II Corinthians 13:11-13
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
There are some days when, on awakening, my first words are "bless you!" It's not because I am being pious or even expressing my affection for Isobel even on our 54th Wedding Anniversary; it is because the abbot who lives next door has woken up the Valley and me with a loud sneeze!
Why is it that we say "bless you!" to someone who has just sneezed? I went in search of an answer this past week and discovered that, according to legend, the custom began with Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century during a plague that was ravaging Rome. People who were showing signs of the plague, one of which was uncontrollable sneezing, were brought to him for healing. So the practice began: you sneeze, I bless!" That already gives us a clue to its meaning. There is, in fact, a long list of words used in virtually all languages, from Albananian to Zulu, in response to people who sneeze, and they invariably mean "may you be healthy." To be blessed is about well-being. To bless others is to pray that God will make them whole.
As children in Sunday School we use to belt out a chorus "Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done!" Back then I had little idea about what blessing really meant. I assumed we were taught the chorus to keep us grateful for mom and dad, my dog Chippy, my Mechano set and bicycle, and for food on the table. So we asked a blessing before meals, my parents gave me their blessing when I set off into the wide world, just as they gave my sister their blessing when she got married. And then on Sundays we had even more blessings when the minister blessed babies with the time honoured Aaronic words: "The Lord bless you and keep you..." And then sent us on our way with a final blessing: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!" Yes, there was every reason to count and name my blessings one by one because somehow they made you feel good. And that is another clue to its meaning. To be blessed is not only to be well, but also to be happy because you can be well but not happy. To be a blessing to others, to take it one step further, is to help make them truly happy as well.
But what is happiness? People will differ in their definitions of happiness, and philosophers have long debated its meaning. So it is not surprising that Jesus taught his followers what it truly meant for him in what we call the Beatitudes which Matthew records in his gospel. Each one begins with the Greek word makarios which literally means "happy." The happy are not the rich and powerful, but the humble peacemakers who work for God's justice in the world. The happy are the pure in heart, that is, those who seek to do what is right and good. Even those who mourn or are persecuted are called happy. Clearly Jesus has turned happiness upside down and in so doing given happiness a much deeper meaning than normally understood.
Isobel and I received a very special blessing recently from a lady named Hannah van Rensburg we don't even know. She wrote us a letter and this is what she told us. She is now 85 years old, but she was born and brought up in the Hemel en Aarde Valley on a little farm called "Dawn" -- the name of her mother. From this small farm she walked everyday along the old sand road to Braemar School, now the office of the Hamilton Russel Wine Farm, where she was taught by Aunt Chrissie Havenga. Her father, Andries de Villiers, planted the original blue gum trees along the road to provide shade for the children as they walked to and from school. Most people in the Valley, white and coloured were poor but they learnt to share what they had. Each day drinking water was brought to the farms on donkey or horse drawn carts. Her mother drove a large Cape cart pulled by Clydesdale horses to take wild and garden flowers from their farm into the hotels in Hermanus. "It was during those years" she wrote, "that a very deep love grew in my heart for the Hemel en Aarde Valley."She continued: "On or near Volmoed lived Oom Lisa and Aunt Bessie Langenhoven who took a very keen interest in this little, sickly child." Sadly, she told us: "When "Dawn" had to be sold as my parents were getting on in years, my mother, after signing the Deed of Sale and approaching "Dawn" with the cart, looked up at "Dawn" and prayed:
Dear Lord, please bless little "Dawn" and let it be a blessing to others too."
"Dawn" later became the Rudolf Steiner School and then Camphill. So how come we received this lovely letter with all its blessings. The clue came next in her letter: "When I read the Volmoed Journey (that is, the book Isobel and I wrote for the twentieth anniversary of Volmoed) I find myself once more in 'my' valley. In my mind I walk up to my 'klipkoppie' behind the old 'Dawn' homestead where I used to pick 'Painted Ladies.'" Then she exclaimed "Isn't God wonderful! Even to this day he is blessing 'Dawn' and my whole valley with his love and kindness...I am so happy to know that God has blessed Mummy's little prayer of so many years ago so beautifully. Thank you so much for looking after our beloved valley with so much love." Isn't that a remarkable letter out of the blue from a lady of 85 who lived as a child in our Valley, and whose mother asked a blessing on all who might come to live here?
When, at the end of our worship we say the grace together, we are asking for God's blessing on each of us as we leave this place in a very special sense. In doing so we turn to each other because we are saying to each in turn may God make and keep you happy and healthy, but not in any superficial way. We may not always be happy or healthy in the way we would like to be, but God's blessing goes beyond that. God's blessing rests on us in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer. God's blessing is the giving of his grace, love and Spirit for our journey no matter what might come our way. It is about health and happiness, but at a deeper level than we might first think. We do not know whether 2015 will bring us the health and happiness we would like, we hope that it will, but we also pray that as we journey into the coming days we will be blessed with grace, love and strength to live in ways that might renew our souls and help us be a blessing to others. Greet one another, as Paul says, with a holy kiss! And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And may we all have a blessed New Year.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 8th January 2015