Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12
I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.
Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?
We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.
With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood.
The sustaining nature of blessing leads us to a famous grandmotherly axiom: “count your blessings.” This is great advice and we should follow it. But the idea of “counting” them can lead us down the path of deciding that we have more or less blessings than someone else. And the moment we start such comparison, competition begins, and envy is the only result.
To protect against this all-too-human reaction, we must realize that we count our blessings simply so we remain aware of them. God’s blessing is available to everyone without limit or measure, always and forever. Yet it is precisely these qualities of constancy and vastness that make blessings so hard to see. We enumerate our blessings so we don’t take them for granted. We only notice the sustenance God provides when we take the time to count our blessings and give thanks for them.
Constancy and vastness are not the only reasons we have trouble noticing our blessings. Our modern parlance has falsely equated the concept of blessing with the concept of luck. In an effort to counteract this false equivalency, my spiritual director whom I mentioned last week always said: “Don’t say you’re lucky; say you’re blessed.” Luck ascribes things to chance. Blessing ascribes them to God. People talk about good luck and bad luck. But there’s no such thing as bad blessing. There are bad situations and tragedies, but no bad blessings.
Indeed, it is the small, often hidden blessings that persist through tragedy that allow us to come out the other side. Such hidden blessings are the incubators of hope. In the midst of tragedy, hope tends to be the farthest thing from our minds, but it is still there – broken, perhaps, or fragile and fetal, but alive. The difference between luck and blessing is this hope: subscribe to a life of luck and hope rides on the flip of a coin, but subscribe to a life of blessing and hope rides on the steadfastness of God.
Thus, another thing separates luck from blessing, and that is permanence. Luck is fleeting, if it exists at all. But every blessing is permanent, no matter how quickly they may come or go. “Blessings sink down to the bedrock of the soul and stack up around it like the rocky debris that civil engineers use to keep river currents from eroding bridge supports.”* As the daily currents of life, not to mention the surging waters of tragedy, rush past us, our sunken blessings keep us from being swept away. We count our blessings, give thanks, and then they settle in our deepest parts, keeping us anchored to the God who names us blessed.
But sustenance is only the first half of blessing. The other half is mission, which is where blessing intersects with the giftedness we talked about last week. Our gifts become blessings when we use them to help others. When God blesses someone in the Bible, a mission comes attached with the blessing. The book of Genesis tells us, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:1-2).
God blesses Abraham and Sarah, and they indeed became blessings in the world. From their witness and family sprang the faith that “all of God is in every place.” God was not chained to a particular place or feature of the landscape. God was everywhere, which meant you could encounter God’s blessings in all places, and not just in certain locales proscribed by a religious elite. It was a revolutionary idea that changed the world. It was so revolutionary that we still struggle to remember its truth today.
Speaking of today, in our Gospel lesson, Jesus preaches some pretty revolutionary words of his own. We call them the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. Thinking in terms of sustenance, I find it hard to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Nearly every one of them is linked to the future, to the fragile, fetal hope we mentioned earlier. But when we think of blessing in terms of mission – of participation with God to bring healing and reconciliation to the world – then the Beatitudes clarify.
“Blessed are you,” says Jesus to the poor in spirit; the meek; the hungry and thirsty; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; the persecuted. “Blessed are you.” I think these groups are blessed because they are Jesus’ own mission. They are his special concern. They are his future and he is theirs. In his words and in his work, Jesus brings the mission of God to those he names in his Beatitudes. He is blessed by God – indeed, is the purest blessing of God – and he brings that blessing to those who never felt any before. When we claim Jesus’ missions our own, we find new reserves of blessing for ourselves and those with whom we serve. Such blessing is summed up in the mission statement we read from the prophet Micah this morning: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
We are blessed like Abraham and Sarah to be blessings in the world by doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly alongside God. We are blessed to have the opportunity to serve with those on the margins, whom Jesus called blessed. When we count our blessings, how often to do we forget to include such opportunities for service? How often do we forget it is a blessing in and of itself to shine God’s light into the dark corners of the world? It is to this light that we turn next week when our sermon series continues. In the meantime, count your blessings. And strive everyday of your life to be among the blessings counted by someone else.
*Quoted from my book Digital Disciple.