“Blessing the Curse” by Mark W. Harris
November 25, 2018 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from Gordon McKeeman
For simple things that are not simple at all;
For miracles of the common way –
Sunrise – Sunset
Seedtime – Harvest
Hope – Joy – Ecstasy;
For grace that turns
Our intention into deeds,
Our compassion into helpfulness,
Our pain into mercy;
For providence that
Sustains and supports our needs;
We lift our hearts in thankfulness,
And pray only to be more aware
Reading – A Story from India, “That is Good”.
Long ago there was a king that ruled the land. He had an assistant who was known for his wisdom, but he had a strange habit that annoyed the king. Whatever happened, he would always respond by saying, “that is good.” For instance, one day the king was out hunting, and his horse was startled by a snake. The king was thrown from the horse, and suffered a severe injury to his toe, which had to be amputated. As the assistant examined the damage, he remarked, “That is good.” The king was outraged, that he would say something like that. How insensitive, the king thought, and the assistant was fired immediately. But of course, the now former assistant responded with the seeming nonsensical, “that is good.” The king returned home minus his toe. Some weeks later, he went on another hunting excursion. This time he became separated form the rest of his entourage. A local, violent tribe who were known to sacrifice their prisoners captured the king. He was tied up and taken back to their village. Soon they began to prepare him for the sacrifice by washing him and decorating him. There was much music and dancing in celebration. The king was terrorized, and nearly fainted when the chief priest approached him with a long, sharp knife. But when the priest examined him for the sacrifice, he noticed he was defective. He saw the missing toe, and remarked, “this one is no good. He has been cut.” They could not sacrifice an imperfect being, and so they cut the ropes and let him go. Once he was back at his palace, he called for his old assistant to return to his job. When he appeared the king said, “you were right. It was good that I lost my toe, but tell me why did you say, that is good when I fired you from your job?” “There is always some good to come out of things your highness. If I had been with you the day you were captured, they would have sacrificed me, because my body has no missing fingers or toes. I would have been next in line.” “You’re right,” said the king, “that is good. And so is your wisdom.” And so the king brought him back to advise him. And it was good.
Sermon – “Blessing the Curse” by Mark W. Harris
Can you bless a curse? From 1918-2004 did any Red Sox fan ever feel blessed by the curse of the bambino? You remember, don’t you? The greatest baseball player in history once played for the Red Sox, and helped them win several World Series as both a pitcher and batter, but then was sold to the New York Yankees in 1918 in order for the owner of the club to finance a stage production of “No, No Nanette.” In the wake of that debacle the gods of baseball seemingly cursed the Red Sox and there was a drought of championship seasons for 86 years where they always seemed to lose at the end of the season. A kind of Calvinistic gloom and doom pervaded our feelings about the outcome of the season. Eeyore like, we always predicted ultimate failure. Dent will hit a homerun, or Buckner will let a groundball slip through his legs, and we will lose again. No one really believes that curses are legitimate, but the negativity that pervades our outlook can be destructive and prevent us from seeing anything positive in our approach to living.
Who would ever want to be thankful for those things that bring us pain or remorse? And yet if we review our lives we probably can recall many instances when things occurred that we wished had not, but then over time, and in retrospect, we find that it was for the best that this seeming curse occurred. Sometimes the things that happened to us that seemed liked curses at one time turn out to be blessings in the end. When the Biblical hero Job loses just about everything, his friends tell him to curse God, but as you may remember, he refuses. He trusts that some greater meaning will arise from all these losses, or that things will turn around in the end. Look at today. Red Sox fans always feel that the team can win.
Does blessing the curse mean I should be thankful for all the losses my team suffered, or that I was rejected at the college I really wanted to go to, or that my first marriage did not work out, and I was divorced, or that the job of my dreams was open, and they never even granted me an interview, or I was happy to be engulfed by a giant wave, and swept out to sea? These don’t exactly sound like things that should have brought eternal gratitude, but we may come to bless, not merely accept, many of those things that we would not have wanted to happen.
Thanksgiving is the annual time when we usually reflect on those things in our lives for which we are truly grateful. Traditionally we remember it as a harvest festival, and we express our gratitude that we are nourished each day by the fruits of the earth, and also remember our responsibility to care for the earth so that its plenty may always be available to us. We also remember our national traditions, that people seeking religious freedom came to these shores, suffered and persevered, and then gave thanks that they survived disease and hunger and despair, and had the will and the vision to create a new life for themselves and their children. Finally, each of us remembers family traditions, personal memories of joyful blessings when the family was together to savor and celebrate a bountiful feast. One of our Watertown luminaries, Lydia Maria Child, who we remember for the song, Over the River, celebrated Thanksgiving with more than 30 family acquaintances in Medford when she was growing up there with her family, including her brother, Convers Francis, our former minister. She recalls these celebrations as the one happy time in her otherwise miserable childhood. So, the holiday arrives, and we recall personal memories, the traditions that inform our lives, and the celebrations that make us happy, even if only for a day.
Yet each of these Thanksgiving memories may have a curse attached to it. What if we recall a miserable childhood like Lydia Maria Child? Is one big dinner a year enough to redeem an otherwise lonely or loveless life? Do we really want to give thanks for such an occasion, when we actually feel like cursing the family members who either ignore us or treat us poorly, just as Child could not be grateful for a mother who was worn out and ill, or a father who ignored her, or couldn’t deal with her independent spirit. But perhaps the fact that she was ignored, and left to her own devices helped foment that independent spirit. Sometimes what we thought was the perfect job or relationship turns out to be less than attractive. Even as we ponder our national symbol of pilgrims struggling to find religious freedom, or reflect on that bounty we have, curses jump out there as well. When we hold up the Pilgrims, we are also reminded of the Native Americans and how they suffered at the hands of the pioneers. Longfellow’s depiction of a mild mannered Miles Standish hardly jives with the mercenary who exterminated the natives. Then the bounty also reminds us that others are hungry, and we have a responsibility to see that they are cared for. Each blessing we acknowledge reminds us of larger cultural or societal tragedies.
Who is being admitted to Harvard University has been in the news recently, with the issue of whether the school discriminates against Asian applicants. I have a fair amount of loyalty to my own alma mater, Bates College. Bates and Harvard had a connection through the life of Peter Gomes, the former minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church and author who died a few years back. Gomes once gave a sermon on making choices. He told how he was rejected by his first choice of school, Bowdoin College. At the time he was crushed, and thought he would never get over it, or achieve all that he hoped for in life. Most of us realize in retrospect that whatever we want to achieve in life is usually accomplished through hard work and personal vision, and not the reputation of a school. Gomes said that at the time, it did not matter what his second choice was, because, as he said, “it wasn’t my first choice, and they didn’t choose me.” Years later Gomes was asked to speak at a special anniversary celebration at Bowdoin. When the president of Bowdoin introduced Gomes by saying it was his first visit to the school, Gomes had to correct him. “On my first visit, you chose not to accept me. . . But your choice enabled me to make my choice, which was to go to Bates, where I was so well educated that I am now able to speak to you today.” His curse became his blessing. In 2011 Bates decided to name its college chapel, the Gomes Memorial Chapel.
My experience was similar to that of Gomes, and I ended up at Bates as well. Now many years later I am grateful that I did, for I found the most dedicated teachers imaginable in a challenging and stimulating dialogue of learning. Can we make our apparent curses into opportunities for blessings? Gomes took his rejection, and said, “Your choice enabled me to make my choice.” Who knows if Bowdoin would have been a blessing or a curse for Gomes, but his set back enabled him to make a choice that was truly a blessing on his life. He can say it was a good thing I was rejected because I never would have known this other experience I came to love.
Our reading today was the familiar story from India, “That is Good”. The king had a very annoying assistant who had a strange habit.. Whatever happened, he would always respond by saying, “that is good.” Then saying it after something bad occurred resulted in his being fired. After his capture, and the specter of sacrifice befell him, the king was saved by his defect. They could not sacrifice an imperfect being, and so they cut the ropes and let him go. It was good that he lost the toe. As the assistant had said, “There is always some good to come out of things your highness.” And so the king brought him back to advise him. My father had a similar experience to this. His curse was that he was born with a tumor in his left arm that made his fingers shorter. It was enough of a disability to give him the draft classification of 4F when it came time to serve in the World War II. His service on local civilian defense teams may have saved his life.
While UUs would be loathe saying that there is some higher good that God has planned, we do know from our own experiences that even in the midst of tragedy some good is found. People rally around those they love. They help out. They build deeper connections. Some good is found in the nature of our response to these seeming curses. We could say that what I really wanted in life was taken away from me, and what has happened is horrible and will destroy me. Or we can take that rejection or curse, and use it as the building block for a blessing. Having a child with autism may seem like a curse, and it is endlessly trying, but we can make the best of any circumstances we find ourselves in, as they challenge us in new ways. Each of us is limited in the number of options we have, and that is what gives us the freedom to make the choice of a blessing. How can we achieve gratitude, with whatever remains after the losses? Even those in prison can exercise their freedom by deciding how they will respond to the imprisonment. It was said of Nelson Mandela that during all the years of imprisonment in South Africa for conscience’s sake, he was the only free person in the country. As Peter Gomes realized, our blessings in life come not from the reputation of a college, or the name brand of a product, but from our willingness to act on what options have been given to us. We can make that school we didn’t want into the one that gives us the best education we could possibly have, maybe even by the power of our own effort and attitude. Even if life frequently presents us with losses or failures that seem like curses, there is the simple power each of us has to bless or curse the life around us.
There are many things within our normal routines of life to which we can give either a blessing or a curse. To give your blessing to something means that you support it or look with favor upon it. This is easy to do when you are in favor of a plan or a person’s behavior, but less so when you do not smile upon what is going on. We all know this power in our personal lives. There are choices children make with their lives, such as whether to go to college or not. What if they decide to open a restaurant rather than be a journalist as my son did? Can a parent give the blessing to the child, if the child does not do exactly as the parent hoped or wished for? I knew several people who entered seminary to become ministers to live out the acceptable way they could attain their father’s blessing, Most ended up regretting that decision. It is difficult to watch children make choices of job or partner that we may disapprove of, as we always want it to be what we perceive as the right decision. But is it up to us to decide which is right, and can we bless one that does not fulfill our expectation?
Maybe the test is for the feminist to love the girl who wants dolls, and the academic to love the child who would rather play, and not study. The list goes on and on. Can we bless a child who does not want to play ball, but prefers music? Can we bless a partner who wants to go back to school or change jobs, and can we bless a partner when the vows of the marriage forces us to deal with for worse, rather than for better.
Life asks each of us what will we do with the gifts that are given to us. When we suffer some kind of curse, some loss or failure, can we use our gifts to find a blessing in what we have? Can we use our freedom to bless our intelligence, our perseverance, our warmth of heart, and use those gifts to create a blessing out of our lives. The misfortunes we suffer reveal the loyalty of our friends. The problems we encounter awaken our imagination and call forth renewed efforts from us. The conflicts we are embroiled in, help us discover our ability to be forthright and state what we want, and may heal a relationship with the use of honesty and forgiveness. Even our defeats help us acknowledge that we are not perfect, and that our imperfections make us more human and more loveable to others. And finally, while the passing years remind us of our mortality, and the loss of strength, the fleeting time also reminds us how precious life is, and that its blessings must be seen and felt each day.
And so we give a rousing blessing for all those things that we would not have wanted to happen, all those curses, for they are the very stuff of how we have grown and discovered and lived. We come to know that the blessing, which is our life, is made up of the curses we have learned from and overcome and built upon in the journey we are on. And this might make each of us a little more gentle with each other – when a church does something we don’t approve of, or a child take a different college or career path than the one we might have chosen, or someone we love is going through a difficult time, then we might remember that all of us encounter so many curses in life – rejections, failures, difficulties, that the power we have to give a blessing to another is especially welcome. In the Bible, Jacob has to wrestle with the angel, and ends up injuring his leg in order to receive a blessing. The blessing comes from the pain of surviving the ordeal. So may Thanksgiving remind each of us that we have the power within us to bless the world, and the world needs us to do so again and again. No matter what has befallen us, we can shape our response, we can realize our freedom, and affirm the beauty in each of us, and in the world, and say, it is blessed.
Closing Words – from Rebecca Parker – “Choose to Bless the World”
Your gifts-whatever you discover them to be-
Can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world
Can take you into solitude
To search for the sources
Of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith. . .