Text: Psalm 133:1-4
It was the first day in my new office. I organized my pens, situated my absolutely empty calendar, put paper in my typewriter (yes, typewriter!), angled the rotary dial telephone toward my right hand, and adjusted my swivel chair. Then, I nailed my freshly minted seminary diploma to the wall just behind me.
I was looking for something, anything to make all this feel real. Up until that day, my life had been one of waiting on parents and teachers, professors and coaches, bosses and supervisors to tell me what to do next, how to spend my days and how to prioritize my life. Now, I was no longer a student or an intern, I was the official pastor of the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. Even though I had had a tremendous Seminary experience, I sat at my very large desk, hoping desperately that God would send me a detailed memo with operating instructions on how to do ministry and would send it to me very soon.
In the meantime, I kept thinking back on that memorable question and answer exchange in Micah. “What does the Lord require of you?” “To do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with God.” Micah gave a great answer, but I could not figure out what that looked like for me and my ministry in that new place and that untried time.
“What does God require of me?” I soon decided that the easy answer to that question is, “Gary, get busy. Fix all the problems that the Pastor Nominating Committee told you needed fixing. They told me that they wanted the church to become more financially stable, so I learned to read a spreadsheet, manage a budget, and I even started to preach sermons that talked about money. They told me that they wanted more young people with young children in the congregation, like their new pastor, his wife, and then one child, so I started visiting places where I would be around young people and I invited them to join us at Bethany. They told me that they wanted to be a church known by how they reached out to the local community, so a neighboring pastor and I brought our churches together to start a feeding ministry.
I soon decided that the answer to the question, “What does God require of me?”, is to get busy and I did. I decided that if I could impress the congregation with how hard I worked, then surely God would also be impressed.
Early in my ministry in another congregation, an elder asked me to join her for lunch. Things were off to a wonderful start in that church with lots of new members joining, a baptism almost every Sunday, the giving was way up, and we were involved in numerous local and global mission projects. Over lunch, I was expecting a pat on the back for how well I was leading such a successful church. What I got was no pat. The elder said to me, “Gary, I see that you too excel in being busy, but we already know how to be busy. It is the nature of this area. It draws busy people to live here. We do not need you to teach us how to be busy; we need you to teach us how to be still and listen and for the voice of God.”
As I left that gut-punched lunch, I found myself thinking about one of the temptations that Satan put before Jesus in the desert. Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus knows he is God’s beloved child, but he is not about to succumb to Satan’s dare. Instead, he refocuses the conversation where it always belongs, on God. Jesus answers Satan, “It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.”
After all these years, I am still learning that my calling, your calling, from God is not so much to be busy, but to be faithful, to use our gifts to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world. Faithfulness is a powerful vaccine against the temptation to believe that the future of the church depends only on us, the temptation to believe that God cannot somehow manage without us.
On that incredibly hot, first day in my new church office, I wish someone would have posted the second and third verses of Psalm 113 to the wall in front of me. Maybe, over time, those words would not only be posted on the wall, but would also be written on my heart.
The two verses from Psalm 113 that I wish had been prominently posted for me to see sing: “Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Berakah is the Hebrew word for “a blessing.” Most berakoth – most blessings – begin with the Hebrew words Barukh Attah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam (“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe”). When our lives are framed by this “blessing,” this blessed reminder, we are spared the temptation to think that someone other than God is the Lord of life.
Psalm 113 is one of the Hallelujah psalms, celebrating what God has and what God is creating in the world, if we only pause long enough to notice. If you dig in the weeds of Psalm 113, you soon discover that all the verbs connected with God are in the causative form. In other words, God is active. God causes things to happen. “Psalm 113 is an invitation to . . . join God at work in the world on behalf of the poor and the needy,” writes Clint McCann. “At the same time, however, Psalm 113 is a warning against the . . . temptation to leave God out of the picture . . . to conclude, `It is all up to us’” (Clint McCann, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol IV, p. 1140).
The Psalmist gives her own answer to the question: What does God require of me? of us? Our calling is to listen carefully for the voice of God and then to join wholeheartedly in God’s blessed work in the world, to align ourselves as glad instruments of God’s blessing.
The “blessing” of which the Psalmist invites us to sing is not something innocuous like saying “God bless you” after a sneeze or chanting the incredibly versatile and rarely honest Southern saying, “Bless her heart.” The “blessing” of God is tenacious and relentless and redemptive. You and I are called to an individual and collective life of “berakah” “from the rising of the sun to its setting.”
In the Jewish Talmud, there is a saying that captures the heart of Psalm 113. It says: “If you enjoy something in this world without saying a blessing, it is as if you stole it.” As recipients of God’s blessing in Jesus Christ, God invites us to live out that blessing, to be a walking, talking, praying, marching, learning, singing community of sisters and brothers who do not excel in simply being busy but in being blessing-givers.
A berakah led life perseveres in working for God’s justice and mercy on earth as it is in heaven, even when critics tell us that insisting on racial and gender justice in lending, in criminal justice, in education, in housing is just being politically correct. A berakah led life wears a mask in the midst of a pandemic and does not mask the ongoing danger to young black males in our country. A berakah led life celebrates keeping a safe physical distance to prevent the spread of a deadly virus and refuses to stay distant from those who need us rise up and speak out on behalf of those voices that are largely silenced in our land.
The poet, Mary Oliver, says it this way, “Sometimes I only need to stand where I am to be blessed.” She is right, but she does not say enough. Yes, stand up and know that you are a blessed child of God, but then look around and be the berakah that God calls us to be.
“What does God require of me, of us? Be a berakah. That is the best answer to the question that I know.