A sermon preached at Tewin September 2020
The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you, and those you can’t stand, always.
I’ve preached about this blessing before, I know, but I so love the words. It appeared in the Church Times – that scintillating Church of England publication, some time back. Someone had written into the letters page commenting on the addition that some priests add to the formal words of the blessing at the end of a service. It can be quite common and comforting to hear the blessing end with the words : ‘..and the blessing of God Almighty be with you and those whom you love now and forever. Amen’. Infact I do it myself sometimes. We want to share our blessings with those we love – it’s a natural thing. But the letters I remember flowed in the Church Times for the following couple of weeks and engaged in a discussion about whether clergy should be allowed to tinker with liturgy and insert the ‘those you love’ bit.
Then someone wrote in with this blessing that a priest they knew would sometimes end the service with: ‘The blessing of God Almighty, Father Son and HS be with you, and those you can’t stand, always. Amen’
Needless to say the letters on this topic went a bit quiet.
But of course it is a blessing just as valid as praying for those we love. Indeed maybe more so.
“Bless those who persecute you” says St. Paul in our reading “bless and do not curse them. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty give them something to drink, for in doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Now of course heaping burning coals upon someone may seem like not such a pleasant thing to do, or perhaps a bit tempting if you don’t particularly like the person – but in Paul’s time scholars suggest it refers to an Egyptian ritual where burning coals were placed upon a persons head as a sign of their repentance and forgiveness. Fire cleanses. Burning coals allow reconciliation to be achieved. Infact we mirror it at Ash Wednesday when burnt ash is placed on our foreheads. “Bless those who persecute you.” Says St. Paul. “Love your enemies” says Christ.
In a world where there seems such impossible and deep divisions between people, nations and cultures – these words still today hold a radical edge.
I will never forget the Christian family we visited in the Holy Land last year. The Nassar family who live on the hills just outside Bethlehem. When we met with them we had to climb through large boulders placed across their driveway by the Israeli authorities who have claimed the farm that has been in the Nasaar family for generations, as now state-owned land. But the Nasaar’s have spent 20 years in court proving ownership rights. During that time they have suffered intimidation including the uprooting of their olive trees, for which their livelihood depends, by Israeli soldiers. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off, so they now rely on rain water and solar energy. Yet despite this, this small Christian family have a most beautiful mosaic on the wall of one of their buildings of an Arab and an Israeli shaking hands – and they live by the slogan that is daubed on a rock for everyone who enters their land to see: We refuse to be enemies.
We refuse to be enemies. That’s a really powerful statement.
At the centre of our faith is a call to recognize the fragile and fractured in this world: the brokenness of our relationships, the cracks in our personalities and egos, the disunity which time and again sin gouges between individuals and peoples.
We come together with that knowledge at the centre of what we do today. Every time we gather for a celebration of the Eucharist, we recognise the brokenness of ourselves, of this world, of the church – and we recognize that the only true healing that can mend and unite comes from receiving the love of Christ in our midst. Love which was, which is, so great, that despite its perfection was broken on the cross.
But outside of the brokenness of the Holy Land and the fragments of so many nations and war zones where hatred travels from generation to generation, what does it mean to pray for those you can’t stand? Perhaps it speaks of someone who is deeply different to you in belief or behaviour? Or someone who has hurt you deeply or who has simply bruised your pride? Perhaps someone you have never met, but who represent the politics or wing of the church or society whose views, as you might understand them, rile you?
I am conscious that for some of us the people we feel divided from may be a small or even petty affair, but I am well aware that for others it may be there are terrible hurts and pain involved. Perhaps even abuse. In that case sometimes we recognize that there are issues that are so heavy to bear that at times God asks no more of us other than to know how much we are loved by him and to know He is strong enough to deal with the rest.
But for many of us we should be challenged by Paul’s words. So what does it mean to bless those we can’t stand? How can we be asked to do that when letting go of our own emotions is not always in our control? How can we ask God to bless them when things are still unresolved, when forgiveness has not even been asked for let alone offered?
Earlier on in this pandemic you may remember the tragic stabbing of an NHS worker David Gomoh who was only 24. He’d lost his father to Covid19 just weeks before and died having been stabbed in his mothers arms on her doorstep. His mother a committed Christian then spoke out to his killers. “I want you to know I forgive you’ she said ‘I pray for mercy for you’
Speaking those words, this mother said, was the hardest thing she has ever done.
“Bless those who persecute you” says St. Paul. This is not an easy task. And I don’t think it is about ignoring the destructive power of sin, particularly in times of real abuse. But for many of us, thinking about those we can’t stand might not be because of dreadful acts but rather upsets and hurts we should have let go of a long time ago. But whatever the case I would say that by asking in prayer for God’s blessing on those we can’t stand is not about ignoring sin and hurt, but rather recognizing that God’s blessing will always involve the call to repentance and forgiveness. Or it may be that God’s blessing upon them will be the transformative realization that he places in us, where we begin to understand that person better, where we begin to see their side of the argument, or their own hurt, fragility and need.
But also, in praying for God’s blessing upon them, we come to realise that despite deep division there is something greater than ourselves that unites us: the love of Christ. Never deserved, but freely given. And then it may be that through praying regularly, committedly, for those we can’t stand that we find we are called to act in some way, small or large, seen or hidden, accepted or rejected, to be a blessing to them ourselves.
I am not suggesting it is an easy task – but it is a holy task – and through God’s grace will bring blessings upon us as well.
And so may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you and those you can’t stand always. Amen.