Merlin Carothers, Rilke and Kaddish: Sermon at Liverpool Parish Church

Our Lady and Saint Nicholas, Liverpool

Ordinary Sunday 28, Year C

9th October, 2016

 

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

 

For Jewish people these days are the Yamim Noraim. The days of awe. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah last Saturday, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement on Tuesday.

I’ve had the privilege in two years of attending synagogue for the whole of the two days and the evenings before on these two days. A torrent of prayers, songs and chants and the dramatic sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn.

But the phrase that is repeated over and over again in Jewish prayer not just on these days but on any day is quite simple:

Baruch atah, adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam.

Blessed are you, Lord, God, king of the universe.

There are hundreds of Jewish blessings for every conceivable situation. Blessings for cooking and eating; for seeing a wise scholar, before reading the bible, for washing and dressing, waking up and going to sleep. There is a tradition among pious Jews of reciting a 100 blessings a day.

Some Buddhist traditions also have verses to be recited at various times of the day. Gathas, or mindfulness verses: in one school of zen they are expressed as little vows:

Falling asleep at last I vow with all beings
To enjoy the dark and the silence
And rest in the vast unknown.

In others they are reminders to be mindful:

As I wake up, I welcome a new day,
A mindful smile with every breath.
May I live each moment
With compassion and awareness.

Many modern Jews have created new blessings to respond to changing life styles; blessings for turning on a television, sending an email or even tweeting.

Some feminist Jews have experimented with the language about God in the traditional blessing formula using female grammar

 

B’rukha At Yah Eloheynu Ruakh 

You are blessed, Our God, Spirit of the World …

 

But the opening word almost always remains fubdamentally the same, the word of blessing.

 

Blessings are important for Christians too.

As we know the Anglican communion is in some anguish about what can or can’t be blessed.

This sort of debate suggests that we think something happens when we bless things.

If I am wearing my clerical collar I am quite frequently asked to bless things or people. This happened a lot in Lewisham in south east London where I have been working for the last eight years. At a bus stop or walking through town someone would ask me to bless them, or, more often a part of them.

Although I was and am always happy to pray a blessing in these circumstances I am also aware of some unease about what I or the person receiving the blessing thinks I am doing.

Our readings today, particularly the first reading and the gospel suggest two views about receiving blessings.

In the first reading Naaman has received a blessing of healing. He is anxious to hang on to this blessing and, wanting to travel back home he decided to take some of the soil from Israel with him.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a primitive attitude but I frequently visit houses where people have a cross or other article made out of olive wood from the Holy Land, a pebble or stone from some holy place and even sand or soil collected on pilgrimage.

 

The word bless in such a world view can come to have a meaning about an action, an action with an effect. The difficulty, as w e know, is that the magic, quite simply does not work.

Few if any of the varicose veins, arthritic legs or even broken arms that I have blessed will have been healed by my intervention.

This, it seems to me, is what Jesus is drawing attention to in the gospel we have just heard. He knows that he has power and that healing will occur. But for Jesus the healing is not an end in itself, he asks us to remember two things, to have faith and to give thanks.

To have faith and to give thanks.

 

Many Jewish prayer books try and show that the Hebrew word baruch doesn’t mean to make something holy, to change it in some magical way, they translate that blessing formula, baruch attach, not as Blessed are you, but as We praise you, or we thank you.

 

That is what we do as Christians when we celebrate the eucharist.

Eucharist itself is nothing more than the Greek word for thank you. In modern Greek with the upsilon pronounounced more like an f; but still recognisably af-haristo.

Our liturgy, our eucharist is not some kind of magic, it is faith giving thanks.

This was an insight of the reformation: feed on him with your hearts in faith with and thanksgiving. Christians are called to be Eucharistic people, grateful people, people having faith in Jesus.

It is easy, of course, to be grateful when things are going well. But Jews are called to say the blessing prayers every day regardless of whether it is a good and wonderful day or whether things are going badly.

We too are called to celebrate the eucharist every day, ‘give us this dau our daily bread’.

So what do we do when things are going badly, when we have lost our job, a relationship has ended, or we are just in the dark cloud of depression.

Well, there are great prayers of lament and rage in the bible that can help us; we can express our anger and rage at God and the universe and all this can be very helpful.

But I would like to suggest that being people of blessing. Being people of gratefulness of Eucharistic living on the god days should help us to be Eucharistic people on the bad days too.

Ending each section of prayers in the Jewish liturgy is the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. You might expect such a prayer to be one of gloom, sadness at the loss of those we love; or one of request: please giver eternal life to those who have died. But, in fact, it is a prayer of praise:

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.
B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
v’yamlich malchutei,
b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar
v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal
sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,
l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,
tushb’chata v’nechemata,
daamiran b’alma. V’imru: Amen.

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honoured, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

Many years ago, as a teenager, I went to an evangelistic rally where one of the speakers was Merlin Carothers, he wrote a book called Prison to Praise.

 

“If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and perfection,” Carothers writes, “he must tell you to make it a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you. or it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you will turn it into a blessing.”

One of my favourite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke put is this way:

Tell me, poet, what do you do: I praise.

And those dark, deadly, devastating ways,

How do you suffer them, bear them: I praise.

And the nameless one, beyond conjure or gaze,

How do you call him: I praise.

Learning to praise, learning to be thankful, learning to be Eucharistic on the good days and the ordinary days prepares us for the hard task of being grateful, thankful people on the dark, deadly days, in the blackest of nights and in the remotest wilderness.

Our Eucharist today here, at this altar, giving thanks for bread and wine is a giving thanks for the death of Jesus. It is a rehearsal for daily life, a learning to live eucharistically in the face of death and devastation and all that is dark and evil in the world.

So, a practical suggestion for you this week in your prayer: start saying thank you to God, start praising God for the water running from a tap; for the sheets on your bed; for a pen that works or for switching on a light. For a train that arrives on time, a phone call from a friend an email from a loved one.

Then start praising God when things go wrong, start with the little things, the traffic light that turns red just as you get there; the plate that you drop and break; the appointment you are late for.

Go on and start praising God for the bigger things: the job you didn’t get; the holiday cancelled and the flu that debilitates you.

I hardly dare go and suggest that you go on and praise God for the truly terrible things that happen to you.

But I am always struck that so often when we hear people complaining or whingeing it is the small things they are complaining about. So many of the most grateful people I have met have had to bear the greatest possible suffering.

Tell me, poet, what do you do: I praise.

And those dark, deadly, devastating ways,

How do you suffer them, bear them: I praise.

And the nameless one, beyond conjure or gaze,

How do you call him: I praise.

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honoured, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.
B’alma di v’ra chirutei,
v’yamlich malchutei,
b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon
uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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