Years ago, my eldest child, Erin was a small group leader at the annual Montreat Youth Conference. When she returned home, the first thing she wanted to tell me about was a sermon she had heard that week. Now, you have got to understand that I am talking about my bright, joyful, spent-her-entire-life-in-church daughter who has a finely tuned ESWS – Early Sermon Warning System. This young woman who has heard more sermons than most people her age could not wait to tell me about a sermon!
The sermon was preached by Jerry Cannon, a gifted African American pastor in Charlotte. The phrase in the sermon that caught her imagination and has since caught mine was his admonition to the youth: “Don’t be a blessing blocker; be a blessing giver.”
I can imagine Jesus preaching a similar sermon to his bumbling brood of disciples. In the first scene of Chapter Ten, Jesus has had it with those who use religious law to cordon off God’s blessings. He gets even more infuriated with those who are bathed in God’s blessings, like his own disciples, and yet who act as if God’s blessings are theirs to control and to ration.
This is the second time in two chapters that Jesus points to the treatment of children as the key to grasping the blessed way of God. Now, Jesus does not insist on welcoming and blessing children because children are cute, innocent, and naïve, or because, after all, “children are our future.” Jesus welcomes and blesses children because in his society, children had no control, no claim, no status, no voice. Whatever they received came at the mercy of those with more power than they, because they had none.
Jesus tells his blessing-blockers to look again at the children they are boxing out; to look and in these children to see themselves -- powerless, vulnerable, needy, helpless. Jesus asks his disciples if they really want to play by society’s rules toward the powerless or by God’s? This is not the first example of the disciples’ trying to manage Jesus’ business and control access to God’s realm. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, they debate who is the greatest, who is qualified to exorcise demons, who rates a personal appointment with Jesus.
Jesus invites his disciples to stand down from their guard duty of God’s blessings and to pay more attention to passing on God’s blessings to the non-persons around them, to all those they pass by and never notice, to all those whom they notice and intentionally pass by. Jesus invites those who would follow him to live in God’s blessed way, knowing that we are not the source of the blessing and we hold no special power over whom God chooses to bless. Living in God’s blessed way, says Jesus to his obtuse disciples, is to be blessing givers, not blessing blockers.
I cannot visit these texts from Mark and not weep at all those times that I have failed to live in God’s blessed way, all those times, intentionally or not, that I have kept God’s most vulnerable children from the doorstep of God’s mercy. I can also bear witness to the tragic ways that the church of Jesus Christ has been and still is a blessing blocker.
Every day, the church is a blessing blocker when it keeps a scary silence instead of boldly speaking while some of God’s children can barely breathe amid the stifling poverty of our inner cities, while some of God’s youngest children cower in their closets from fear of more abuse, while some of God’s children who are women keep silent rather than being told how mixed up or confused they are about being sexually assaulted, while some of God’s neediest children stay sick in America because they have little or no access to decent and affordable health care.
It is both sad and tragic how often the church of Jesus Christ, the Great Recipient of God’s Blessings, has been a blessing blocker. But there is something far more profound happening in Mark’s Gospel than a rehearsal of how often Jesus’ followers fail to live in God’s blessed way. As the Gospel unfolds, we see the disciples acting like the A-Team for blessing blockers, but we also see Jesus who never tires in giving away the rich blessings of God
The late Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Anne Sexton closes her poem, Welcome Morning with these words: “The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.” The Jesus we meet in Mark teaches us not to hoard God’s joy as if it were about to run out or to restrict God’s blessings only to those whom we consider worthy. Until his last breath on the cross, and beyond, the Jesus we meet in Mark tries to create a community of blessing givers who never tire in sharing the joy of the gospel with anyone and everyone.
Blessing givers never confuse God’s mercy with human merit. They are good women and men not to impress God or anyone else, but because they have tasted the goodness of God’s embracing love. Blessing givers do not try to pave a way to greatness; no, they try to chart a life that leads them in God’s blessed way.
Soon after the death of his father, the late Richard Cohen, editorialist for The Washington Post, wrote a moving column about his experiences with a lifelong blessing-giver, his dad. After recording some fond remembrances of his father, Cohen continues: “Some of this is colorful, I know, but it is not why my father was exceptional. It’s because he was a good man. Not once – not ever – did I know him to cheat: not in business, not on his wife, not on his friends and never on his children. I know of no one he hurt, no one he slighted, no one he abandoned. The great men I have spent a lifetime around – the politicians, the statesmen, the rich, the powerful, the creative – can make no such claim. They always say they had to break some eggs to make their omelet. My father made no omelet. But he broke no eggs, either . . .
“My father’s sort of goodness is rare. As he lay dying, as we talked about his life, he expressed no regrets. Not from him came reservations about how he neglected his children in favor of work, how he spent too much money, how he cared too much about the appearance of things and little about their substance. He did not understand men who were not charitable, who exchanged wives as they do cars, who would slight a child to score a deal. He had his dreams, but the overriding one was to lead an honorable life . . .
“He did not set standards, he lived them . . . He died in his sleep. He died at home, still tended by my mother and my sister, Judith, and the remarkable women whose chosen work it is to care for the dying. He was never in pain and he was alert almost to the end, still getting the joke, still not wanting to go. He was, I tell you, the most extraordinary of ordinary men . . . – not a great man, but much rarer still, a good one. There is nothing greater.”
If you would indulge me, I would like to say a few words about one of the most influential blessing givers in my life, my father. Joe Charles, my dad, died in 1993 after a long and relentless battle with heart disease. He did not have a college degree. He was a juvenile diabetic who loved life and sports, who liked his cuisine simple, simpler, and simplest. My dad had a temper and could be even more impatient than his youngest son, but if ever there was a choice of an extra hour spent at work or coaching my baseball or basketball team, there was no choice. I can honestly say I have never known a person who took greater pleasure in giving people presents. My brother and I were nearly blinded each Christmas morning, both by the obnoxious flood lights on dad’s 16mm camera and by his irrepressible smile.
Dad did not talk much about his faith, but he made sure that we practiced it, from Sunday School to worship to children’s choir, and even to covered dish suppers that he dearly hated. Christian discipleship was not an option in our house. I suppose I learned as much about the importance of making time for worship and the tempo of the faith by watching my dad practice his as I did in my entire time in Seminary. Late in his short life, dad was floored when someone nominated him and our congregation elected him as a deacon. I wasn’t.
I wish you could have known my dad, just as I wish I could have known Richard Cohen’s father. Both good men. Both blessing givers.
I know that it is customary for me to preach and you to listen, but I would like for us to finish this sermon together. I want to end this sermon by asking you to name those people, silently or aloud, who been blessing givers to you, those who have pointed you in the way of God’s expansive grace, those because of whom you are here and have helped to set your feet in God’s blessed way.
“O God, on this day, in thanksgiving, we give thanks for and remember these blessing givers . . .