Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from
I John 4:7
People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10: 13-13
Good morning, St. Nicholas! Thank you for inviting me to celebrate your patron feast day. I am blessed to be among you.
As you well know, your church was named for the saint most closely associated with Christmas. Nicholas was revered for his compassion, habit of gift-giving, and love for children. After he died, an enormous body of legend grew up around his acts of generosity. Ancient stories of how he would secretly visit childrens’ homes and leave gifts is at the heart of our practice of gift-giving at Christmas.
In Nicholas’ honor I’d like to speak to you today about one of the most powerful and life-affirming gifts we can both give and receive.
The word to describe this gift has religious overtones and thus is often associated with professional religious people like your rector Beth and me. That’s unfortunate, because we can all give this gift anytime we want. It doesn’t have to cost a penny, although sometimes we gladly give sacrificially as an expression of our gift.
The gift is that of blessing–to give our blessing to another.
The mother of a friend of mine died recently. My friend told me that the last words her mother spoke to her were words of blessing: “She thanked me for all I had done for her. She told me that she was proud of me and the life I had created for myself.” “Keep going,” she told me. “It was all right to let me go.”
That blessing will stay with my friend for the rest of her life. But we don’t have to wait until we’re at the final goodbye to bless one another. Much of the kindness we naturally offer is simply blessing by another name. To recognize such gestures as a spiritual practice encourages us to be mindful that we are instruments of God’s love when we bless one another.
I’d like to describe three ways that the practice of blessing can draw us closer to God and help us grow in our capacity to love.
The first is perhaps the most obvious: we bless others whenever we choose to offer concrete expressions of kindness to someone who is in need or pain. It matters here that we act and not merely speak our blessing. One of the hallmarks of this form of blessing is kindness. In the words of the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed towards you. Kindness has gracious eyes.”
In late August, I had a bicycle accident right in front of my house. I was going up the steep hill of our street, a road so familiar to me that I was looking down at my wheels as I rode instead of up to see what was ahead. Thus I didn’t see that our neighbor’s van was parked in front of their house and I hit it and fell. It was such a foolish mistake, and as it turned out, I broke my wrist rather badly. A man driving by saw me fall. He stopped his car, and helped me get up. He asked me where I was going, and when I told him I was right in front of my own house, he walked me to the house and made sure that I got in all right. Then he apologized and said that he had young children in the car and needed to get back to them. I felt the blessing of his presence and sincere willingness to help. I never learned his name and I can’t tell you what he looked like, but I will never forget his kindness.
In a world where we hear story upon story of mean-spiritedness and cruelty, gestures of kindness like that are life balm to the soul. Once you’ve experienced kindness from another, you instinctively want to pass it along. Later that night I sat in a very crowded, depressing hospital emergency waiting room, by myself, because of COVID restrictions. There we all were–this community of wounded and sick people. One woman really needed to tell someone her story, and even though I was exhausted and in pain, I listened, in part because I wanted her to experience the kindness of a stranger the way I had earlier in the day.
Another example of concrete expressions of blessing: the other day I visited the Bishop Walker School, a tuition-free Episcopal school sponsored by our diocese whose mission is to provide a high quality education to African American boys in the most underserved areas of Washington, DC. The Bishop Walker School started out, over a decade ago, in one of our churches in Southeast DC, and then–after years of fundraising and growth–moved into this amazing new facility housed within a large complex of arts, educational, and social service organizations in that part of the city.
Although I’ve been to the school many times, the new head of school wanted to give me a full tour. So we walked through hallways filled with inspirational passages and photographs of Black leaders, artists, and academics. We peered into classrooms where students were hard at work. Our last stop was the school library–one of the most inviting, beautiful spaces you can imagine. The library is run by a team of volunteers who each dedicate one to two days per week. All the books are donated by churches and schools within the diocese. Other volunteers come to read with the boys and help them with their schoolwork. The three women who greeted me that day showed me a small reading corner off to the side and said “Our entire library was once smaller than that space, and now we have thousands of books, all here to inspire our boys.”
Endeavors like the Bishop Walker School are only possible when individual people decide to strategically and collectively invest in blessing. For blessings to last generations, they must be embedded in institutions whose mission is to bless. We can’t possibly accomplish sustained large-scale blessing on our own, but we can whenever we collectively invest our energies and resources.
That is what you are doing today here at St. Nicholas, this church named for a man who loved children and sought out those in need of blessing. Later in the service we will ask God’s blessing upon your financial support of this faith community, so that together you may be a blessing to one another and your neighbors. I hope that you know how important and life-transforming your presence and collective blessing is; how together you are making possible what none of us can accomplish on our own.
A second way we can practice blessing is simply to take particular care with our words, refraining from easy critique and going out of our way to express encouragement and kindness.
Blessing is a wonderfully uplifting practice and a reminder of the importance of our words. It’s so easy to be critical; it takes effort to bless. “The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. “They can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. . . The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”
So here’s something to consider, a small practice of blessing for this time of year. If you are one who sends Christmas cards or other forms of greeting to friends and family, why not this year, in each card, take time to express what it is that you love or admire about each person you write? In addition to whatever wish the card expresses for their Christmas or the year ahead, or the news you share about your own family, why not include a word about how much they mean to you, or what you especially admire about them? You might think about what they most need to hear right now–a word of encouragement, affirmation, assurance of love. You will bless them by those words, and inspire them to live the blessing that they are with greater courage and confidence. And when cards begin to arrive at your door, take a moment to pray a blessing over each one, thanking God for them and surrounding them in your heart with kindness.
The third practice of blessing is the most difficult, given its context. This is when we learn how to accept the blessing that comes to us in situations we would have given anything to avoid. I have never believed that God brings hardship and suffering upon us, but I know from experience and observation of others that we can, nonetheless, feel blessed in difficult times. To name those blessings for ourselves has the power to transform our experience of suffering.
Blessings born of hardship are all around us, such as when in the midst of natural disaster, a community pulls together and people care for one another in transformative ways, forever changing the quality of life going forward for the better. Blessings in hardship also take the form of deep, inner transformation. We need never feel grateful for the heartbreaking events that provided soil for the blessing to take root in order to give thanks for its flowering in our lives.
One way to appreciate the power of blessing is to imagine a day or a life without it. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate being deprived or depriving oneself of the creative, transformative power to bless and receive blessing. Think of the Christmas character who is the antithesis of St. Nicholas–Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was a man who could neither give nor receive blessing. Though he had riches to spare he was one to be most pitied, even by those who suffered want or by his mindless cruelty. But with the visitation of three ghosts while he slept, Scrooge was given a chance to redeem his life through the reclaiming of blessing. The story ends joyously as Scrooge lavishly extends blessing and is embraced in the warmth of the family and friends he once shunned. Through blessing, Scrooge is born again.
To be people of blessing–even the desire to be such people–puts us in greater alignment with the God of hope whose word to us every year at Christmas is one of possibility. Goodness and joy; peace and love; a world where all have enough and no one goes without are still possible, for all of us, for all God’s children everywhere. Each one of us can do our part to make it so–one gesture, one word of blessing at a time.