The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
19 November 2023
There is a particular small book that I have bought and given to more people than any other. And it seems to catch the soul of some people. It’s a book called To Bless the Space between Us, and it’s a book of blessings by the late Irish priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue. One person heard me use one of the blessings contained in this book at a graveside service and was so touched by it that he had it engraved on the stone at the entrance to our memorial garden.
Here is what O’Donohue writes about blessing as an act: “In the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. I believe each of us can bless. When a blessing in invoked, it changes the atmosphere. Some of the plenitude flows into our hearts from the invisible neighborhood of loving kindness. In the light and reverence of a blessing, a person or situation becomes illuminated in a completely new way.”
And so today, you have heard Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a cycle of blessings! Jesus “changes the atmosphere,” allows “light and reverence” to stream into the souls of his hearers, resulting in spiritual illumination. And this passage has continued to illuminate the followers of Jesus for the ensuing 2,000 years. In fact, many Christians consider the Beatitudes (or Blessings) as the very heart of the gospel, rendering what living life as a Christian entails.
I read a funny-tragic blurb from NPR a few days back. Russell Moore, and Evangelical leader, reports that “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – having someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ … And what is alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’”
Sometimes (perhaps even often) Jesus’ message tends to clash with some of what Americans have come to believe as “gospel truth.” And it isn’t just Christian Nationalists, it’s us, too. The Beatitudes are blessing the weaklings, the underdogs, the losers. That is who Jesus blesses! And it is probably who we should include as we bless others. And it is reassuring to know that when we find ourselves depressed, anxious, running on empty, that Jesus blesses us, too.
It is hard in our day just to be. Just to exist. Just to find moments of inner peace. Mass shootings and violent responses to anyone who looks like the “other” are becoming de rigueur in the media. There is so much noise from the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the conflict-inducing voices on Fox News and MSNBC. American political discourse today is characterized by conflict that generates copious amounts of heat and almost no light.
I was meeting with my therapist a few weeks ago, and she commented that “Anger is the new American drug of choice.” Think about that for a moment. Think how our culture has changed since before the pandemic. Think how you yourself have changed since before the pandemic. “Anger is the new American drug of choice.”
Of course, anger doesn’t stop at our borders. The rise of neo-fascism at home and abroad has been clear for the last five years. And the explosive violence in Israel and Gaza is polarizing and hate-inducing far beyond the Middle East.
Maybe the whole world needs a time out. But since that would be difficult to accomplish, I’m going to invite you into a brief moment of respite. I’ll read you my favorite blessing from John O’Donohue, and it contains an unfamiliar Irish word, currach, which is a small skin and wood-frame boat. I invite your close your eyes, relax you shoulder and neck muscles, feel the weight of your body in your seat and just breathe.
On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you....
Read poem here. 
Blessing can be soul-restoring. I hope that you have a sense of that right now. And know that you can come back to that place of quietness and contemplation whenever you need to.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I was rolling around the idea that we need a few new Beatitudes for the times we live in and the challenges we face today. I came up with a long list, but here are three blessings for our day.
1) Blessed are you when you refuse to use violence as a means of addressing another’s violence.
Gandhi said that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And we can see where the Israeli-Gaza war is leading. Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the myths that fuel the war: “The first myth is that in the conflict in the Middle East there is right on one side and wrong on the other (even if people disagree about which is which).
“Life isn’t that neat. The tragedy of the Middle East is that this is a clash of right versus right. That does not excuse Hamas’s massacre and savagery or Israel’s leveling of entire neighborhoods in Gaza, but underlying the conflict are certain legitimate aspirations that deserve to be fulfilled.”
Nonviolence on the macro scale can also be used on a personal level. When we disagree with someone, we can discuss things in a calm, adult manner that doesn’t demonize anyone. We don’t have to be oppositional, passive-aggressive, or engage in name-calling. We can speak the truth in love.
A second beatitude: Blessed are you when leave self-interest behind in order to serve others and build community.
We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a society. This comes as news to many Americans because we are raised to be self-reliant, self-assured, and self-centered. Our culture is diminished by lack of civic engagement and participation, by our unwillingness to look at the good of the whole, rather than our narrow self-interest. “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne wrote that in 1624, and we visualized it anew when astronauts took a photo of earth from space, and we saw the reality that we all share this small, blue marble.
We are all in this together. Thinking more of “we” and less of “me” is a blessing we each can live by.
A third beatitude: Blessed are you when you build bridges instead of erecting walls.
This metaphor has become too close to literal truth on the southern border of the United States. If we say “build a wall” it may be on the border or it may be in a gated community or it may be a way of excluding those who are somehow different than you are. Interpersonally, stonewalling is a way of keeping progress from happening by cutting off improvement and communication.
People who are more interested in finding solutions than harboring resentments build bridges, not walls. They engage with others in order to advance a solution, rather than simply withholding forward movement. Maybe you’ve seen that happen in a personal or a working relationship. It is poisonous to a culture and to the people who form it.
Those are my three Beatitudes, and I offer them to you as a blessing. As you receive communion [share the offering] I invite you to think about what Beatitudes you might offer. What blessing do you have to offer the world?
 “Beannacht” in To Bless the Space between Us, (NY: Convergent, 2008) p. 10
 Nicholas Kristof, “What We Get Wrong about Israel and Gaza,” NY Times, Nov. 25, 2023.