As always sermons are meant to be heard not read. But this was my small offering on Sunday morning when I was invited back to one of my old parishes to preach at the first mass of someone who came from my present parish!
It’s great to be back in Scholes this morning and I was chuffed that Steve asked me speak on such an important occasion. A few people in church this morning know me and some may also know that for the last 5 years I have been a member of General Synod, the church’s governing body.
At the end of each day we have a short service and one time I was asked to lead it. It was a bit daunting because as you can imagine most of the senior bishops were in the room including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Towards the end the service I could see that there was going to be a blessing and normally the most senior church person present would do that.
I began to think that this might not be me and so I turned to the archbishop of Canterbury and asked if he should do the blessing. He looked at the service sheet, looked back at me and said: ‘your blessing is as good as my blessing – you do it’. I responded ‘archbishop I’m not altogether sure that’s true’.
Of course we all bless people. When anyone sneezes or when someone is kind to us. Blessing is a part of our language.
I am sure that those who have known Steve for many years will already know that the gifts he has have been a blessing to many many people. When a group from Christ the King went to Tanzania it was a pleasure to watch – and hear – how Steve’s gifts for music became a blessing to others. It helped forge friendship, build bridges and open dialogue.
We are all blessed with gifts and when used in God’s service those gifts become blessings to others. Perhaps the difference with a priest is that pronouncing blessings is a part of the job.
Blessings are written into the Church services we take. As the Bishop said to Steve yesterday, with all deacons being priested: “may they declare your blessing to your people”. The priest is not asked to hand out blessing as they like: “they are to bless the people in God’s name”. For a priest it’s a privilege, duty and calling to do this.
As we heard from the Old Testament reading, blessing is an ancient activity. Goodness knows how far back it goes in human history – I suspect long before the invention of writing. In English the word we use for blessing is linked with the word for blood. Blessing comes to us out of the pre-Christian activity of blessing altars with a blood sacrifice. Like so many early cultures, including the people of Israel, physical sacrifice is connected to blessing. When the priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on the people they were sharing in the holiness of what the priest was doing: they were blessed. You’ll be pleased to hear that this isn’t – literally- part of our service today (well not that I’m aware of!)
The distinctive role of the priest is to pronounce blessing at many significant moments in people’s lives. For over 20 years I have announced God’s blessings on the newly born; those getting married and those nearing the end of life. At times people have brought things to be to be blessed: a piece of jewellery with special significance; a Bible; or perhaps something to be placed on the grave of a loved one. I can tell Steve that this is both an important and immensely moving part of his new ministry. Priests are invited to recognise and name the sacredness of these moments, and the things that signify important relationships, and everything that bring people closer to God.
Why does this matter so much?
Well, I think ultimately blessing is something rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Aaron the priest in our Old Testament reading lifted his arms to pray that God would shine on the people. Those witnessing the Ascension we heard about in our Gospel reading, knew that they were being blessed by God directly. Jesus becomes the blessing of Aaron – the living and breathing expression of what it means to be blessed: to be with God. Christians came to believe that Jesus was and is “the image of the invisible God”. Jesus is God personified. Those who met him in the Holy Land and those who meet Jesus today share in the blessing of God for his people. God is with us in Jesus.
None of us can look into the future and say to which people Steve will announce God’s blessing. They will be men, women, children – the rich and the poor, the old the young, the sick and the well. But whenever Steve announces that blessing he is reminding people that God is with them. With them in good times and hard times.
Blessing says God is with us. The role of a priest is to keep that reminder alive in our lives: to assure us that we are, and always will be, held in God’s love.
As Steve embarks on this journey we pray for him and celebrate with him. And we give thanks that in this service today Steve will announce God’s blessing to us – a blessing no less worthy than that of any other priest – or even an Archbishop.