The Priestly BenedictionNumbers 6:22-27 (NRSVUE)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall 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.
“So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
This fall, we have been taking time each week to wonder about why we do what we do here in Oldtown when we worship. Each week, we have talked about different aspects of worship, like hospitality and welcome, celebration and praise, confession and forgiveness, sacraments, and all that is holy. And this week our focus will be prayers, blessings & benedictions.
Now, to some of you, the word prayer may sound comforting, and to others of you, the word prayer may bring a feeling of stress or anxiety. Either way, please remember that you are in a safe place, and it’s going to be okay! When I think about learning to pray, I immediately remember a story from a long time ago. And some of you may have heard it before. No, it’s not the story of Jesus teaching the disciples to pray, Hannah who prayed desperately to have a son, Hezekiah who prayed for deliverance and healing, or even the scripture that tells us we should pray without ceasing.
It is a story that happened right here in Oldtown about fifty years ago. You see, downstairs in the vestry of this very church, a very nervous little girl arrived at Sunday school prepared to recite the Lord’s prayer, which she had been trying to memorize for weeks. Two of the other children in the class had already successfully recited the prayer, and the teacher, Mrs. Shaftoe, had rewarded them with a sticker of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. As the little girl stood in front of the class, her heart began to race, and she felt a pit in her stomach. She was very shy and uncomfortable speaking in front of the class and worried that she might forget the words or mix them up. She began to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” She took a deep breath, then swallowed hard. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” “You messed up!” one of the children in the class yelled. “Yeah, you forgot parts of it,” said another child. The little girl felt horrible, and she began to cry. What would the teacher say? And what would God think if she couldn’t even say the prayer, right? Well, Mrs. Shaftoe walked over and put her arm around the little girl. “You did just fine, Kelly,” she said. “I’m sure that God doesn’t worry about the exact words; God is just glad to hear from you.”
Friends, true prayer is not about the words that we use, but rather the connection we make. It’s not about being good enough or perfect, but opening our hearts and our minds, being our true selves, and being honest with God.
During worship here in Oldtown, we have lots of opportunities to pray. Some of our prayers invite God to be with us. Some prayers offer God our praise or thanksgiving. We have quiet moments for confession, moments of silence to listen for God’s voice, prayers for guidance, and prayers of petition when we ask for help for ourselves and others.
Now I have to say, this fall, as we have been wondering about why we do what we do here in worship, I feel as though lots of my worship secrets have been revealed. A few weeks ago, I let you all know that I take my shoes off in the pulpit because it’s holy ground. Then I had to ask forgiveness from all of you for changing the setup of worship and leaving out a really important part. And now, this week, I have to tell you that in years past, our huddlers have asked me why I stop at the front of the church before I come up here to the pulpit. And the answer is twofold. First, I do it out of a sense of respect, humbly offering myself to God before worship starts. But then I say a quick prayer, and it usually goes like this, ”God help me to be what your people need me to be today.”
Friends, prayers, whether simple or fancy, whether said corporately as a congregation or individually on our own, invite us into a connection or a conversation with God. And it’s always important for us to remember that a conversation is like a two-way street. It’s not enough to talk, share, thank, and ask because sometimes we need to listen, too.
As most of you know, last week, I was in Idaho with my husband and several of his high school friends and their wives. We had lots of fun fly fishing and hiking, and we saw the infamous “trailing of the sheep” when hundreds of sheep are run through the town to be blessed by the Episcopal Priest as they make their way to the pasture on the opposite side. When we arrived, our friend picked us up at the airport and told us that we would be having lunch at his mom’s house. When we got there, she lived in a beautiful old farmhouse. She invited us in, gave us a tour of the house, and invited us to sit at the kitchen table. There was a plaid tablecloth on the table with matching cloth napkins and fresh-cut flowers from her garden.
The table was filled to overflowing with homemade sandwich fixing, freshly baked bread, and canned pickles of different varieties. As we all sat down, she told us what a blessing our visit was to her, and then she invited us to join hands as she blessed the meal and each one of us around the table. Her prayer was simple, humble, and sweet. She thanked God for bringing us safely to her home and asked God to bless us and our time in Idaho. The kindness and gentleness of her words brought tears to my eyes. As a minister, I always get called on to pray for others, but I was blessed beyond measure to be actually prayed for myself.
When we pray, we speak directly to God, whereas when we offer blessings, we offer or bestow the love and grace of God on other people. I had forgotten how sacred a blessing can feel, especially when you least expect it.
Here in the church, we bless the water of baptism and the bread and juice of communion. In the past, we have blessed backpacks and stones, pianos, and children of all ages. And especially today, as later we will be celebrating the life of Janice Tondravi, I would be remiss if I didn’t also talk about the blessing of prayer shawls. Janice loved our prayer shawl ministry and how we, as a congregation, add our prayers and blessings to each shawl or blanket that is shared with someone in need. Janice was a strong believer in prayer and in blessings, and she would call me on a regular basis to request a prayer shawl or to add someone to the prayer list.
Okay, so we have covered prayers and blessings. What about benedictions? I know the word “benediction” is one of those church words, like narthex, pulpit, or vestry, that we don’t often use outside of the church building, but a benediction is actually the act of bestowing a blessing on someone. I often tell people that it is a way of sending people off in peace. At the end of our church service, the benediction is the part that encourages us to go out into the world to share whatever it is that we receive here in worship. The benediction ends with a final blessing.
Here in Oldtown, I usually say, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest and remain with each and every one of you, now and forever more!” But as we heard in our scripture reading today, the priestly blessing or the priestly benediction was what God told Moses to share with Aaron and his son. It was a blessing for them to give to the Israelites so they would know that they belonged to God and that God loved them very much. And the benediction goes like this, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Benedictions usually leave us feeling not only blessed but filled with hope, peace, and possibility. And those are all things that our world could really use right now.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, I encourage you to spend some time in prayer this week, not just talking, complaining, and asking, but also taking deep breaths, spending time in silence, and truly listening for God’s voice. And then share a blessing or two with the world around you. You don’t need to say, “May the LORD bless you and keep you; May the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; May the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Sometimes, a blessing or a benediction is simply sharing a kind word or a smile, encouraging someone, or doing a good deed. It’s not expensive; actually, it doesn’t cost anything at all. All you need to do is share the love of God, the peace of Christ, or the comfort of the Holy Spirit, which you have already been given!
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!