Sermon for Sunday 12 September 2021
Trinity 15 Fr Michael Bowie
From our second reading, from the Letter of James:
‘… no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.’
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting the St Paul Bookshop by Westminster Cathedral to replenish our stock of incense. When I go there dressed as a priest I am often asked not for money but for a blessing. On this occasion, comically, I could hardly get into the shop for the queue of hopeful RCs which formed, asking me to bless their purchases of devotional objects and, finally themselves: these last were an Irish and possibly homeless couple, he wearing a rosary round his neck and she with a miraculous medal attached to her belly button in a novel form of piercing.
It is obviously easier to offer a blessing on such occasions than to explain that in their church’s eyes I am a baptized layman masquerading as a sacrificing priest. To be honest it is also nice to be asked for something other than money: a pleasant encounter after which we all go on our way rejoicing. So they all got their blessing and I finally got to the incense department.
This has happened to me near Westminster Cathedral before, but this was the first time I’d caused a queue, prompting me to think, first why are there no other priests available around this cathedral, but, more importantly, what is being asked for when a blessing like this is requested and what am I doing in offering one?
Today we are about to bless something functional, our new hassocks. This is straightforward: they will be dedicated aids to our worship, ‘meekly kneeling on our knees’ as the BCP puts it, while making a concession to the feebleness of the same knees, as described by Isaiah.
The practice of blessing things arose first in monasteries and spread to become an integral and popular part of Christian life and devotion, at one point expanding to over 2000 formulae. The Church repeatedly tried to limit the number of blessings and has more recently agonized over whether things should be blessed at all (lest there be a suggestion of magic), but popular devotion has always pushed back in favour of blessings. After Vatican II the newly commissioned Book of Blessings began with 30 formulae, but in the ten years between conception and publication a further 50 were added, and priests then immediately complained about gaps in the provision. Clearly, blessing things with particular prayers speaks directly to a deeply felt human need: it is an incarnational practice of our definitively incarnational faith. As Fr Andrew Davison has written,
…blessing is not simply about evil or protection. It is celebratory and grateful for the world that God has given us – it is about life. That is no bad thing to stress, given that when Christianity does draw comment today it is often presented as mean-spirited and world-denying. By a tragic reversal, this most incarnational of faiths is seen as dualistic, and rejected as such. Bringing the ministry of blessing to greater prominence might do much to correct that reputation for mean-spiritedness, which so little characterized authentic Christianity. Blessing p. 201
But again, what are we really doing when we bless things?
Older definitions of blessing expressed a top-down theology of invoking God’s aid and protection, which sells short an equally important biblical sense of blessing as an offering of thanks and praise to God, as Fr Andrew reminds us. Blessing things in honour or memory of someone is therefore particularly apt as, today for example, we bless these utilitarian objects in thanksgiving to God for the lives of faithful parishioners, objects which have been offered to us by Clive and Joy’s family and their dear friend Pat Philips, precisely to ‘bless’ God for these two people whom we remember with affection.
We can call blessings sacramental (or sacramentals) by analogy with the Mass itself, in which we give praise and thanks to God for his saving actions (what we call anamnesis – remembrance) and then call down God’s blessing on the elements of bread and wine (epiclesis) to make God’s saving action present now. The hassocks we are about to bless have a functional purpose of which Clive would have approved; the function serves our participation in worship.
Which brings me to my text from today’s second reading, from S James. He’s talking about blessing in the biblical sense of giving praise to God and the need to take care that we don’t open ourselves to a charge of hypocrisy by cursing our brother or sister with the same tongue we used to bless God.
This aspiration to consistency can surely be applied to calling down blessings from God as well, supremely in this most holy sacrament. Sacramental fellowship at the altar, communion with God in Christ, is intended to be replicated in our relationships with each other, which should also be sacramental, signs of a deeper reality. That is, in our dealings with each other, and S James says, in what we say about one another as well as to one another, we should always be seeking to be a blessing and not a curse. I think we can all understand that difference instinctively.
We all fail in this sometimes, but if we make a daily self-examination and try to be more careful and conscious of what we say, and if repent when we get it wrong, we will give a more effective witness to the Christ we worship, whose presence here we honour and seek, with whose saving life we are nourished at the altar.
This also helps us with Jesus’ question in the Gospel ‘Who do you say I am?’. If, with S Peter, we answer that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, then the central question and challenge of the gospel – ‘who do you say I am’ – requires us to look at who we are. Are we self-aware and honest? How does our outward self relate to what we truly know about ourselves? How does that cohere with our faith, with who we aspire to be? Are we integrated people? Of what are we a sign, a sacrament? Wholeness of the self is a proper Christian aspiration.
Jesus is coherent in this sense, the perfect sacrament. But he lets people to receive an organic and relational understanding of who he is, one which grows and matures as they grow and mature in faith. Like Peter we can easily get one bit and miss the full picture. Jesus’ parables often teach hidden and incremental growth; he avoids showmanship.
So, to today’s Gospel: if we recognize Jesus for who he truly is, we will have a constant and searching conversation with ourselves about who we are. This isn’t new. It’s called self-examination, confession, reconciliation: we do it at the beginning of every Eucharist and many of us were taught to prepare for that on Saturday evening. A few of us do it in spiritual direction or sacramental confession. Without it we never get much deeper into God. The tools are all here.
Recognition of Jesus as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, is the only basis on which the story of our faith is more than just another story. It continues to be more than just another story now only if our answer to that question, ‘who do you say that I am?’ changes who we are, what we think and how we behave.