Being a blessing

A sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens
Readings for this service: Genesis 12.1-4a, Romans 4.1-5,13-17 & John 3.1-17

Instead of starting at the very beginning, a very good place to start this sermon is with the ending of our service. The prayer of blessing at the end of this service aims to ‘crystallize all that has gone before’ in this service and ‘focus it into a commissioning for all we shall set our hand to once we depart.’ It sends us out to be a blessing to others by making ‘the whole world a Eucharist.’ Being a blessing, that’s what I’d like to explore with you today; first in worship, second in one person who expresses it well today and finally in what it might mean for ourselves, including those of us at school.

In this service God takes us and our offerings – the food, drink and others gifts we bring – and places them in a far larger story than we ever could have imagined by giving them a sacred story and making them sacred actions. As we retell and re-enact what Jesus did at the Last Supper, we also recall what God did to Israel in ‘taking one special people, blessing them, then breaking them in the Exile before giving them as a light to the nations to bring the Gentiles to God.’ ‘In the telling of those stories and the performance of those actions we are transformed into God’s holy people.’ ‘That’s what the regular celebration of the Eucharist is about: God taking an ordinary people and through this story and these actions turning us into the body of Christ.’ When the Eucharist is served, each of us offers all that we uniquely are at the altar and we receive from God everything we need to follow him by being a blessing to others in our daily lives.

St Augustine said: ‘You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.’ Based on these thoughts, Sam Wells has explained that: ‘The elements of bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken and shared just as Jesus was taken, blessed, broken and shared. In a similar way the congregation as a whole is taken out of its ordinary pursuits; blessed with the grace and truth of forgiveness and scripture; broken in the disciplines of intercession, peacemaking and food-sharing; and shared with the world in love and service. As the bread and wine are offered, transformed and received, the congregation, and through it the whole creation, is offered, transformed and received.’

We come to be blessed in order that we become a blessing to others. That is the pattern also in today’s Old Testament reading where we read of God saying to Abraham, ‘I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

We might wonder how one person can become a blessing to all the families of the earth? The answer is, in the same way as Jesus did through the Last Supper. Abraham set out on a journey to the Promised Land which formed the people of God, who were called into being to be a blessing to other nations. In so doing, he gave all who follow after him a path to follow, a story to inhabit, a people to which to belong and a mission to which they are called. The people of Israel followed that path and inhabited that story when they left slavery in Egypt to journey through the wilderness to enter the Promised Land and established themselves there so that, when Solomon was on the throne, other nations came to learn the wisdom of God. Jesus followed that path and inhabited that story when he walked through the valley of the shadow of death to set a banqueting table for all peoples in the mansions of heaven. We become a blessing to others when we take that same story and experience of belonging out with us from church into our daily lives by seeking to make the whole world a Eucharist.

Sam has said that: ‘The mission statement of the church is to make the world a Eucharist. So faithful service means practices that look like worship—those that gather people and form them as one body, that reconcile and open lives to repentance and forgiveness, that proclaim truth and reveal God’s story, that embrace need and unleash gifts, that express thanks and are open to the Holy Spirit, that share food and wash feet.’ ‘It means extending God’s invitation to all, bringing all to repentance and joining in creation’s praise. It means proclaiming the truth of God through the history of the world and the dynamics of the universe and sharing discernment within the silence of God. It means articulating human need and enabling reconciliation. It means restoring a good relationship between humanity and its ecological home, stirring the heart, setting about work in a spirit of thanksgiving, discovering power under the authority of the Spirit, confronting evil with confidence in the sovereignty of God and sharing in the generous economy of God so that nothing is wasted. Thus all the practices of worship become the habits of discipleship.’

That’s the theory and that was the experience of Abraham, Israel and Jesus. Let’s come up-to-date and think for a moment about a similar experience for someone who is proving inspirational to many today. Greta Thunberg was the subject of a giant portrait unveiled on the playing field of a school in West Yorkshire to mark International Women’s Day. The 60m long artwork took four days to create and was entitled ‘A girl inspiring the world.’ Pupils of the Hebden Royd Primary School chose the 17-year-old as the woman who had most inspired them saying, ‘We’ve chosen Greta because she stands up for what she believes.’ She has ‘pioneered a global movement which is so relevant to the area.’

Tabitha Whiting has recounted how Greta Thunberg first learnt about global warming at the age of 8, when her class was shown documentaries about climate change at school. She remembers being more affected than the other students and puts this down to having aspergers and selective mutism. After learning about global warming she couldn’t simply go back to normal, continue with her studies, and think about something else. It profoundly affected her. It affected her so much, that three years later, at the age of 11, she experienced a period of depression. Climate change wasn’t the sole reason for this, but it definitely played a part. She was so deep in her depression that she stopped attending school. Naturally, her parents were incredibly concerned. When they spoke to her about the depression, Greta opened up to them about her climate crisis worries. She gained a sense of release from talking about it. Greta realised that by talking about her worries, she could influence others make a difference. This marked the beginnings of the movement that she has created. Out of her struggle with depression came the spark of activism.

On August 20th 2018 Greta conducted her first school strike. She did not go to school that day, and instead sat down outside the Swedish Parliament. She stayed there for the full length of the school day, posting photos on Twitter and Instagram, and she started to gain traction with a couple of journalists and newspapers coming to see her. The next day, she was back in the same place, striking again. But this time she wasn’t alone. People started joining her on her strike, which took place until the Swedish National Elections on 9 September 2018. She was then asked to make a speech at a People’s Climate March rally, in front of thousands of people. She was determined to speak out about the climate crisis, and that her selective mutism wouldn’t prevent that. She delivered the speech brilliantly, in fluent English. Now, she speaks regularly in front of crowds, politicians, and journalists.

Her school strikes started to go global, with children across the world joining in to make their stand against climate change. On Friday 15 March 2019 a global school strike was called. 1.6 million people took part in the strike globally, from 2,233 cities in 128 countries. It was the biggest single day of climate action that has been seen in history. What started with a single girl sitting outside of the Swedish parliament with a hand-made wooden sign, had become an international movement.

In Greta Thunberg we see one young person following a call that has transformed her life and who is blessing others by addressing a critical social issue and forming an international community. As with Abraham and Jesus, Greta has become a blessing to others by undertaking a journey, creating a story, and forming a community. Our impact may not be as great and may not happen within such a short space of time, yet we too are called to be blessed, broken and distributed, that we may also be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love.

Although school strikes have been the catalyst for the movement Greta Thunberg has begun, school was the catalyst for her awareness of the climate emergency and schools can be communities that are catalysts for blessing. A Guardian article from the past week explored ways to equip young people to face the challenges of the 21st century saying ‘that the key skills they need to survive and thrive in the 21st century will be emotional intelligence … and the ability to deal with change’. It argued that these ‘are best fostered by an education system that prioritises not traditional academic learning but rather “the four Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.’ What is needed the article suggested is ‘a commitment to putting mental and physical wellbeing at the very heart of education’, prioritising mental and physical health, and promoting resilience. That means ‘teaching children to understand their minds and bodies, encouraging them to have contact with nature, helping them to negotiate relationships with others, fostering excellent communication skills, and nurturing creativity.’ Schools, like churches, can be catalysts for communion and creativity. In these ways, they bless that others may be blessed.

Tom Wright says that, ‘Blessing is not primarily about what God promises to do to someone. It is primarily about what God is going to do through someone … Blessed are the meek, [Jesus says,] for they will inherit the earth: in other words, when God wants to sort out the world, to put it to rights once and for all, he doesn’t send in the tanks, as people often think he should. He sends in the meek; and by the time the high and mighty realise what’s happening, the meek, because they are thinking about people other than themselves, have built hospitals, founded leper colonies, looked after the orphans and widows, and, not least, founded schools, colleges and universities, to supply the world with wise leaders.

What is God going to do through you? How might you be a blessing to others? It’s not a done deal! The people of Israel had to be exiled from the Promised Land before they returned to their vocation to bless others. God came into the world as a human being because humanity was oppressing, rather than blessing, others. Around our world too many nations are building walls and creating hostile environments instead of blessing others. We desperately need churches and schools that will be the catalysts preparing us to be a blessing to others; and worship is the crucible in which such change begins. As St Augustine wrote: ‘You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed, broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of eternal love’; that you may be a blessing.