Blessing as a Spiritual Practice a sermon given by Rev. Fred L Hammond November 9 2008 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL
As I picked up my package and began turning to leave the store, I heard the sales assistant say “Have a blest day.” I looked at her and saw her face smiling brightly, she meant what she said. This was not just a polite phrase her momma taught her. I hear this phrase a lot in the south, “Have a blest day.” It is not something I heard often in other parts of the country.
There is a difference between the phrases “Have a good day” and “Have a blest day.” Having a Blest day implies something more than just good. It signifies to me a day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered.
These are days when I feel confident in who I am from the very core of my being. These are days that regardless of what events occur I can rest assured that the integrity of me is in tact and cannot be undermined in any way. But where does this come from this assuredness of integrity; this self confidence of my being. It is more than just someone in a store saying “Have a Blest day.”
This morning we celebrated a Blessing ceremony for one of our youngest members. You heard from Tyler’s parents and sister their blessings, their best hopes and dreams for him. You heard from family friends offering their blessings on Tyler as well. And then we as a congregation chimed in with our blessings.
This blessing ceremony was done in a style used in pagan circles. Where the energy of the individuals and the group focus their best thoughts and wishes on the one they wish to bless. The blessing according to pagan beliefs then acts as a spiritual shield for the child. It becomes a grounding point for the parents to remember and reflect on when parenting may stretch their skills. And it becomes a touchstone for Tyler to always know that he was born into a home of love and care for his best unlimited potential.
The blessing does not originate in a vacuum but is grounded in the ongoing relationship of the person being blessed and the person or persons offering the blessing. The fruition of the blessing may not be seen in the near future but may take decades to unfold as Tyler’s life twists and turns with the wide variety of experiences to be had. There may along his path be apparent defeats that might crush a blow if it was not for the grounding his parents and this congregation offered him today to hold fast to the promise of a fulfilling life of purpose and meaning.
Matthew Fox, theologian, speaks of what he calls Original Blessing. Before there could be any fall from grace, there was first and foremost an Original Blessing. Fox tells us that blessing is found in the metaphorical creation story. After each day, God “Looked at what he had done, and it was good… all of it was very good!”
Matthew Fox states that the creative energy that created the heavens and the earth, call it god, call it source, call it by what ever name, continues to create and invites creation to participate in its creating. There is a relationship in the bestowing of the blessing. Fox further states, “Blessing involves relationship: one does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality. And if it is true that all of creation flows from a single, loving source, then all of creation is blessed and is a blessing, …” (Original Blessing p 44)
In this creation story is the investment of the creator in bringing about the creator’s best wishes for creation. The story tells us that the intention of creation is to be something of worth, to be something good. And if Matthew Fox is correct in his theorem, then ongoing creation is also something of worth, something good.
According to the Abraham myth found in Genesis, God said to Abraham, “…I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will … be a blessing… Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.”
This was done in the context of a covenant established between god and Abraham. Covenants are relational contracts between people. They convey how a people is to be in relation with one another. Covenants when followed convey how the people will be perceived by others. For the Children of Abraham, the covenant they made with God was to be a blessing to others, even if the others did not embrace their way of life.
From this covenant and from the stories of a people of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have modern concepts of justice between people. It took the evolutionary journey of these ancient people to develop these notions of equitable justice but we do find them rooted in this tradition. Concepts such as those found in Leviticus, that book of law that is oft quoted by those seeking to repress others also has some of the most liberating verses on justice. Such as this one in Leviticus 19:34: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: ….”
Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (10:18) talks about showing justice to the orphan and the widow through providing food and shelter. The prophet Micah reminds the people of his day that God had already showed them how to know what is right…It is to love mercy, to act justly, and walk humbly with your god.
These are acts of blessing bestowed on another. It is through the ongoing covenant, the ongoing relationship of these people that blessing is bestowed. This is a daily process with a promise woven into the fabric. How that fabric is later to be used may still be unknown but its cloth will be a blessing to others.
Sometimes it is in the keeping the covenant to work towards justice that future blessings are finally realized. It is in the laying down of the groundwork that future blessings are able to sprout to their fruition.
There is the story of an elderly man who decided to plant fruit trees on his property. His neighbors chided him for doing this because it was evident that he would never live long enough to be able to benefit from his labors in planting these young saplings. The elderly man responded and said that he planted the trees not for himself but for those who would come after him and be blessed by the bountiful fruit these trees would offer. He was bestowing blessings into his future. He saw a vision of what could be and wanted his life to be a blessing towards that future.
Forty-three years ago, a young African American by the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson, ordained a deacon by his church, sought for four years to register to vote. He was denied. He knew that voting was his right as a citizen and he knew that it was a right for every citizen. He was determined to work towards voting rights.
When another young man, James Orange was arrested for assisting and recruiting potential voter registrants, Jimmie Lee marched in Marion, AL with hundreds of others in protest of the arrest. The police began to beat up the protesters and chased Jimmie Lee, his mother and his 82 year old grandfather into a café. The grandfather was beaten and when his mother attempted to get the police off of him, she too was beaten. Then when Jimmie Lee came to her aid, he was shot at point blank range by a State Trooper. It was Jimmie Lee’s death that provoked the march on Selma. Jimmie Lee’s belief that all people deserve the right to vote was a blessing that laid the foundations for what was to come. His untimely death was not in vain towards that goal.
In March of that year hundreds of ministers joined Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march on Selma to again protest not only the inequity of the voting laws that kept African Americans from voting but also the extreme measures used to enforce this injustice. One Unitarian minister by the name of James Reeb was struck down while walking on a street. He went to Selma with the conviction that all people have inherent worth and dignity and therefore should be afforded equal rights.
Forty-three years ago, a young mother from Detroit Michigan, came down to Alabama to assist in voter registration efforts of African Americans. She knew that the promise of this country was that all of its citizens were created equal and had a voice in how this nation should be governed. She came and bestowed her blessing of knowing what was right and just for America. She had covenanted to work along side those who did not have the vote.
African Americans were given complicated and sometimes inane literacy tests geared for their failure. Unitarian Viola Liuzzo offered the blessing of standing along side people of color in their quest for the vote.
Forty-three years ago she was shot by four KKK members while driving an African American home after the march in Selma. The police and the FBI conducted a smear campaign to discredit her character enabling her murderers to be acquitted. Three of KKK were later convicted on violating her civil rights. Her family was subjected to all sorts of shame by the government in order to reduce her murder to that of an unfortunate woman who associated with people who did her wrong.
It was the events of these three deaths that resulted in the swift passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you ever get a chance to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Headquarters in Boston, you will see a plaque commemorating the lives of these three people and their efforts to bestow the blessing of freedom and justice for all people.
Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King’s dream was bestowing a blessing on this nation. Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo were also part of the planting of that orchard of which they would never benefit of its fruit. Some blessings don’t always germinate and manifest as fast as we would like them. But blessings do go forth.
This past Tuesday, this nation elected a man based on the content of his character and not on the color of his skin. Now you may not have liked his politics and you may have voted for his opponent, that’s okay. The right to vote is the right to choose what our destiny is in moving forward. This election result could not have happened if the convictions of the promise of this nation were not held fast by these men and women in the civil rights movement.
Their efforts and the blessings they offered us were not forgotten by our denomination. After the election results came in, the UUA sent bouquets of yellow roses to Marie Reeb Maher, the widow of James Reeb, and to the daughters of Viola Liuzzo. Rev. Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb when he was fatally attacked, helped orchestrate the honoring of their lives and their sacrifice that enabled this day to be possible.
Sally Liuzzo had this to say in response to receiving the roses, (quoted with permission from Ms. Liuzzo) “We have a policy at my job not to talk politics. All that was thrown out the window yesterday. My boss encouraged me to tell anyone that asked my mom’s story, when they questioned why I received yellow roses. …
“I cannot begin to explain the sense of pride I have right now for my mother and all the civil rights activists of that time. I feel like everything they have fought for, has now been realized. Black children will no longer feel like they are ‘less than’ and they will now know….they can be ANYTHING they set their minds out to be, Here I am crying again.
“Thank you from my sisters and [me], for never forgetting our mother. The three of us were totally overcome with emotion. I feel like mom’s sacrifice has now been worthwhile. Yes……she made a huge difference. I am so proud of America for getting past the limitations of race, and vote for what is best for our country.
“….Actually we feel like mom reached out…through the UU church…to send those flowers. The yellow roses told us that she had a hand in it. She has a mighty strong spirit….that is alive and well. …”
We may never know the impact our lives may have on another person nor how our actions for justice today will empower the people who come after us no matter what the immediate consequences of those actions may have been. But if we want to have blessing as a spiritual practice then I believe we must do several things.
The person offering blessings holds fast to the best possible potential for the lives of others. The person joins in a covenant which holds each other accountable towards these highest ideals. When the blessing being offered is to right an injustice, the perpetrators of injustice may not believe they are doing anything wrong, therefore the relationship needs to be one gently revealing the untruth they have bought into. It means to be willing to listen respectively and willing to state respectively where the error is found. The person stands firm in their convictions of the vision they see possible even when disappointment and failures happen.
In October 2002, I was asked to join the members of Soulforce to provide support to Lynchburg VA’s first pride celebration. We were also there to follow-up on a meeting we had with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and his congregation a few years before. I had joined Soulforce to meet with Rev. Falwell asking him to stop his anti-gay rhetoric because it was resulting in untold pain in the gay community. He promised to stop but in the days that followed 9/11 he blamed the gay community and other groups of people for the attack on our country by Al Qaeda.
On the Saturday of my time in Lynchburg, I was to be a peacekeeper, essentially a wall between the local queer community of Lynchburg and the ultra conservative Christians who were there to taunt them. The original plan placed us on one side of the road and the protestors were to be on the other side of the road, a good 25 feet away. However, the police allowed the anti-gay group to cross the road and they were standing with their chest up against my back screaming in my ear all sorts of foul things. Words my grandmother said no good Christian would even whisper let alone shout in mixed company. My task was to stand there silently ignoring their taunts and absorbing their hatred so that it would not interfere with the joy of the hundreds of young people coming out to proclaim who they were. We did not allow these taunts to rile us even though we were emotionally drained by the end of the day. The event with the exception of the loud jeering of hell fire went peacefully.
Then on Sunday morning we lined up in single file outside Thomas Road Baptist Church for a silent vigil to sadly confront the broken promise Jerry Falwell had made to us. One of the more touching moments for me was when I was standing in front of a neighbor’s house when a young father with a three week old infant came out to stand with us. He was a teacher at the local school and said he taught in his class room that all people are to be respected for who they are. He wanted the world his newborn son grew up in to be one where people would live their lives with the same inherent integrity that his son was born with. If his son were to be gay, he would want his son to be proud and able to live life as freely and fully as anyone else.
This was the contrast of the two days. I knew I was offering a blessing to those young people at the pride festival by standing there and absorbing the hate so to shield them from those blows. I knew that this young father and infant were being a blessing to me on Sunday, affirming the essence of my being, enabling me to continue to stand tall.
My vision of the blest day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered is not here yet. There are still people who are seeking justice; justice in education, justice in marriage equality, justice in employment and housing, justice in racial equity, and justice in health care. There are people who are still in pain in the face of these injustices. It is my intention to be part of the blessing that enables justice to roll down like a mighty river. There is much work to be done. Let us begin our blessing work. Blessed be.