger than what can be captured in books. Wisdom is wiser than what can be taught in a workshop. It comes from the great delight that God takes in creating a universe. It is there in the specific delight God takes in creating this speck of soil called “earth” and filling it with critters larger and smaller than us. Wisdom comes in understanding that we do not control the world. There is a lot that we don’t know.

I realize that’s not good enough for some people. They want expertise. They want assurance that people know what they are doing. Presbyterians have always valued knowledge, building schools and colleges, advocating for education of the public, offering training for their leaders, requiring no less than seven years of college for their preachers.

But believe me when I tell you, spending a lot of time in class doesn’t necessarily make you wise. As one of my teachers used to say, “You can get a four-point … and miss the point.”  And what’s the point? Ah, that’s the question of wisdom.

I’ve told many of you about my grandmother who passed away earlier this month at a hundred and two. She was the wisest person I’ve ever know. She graduated high school at fifteen, not because she was smart (which she was), but they didn’t have a lot more to teach her at her small town high school. If she had been born to a family with money or privilege, there’s no doubt she could have studied at Harvard. But that option wasn’t available to her, and it never held her back. Up until a few weeks before she died, she was reading three reading novels a week.  

Grandma’s brilliance came from her powers of observation. One time, I went to visit. The local shopping mall was new. So we bought the tallest coffees we could find, sat in the center court, and people-watched for the afternoon. Not only was it entertaining, it was instructive. She would smirk and say, “Look at that! Did you see that?” There is a universe full of wisdom all around us, and this is God’s gift. We can learn a great deal by sitting still and paying attention. Grandma exemplified what Henry David Thoreau wrote at Walden Pond: “I have traveled a good deal without ever leaving town.”[1]

A few years ago, the New York Times told about a rabbi who observes a rare Jewish holiday. The holiday is called “the blessing of the sun,” and comes every twenty-eight years, when “the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it.” Rabbi J. David Bleich is an expert on the holiday. Every twenty-eight years, he stands on a rooftop and offers a one-sentence blessing to God, who makes the universe and sets the sun in our sky.

What caught my interest is something the rabbi said about his research into the holiday and its history. “You’ve got to understand that the closest thing the Jews have to a sacrament is study.”[2] I love that line – it underscores that faith is something that grows and deepens if it is to be alive. Rabbi Bleich says his holiday is not about blessing a star, but blessing a process. As he says,

“It is an intellectual reflection upon the fact that God constantly creates the universe, and that is a basic principle of faith. It is designed for reflection and introspection, which lead to an understanding that there would be no universe without divine existence.”

There is so much to learn, so much to perceive, so much to understand. How foolish it is for anybody to think they have learned it all? One of the books on my summer reading list has just been written Peter Enns, a theologian in Philadelphia. Dr. Enns was dismissed from the faculty of a conservative Christian seminary, in no small part, because he dared to question religious matters that his school didn’t think should be questioned. The title of his new book says it all: The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. (HarperOne, 2016)

It was Saint Augustine who coined the phrase crede, ut intelligas – “believe, so that you may understand.” Human wisdom begins with a heart given to God and a mind open to expansion. We don’t have to know everything in order to serve God. But service begins by offering our hearts and minds to God, in the trust that God is greater than whatever we think we know.

Years ago, our church asked a man named Terry Singer to serve as an elder. He’s been gone from town for twenty years or so, and just retired from the University of Louisville. Terry was a lifelong Presbyterian, but when our nominating committee asked to become an elder, he said, “I don’t know enough.”

What do you mean you don’t know enough? Graduate of Penn State, master of divinity from Pittsburgh Seminary, PhD from Pitt. At the time, he was the dean of social work at Marywood University – what do you mean you don’t know enough?

He said, “I have some questions about my faith.” Well, who doesn’t? And he said, “I would consider serving the church, but only if I can write down my doubts and questions. I want the session to know what they are getting. If they don’t want me, that’s fine.” The nominating committee really wanted him, so they said OK.

About a week later, the committee got a three-page single-spaced letter, outlining all of his doubts and fears. There were parts of the Bible he didn’t like; they were sexist or domineering. Some of the stories sounded more like myths than historical accounts. He didn’t think the church did enough to correct injustice in the world. It was a stunning letter, and one person I knew thought he should be disqualified. I said, “No, let’s give this to the session and let them read it.”

The elders were silent as they read the letter. This had never happened before. Back then, you had to pin somebody to the floor to get them to serve a term, and here is this guy writing a three-page letter and saying he didn’t know enough? The first elder to speak spoke for them all: “I have had a lot of these same questions myself, but I was too chicken to say so.”

Terry was elected and ordained as an elder. He served his church with distinction. Last week, he retired as the dean of the Kent School of Social Work and was given a lifetime achievement award. He was the guy with the questions, doubts, and plenty more to learn. That is what drove him to do God's work in the world.

What does it take to honor God? A trusting heart, a discerning mind, and hands extended in compassion. God has blessed our church with no shortage of such people. There is plenty that all of us don’t know. But the beauty of faith is that we give ourselves to the God who knows so much more than all of us, and we ask that God gives us the wisdom to do what God wants to get done.

For Wisdom says, “I was with God when the heavens and the earth were created. Daily I was God’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Henry David Thoreau actually wrote “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” That was his town.
[2] Samuel Freedman, “A Jewish Holiday, Once Every 28 Years,” The New York Times, 3 April 2009, page A-12

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Deconstructing Babel

Acts 2:1-21
Genesis 11:1-9
The Day of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
William G. Carter

Pentecost is a really noisy day. Perhaps it is the lesser-known of the big Christian holy days, but certainly it is the loudest. 

Christmas is quiet.  A baby cries in the barns out back and only his parents can hear him. The angels make their announcement the Good News to the shepherds, but nobody else can hear it. King Herod wasn’t there to hear it. It is an infant-sized event in a little town that hasn’t had a famous person present for a thousand years. So we come on Christmas Eve, light candles in the dark, and sing, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” Christmas is big, but it is quiet.

Easter is quiet. The Gospel of Matthew says there was an earthquake (28:2) when an angel rolled the stone away, but he has to tell us that because nobody was there to hear it. Nobody saw the moment when Jesus was raised from the dead. It was out of sight, off the screen, under the radar. Pontius Pilate didn’t hear it. Caiaphas the high priest didn’t hear it. A few women returned from the tomb and said it was empty, but the men didn’t believe them. Behind the brass quartet and the Hallelujah Chorus was a very quiet moment.

But Pentecost is loud. When the Holy Spirit came down upon the church, the sound was deafening. Luke says it was like the rush of a mighty wind, like a tornado had come into the room. All Jerusalem had gathered for the ancient harvest festival of Pentecost, and this holy explosion happens in an upstairs room.

Not only that, all the people in the room start talking. They can’t help themselves. Everybody’s voice was raised. The sound was out of control. There was no way to shut it down. Ever been in a room where there’s too much noise?

One of my friends went to her daughter’s elementary school violin concert. She said the parents were talking, laughing, hooting and hollering. You almost couldn’t hear the violins. What’s wrong with these people? Everybody’s talking.

I think I’ve been to that meeting. Somebody up front is doing their best to moderate, but there’s a conversation over here and a conversation over there. Everybody is talking over the meeting agenda because everybody has their own agenda. It is disconcerting, really. The aftershock of that old Tower of Babel story – everybody is talking, and a lot of them are trying to out-shout the next voice.

Some say talking out of turn is a sign of the times. Maybe so. Technology makes it easy for you to text somebody from the inside of a worship service. One Christmas Eve at the late night jazz service, the drummer started texting somebody while I was preaching the sermon. Afterward I said, “What were you doing?” He said, “I sent a note to my honey and said, ‘Erin, I forget to get a Christmas present for Rev. Bill. Stop and pick something up. If you leave now, you can get here in time for communion.”

There is a lot of noise out there – and some of it comes in here. Politics is all about shouting louder than the enemies across the aisle. Advertising is all about drowning your listener with a flood of words until they give in and buy your junk. In one household I know, the family had televisions in adjacent rooms. They thought that might be a good idea; everybody could watch their own shows. But Friday nights, each TV is continually turned up louder to be heard over the TV in the next room.

The ancient story of the tower of Babel still infects us. Babel is just what it sounds like – a lot of noise, senseless syllables colliding against one another. The confusion inside our heads and hearts comes out in the chaos of our tongues. Everybody is talking, nobody is making sense. What a confusing, isolating experience!

But then, Pentecost happens. Fifty days after the cross and resurrection, there is wind and fire. People are filled with different languages, and they begin to speak. This time, however, they understand one another. The Pentecost miracle is not that everybody speaks, but they speak and understand. This is the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of comprehension that creates human community. It’s a holy dismantling of the Babel confusion, where everybody talks over everybody else. On Pentecost, “people from every nation under heaven” are equipped to speak – and to understand. The Holy Spirit is the Translator.

It couldn’t have come at a better time. It was time for the church to push beyond its own borders, to speak beyond its own dialects. Jesus is risen, forgiveness of sin is to be announced, God wishes to create peace and unity for the whole world through a radical experiment called “church.” Here is a group of people who will love one another, who will care for the poor and needy, who will not let languages divide them.

In some corners, there are some who want to compel everybody else to speak the same language. In south Philadelphia, Geno’s Cheese Steaks made a lot of noise when the owner posted a big sign: “Only English Spoken Here.” It caused a ruckus. That was hard news in a neighborhood where Asians and Hispanics have moved in. Somebody pointed out that the Italian immigrant who started the joint had a short memory.

What are we really hungry for? It’s more than diced steak with Cheez Whiz on a roll. It’s feeling like we belong, that we are understood, that fear and anxiety do not have to define us – and that all of us are worthy of the love of God and the respect of one another. That’s why Pentecost is so important. The Spirit comes to give speech and understanding. The church is empowered to speak truth embodied in compassion.

And at the heart of it all is the astonishing good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and God is stronger than the powers of death and division. The Spirit falls on the witnesses to the resurrection, and gives them courage to speak the love of Christ into a damaged and divided world.

Peter was the first to find his voice. His speech that day goes like this: Jesus was the One who did God’s wonders, who showed God’s power. He knew what it was to be crucified by human sin, to be killed by hands outside of God’s Torah. But God raised him up and freed him from death. So it’s time to turn from our destructiveness, and take the name of Jesus for ourselves. His ways can be our ways. And God’s Spirit will fill us with the ability to speak and understand.

From the very first day, this message rang true in whatever language was spoken or heard. There is something about the Gospel that meets every person at their point of need. It doesn’t matter to God what tongue is used. What matters is that the message is heard, that people cancel their own destructiveness and encourage others to do the same. What matters is that people who cannot trust one another or will not speak to one another have their tongues loosened, their ears opened, and their hearts thawed. For there is room for all of us in the embrace of God.

The Good News of Pentecost is that we don’t have to live unto ourselves, as if we’re the only ones who matter, or as if human community is an impossible dream. The Spirit blows open the window and pushes the church out into the world. God invades our isolation without asking for permission, and gives us the possibility of hearing one another, really hearing one another. And in the deep mystery of a continuing Easter, Christ comes among us as we speak in our own native tongues of how God gives us faith, hope, and love.

Pentecost is a noisy day. God’s Spirit counters the arrogance and confusion of Babel with a different kind of sound – the sound of love enlarging our hearts, the sound of peace far deeper than our fear, the sound of unity cancelling all division. Let the love, peace, and unity of God touch down on each of our foreheads as fire that cannot be extinguished.

But let us take the same love, peace, and unity beyond these walls into a broken world. Because that is what God has intended from the very beginning.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bless Your Heart

Psalm 67
Easter 6
May 8, 2016
William G. Carter

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,          Selah
that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.              Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

As a life-long Yankee, I’ve been a little slow in learning the nuances of Southern speech. Over time, my world has expanded and I have made friendships below the Mason-Dixon line. But there are words that Southerners say.

Sit down in an Alabama diner, order coffee and eggs. The plate arrived with a scoop of white glop. What’s that? “Son, those are grits.” I didn’t order grits. “Son, you don’t order grits. They just come.” That’s what she said.

Or sitting in a seminar of Presbyterians in North Carolina. Our leader spoke of American history, the struggle for civil rights, the historical events that preceded it. He mentions the Civil War. And a man with a slow drawl says, “Are you referring to the recent unpleasantness?” That’s what he said.

But my favorite expression from the South made the title of the sermon: “bless your heart.” I always thought that was a compliment, but no, I was wrong. It sounds like a compliment, but it is usually the lead-in to a sarcastic condemnation. For example: “Bless his heart, he is dumb as a sack of rocks.” “Bless her heart, she has no fashion sense at all.” And if you add “cotton-picking” or “pea-picking” to the phrase, it becomes a double insult. As in, “Bless your cotton-picking heart, you really have no idea how this works, do you?”[1]

According to the Urban Dictionary, “This is a term used by the people of the southern United States to express to someone that they are an idiot without saying such harsh words.”

When Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina was bullied, then criticized by Donald Trump, she tweeted back, “Bless your heart.” Everybody in South Carolina knew what she meant.[2] The CNN commentator translated it for the rest of us. She “brushed him back with some sharp elbowed charm.”

The irony, of course, is that the phrase is not a blessing at all. It’s more like a curse. It’s a way of putting somebody in their place while appearing to be nice about it. But it raises the issue of how words can be used as weapons. The ancient sages saw this clearly. Proverbs 12:18 says, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (NIV)

Words have great power. From the same tongue comes blessing and cursing. And in Carolina, the curse may be configured to sound like a blessing.

I think of the story told by Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:

In the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific some villagers practice a unique form of logging. If a tree is too large to be felled with an ax, the natives cut it down by yelling at it. (Can’t lay my hands on the article, but I swear I read it.) Woodsmen with special powers creep up on a tree just at dawn and suddenly scream at it at the top of their lungs. They continue this for thirty days. The tree dies and falls over. The theory is that the hollering kills the spirit of the tree. According to the villagers, it always works.

Ah, those poor nave innocents. Such quaintly charming habits of the jungle. Screaming at trees, indeed. How primitive. Too bad that don’t have the advantages of modern technology and the scientific mind.
Me? I yell at my wife. And yell at the telephone and the lawn mower. And yell at the TV and the newspaper and my children. I’ve been known to shake my fist and yell at the sky at times.

Man next door yells at his car a lot. And this summer I heard him yell at a stepladder for most of an afternoon. We modern, urban, educated folks yell at traffic and umpires and bills and banks and machines–especially machines. Machines and relatives get most of the yelling.

Don’t know what good it does. Machines and things just sit there. Even kicking doesn’t always help. As for people, well, the Solomon Islanders may have a point. Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.[3]

Words, words, words . . . don’t call them “mere words.” When the God of scripture wants to do something, God speaks: “Let there be light!” “Let life proceed on the earth!” In Hebrew thinking, words are deeds. God creates a world by speaking. God redeems a world by letting the Word become human flesh. Not only that, you learn everything you need to know about someone’s character by listening to the words they speak.

That brings us to the Psalm we heard a few minutes ago. Tucked away in the middle of the Bible is the brief poem we have labeled Psalm 67. Psalm 67 makes no argument, urges no point of view. The text does not instruct a lesson or tell a story. It simply sings of the blessing of God, offers the blessing of God, and asks God to continue the blessing.

What is a “blessing”? We have our smaller answers. It’s something we mumble before a meal. Or a blessing is  the pre-approval we offer before some kid pops the question to one of our daughters. But biblically speaking, a blessing is so much more.

One scholar summarizes it this way:

Blessing is the daily providential power of God that supplies and sustains life. Life-force and spirit-force, it causes all creation to flourish.  Blessing is also the power of affirmation bestowed by one human being upon another, most powerfully by parent onto child, through the gift of delight and the gift of encouragement. Blessing bestows vitality, potency, creativity, health, well-being, peace.[4]

Our very lives come from the blessing of God. Every good and perfect gift comes from the generous heart of God. John Calvin spoke frequently of God as the “fountain of every blessing,” long before the phrase found itself in a favorite hymn. And it’s this perfect goodness that God speaks into the world that invites us to be good to one another. Here is how Calvin said it in one of his sermons:

Ought we not to have much more compassion for one another, because we find in ourselves that which we pardon in our neighbors? God can find no infirmity in Himself, and how then can He be moved to forgive us? Even because He is the fountain of goodness and mercy.[5]

All kindness begins in the kindness of God, who breathes grace into a world that does not deserve it but can’t live without it. So the Risen Christ returns to his people after crucifixion and blesses them with wounded hands, saying, “Peace be with you.” And as we heard from the last chapter of Revelation, the final words of the Bible are the final words on our lives: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” (Rev. 22:21).

So we pay attention to our words today, as an expression of the love that God continues to show the whole world. We practice kindness to our mothers today, not merely out of obligation, but because God has been generous in granting us life through the women who have borne us. It’s all a gift, often in spite of ourselves. And there is nothing like a kind word which creates good will lasting an eternity.

Yesterday we laid to rest Isabella Huey Boal Stewart. I called her Grandma Ebo. She went around the track 102 times, so we have a lot of stories and memories about her. Our family gathered to remember her and give thanks to God for the gift she has been.

One of my last conversations with Grandma Ebo is the one that I always remember, so I give to you. Time was getting short and we both knew it. In one courageous moment, she blurted out, “I will love you always.” She said it to me and she says it to you.

It’s not just the word “love” that I hold in my heart. It’s the word “always.” This precious woman who was old enough to seem everlasting is now eternal, not because of her own strength, but because of the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. The blessing – the life-force – is God’s gift to the living, the very breath of life. The blessing is also God’s gift to the dead, who shall be raised by the grace of Christ. It is because God loves us always, and God calls us to be a blessing to one another.

So what will be the blessing that you offer those around you this day? How will your words become constructive deeds, showing that the same love shown by God is to be shared with all around us? Give it some thought, and turn it into gracious work. And as you reflect, let me share a blessing that I came across this week:

God, bless to me this day,
God, bless to me this night;
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life;
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life.
God, bless the pathway on which I go,
God, bless the earth that is beneath my sole;
Bless, O God, and give to me Thy love,
O God of gods, bless my rest and my repose;
Bless, O God, and give to me Thy love,
And bless, O God of gods, my repose.[6]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[3] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989) 96-97.
[4] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Blessing,” in Handbook of Themes for Preaching, James W. Cox, editor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991) 36-37.
[5] John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 483-485.
[6] From the writings of Carmina Gadelica