The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - January 29, 2017
Scripture Reading: Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12  
Sermon Title:

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     A few years ago I was preaching at a church in North Carolina.  The minister had gone away on vacation.  He and I had worked together so he asked if I would come up and fill in.  I did my best to get to as many churches as I could on Sundayís, would talk about the camp mainly.  And to be honest, I wrote one or maybe two sermons a year.  So not a big deal.  I had a few prayers, call to worship, invocation, and about 4 hymns.  When I arranged to preach at a church, I would send off the file of prayers and hymns, and whoever put together the bulletin would make it look pretty. 

     This was actually one of 4 churches in that town.  There was the big church, big old traditional.  It was 14 steps to get up to the pulpit, and you were almost at the height of the balcony when you preached.  There was the black church, just about a block away from the big church, fun church to visit, totally different feel.  Then two smaller churches, one I never got to visit, and then this church that I got to visit about once a year.  They were struggling a bit, looking for their thing, they were not the big church, not the black church.  They found it with Bhutanese refugees.  I knew nothing about Bhutan before that, and still feel I know very little. 

     But after church one of these Sundayís a non-Bhutanese woman came out the front to shake my hand.  She explained that she was going through a kind of rough time, on Monday was either going to quit her job or get fired.  Donít remember the details, but remember it being a bad situation.  And she asked for a blessing. 

     Now in Seminary we learned a lot, but blessing is not really one of those things.  Sure, it is sometimes done in baptism, but suddenly a grown woman was kneeling in front of me asking for a blessing.  I guess I did an OK job, she reported back to her pastor about this event after and he confessed that in his, over 20 years of ministry in a church, had never had anyone ask him for a blessing. 

     But this got me thinking about a blessing.  In Jesus time, Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame.  I would like to suggest that todayís culture is affirmation and blame. 

     Yesterday our Cub Scout pack had its Pine Wood Derby.  For those who didnít have little Cub Scouts in their family, once a year each kid is given a block of wood, 4 plastic wheels and 4 nails which are called the official axles.  When I was a Cub Scout I only remember doing this once.  I donít remember cutting the wood, I do remember painting and nailing the wheels on, I think for me it was still a block of wood with 4 wheels.  Back in those days it was pretty simple, they had a track about 4 lanes, the cars were lined up at the front, a gate dropped and all the cars rolled down to the bottom.  The Cub Master stood at the bottom watching to determine which car passed the finish line first.  Of course most of the cars looked different than mine did.  They had them cut into wedges, or car shapes, and mine was a block of wood with some paint.  The cars were lined up and the gate dropped.  Mine was not the fastest.  In fact, the truth was that mine did not make it all the way to the finish line.  They paused the race or went onto another class, and I went over with a scout leader.  They taped a bunch of pennies to it, and put some graphite on the wheels, and the following races I made it to the finish line.  I donít think my car was faster than anyone elseís, but at least I made it. 

     Today it is different.  Most leaders work with the kids in their den, and I think parents are more involved.  With Glenn, I really wanted his car to make it to the finish line.  And he did.  We cut the car, painted it, added weight to get it right up to 5 ounces, polished the axels and added lots and lots of graphite.  And for several years we came in 4th place.  The top three finishers get a trophy and then get to go to the district derby.  This district event  is an all day event, with hundreds of kids in a gym, usually quiet a distance away, long drive to get there.  The 4th place that Glenn got did very well, he could be proud, and didnít have to go to districts.  Also the Cub Master does not stand at the finish line anymore, it is all computer controlled.  Someone still had to drop the gate, but all the times are recorded by computer, each car races on each of the 4 lanes on our track, in case one is slower or faster, bottom time gets dropped and the other three are averaged.  And yesterday we did the same thing, top three finishers for each group, after all that dropping and averaging got trophies, and will have the opportunity to go onto districts.  4th place, 5th place and any other person who enters a car gets a metal.  Seems to be the same in many of the activities my kids have done.  Soccer, first, second and third place teams get trophies, other team get metals.  Baseball, basketball same thing.

     It seems that we are affirming participation.  And really, very little is required today to get a metal in any of these events, you have to show up.  Donít even have to show up for all the games or practices, just be there when the metals are handed out.  For Cub Scouts last year we decided that it was getting kind of expensive to make enough metals for each kid, minus the ones that would get one of the 15 trophies.  So last year we bought them in bulk without a year printed on them.  If a kid didnít race a car last year, the metal that they would have gotten will go to someone this year.  So really not much is required for a metal, and even those presenting them are not putting a lot into them.

     And of course on the other side of affirmation is blame.  We just made it through election season, starting a new presidency, and there are people blaming others for everything.  And this is not a partisan issue, if you are a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or any other party.  You have heard, agreed and disagreed with the blame thrown around. 

     Even in our own lives, it is easy to blame other people or even other things.  I had a guy on our camp staff one year that could not make it to staff meetings.  The deal was that at about 6:58 our program director would go around to each cabin and wake up the kids.  Some years they would have a radio, some years it was just a knock on the door, time to get up.  And as soon as they got back to the porch of our lodge we would have a staff meeting.  Started with a 15 minute devotion, and then another 15-20 minutes of what is happening that day, and then we would all walk over to breakfast.  Kids would have that 30-40 minutes to get up, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and get ready for their day.  It worked, except for one staff member.  Most realized in the first few days of staff training that in order to arrive on the porch at 7:00 when we started our meeting, you could not rely on the program director waking you up at 6:58, so you would set an alarm, get up, get dressed, go the bathroom, and then walk over to the meeting, often arriving a few minutes before 7.  In all actuality, the staff meeting was not critical to running the camp.  If you missed one, the world would not end.  And over the course of the summer, just about everyone missed one.  But this one young man could never make it on time.  Sometimes never even made it over at all.  Several mornings I arrived after breakfast in his cabin with an air horn.  I even went so far as to purchase him an alarm clock.  And he could blame anything.  The alarm clock didnít go off.  He had to stay up with a homesick camper the night before.  He could not fall asleep because of the thunderstorm way off in the distance. 

     And we all blame the same way.  Sorry kids, didnít have time to cook, we are going to have microwave pizza tonight again.  I meant to pick up my cleaning on the way home, but had to work longer. 

     Sometimes I think weíve been taught to pursue happiness, settle for affirmation, and -- when neither of those work out -- relapse into blame. So in place of empty affirmation and corrosive blame, letís substitute blessing: Godís unconditional regard for us, assurance to accompany us, power to help us persevere and flourish, and promise that we deserve love, honor, and respect. I still am having a hard time figuring out precisely what that means. This blessed, has several meanings. It can indicate special favor, unique standing, permission, empowerment, endowment, and more. So maybe the question isnít what it means, but rather what it feels like. What does it feel like when youíre blessed? To be blessed feels like you have someoneís unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth -- not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.

     And Jesus says blessed are the poor.  Blessed are the weak.  That is not right.  The poor are not blessed, they are struggling to survive. The weak are not blessed. 
But it is that upside down thing in the gospel.  You see in Godís kingdom, it is often the exact opposite of what we expect.  In our world the blessed are the rich, the blessed are the powerful.  But in Godís Kingdom, those are not the blessed, it is the ones we do not expect, the ones that we donít consider blessed. 

     A trap that we often fall into is the idea that we want to be blessed, but I donít want to be poor in spirit, or mourn, or most of those things, surly not persecuted.  That peacemaker one is OK.  But it is not that they are blessed because they are those things, they are blessed, just because. 

     It is often in those times of trouble that we want that blessing.  I had a hard week, just some personal stuff going on.  As I sat down to finish this sermon, I re-read what I had written.  It was not really clicking for me.  I was feeling pretty low, pretty beat down, but when I realize that I am blessed I actually start to feel better.  I am given the power to rise above these present circumstances, I am more than this.  And maybe that is what it really is.  It is not that some are blessed and some are not, but it is that it is easier to feel the blessing when you need it.  When you feel like you have been beat up, you are mourning, you are persecuted, you are making peace, which is a lot harder than making war.  It is in those times that we need to remember that we are blessed.  We are not alone, we have a God who gives us unconditional love, we have worth, not because of anything we have done, but because we are. 

     Lets take this week and try to refrain from empty affirmation or blame, and feel the blessing that God has given us, and continues to give us.  In that we will find fullness of life.