Near the end of most services
I generally have two things to say just before the closing song.
I’m not sure if anyone necessarily hears them –
after all the hankering for coffee is strong
and in summer the chance of drifting into a nice morning nap
or planning the rest of the day,
or thinking what should happen for lunch are all good!
And even if people do hear them, my guess is that
the subtlety of the fact that there are 2 things I am saying and not just 1
probably means that they apparently merge into one ridiculously long sentence.
In strict liturgical language,
we have the “Sending forth in Mission” (or the “Dismissal of the people”)
and we have the Benediction, or the Blessing.
The first is the bit where I say something like
“So, as you live out your faith this week …”
And the second bit is where I say “And may the blessing of God …”
It may be subtle, but they are different.
A blessing is not a task.
A blessing is not encouraging us to live in a particular way.
A blessing is … a blessing.
It is both a statement about and a prayer for the presence of God
Matthew’s gospel records Jesus speaking both of these –
a Sending forth in mission and a Blessing.
Can we guess what Matthew’s sending forth in mission is? (Go and make disciples of all nations)
And his “benediction” or blessing? – The Beatitudes.
One of our traps in following the Christian faith –
whether or not we want to pay any attention to the quirks of a UCA order of service –
is that we can treat the Beatitudes, the Blessings, as a Sending forth in mission
or, even more simply, we can confuse Jesus statement about the presence of God
with a new series of commands about how we should go and live.
There are no commandments in these beatitudes.
Sorry, that’s not quite true, there is one commandment:
“Rejoice when people persecute you”
The rest are blessings.
They are statements about the nature and the character of God, and God’s values.
The Beatitudes are not tasks, not a life map or directions, but a statement of grace.
They are not conditions for receiving god’s grace
(Be a peacemaker and then you will be blessed)
It is just plain blessing people.
Let’s look briefly at a couple of paintings:
The first is by Gustave Dore, who has done hundreds of paintings of biblical scenes
There is something quite sweet about Dore’s painting
The colours are gentle, the scene is smooth. The image of Jesus is central
and he has his hand in the same position as Moses does in one of Dore’s other paintings,
where Moses is bringing down the 10 commandments to the Israelites.
The painting by Annigoni is not sweet at all
It almost feels like a sepia photograph, taken in the midst of the great depression
or as a scene from Les Mis
The landscape is bleak and rugged; the trees have no leaves
The Jesus figure is off centre, and not facing the artist and viewer.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The activist in us may with to make the Beatitudes into the blue print
for a social transformation which is our responsibility.
Go and hunger and thirst for righteousness; Go and be merciful.
But the Beatitudes are a benediction, not a Sending forth in mission.
If we attach a second sentence to them that imposes some sort of condition,
then we (as it a pretty common thing to do) misunderstand what grace is.
The Beatitudes are confronting, not because what they demand or us or even ask of us,
but because of what they do not.
They do not demand that we be strong or powerful to be blessed by God
They do not demand that we be world-changers to be blessed by God
They do not demand that we be happy, healthy or energetic to be blessed by God
In fact what they do is they invite us to consider the blessings, the presence of God
being with us when we may not have expected it
They invite us to think beyond our current situations and life settings
they invite us not to consider ourselves limited by the things that are “wrong”
and instead to experience the presence of God
They invite us to notice that the ones we may have thought
are the least likely to be holders of the presence of God
are actually filled and surrounded with the presence of God.
They invite us to re-think a desire that we may have
to ‘control’ who God blesses and who God does not
Grace is unsettling, and so it is easier to turn into a condition instead.
Benedictions are strange, so we try to turn it into a Sending forth in mission
Instead, let us allow them to call us back to grace.
The grace of God is upon you.
The grace of God is within you.
The grace of God fills you.