Happy New Year, Working Preacher!
Okay, so I know New Year's Day was this past Sunday, so I probably should have greeted you this way last week. But I think it's only now that New Year's Eve and Day is past, that first Sunday is under our belts, and I'm having to make sure I write "12" instead of "11" that I really feel like the New Year is here. So I'll say it again: Happy New Year, Working Preacher!
And I'll ask you a question as well: How shall we start this New Year? Might you be considering trying out the narrative lectionary for a season? Or have you resolved to introduce more participatory elements into your sermons? Or are you, perhaps, determined to experiment more in your preaching? I hope you're thinking about all these and many other ideas for this new year of grace. Wherever you might be venturing homiletically in 2012, however, I have a suggestion. Start this new year with a blessing.
Not quite a year ago I invited a number of you to make time in the worship service for individual blessing in response to hearing the Beatitudes. The exegetical insight wasn't particularly profound: Jesus blesses all these people that the world doesn't normally consider blessed. And the practical suggestion wasn't all that terribly creative: after reminding people in your sermon that God is always more eager to bless than we are to receive it, make room in the service to actually bless each other. Yet the response to this invitation via comments, emails, and personal conversations was profound.
One in particular still has me thinking. I saw a colleague who'd read and implemented these suggestions a few weeks later. "We worship about 400 a Sunday," he said, "and when we were done the individual blessing at the end of the service, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Six people wanted to join afterward; two asked to be baptized." After marveling together at the response to such simple ideas, we wondered together about the power of blessing and agreed that part of its power lay in its rarity in our day and age.
I mean, think about it. Plenty of affirmation goes on in our culture. Goodness, but my kids have more medals, certificates, and trophies for "participation" hanging in their rooms than I have acknowledgments of any kind. (I like to think that's because when I was growing up you actually had to win to receive recognition! ☺) So there's plenty of affirmation afloat, and plenty of accusation as well (which of course will only intensify in an election year). And there's plenty of complaining and whining and even celebrating -- even if what we most highly celebrate (which is the root, after all, of the celebrity) sometimes seems a little dubious -- but precious little blessing.
And so I'd suggest starting the new year off with blessing, with God's blessing. Not only because it's a good idea any old time, but because today's reading seems especially to call for it. Consider, again, the power of those words spoken at Jesus' baptism: "You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased." What a powerful blessing for Jesus to hear at the outset of his adult ministry. While we cannot know for certain what concerns, fears, hopes, or dreams he may have borne with him on his way to the Jordan that day, we do know that he left having seen the heavens torn open and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanied by -- or maybe even personified in? -- the blessing of God. Only for this reason, I believe, could he leave the river and enter the wilderness that immediately followed (and so it's probably helpful to read through verse 12!) and make the long, hard journey from the Jordan to Jerusalem and all that awaited him there.
We, too, I believe, are never asked to venture onto the road God has set before us without first being blessed. This begins, of course, at our own baptism, where we also -- and remarkably -- hear God's similar affirmation of us as beloved children, but also throughout our lives. I don't know what wildernesses may lie before our people this week and year, but I do know that we can fortify them to not just survive the challenges that await but perhaps also to flourish and, in flourishing, to witness to the grace, mercy, and blessing of Almighty God.
So perhaps the call for us this week, Working Preacher, is to serve as stand-ins to John the Baptist and offer our people that most precious of gifts: God's remarkable, unmerited, and abiding blessing.
My thanks to you, dear Working Preacher, for you are also a beloved child of God and such a blessing to me and countless others who depend on your words of grace and mercy to strengthen us for the way ahead. God's richest blessings to you in this 2012 year of Lord and beyond!
Yours in Christ,
PS: It's not too late to register for Luther's Mid-Winter Convocation, February 1-3 on "Faith in a Time of Change." Keynotes are Diana Butler Bass and Andrew Root. It should be great. For more details click here.