Sermon by the Rev. Stacy Alan at Rockefeller Chapel, July 31, 2016

Proper 13C – July 31, 2016
Rockefeller Chapel

Scripture Text: Hosea 11:1-11

To be human is to have your heart broken. To be human is to long for things that I cannot attain, and to lose things that I’ve become attached to. Most of us spend our conscious lives trying to avoid that heartbreak. Those of us who are parents spend much of our time trying to save our children from that heartbreak.

What do we do to avoid having our hearts broken? We live half-heartedly, we spend our years revealing only part of ourselves, or offering what we think others want. We build strongholds around us—hard work, competence, independence, control, distraction, keeping the rules, being “good,” being “safe,” having enough (whatever that is)—hoping that those will be enough to be in relationship with the people around us, with ourselves, with our God.

The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in an interview with Krista Tippett says this:

And if you have a really fierce loss, the loss of someone who’s close to you, the loss of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend, God forbid a child — then human beings have every right to say, “Listen, God. If this is how you play the game, I’m not playing the game. I’m not playing by your rules. I’m going to manufacture my own little game, and I’m not going to come out of it. I’m going to make my own little bubble. And I’m going to draw up the rules. And I’m not coming out to this frontier again. I don’t want to. I want to create insulation. I want to create distance.”

This is what lies behind the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel: the rich man builds more storehouses to avoid having his heart broken, building insulating walls to keep out want and fear and loss, only to find that they do him no good.

And yet, our hearts will always break. At some point someone will die, I will be betrayed, someone will change, something is lost. I will die, I will betray someone, I will change, I will be the loss. The suffering of the world will have made its way under the surface, like ice in a Chicago street, and with first storm, the tiny cracks in our heart will open into a giant pothole, and I will fear falling in and being lost forever.

This is why the text we heard today from Hosea haunts me. I struggle with the book of Hosea. It begins with a difficult, problematic story of Hosea acting out Israel’s faithlessness in his family life that is distressingly similar to the dynamic of an abusive relationship. It’s hard and harsh and troubling, particularly as a description of how God works with us.

Then we get this text, which has its issues, but which offers a vision of God that I find both challenging and comforting. Here we are given the image of God as the parent of a small child, with touchingly intimate details any parent would recognize: teaching a child to walk, carrying her, offering healing, the lifting of a baby to bury one’s nose in his neck, savoring that baby smell, bending down to offer a tasty morsel, anticipating the delight in the child’s eyes.

The language of God as father is familiar, perhaps too familiar in the Christian tradition. Many prayers begin with “Heavenly Father” and “Almighty Father,” or include “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself offered that language to us when he taught his disciples to pray. But we often attend to the authority and power of the father, acknowledging the love, yes, but it’s a dispassionate love, a distant love, a love that exists in the abstract.

We leave out the fact that parenting is hard and is guaranteed to break your heart. Even with the happiest of childhoods, the most functional of dynamics, the healthiest of bodies, your heart will break. David Whyte says this in the same interview:

[Y]ou think about the path of parenting, there’s never been a mother or father since the beginning of time who hasn’t had their heart broken by their children. And nothing traumatic has to happen. All they have to do is grow up.

This is, stunningly, the cry of God in Hosea: “The more I called them, the more they went away from me.” God, the author of all that is, the one whom philosophers and theologians have called omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, the Unmoved Mover, unchanging, this God calls after a wayward people, her voice echoing in the hills and they run recklessly away. How can I give you up? God cries. How can I hand you over? Anyone who has struggled with a recalcitrant teenager, or the reactive “no” of a toddler, or the pain of one’s adult child making her own way in the world (different from mine) will recognize that cry.

Whyte, in another place, writes this:

Parental love can be bewildering because the love that is returned does not necessarily have anything at all to do with the overwhelming forces we might feel for a child when they are but one day old; the delight we have when they celebrate their third birthday or the sudden distance at thirteen, fourteen or fifteen. The child’s affection for us, even at times, seems to submerge and disappear in that fog of war called adolescence, becoming at times, a beautifully constructed repulsion that still includes us in a strange backward form of connection.

In the unrequited love of parenthood, the parent often feels stranded by the way a child has moved on, taken by the tide of an unstoppable maturation. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

This is not a dispassionate, all-powerful God. This is a God whose heart breaks over and over again, who cannot do other than love this wayward and stubborn people.

What a terrifying gift Hosea has offered us! If God has his heart broken, then what of us? This is, actually, the most profound invitation God makes. This is what Jesus came, in part, to teach us through his life and death: it is only through our broken hearts that we can come to new life, to new birth, to wholeness and holiness.

Again, David Whyte:

Alternatively, in a generous giving away, the parent can let their love for their child find a different form inside themselves, a lifting and a letting go that grants the father or mother a new emancipation of their own. The giving away of the child is the giving away of being a certain kind of parent which becomes the invitation to be parented ourselves, by the unknown; by a future we have to get to know again. We emancipate to be emancipated ourselves. files/Readers_Circle/Unrequited.pdf

God models for us that path to life: the allowing our hearts to be broken, the living and loving in such a way as to risk loss and betrayal and death, the inevitable stuff of our lives. If God loves in this way, then not only are we called to imitate that love, we will find God most profoundly in that love.

Amarelis and Lawrence, I was aware that there would be a baptism today, and I wondered whether it would be a good idea to center my sermon on the heartbreak of parenthood. I didn’t want to frighten or discourage you unduly. But I suspect you already know all of this. One of the reasons we baptize our children is to remind ourselves that our children are ours and simultaneously that we must let go of them, to prepare ourselves for heartbreak—AND to do that reminding in the context of a community that promises to support and aid us in that process.

I’m also aware that not all of you are parents, perhaps by choice, perhaps by circumstance, and this may be a source of pain or of freedom—or both. All of us have had parents, and there, too, the relationship may have been life-giving or destructive, strengthening or hobbling—and likely some of both. Whether or not you are a parent, whether or not your own parents were able to offer you what you needed, what we are offered here in Hosea’s poignant language for God is an invitation to a surrender like that of holy parenthood, of being willing to experience the irrational giving of oneself to a new life that will challenge you, and delight you, frustrate you, and yes, in all of the best ways, break your heart.

I’ll end with a Hasidic story and a little bit of Leonard Cohen:

A young man asked his rabbi why in Deuteronomy it says that the words of God were to be written “on” the heart and not “in” the heart.

“Because we are not ready for them to be written in our hearts,” the rabbi replied.  “But if they are placed carefully on the heart, then when it breaks, they will fall in.”  (Source unknown.)

And Cohen:

We asked for signs
The signs were sent:
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government
Signs for all to see.

. . . .

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)


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Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate

Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Grace Episcopal Church, Oak Park, IL
The Rev. Stacy Alan

A theologian who spoke at Brent House once said this: “You can’t speak about the Trinity without committing heresy. You just have to decide which heresies you can live with and what is not negotiable.” I feel like preaching at an ordination to the transition diaconate is similar: Nadia and the Church have discerned that she is called to the priesthood, and yet, as happens with all priests in our tradition, we ordain her first to the diaconate, which raises all kinds of questions—will she still be a deacon when she is priested? Are all priests also called to the diaconate, and if so, what does that say about those who are called to what we unofficially call the vocational diaconate? I can’t win.

So let me start by offering my own understanding of the orders of ministry of the church. I have found that the metaphors of vision and seeing are a great frame on which to hang this on.

All Christians are called to see in a special way: we are called to see Christ in each other, in our neighbor, in our enemy, and in ourselves. We are called to see the Spirit of God working in the very longing of creation, to see the wisdom of God working where the world sees foolishness.

When we ordain brothers and sisters as deacons, priests, and bishops, one could say that we are setting them aside to focus on and pay attention to a certain kind of vision. A bishop’s view is the big picture: attending to the past, looking for the Spirit of God working in the church through history, peering toward the future, discerning how God would have us work “for the reconciliation of the world,” and broadly looking at the overall wellbeing and mission of the Church as lived out in his or her diocese in the present.

A priest’s vision is generally focused, if you will, on the ground, or more immediate surroundings: on the life of a particular community, the care of its members, its growth in faith and service, the day to day administration of the sacraments. There’s some glancing to the past, too, since priests are supposed to pass on the tradition of the Church, and some looking to the future as God’s call is discerned locally.

What’s a deacon’s special vision, then? I think it’s a kind of peripheral vision. This is the vision that sees what’s on the edges, what we have chosen not to focus on, the places we don’t want to look, the things that call us to repentance and action. The work of the deacon is, in words we will hear shortly, “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the

This is all very nice. It’s lovely set of metaphors, clear and organized, an exercise in the theoretical. But this past Wednesday nine people were killed when a gunman, after sitting with them for an hour as they studied Scripture and prayed, opened fire. They were black; he is white. The church where the attack happened is the oldest Black congregation south of Baltimore, and for almost 200 years has been part of the struggle of African Americans for freedom. Some of our national leaders have so far been unable to say, clearly and outright, that the shooting was racially motivated. Even fewer are pointing out that we white folks are all complicit in the systems and habits of racism, born in the justification of slavery, reinforced by law and through fear and in the comfort of those whom it has benefited, and whitewashed in the lifting up of token successes even as black people are shot and imprisoned and marginalized.

The comedian Jon Stewart, in his show on Thursday night, expressed his sadness “that we have to peer once again into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, at the nexus of a . . . gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” A bit later he said, “I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do [jack shit].”

What does that mean, in my nice, neat categories of Christian vision and orders of ministry? There it is: the abyss—or, rather, one of the abysses that are the consequence of a fallen world—right in front of us, so obvious, I hope, that we don’t need a deacon’s peripheral vision to see it. There’s the history—both of our culture and of our church—of not doing squat about it.

What does it mean as we prepare for the bishop to lay hands on Nadia and make her a deacon? What did it mean as we prayed just now to be delivered from discouragement, ignorance, apathy, and complacency? What will it mean as we share in the Eucharist, remembering, yes, God’s invitation to the wedding feast, but also the sacrifice of one who was executed as a threat to the established order?

Nadia and the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have discerned that she is called to the priesthood. Why, then, are we ordaining her (as we do with all priests) to the diaconate?

Being a priest can be hard. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world. But someone else will be preaching on that, I assume, when you’re ordained to the priesthood, Nadia. The trick is that the priesthood has a certain crutch to it. Priests are the conservative order in the church. We are charged with bearing the tradition, holding it in trust, and sharing it with our communities and, by extension, the world. We have the authority to bless and to celebrate the sacraments. We are called to denounce injustice and actively to work for righting of wrongs, as are all Christians, but we do that from the center, from positions of conferred (and earned) sacramental authority—which isn’t a bad thing, but the institution provides a certain shield, a tether than tends to keep us from getting too close to the edge.

The deacon, though also ordained by the Church and bearing its authority, is meant to stand at the edges: the edges of the church, the edges of society, the edges of the abysses of human evil. Without the shield of sacramental authority, bearing the naked moral authority that Jesus wielded, deacons call us to look to the edges, to look deep into the abysses of racism and sexism and homophobia and classism and nationalism and, you know, the endless list of the creativity of human evil, and they call us to reflect, and repent, and respond.

And as my husband John also pointed out, the deacons don’t simply stand and point at what we’d rather not see, like merciless scolds. They stand with us as we look into the abyss, arm around our shoulders so we don’t fall in.

I think one could argue that by ordaining future priests first to the diaconate, we give them some practice in that exposed and vulnerable place of being, not the only ones to call out injustice, but certainly designated ones. Whether Nadia’s time as a deacon is simply an extension of her baptismal ministry, whether it is permanent or will be replaced by her priesthood, as of today she is called to stand with other deacons at the edges of what we fear and avoid and willingly ignore. She is called to look fearlessly into them, trusting that the God of Jeremiah will also give her the words to speak and will send her where she needs to go to speak them. She is called to prod and encourage us to repentance and action.

Which brings me to one last thing: our first reading was from Jeremiah. For all that the diaconate is a prophetic order, Nadia is about as unlike Jeremiah as anyone I know. Jeremiah was an awkward, difficult man, who said provocative, disturbing things, and who made people really uncomfortable and got thrown into a well.

What might Nadia’s particular prophetic ministry look like? It is, perhaps, the most fundamental prophetic charge of all: as she said in her nomination essay, “mine is a ministry of proclaiming in word and deed the legacy of the incarnation—of asserting that it matters that the God we worship is one who took on human flesh and died as one of us; who walked upon and was sustained by this good earth; and who lived and died as one of us.” From this, Nadia can look into any of our abysses, proclaiming that the dignity of every human being includes the dignity of their bodies, and that the goodness of all creation means being appropriate and farsighted stewards thereof. As of today, she will stand at the edge, fingers grubby from working the earth, a heart shaped by love, and eyes already practiced at looking to the edges and into the abysses. And as of today, we will have another person to invite us to do that same.

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State of the Chaplaincy 2015

Here is this year’s State of the Chaplaincy Newsletter. It includes an essay from alum The Rev. Ben Varnum (AB 2006, MDiv 2010) and a reflection on sexuality and prayer from our chaplain, the Rev. Stacy Alan. Plus great photos from the year!

Late Night Labyrinth 2015

Late Night Labyrinth 2015

State of the Chaplaincy 2015 for web

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Nina (Meigs) Bennett: Sermon for Yom Kippur

This is what Brent House alum Nina (Meigs) Bennett preached on Yom Kippur at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California:

Thank you for being here. Yom Kippur is exhausting. We confront over and over again how fragile we are, how broken. It’s hard to face that. It really does help to know that we’re a whole room full of fragile, vulnerable people.

Especially because, I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten really good at coming up with ways to avoid thinking about the whole sin and atonement thing.

My month of Elul – when we’re supposed to be reflecting and asking for forgiveness– looks like this:

I procrastinate.

I sign up for, and then ignore, those daily inspirational Elul emails.

– let me know if any of this sounds familiar –

And then, finally, at the last minute, I “tackle” my “shortcomings” as if this were a job performance review. “Identify areas of unmet potential, and map out a strategic plan for future implementation.” AKA, I make lots of resolutions.

It’s easier to think about how awesome I’m going to be next year than it is to sit and look hard in the mirror. But resolutions are poor preparation for the intense vulnerability that we’re called to experience.

When I was in college, the quote from Isaiah that we read in our HafTorah was my favorite.

“Do you call that a fast,

a day when Adonai is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:

to unlock fetters of wickedness,

and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break every yoke.”

No joke, I had it (somewhat sanctimoniously) posted on my facebook profile. (This tells you when I went to college!).  I grew up a U.S. diplomat’s daughter in West Africa, and I had resolved that I was going to spend my life actually doing stuff, untieing the cords and all that. I could almost see myself turning up my nose at campus activists circulating petitions and volunteering.  Do you call that a fast? I’ve lived in Africa, I’ve seen real poverty, and I’m going back to do something about it.

You can guess where this is going. I got a grant to do independent research on an aid project in rural Mali. I walked in proud and eager to fulfill my “unmet potential,” … and left broken…lonely.

I wish I could say that I was as thoughtful as Menachem was about his recent trip to Ghana, and returned motivated to step up and pitch in.

I spent much of the trip alone, and isolated, with no instructions, no guidance, uncertain of what I was supposed to do.  Somewhere in that wandering, I met myself… and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  When I was put in an isolated place with no instructions, where my past accomplishments didn’t matter… I was just another young, useless, fragile, and overly self-impressed kid.

It was a really hard trip.

Yom Kippur is a whole day where we are asked to let ourselves be truly vulnerable. To look at who we are. To set aside all our safety blankets and our distractions and allow ourselves to feel small, and temporary. For most of us, this is unbelievably hard.

And since this isn’t Hollywood, there’s no promise that we’ll “live happily ever after” if we go through this process. Today’s Torah portion doesn’t pretend that we can undo last year’s mistakes. Aaron is able to purge the Shrine of the impurities of the Israelites using blood sacrifices, but deliberate sins are indestructible and can only be sent away in the hope that they may never return. The idea is that intentional acts of wrongdoing, once committed, can never really be undone. And before we can send our sins away to Azazel, like Aaron we must acknowledge them. “confess over the goat all the inequities and transgressions of the Israelites.” We can hope for closure, but only if we can face our shortcomings.

We’re asked to face ourselves, but mercifully our tradition understands how difficult this is and doesn’t demand that we do it alone.  The Torah gave the Israelites clear and detailed instructions, and our Machzor has translated those into a liturgy that supports us every step of the way.  The melodies are serious, helping us to feel the awe and solemnity.  The prayers are repeated over and over, confessions, pleading for forgiveness, giving us the words when we’re too overwhelmed to know what to say, and pulling us back to the task at hand even though we’re so easily distracted. These rituals demand – force us to stay in this awkward space for longer than is comfortable, because most of us will do anything to avoid the experience of feeling vulnerable.  Our job today is to be present and live with our vulnerability; but we don’t have to do it alone. The liturgy creates the space, gives us the words, keeps us focused, and gives us company.

Two months after I came back from Africa, I walked into my very first yom kippur service. I was accompanying the man who would become my husband.  I remember being so moved that he – who is not practicing – would pushed himself out of his comfort zone and show up, along with everyone else, every year. That on the day of atonement, every Jew is welcome – every Jew is needed. No matter who we are, or how we spend the other 364 days in the year, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all going to die, and we all need help facing that.

Years passed after that first Yom Kippur. We graduated and left the bubble of campus life. We moved. As well-intentioned but clueless young things, we crashed some well-buttoned shul’s Yom Kippur services, not realizing you needed tickets.

They were gracious and let us in.

We moved again. Another year, some well-intentioned but also clueless new friends graciously invited us to a Yom Kippur  Break Fast… that was accidentally scheduled for right after Kol Nidre services.

We were trying. They were trying. In our awkward, stumbling, inappropriate ways, we were trying to be present and in community on that day.

After Isaiah tells us that our fasts and our attempts at reconciliation aren’t good enough, the HafTorah promises that “when you call, Adonai will answer; when you cry, He will say: Here I am.Here I am is the translation of the word Hineni. My understanding the word conveys attentiveness, alertness, and readiness to respond to instructions. Think of it this way, Hineni is what Abraham said when God called to him and was about to instruct him to sacrifice his son; and hineni is what Abrahram said again when the angel called to him to stop. Hineni is what Moses said when God called to him out of the burning bush. This spot in Isaiah is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where God says Hineni.

Today, if we’re able to be present and vulnerable,

if we’re able to let go of all that makes us feel safe,

and we cry out because we encounter things about ourselves we’d rather not see,

if we can let ourselves be here,

then God says, Here I am. I’m here and ready for whatever you need.

My wish for you is that you are able to be present today. That you can let go of all your masks… let go of all the mental tricks that we use to feel safe even when we’re uncomfortable…and just experience what it feels like to be fragile.

If we can do that today, then maybe, just maybe, tomorrow we will be able to be more gentle with ourselves and those around us.

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Sermon by Jay Stanton: “Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing”

This sermon was preached by friend of the House, Jay Stanton, at KAM Isaiah here in Hyde Park:

R’eh 5772

Jay Stanton

Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing

This week’s parashah opens by challenging us to visualize an amazing scene.  Commanding us to see, the portion starts with the word r’eh:

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.  When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal – both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.” (New JPS translation)

This passage seems to present us with a binary between blessing and curse:  two mountains separated by a valley full of Israelites.  On one, we recite all the blessings of life, and on the other, all the curses.  Up one slope, we place everything good: prosperity, abundance, compassion; up the opposite slope, we place everything evil: hatred, violence, famine.  So we choose blessing, reject curse, and only good things happen to us for the rest of time.  Easy enough, right?

Our experiences of doing good deeds and following mitzvot have not banished evil from our midst.  Recent shooting sprees and climate scorching show that to us on a global level, and we all have personal examples of good deeds leading to bad consequences.  At face value, our world doesn’t reflect our Torah.

We constructed the binary we see between blessing and curse. This passage tells the story of its construction.  My mentor Kate Bornstein teaches that all binaries are false, and I have yet to be confronted with a counterexample.  Binaries invite us to consider their fallacy; we usually gain something from their simplification while we lose something else.  Generalizations help us build a coherent picture of our surroundings, but that picture is a lot more complicated than a mountain of curses and a mountain of blessings. When we look at the text closely, this seeming binary gets more complex.

God gives us both blessing and curse.  Moreover, both blessing and curse are present in the Promised Land.  If God wanted us to be completely free from curse, it would have been left on the other side of the Jordan, in somebody else’s land, apart, at least temporarily, from the holy people.  The Deuteronomist invites us to consider the relationship between holy people and holy space.  Yet we are required to proclaim curses within the land of Israel, the spatial realm of holiness.  Cursing is holy even when we don’t start a stream of curses with the word.  The power to curse is divine.  Made in the divine image, we share that power.

Understanding curse as a gift from God is not easy.  The predominant culture in America views God as only good, a Force repelling evil which can help you do likewise if you profess belief.  Furthermore, when religious leaders try to explain evil in the world, they often reject the notion that evil comes from God.  Instead, they blame individuals or categories of people, often ones that include me.  So, in this post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world where genocide, terrorism, and generational poverty still afflict us on a mass scale, and joblessness, grief, and illness afflict us on a personal level, we want to divorce ourselves from any discussion of reward and punishment as God-given.  Or we take God as Rewarder-and-Punisher as a fact we must believe about the divine in order to accept its existence and reject God altogether.  This perception of unfairness on God’s part is not merely an image of an unexamined popular psyche; it permeates academia as well.  We call the inconsistency “the problem of theodicy.”

What if theodicy is not a problem?  We live in a complex global society, where whether we remember to turn the lights off when we leave a room in Hyde Park affects people in Mongolia.  Hardly any action we take or choice that we make has consequences only impacting ourselves.  Bad things happen to people who are doing good things.  If God causes everything, then God is the cause of evil as well as good.  By presuming that God works on a merit system, we have trouble explaining suffering in the world.  I recently finished the book The Jew in the Lotus, in which Rodger Kamenetz describes his experience as a witness to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Tibetan Buddhists including the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  Kamenetz relates a conversation about suffering between a Jew who spent time as a Buddhist and a Buddhist who was raised as a Jew.  Buddhists try to explain why suffering occurs and how we can eliminate it.  Jews acknowledge its existence and strive to live with it on a daily basis.  We don’t try to explain away our suffering; we ask what we can do to alleviate pain.

God invites us to recognize curse and blessing as extremes.  We in the valley, or the Midwest, can’t actually live on Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, either in fact or metaphorically.  Unlike the sages of Monty Python, we can’t always look on the bright side of life.  Curse and blessing surround us, and they are often not separable on distinct mountains.  A friend dies, and we realize how deeply we were impacted by her presence.  We move to a new place to pursue new opportunities, and we leave our home behind.  We use the extremes of blessing and curse to make sense of our own lives.  Most of the time, we experience both simultaneously.  Yet we navigate our world using the landmarks of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Often, we take this navigation system as a law.  We are overeager to call one thing a blessing and something else a curse, using our own value system to place more situations at one extreme or another than actually belong there.  We forget that both blessing and curse are gifts, and we forget that the power of each stems from its relationship to the other and their mutual juxtaposition.  They help us choose to live rightly.  They help us do tikkun olam.  The presence of both blessing and curse gives us the opportunity to bring blessing to the parts of society or our lives that we view as cursed.  When we feel we are only blessed and not cursed, the presence of both curse and blessing argues against complacency.  God gave us blessing and curse in distinction to each other so we can be agents of change in our own lives and in our world.

The rabbinic tradition suggests that we say one hundred blessings throughout the day.  Forty is a big number in Judaism, and one hundred is two-and-a-half times bigger; the task seems overwhelming.  However, we are encouraged to say blessings over the small things in life.  We say blessings over drinking a glass of water, eating, seeing a great scholar – all daily activities in Hyde Park. We pepper our day with blessings to remind us that they are present to us in the midst of the curses and that we can invoke a blessing whenever necessary.

Blessings themselves aren’t necessarily all good, either.  A Midrash teaches us that two angels are sent to follow us on Shabbat.  One is evil, and one is good. When we keep Shabbat, the good one shares the blessing, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  When we break Shabbat, the evil one says, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  Tonight, I want to offer a different blessing.
In the Jewish calendar, we are in a period of reflection and self-examination.  Tomorrow night we begin the month Elul.  We take the month to start our process of t’shuvah, repentance, to get ready for the High Holidays.  We are involved in a process of reconciliation with God, moving from the pain of Tisha B’av – which commemorates the destruction of the Temple and other national tragedies – to the joy of Simjat Torah.  So my blessing for us tonight is this: may we be different next week than we are this week, and may we be different next year than we are this year.  In the coming year, may we navigate our lives juxtaposing blessing and curse.  May we use our awareness of God’s gifts of curse and blessing to shine light in dark places.  And that way, may we bring more peace and wholeness – sh’leimut – to the world.

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