Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Benediction

Click here to view a video of the sermon

Numbers 6:22-27
22     The LORD said to Moses,
23     "Tell Aaron and his sons, 'This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
24     "' "The LORD bless you and keep you;
25     the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26     the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace." '
27     "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them."
2 Corinthians 13:11-14

11 Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints send their greetings.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

          When a minister moves from one church to another, one of the requirements is that the presbytery where that person will be moving must conduct a public examination of the new pastor.
          As a minister, I know that when I stand in front of a presbytery desiring to accept a call to a church, I can be asked anything and everything.
          When I came into this Peace River Presbytery, the process was wonderfully easy.
          One minister jumped up to the microphone and began to speak, saying, “I’ve known Maynard Pittendreigh for 25 years.”
          I look at this man and I’m thinking – I have never seen this man before in my life.
          He continued, saying, “I met Maynard when he and I were in a class together at Columbia Seminary.  It was a preaching class with Professor Tom Long.”
          I look at this man and I’m thinking – I remember the class.  I sure don’t remember this man, however.
          He continued, saying, “Dr. Long told our class that a sermon title should be so compelling, that if you put that title on the sign of the church and an Atlanta bus drove past it, the bus would come to a stop and every passenger would have an irresistible urge to get off that bus.  Even the driver would get off that bus.
          “Maynard Pittendreigh then interrupted Dr. Long’s lecture and said that this meant that the only viable name for a sermon title would be, ‘There’s a Bomb on Your Bus’.”
          Everyone laughed, and the next person who got up offered a motion that my examination be closed and I be accepted into the presbytery.  I was not asked a single question!
          Sermon titles!
          OK, I have to admit that today’s title would not compel anyone to hop off the bus.
          In fact, because when someone looked at today’s bulletin and saw the title of today’s sermon – the Benediction – there was concern.
          What if, he asked, what if some people see that the sermon title is “The Benediction” and they think it is the end of the service and they get up and leave?
          Trust me, this the sermon – it is not the end of the service.
          I’ll let you know when you can get up and leave!

          The Benediction.
          It is that time in the worship service when the minister has the last word in the worship service.

          When I was in seminary, students were not allowed to give the benediction.  The first time we would give the benediction was in our ordination service. 
          That was never in the Book of Order, it was simply a tradition, and it is one that is no longer practiced.  Students in the seminary often give benedictions.
          But for me, I did not give a benediction until my ordination.
          I remember standing in front of the mirror, wearing my brand new pulpit robe, looking and feeling both holy, and stupid.
          I raised my hands in the act of giving the benediction, and no longer did I feel holy.  I just felt stupid.
          I was not the only one – all of my friends in seminary felt the same way, so much so that we came up with a catalog of benediction styles that we gave to one of our seminary professors.
          You know these styles – you’ve seen them.
          There is the STORM TROOPER.
          The BOY SCOUT.
          The ever popular STICK ‘EM UP.
          And the lesser-known FRANKENSTIEN.
          GIVE ME A HUG
          There is even the benediction that a minister might give while walking down the aisle – we named that the “I’m ready to go get lunch” benediction.
          Ministers in the Presbyterian Church are not often asked to do anything physical – except to stand or sit – except in the benediction when we are to raise our hands as a symbol that we are laying hands upon each and every person in the room.

          You feel foolish with your hands spread out!

          But there is something deeper than feeling foolish.

          But I suspect that Students of ministry feel embarrassed when asked to deliver the Benediction early in their career, not just because they have to hold their hands in a certain way, but because they are called upon to say words that have a very special meaning and power.
          “And the word of God to Moses…
and to those of us in the ministry today…)
Tell Aaron, tell the ministers…. 
Give the people a Benediction, a blessing. 
Say to them:  The Lord bless you and keep you. 
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. 
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.”

          Young seminary students and ministers early in their career feel uncomfortable and often embarrassed.  And the reason can’t be because we have to hold our hands in a certain way.  It has to be more to it than that.

          Maybe one of the sources of our embarrassment as young ministers came from the fact that we were afraid that the Benediction had become for many people an empty ritualistic action, void of meaning.
          After all, those of us who give the Benediction are up here with our arms spread out, proclaiming the blessing of God and at the same time, most folks are out in the pews folding bulletins, putting the hymnbooks back into the pew racks, and stuffing life savers into their purses.

          Those of us who are preachers, sometimes wonder if the Benediction inside the Sanctuary has become as meaningless as the Benediction outside the Sanctuary,
Which of course is GOOD-BYE,
Which used to be GOD BYE
Which used to be GOD – BE WITH YOU.

          And so, ministers feel uncomfortable. 

We don’t like to waste our time with things that are meaningless, and there is the haunting doubt that what the Benediction has become is something meaningless.

          But no.  That’s not all of it.

          I don’t think that is the complete answer either.

          We who are ministers feel embarrassed by the Benediction, and the reason has to be more than because we are called upon to do something with our hands, or because SOME people don’t take its meaning seriously.

          I suspect that the real reason why I am uncomfortable with the Benediction is not because I’m afraid that some of you DON’T take it seriously, but rather because I DO take this act of worship so seriously.

          Because I know that when I am delivering these words, I am delivering something special and powerful, something that is not really mine to give.

          The Benediction is unique.  It is not simply a prayer.  It is more than a prayer.
          In a prayer, I ask God for something. 
          But in a Benediction, I don’t ask for anything.  I TAKE something from God without asking and I GIVE it to you.
          My God!  No wonder I fell so uncomfortable with the benediction.  Because I am called upon to give what is not mine to give, the very blessing of Almighty God.

          And God said to Moses…
          You tell the ministers.
                             Give the people a blessing.

          Many ministers would say that this is something they cannot do, that they cannot presume to be so bold as to pronounce the blessing of God.

          Several years ago, I attended a Presbytery meeting and there was a motion to congratulate one of our churches for something they had accomplished.  The motion called for the moderator of the Presbytery to convey to the people of that congregation “the blessings of God.”
          Well, one of the ministers stood and spoke against the motion.  He was indignant that anyone could ever think they could convey God’s blessing on anyone else. 

          And yet, that is what the benediction is all about. 

          God said to Moses…
          You tell the ministers.
                   Tell them to give the people a blessing.

          Peter DeVries, in his novel, THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB, presents a thinly disguised autobiography. 
In THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB, there is a father who loses a daughter to Leukemia, paralleling an event in the author’s own life.  In the book, the father is raised in a strict conservative Christian home, but as an adult he departs from his religious upbringing.        

          As a college student, this man wrote in the campus magazine, “I think we ought to get rid of this silly crutch of religion.  After all, we’re supposed to go through life standing on our own two feet.”

          But later in this novel, life kicks him down as his daughter battles hopelessly against leukemia, and in the final pages of this book, the father is called to the hospital room for one final visit.

          When he walks into the room, a nurse is taking blood pressure. 
She whispers – “Almost none.  Just a short time now.”

          He and the nurse step outside of the room for just a moment.  She tries to be comforting.  “Maybe it’s better now.  After all, now her dreams will all be peaceful.”

          But the father is empty.
          He walks to be bedside.
          He doesn’t know what to do.
          His daughter has only moments to live. 
          He reaches out to touch her.
          He touches the wounds where the needles have been.
          He caresses her hair.
                   He touches the childish face that will never grow up.

          He wants so much to say something. 
He wants to give her some words of comfort for her last journey. 
He wants to give her one last gift.

          But he has nothing to say.
          He has nothing to give.

          And out of his emptiness and beyond himself, he reaches back to his childhood and remembers a phrase.  And the father gives the only think he knows to say.

          “My little lamb. 
The Lord bless and keep you. 
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
and be gracious to you…”

          In the benediction, I give what I do not have.  I give what is not mine to give. 

          This is a difficult day for me.  I’ve preached in this pulpit – this boat - many times over the past few years.  Today is the last day I will get to do that.  Over the last several days, I’ve said good-bye a lot. 
          And last Sunday you gave me many gifts that I will always appreciate.
          And now, I want to give you a gift.

          But right now I want to give you something more than just another good-bye.
          I feel awkward.  
          I feel foolish. 
          I feel embarrassed.
          I want to give you something that is not mine to give, but I give it anyway, because I believe the promise.
          I believe that even as I say these words, God himself will bless you.

          Please stand, and receive the blessing from God.

May the Lord Bless you
And keep you.
The LORD make his face shine upon you
And be gracious to you;
The LORD turn his face toward you
And give you peace.