September 8, 2019
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22:18 & Numbers 6:24-26
“The Spiritual Discipline of Pronouncing Blessing”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
An angel appears and says, "I'll grant you whichever of three blessings you choose. Wisdom, beauty, or ten million dollars.” Immediately, the man chooses wisdom. There is a flash of lightning, he is transformed, but then he just sits there, staring down at the table. One of his colleagues whispers, "You have great wisdom. Say something!” The man says, "I should have taken the money.”
This morning’s scripture passages, along with the theme of the Blessing of the Backpacks, are quite straightforward. The Genesis passage comes from the end of the scene in which Abraham finds a ram in a thicket to take the place of Isaac, when Abraham thought God was calling for him to sacrifice his son.
The second passage comes after a lengthy job description of the Nazarites, the specially dedicated Israelites who would serve as priests. Immediately after that description, God demonstrates how priests are to bless Israelites. Because of their brevity, and room in the bulletin, I thought we could all read the passages aloud, together. So if you will find the bulletin insert, we can do that now.
Genesis 22:18 New International Version (NIV)
and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Numbers 6:24-26 New International Version (NIV)
“‘“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’
A gentleman by the name of Dan Barker tells this story. I build gardens for people. In the past 12 years, I've built about 1,400 vegetable gardens in Portland, Oregon, almost all of them for people who didn't have the money to start a garden themselves. I bring everything in on a pickup truck - raised-bed frame, trellises, cages, seeds, starts, instructions, even the soil itself. Then I build the beds right on top of the people's lawns.
I figure each garden costs about $500, most of which is covered by the grants I get for my foundation, The Home Gardening Project. And my wife and I don't mind living pretty frugally. Actually, we're as poor as church mice. But when you see the difference between what people's lives were like before they had gardens and after, well, you know this work just has to continue.
I see a lot of people who are in tough situations. An old woman who is nursing her stroke-victim husband. A young and inexperienced mother, with no husband around, but several hungry children. A poor woman who voluntarily cares for five abandoned children, all born with spina bifida or other congenital defects. I think I've gotten used to meeting people who have it hard. Still, sometimes the ravages of life take my breath away. Let me tell you how I met Blossie.
She calls me. She's alone, she's on Social Security, and crack-addict kids break into her house. She's heard about the program, and she'd love a garden. On the phone she sounds very tired and rapidly aging, like many of the other 150 callers I'm responding to this spring.
She's slow to answer the door when I arrive. It's a struggle for her to wheel herself backward with one hand and pull the door open with the other. First I see the wheelchair, then her eyes - eyes that look to have absorbed more pain than a combat surgeon. Her face and hands are swollen. She's tried to cover her knees with a tattered towel, but I can see the white bandages caked with splotches of dried blood. Then I notice the wheelchair again - quite clearly because there are no calves or feet to obstruct the view.
She's just had her legs amputated, after a lifetime of aggravating her diabetes with poor diet and bad habits. She wants a vegetable garden to help improve what remains of her health. She wants a garden so she can go outside for a reason, get a little exercise, and have something to care for besides the little terrier at her side.
The house is embarrassingly messy and smells of uneaten food and old bandages. She plaintively invites me in, but I politely excuse myself. I'm busy, I say. I'll just go out back and site the garden.
She insists that she wants to come with me, or at least shout from the back door where she wants the garden built. I make a mental note to call the Senior Job Center and ask them to build a handicapped ramp for her the day after I build her garden.
Blossie's need seems critical, so I bump her up on my waiting list and tell her I'll be by in two days with her garden on the back of my truck. For a second her brave forbearance changes to a smile, and her hands flutter in anticipation. The garden is going to connect her to life. She can hardly wait.
So I'll have to build five gardens that day, and break my promise to my wife that I'd make this spring an easy season. She never expected me to keep that promise anyway. Facing Blossie, how could I say no?
When I return, I build Blossie's garden in the sunny strip behind her back door, with easy access from the ramp that is coming in the next day or two. (Hooray for the old guys from the Job Center, with their hammers, tapes, saws, and heart.)
I build the three frames of her garden double high, filled with six cubic yards of premium soil, so she can easily reach it from her chair. I also supply her with some tools I picked up at Goodwill, the handles cut to half-length. She watches from the backdoor. Soon she's on the phone to a friend telling her the news.
"I know you want to get started as soon as you can," I say, handing her the seed packages and tray of starts. She takes them into her lap like a Christmas present, her eyes lighting up in hope. Suddenly she isn't listening anymore; she's ahead of herself, in the future, picking delicious tomatoes and basil for her summer salad, perhaps her only meal that day. She doesn't seem to hear me say that I'd be happy to send someone around tomorrow to plant if she doesn't feel like she's got the 'oomph' to do it herself.
The thought of needing such help doesn't seem to cross her mind. She looks up and points out the old laundry sink out there in the bushes. Would I mind filling that up with dirt, too? She wants to grow some flowers, "just for pretties, you know."
When I drive past her place the next evening, she's heading down her new ramp, wheelchair in high gear, and she's got the seeds and starts in her lap. Nothing can stop her now. It looks like another success story, similar to many others.
It's not until summer rolls around that Blossie's story becomes different. While monitoring the gardens that August, I stop in to see her. I expect to find her as I usually had, housebound, in pain, hungry for some human contact, especially contact that wouldn't hurt her.
I'm surprised by noise - the chatter and laughter of women coming from the backyard. I take a peek over the back gate. Blossie is holding court from her wheelchair over six other aged women. She spots me looking in, and orders me front and center, right now. She's exuberant, talking a mile a minute, her hands waving like a girl's. The ladies are with her every step of the way, and they're all talking about the garden.
Blossie introduces me. I offer the women free gardens, since they like this one so much. They make appreciative sounds, but all say no. They already have a garden - this one.
They all live down at the Housing Project, the nine-story one. There isn't anything but a parking lot around it, no place for a garden. Blossie had called one of them weeks ago, asking for some help and companionship. Pretty soon all six of these residents were coming down twice a week to help Blossie with her garden, weeding, fertilizing, replanting and watering. The garden, amazingly, is able to produce enough food for all of them to share. One of the women goes inside and emerges with a tray of tea service, a gesture that makes them laugh at themselves. After such long, hard lives, pretending to be genteel is silly - but fun. The garden itself is splendid, crowded with the vegetables Blossie likes to eat.
Soon the women begin to stop noticing me. I leave them to their happiness and occupation, glad to have had a hand in it. Blossie's garden has grown up and spread out, helping six people in need besides herself. It's a wonderful sight. People are always asking, "What is the purpose of life?" That's easy. Relieve suffering. Create beauty. Make gardens. Bless people while subsequently blessing God.
In this sermon series of exploring the practice of spiritual disciplines, this morning gives us the “discipline” of blessing. Sometimes it is easy, this particular discipline, other times, it’s a little more difficult, because our humanity can get in the way. In either event, we may not fully appreciate the intensity behind blessings.
In any given day, we have multiple opportunities to practice the pronouncement: “‘“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’ Whether we say those exact words or help someone live into them, let us do so with this Fierce Blessing by Jan Richardson.
Believe me when I say there is nothing this blessing would not do to protect you, to save you, to encompass you. This blessing would stand between you and every danger, every evil, every harm and hurt. This blessing would dare to wade with you into the waters that come bearing life. It would make a way for you through the waters that come threatening death. I cannot explain how fierce this blessing feels about you, but I can tell you it has more than pledged itself to you; it would lay down its life for you and not once look back in regret nor go in sorrow for what it has chosen to give. And you— so deeply blessed, so utterly encompassed— what will you save in turn? Not because it is owed, but because you cannot imagine failing to pass along this grace that casts its circle so wide, this love that flows so deep through this perilous and precious life.
Let us pray. Gracious and Ever-loving God, Thank you for blessing us, so deeply, so fiercely, that we may be a blessing for others. Help us to realize the sacred opportunities that lie before us in being your holy ambassadors to a world that is so in need of gardens of blessing. Embolden us to do what may not seem like a big thing to us, because it could be life giving for so many more than we know. Help us to be more attentive to the blessings that come our way, that we may live more deeply and richly in this earthly life. Thank you for the ultimate of blessings - that of your son, in whose name we pray. Amen.