January 29, 2017: "The Nature of Blessing"
“The Nature of Blessing”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12
Today I want to have a conversation about the nature of blessing. I want to do this because in the church and world today, the understanding of blessing has been weakened, cheapened, even declawed. Something that was originally meant to be a sign of God’s goodness and love has been turned into a word of congratulations for those who have good jobs, nice cars, and full stomachs. Something that originally meant the difference between life and death has been turned into art that hangs on our walls, decorates our clothing, and makes for nice jewelry and catchy bumperstickers. Most startling of all is that what was originally meant to inspire hope in the hopeless and joy in the joyless is now used to pat ourselves on the back because we’ve hit the top, got the promotion, picked up the newest gadget, or enjoy the easiest life.
We’ve all said it before and we’ve heard others say the same: “I’m blessed,” “This is a blessing,” “You are blessed,” “What a blessing.” The other day I even saw the word ‘blessed’ stenciled in rhinestones across the back of someone’s jeans. Along with words like ‘love,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘forgiveness,’ and ‘grace,’ blessing is a word of faith that lends itself easily to car magnets, cross-stitched pillows and pictures. Blessed is the name now taken by those who become super-Christians, those who get exactly what they want or need because they have figured out the right formula for prayer or worship or giving money. On the flip, if you can’t call yourself blessed and other folks can’t call you blessed either, there must be something wrong with; you didn’t the memo or wear the right color or pray the right thing. In modern church and society blessing or blessings are thought of as something that we earn or we don’t, that we are worthy of or not, that we either deserve or we don’t.
This is a problem. Our current understanding of blessing really has nothing to do with God. It’s all about ego. For example, I might slapped a bumpersticker on my new car that says ‘Blessed’ because I want people know that I’m doing well and God is on my side. I might put pillows all around my house that say ‘Blessed’ because then maybe people won’t notice that my house, emotionally and physically is a mess. I might say something like, “I’m too blessed to be stressed,” because I’m not ready to fess up that things aren’t really that good. It’s all about ego, and ego is about me and not about God. When it becomes all about me, or all about you, and not about God, we lose the very thing Jesus Christ came into the world to give us: hope and life abundant. Where is the good news of the Gospel if we associate blessing only with things that can be bought or worn or shown off, or used to cover up who and what we really are?
In the Bible, there are many types of writing: poetry, history, songs, hymns, and prophecy. But all these, for the most part, fall into two categories—they are either descriptive or prescriptive.
Think about the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Seven of the ten commandments begin with the phrase, “You shall not…” and the other three include those words in some other way. The Ten Commandments are a prescriptive Scripture, telling the people of Israel, and you me, what we are to do and what we are to avoid. God is usually the one speaking these kinds of texts in the Bible, though Jesus spoke like this too when he taught the disciples to pray, when he taught them how to give money, and when he taught them how to fast. Prescriptive texts tell us what to do.
Descriptive texts, on the other hand, are not interested in telling us what to do. The gospel lesson today falls into this category, and we call the words The Beatitudes. Instead of starting each statement with “You shall…” or “You shall not…”, Jesus opens with “Blessed are…” the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and so on. Rather than directing what the disciples are to do and to avoid, The Beatitudes are Jesus’s way of teaching the disciples what to see. From their place on top of the mountain, Jesus is asking that the disciples open their eyes and open them in a new way. Jesus is saying to the disciples, "If you want to know the true nature of blessing, look at these people."
The Beatitudes are a new way of seeing because the people that are included are not folks we usually think of as blessed. First, the poor in spirit. These are people who recognize their spiritual poverty and deep, deep need for God, sometimes labeled as religious fanatics or unintelligent. Then, those who mourn, who mourn for the death of loved ones, the death of loved traditions or security, or who mourn that this world is so far from what God imagined at the start. Next are the meek, who are like the poor in spirit: humble, soft-spoken, gentle. Then, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, those who yearn deep down to the very depths of their stomachs to be in line with the will of God. Next, the merciful, who turn the other cheek, give their coat to someone who is without, extend forgiveness when it would feel better to get violent. Then, the pure in heart, who don’t shove faith and religion in your face, but practice it quietly and store up their treasures in heaven. Next, peacemakers, who seek reconciliation with others inside and outside of the community. Then, the persecuted, beaten and bloodied and spit on because they dare call on the name of Jesus Christ. Finally, those who have lost their reputation because they made the choice to follow Jesus.
These are not folks we usually think of as blessed. They are powerless, weak, unpopular, and even a bit foolish. But these are the folks that Jesus wanted the disciples to see. These are the people God holds in a special place in his heart because they are the people who are bringing the kingdom to earth. These are the people God counts on to make the world a more just and peaceful place. These are the people God counts on to spread the good news of love. They are people who live and work in such a unique and counter-cultural way that everyone has to take notice and wonder. They are messengers, heralds, who do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. They might not look like much to us, but to God they are finer than precious silver and gold, more valuable than all the jewels the earth could form. In God’s eyes they are blessed.
And because they live and move have their being in ways that God blesses, a lot is waiting for them. Some will claim the kingdom of God as their own. Some will inherit the earth. Some will see God. The mourners will be comforted; the merciful will receive mercy; the peacemakers will be called children of God; the hungry and thirsty for righteousness will be filled. It may not happen right away, and it may not happen as they expect. But one day, in God’s divine timing, these blessed people will receive a reward for how they lived, for how they witnessed to God’s amazing love, and for how they endured pain and suffering and kept on running the race God set before them.
Being blessed and receiving great rewards from God has nothing to do with what these people have, what they buy, or the pretty veneer they slather onto themselves in order to look good. These people are blessed because God says so. These people are blessed because they live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. This is what the Jesus wanted the disciples to see and he wants us to see the same.
This is tremendously good news for us today. We often approach The Beatitudes as an impossible challenge for ordinary living that only the saints can hope to accomplish. We wait for occasional figures like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, or Desmund Tutu to come along and show us the way. In the meantime, the world does not get any better, and we remain unfulfilled in our pale expression of Christian faith. But remember, that is not what they are—The Beatitudes are not telling us what do...they are telling us what to see. Living into The Beatitudes involves looking out into the wide world to see those who are blessed because of what they are doing. It is a call to open our eyes to see the poor in spirit who have given it all up for God; to open our eyes to mourners who want nothing more than a better life and a better world. It is a call to open our eyes to the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers; it is a call to see the persecuted and the pure in heart. In seeing, we will have hope, and that hope will begin to form us into those who are poor in spirit, merciful, seekers of a better world, and peacemakers. Then we, too, will be blessed.
This is freedom. It is freedom because we can give up our false notions of blessing and just look around at what God is doing already. We don't have to keep a list of what we did right and what we did wrong, how we fulfilled God's commands or how we didn't. That's not the way of faith and it is not the way of God. God is not in the business of keeping tally, and we should not be either. Instead, we should stop spending so much time trying to look good, to God and to each other and to ourselves, and start spending more time looking for good. It won't be in pictures or cute pillows or bumper stickers; it won’t be bedazzled on jeans or in every green light we hit on the way to work or in the front row parking spot at the store. That’s not blessing. Blessing is found on the lips of those who put their whole faith and trust in God. Blessing is found in the tears of those who weep and in the humility of the meek. Blessing is found where there are peacemakers and where there is peace, even when that peace was hard to win. Blessing is found when reputations are destroyed and nasty words are spoken, all for the sake of Jesus Christ. Blessings are found when it seems that there are no blessings at all: in other people, in this world, in you, and in me.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, believe the good news of the Gospel today: God’s blessings don’t depend on us, they depend on God. And God is generous. Open your eyes and look all around, and you will see God’s blessings in quantities too large to count. Open your eyes and see those God blesses, and start to live as they do. Then, you will possess the kingdom of heaven, where is no more pain and no more suffering and no more tears. You will be comforted with a peace that passes all understanding. You will inherit the earth, the beautiful creation that God lovingly created out of nothing. You will be filled, not with bread and drink, but with the bread of life and the cup of salvation that never runs dry. You will be looked upon with mercy and grace, and you will see God. You will be called a child of God, named and claimed every moment you are alive. And you will rejoice and you will be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
May it be so for you and for me, today and always. Amen.