The Architecture of Blessing
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
All Saints Day • November 6, 2016
Some here today have an amazing history: they have been members for more than 50 years. We recognize and honor such long-term commitment and bless you for your steady, sure faithfulness. Then there are those of us who are newer members, who came here for a whole host of different reasons and have become part of this historic congregation. And of course, there is Rosemary, our newest participant: Rosie’s never been to another church. God blends us together, bakes us in the day to day of living our faith, and makes something wonderful: the bread of life.
Blessed by Our Building
One of the many things that bind us together is this building. Take a moment to look around; if you can, look over the side of your pew and see if there isn’t a plaque there remembering someone. Next year will mark 100 years since the groundbreaking for this building. But I’m sure it began long before that moment. The architect of the building was Albert W. Fuller. Fuller started training in 1873, 44 years before that ground-breaking. When did Fuller first imagine the building that became our church: did he always have the idea or did it come to him after he was commissioned? No one can really know. But surely long before he drew the plans, long before he showed the committee, he must have had a vision in his mind. Fuller imagined something unique and wonderful. “Greek Revival,” the style of the building, was not an obvious choice. He specified steel beams which allowed us to have this great, open area, at the time the largest open space in a building in Albany. He designed the pillars out front and I’m sure many other parts of the building. And when the building was constructed, I suspect Fuller inspected each step. The result is this wonderful space in which we worship. I never met Fuller; he died in 1934. I suspect none of you met him either. But every Sunday, we benefit from his imagination, his vision. We gather and we are blessed by what he did. He is an essential part of what we do, whether we always remember that or not. His vision blesses us with this wonderful place to meet.
All Saints Sunday
Today is a special day in our worship calendar, called “All Saints Sunday”. What is a saint? It translates a word in the Bible that means “chosen”. Saints are people chosen to accomplish a mission for God’s people. Some church traditions name their saints in particular and even have a bureaucratic process for identifying them. Our fathers and mothers in the faith believed, and we believe, all God’s people are saints: all have a purpose, a vocation, from God. One way to describe that vocation is to simply say: we are meant to be a blessing, every single one of us. Our purpose is to be a mutual blessing.
This was God’s plan from the beginning. Right in Genesis, right at creation, it says that God blessed the first human beings. Later, when God began to work in history through Abram and Sarai, God’s said, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3] Today we read one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel, often called the Beatitudes, the blessings. Both Matthew and Luke record similar sets of blessings, as does the Gospel of Thomas. When I first learned them, I thought them quite strange because the people teaching at the time suggested they were prescriptions, things we should do. But who wants to do this?
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Wow. Who wants to be hungry? Who wants to weep? Who wants to be excluded, hated, reviled? This is what we should do? This is what Christ wants us to do? No thanks, not me.
The Beatitudes: Descriptive
Only later did I recognize that these blessings—and woes!—aren’t a prescription, a set of duties; they are a description. Just as Fuller imagined the architecture of this meeting house, Jesus is asking us to imagine what life looks like when we live with God ruling our lives. Jesus is describing the architecture of spiritual life. The word itself means an inner joy, a soul lit up and shining. God means to light the world in a way that makes our souls lift with praise and joy.
Those are great moments; I hope you’ve had many. But we also know not every moment is like that. There are hard moments as well, dark moments, times when the cold wind of depression blows through us like a damp November moving in. So Jesus is describing those realities here and imagining with the disciples how blessing works. Blessing happens when there is nothing in the way, when we aren’t distracted by things: in other words when we are poor. Just as hunger moves us to eat and, if we are fortunate, find sustenance, when we are empty we are thankful for being filled. That’s a spiritual reality as well as a physical one. So when we feel empty, we should live in the confidence that God we will be filled. There is a rhythm to spiritual life, times of vision and blindness, times of blessing—and woe. Jesus mentions these as well.
If this is a description of the architecture of blessing, what is Jesus teaching his disciples to do? What does he hope we will do. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, says, “You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.” How do we participate? That’s the function of the final section in this reading. Jesus says five things.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you want to understand these, imagine a parent with a child.
My older daughter, Amy, thought it was fun when she was little to surprise me by running and jumping into my arms. It was fun when she was little; as she got older and bigger it was harder. The last time she did it she was about 11, she took a couple steps of running, leaped, and I just caught her, at which point she knocked me over and I hit my head. There was a moment of silence until she said, “Are you ok?” and I waited for the stars I was seeing to go away and said, “Yes but I think we need to stop doing this.” Now I know everyone who has a child eventually has bruises: would you hit the child back? Of course not. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” You can see where this is going: when did your child take your coat and leave you shivering? When did they take something—and it never would have occurred to you to ask for it back.
What Jesus is offering is the architecture of blessing: this is what it looks like, this is how it works, because this is how God is with us. This is what makes blessing take hold, grow, blossom and bear fruit. It begins when we choose to imagine the best in each other; it grows as we practice appreciating others and seeing each one as God’s blessing. It blossoms as we every day do unto others as we would have them do to us—a way of recognizing that we are both God’s children, both called to be a means of blessing here.
I asked our church historian, John Dennehey, to help me with this sermon because he’s so knowledgeable. I asked him about the building but he wrote back something I didn’t know that was so much more inspiring. He said,
the original plan wasn’t to leave the downtown. The church had a membership made up of the well-to-do in the city nd the church owned its own building which was prominently located near Albany’s City Hall and the “new” State Capital Building…
However the church was contacted by residents in this area because residents were running a Sunday school on Ontario Street and wanted to “connect” with an actual church. All the other churches turned them down. Our church not only agreed to affiliate, but also made it our mission to send the minster and a deacon (sometimes more) to lead the Sunday School.
At this time, the neighborhood was outside the city limits and the only Trolley stopped by Lake Avenue and the CDPC requiring a bit of a trek ..(especially while hauling Sunday School books).
Eventually, the discussion among church members led to the proposal to develop a satellite “chapel” in this neighborhood where services could be held following the services downtown. …it was evident that the community here needed a real commitment and an actual “church” rather than an informal “chapel.”
Church leaders had many discussions about the pros and cons of relocation. One of the big “cons” was that the “well to do” members wouldn’t find the new church as easily accessible, even with the best of intentions, to attend as frequently as possible. Hence, the huge risk involved (no church likes to lose prominent members with deep pockets).
Those church members had to make a choice and they chose to bless future generations, people they didn’t know, future saints. Who are these future saints? Us: you and I, fifty-year members all the way to people like Rosie and I who are pretty new. They did what Jesus said: treated us the way they would want to be treated. Now it’s up to us to continue that blessing. We also are called on to make choices; we also have the opportunity to bless the future as they did.
For All the Saints
This morning, as you came in, you were invited to note the name of someone who especially blessed your life, some saint who helped you and perhaps helped you find faith. Living faith is not something you can order online or buy at a store; it is not something that comes gift wrapped like a sweater at Christmas. It is something given hand to hand, passed on person to person. It is the blessing that comes from imagining what hasn’t happened. It is the blessing of saying “thank you”, appreciating what has been done to allow us to be here, to do what we do, to go forward together. It is remembering in our imagination those past Saints and imagining the ones to come. The most important imagining is when we imagine someone as a child of God. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone, especially if you don’t know them. It’s easy to look away or ignore them, or rant in your head. It’s harder to see them as Jesus sees them, as God sees them, as a blessing waiting to blossom. But each one is exactly that. You are; I am. And together, with all the others, past and present—and future!—we are “All Saints”. Together, we can be the architects of blessing.
A special thanks to John Dennehey, church historia at First Congregational Church of Albany, for his help with this sermon.