Advent 1 – 12-1–2019 – St. Paul’s
Robots have been around for a while. A long while. At least the concept of robots. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians had visions of artificial companions, servants and soldiers. Dragon’s teeth might be sown in a field and soldiers would pop up to defend the gods. Vulcan forged handmaidens out of gold. And so on.In recent history, robots have also captured the imagination of us mortals. Slowly, mechanical servants have become a part of our mundane lives. Machines wash our clothes and dishes with little human interaction. Robots have been programmed to work in factories and have replaced human workers on assembly lines.
In the 1950s, humanoid robots usually looked like tin men and had a funnel or colander on their heads. The Star Wars franchise brought to the screen the most lovable robots of all time: R2-D2 and C-3PO. RoboCop (1987, 2014) generated debate as to the extent that robots could replace humans in vital roles. Thirty years after the 1987 movie, robocops are patrolling the streets in Dubai.
Millions of non-humanoid robots are vacuuming carpets in households around the world.And now, a robot priest in Germany is blessing worshipers in five languages.If there’s one occupation impervious to automation, surely it’s the priesthood, right? You can’t simply remove the pastor from his or her role and insert a robot made of metal, plastic and circuit boards. For one thing, robots could be very difficult to fit for a robe; the stole would keep sliding off the shoulders as well. Could you program a robot to tell bad jokes? And then there are denominational concerns. Would a Presbyterian robot differ in appearance and function from that of a Missouri Synod Lutheran robot?
And yet …
In Germany, a robot has been developed to offer blessings to congregants. It’s called BlessU-2 — which sounds like it might be a robot that says gesundheit every time you sneeze. It’s German, after all.
Instead, the robot will bless you, upon request. It’s made from the body of an ATM machine. It’s activated by a touch screen on its chest. It gives you the option of hearing your blessing in a male or female voice. It asks you the language you’d like to hear — German, English, French, Spanish or Polish.Then, BlessU-2 raises its robot arms and pronounces a blessing.
Another robot, SanTO listens to confession, recites Bible verses and has been used successfully in nursing homes to provide comfort and assistance to the elderly Robots are not unique to Christianity. In Beijing, Xian’er is a robot that chants mantras and dispenses Buddhist wisdom to temple worshipers. There’s no word yet about rabbi robots or imam robots.
Perhaps the robot priest would utter some of the blessings found in the Psalm for today.
Unless a robot is developed that could hop in a self-driving car and make house calls, you are never going to receive a robot blessing if you stay home.
Someone evidently said to the psalmist, Hey, let’s go to temple today. And the psalmist replied, Great idea! And later, he wrote this little song, the lyrics of which begin, I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’ (v. 1). This sounds genuine. He really was truly glad.
This is noteworthy because I wonder if this is the honest emotion of the heart and mind in many for whom church has become something of an obligation. Have we lost the glad part of worship? How is glad expressed? Can we tell if a person is glad? The glad part is generated deep within our souls, not only — perhaps not even primarily — because of our love for God, but because we anticipate eagerly our interaction and connections with others who will likewise be worshiping God with us.
Studies have repeatedly underscored the value of the physical, emotional and psychological health of churchgoers compared to non-churchgoers. A new study by Pew Research has found that people who practice a religion are happier and more engaged in their communities than the rest of the population. That sounds like glad.
So “glad” is not always about God; being happy is not just about God — it’s about others.
If the congregation, then, is grumpy and gloomy, a lot of people are not likely to be glad, and if people are not glad, going to church is a practice that is not sustainable for the long term. And if they don’t go to church, they’re missing out on a blessing. No blessing from a robot. No blessing from a priest. No blessing from a friend. They’re missing a blessing.
Being with the company of the faithful results in blessing and it results in gladness of heart and spirit. So, I wonder what is the glad index of St. Paul’s? Do we need a robot to dispense some blessings, or can we handle this without the robot? Can we have a robot-free church, or is our congregation so hard up for blessing resources, we need to order one of these BlessU-2 automatons?
So, since the topic is blessings, and we are absent a robot, let’s see what happens without a robot. We will use our psalm for today as our model.
Here’s a blessing from verse 6: May they prosper who love you.
The you in this sentence, of course, is Jerusalem. The writer hopes that there will be many people who will love the city of God, and wishes of prosperity for those who do. The Psalmist thinking is a sign of the high regard he has for this city — a city that is central to the plan that God has for his people.
It’s a touching thought, and one that can be carried over on a personal level. To say, May they prosper who love you, is to say that the you is valued and considered dear. It expresses a desire that all people will have a network of those who love and care for them, and that these people, in so doing, will prosper.
No one can be certain what type of prosperity the Psalmist has in mind. But clearly, when we are among those who love others, a certain kind of inner prosperity, inner health and inner well-being is sure to ensue. And the love we offer will surely bless and uplift the you of our affections and support.
A second blessing found in this psalm is Peace be within your walls (v. 7).
This blessing expresses an aspiration for the well-being of a community. The walls refer to the walls of the city. The hope is that peace may come to the neighborhoods and communities who live within these walls.
Today, we live and work in more than one community. We have the community defined by the streets and lanes of our neighborhood and the boundaries of our towns. We also have the community in our workplace and where we volunteer. And we also have our spiritual community that we find in our church. It is entirely fitting that as part of the Royal Priesthood we offer this blessing: that peace might be within these walls — the walls of community, work, service organizations and church.
The implication here is that peace is not always within these walls. Our neighborhoods are too often divided by economic and ethnic strife. Our organizations are likewise too often a source of tension rather than blessing. And, it is sad to say, even in the church community, discord and griping can be more common than love and charity.
We can be grateful to those who devote so much time and energy into promoting peace within the walls of neighborhoods, cities, workplaces and churches.
A third blessing is found in verse 8. Notice how the area is now slightly more defined. It will narrow even further with the fourth blessing. Here, however, the prayer is that there might be security within your towers (v. 7).
This is a reference to the fortifications on the walls of Jerusalem. So the focus shifts from the larger area of the walls, to specific points along the walls, namely the towers. The hope is that these towers will provide protection for weary pilgrims and refugees as well as for the citizens within the walls. The towers are symbols of security and safety.
So when the psalmist says, May security be within your towers, he is expressing the hope that Jerusalem and its refugees and inhabitants will be safe. It is important that peace is first brokered between warring parties. Without peace there can be no safety. Perhaps this is why we value peace. When we have peace, we feel safe.
Something else might be suggested here: our need to have a safe space.
And some of us more than others need our own space — a serenity space. We need a place where — even if it is only for 20-30 minutes — the world can be shut out, and we can be shut in to ourselves. Sometimes, these towers become very important. They are towers of hope and peace, places where we’re safe and can recharge.
The final blessing narrows the focus even more: May peace be within you (v. 8). The progression has moved from the community to the towers and now to the heart. Once again, the assumption is that too often peace is not within us. Something else is within us. What is within us? Anger? Bitterness? Ingratitude? Pettiness? A longstanding grudge? A lust for something or someone we cannot have? Dissatisfaction? Are these things within us?
Where is the peace?
Truth is, behind the walls of our personal lives is a reality that bears no resemblance to peace. Our relationships might be fraught with tension, uncertainty, discord and perhaps even abuse. It is also possible that many people are likely to confess that within the walls of their hearts, the emotional turbulence is terrifying.
The blessing in this psalm expresses the wish — the hope — that peace might be within our walls, security might be within our towers and that peace might be within us. God wants all of creation to have peace. Peace is a huge theme in the Bible. Jesus talks about the peace he wants to leave with us. The apostle Paul prays that the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:8).
So, my fellow Baptizees, in the absence of a robot, you may now bless this congregation:
May they prosper who love you;
May peace be within your walls;
May you have security in your towers, and
May peace be within you.
Robot blessings from a jerry-rigged ATM machine might serve a useful purpose. But there’s another truth: The church exists in part so that the people of the church can bless each other and to bring the word of peace. Peace is so huge. Without it, we cannot feel safe.
But with it, all other blessings come true
LET US PRAY:
You have made a beautiful world
Of blue skies and green fields,
Of sunlight and birdsong,
Of music and laughter.
You have made us all
To live in peace with one another.
But there is not enough peace in the world.
We pray for peace…
We pray for peace in the Middle East, peace in Venezuela
Peace in Israel and Palestine
Peace in our homes and peace in our hearts.
You have made us to live in freedom.
But there is not enough freedom in the world.
We pray for freedom…
Freedom for refugees, freedom for prisoners, freedom for slaves,
Freedom in our homes and freedom in our hearts.
You have made us to live in love.
But there is not enough love in the world.
We pray for love…
Love for the bereaved, love for the sick, love for the lonely.
Love in our homes and love in our hearts.
You come to bring us peace and freedom and love.
You make us your people.
Clothe us in truth and righteousness.
Give us sturdy shoes to walk the paths of peace
In the troubled places of the world.
Give us words of freedom.
Keep us faithful.
Keep us prayerful.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you can have faith;
whether or not you are cynical or despairing,
hope-filled or hope-less:
what matters to God is simply that you are here.
We are entering the time of Advent,
in preparation for Christmas.
Advent reminds us that if God is to be born again
in the most ordinary parts of our world and our lives
that we need prepare for it.
We need to make the space in our lives
where love might be born.
Welcome to this tiny corner of a harsh and dark world.
Together, let us practice being ready
in the faith that Christ will come.
Invitation to the Offering
If this Advent is to be about more than going through the motions, then we must get ready for the Prince of Peace in new and radical ways. What can we do to signal our readiness for the coming of Christ into this very place? We can start with a total commitment of our resources and our lives to the cause of God’s peace in the world. When we give our financial gifts to the ministry of this church, the benefits travel widely through the connections of our denomination, but nowhere is the impact greater than in our own hearts. I invite you to use this time of offering as an opportunity to get ready for Christ’s arrival.
To all the corners of the world,
God is bringing God’s blessing.
Be ready! Watch!
For the time is near; Salvation is at hand.
As we go forth in peace in the arms and love of God
and with the Blessing of God Almighty…