I hope that you all are having a blessed morning so far today!
This week, I’ve been pondering the idea of “blessings”.
One of the things I love about what we do here at Christ Church is how much we take time to proclaim God’s blessing: we share birthday blessings, we share anniversary blessings, we do prayer shawl blessings, among others. Today’s Gospel reading from Luke even ended with the familiar words: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And, of course, we say that blessing every week as part of the Eucharistic Prayer, right after the Sanctus (the Holy, Holy, Holy part).
Sharing God’s blessing is an integral part of our worship and, frankly, our life as Christians.
But as I pondered that idea of blessing and “being blessed” a little bit more, I stumbled into bigger issues about the way our society often defines those terms.
It’s quite common in our society—especially in the South—to hear in answer to the question “How are you?”… “I am blessed.” In fact, I’ve become quite fond of the answer one person in our parish gives me every time I ask her “How are you.” Her answer is always “Blessed by the Lord, and so are you.”
But there is a potential problem with our use of this phrase.
Kate Bowler, a Professor of Christian History at Duke University, wrote a book called Blessed. Bowler explains that in the last decade or two in American culture, “‘being blessed’ has become a full-fledged American phenomenon. Being blessed has become a “loaded term”, Bowler says, because of the way many Americans—especially many Christians—use it. On the one hand, “blessed” indicates a recognized gift —as in: “Thank you God, because I never could have gotten this gift on my own!” But on the other hand, she says that “blessed” is also used like it’s a deserved reward, as in: “Thank you, me, for being the kind of person who gets it right, and deserves what I get!” This is the danger of “blessing” and “being blessed” in our society. There is this popular theology that has cropped up in recent years that says, more or less, God will give you health and wealth if you have the right kind of faith.
If you believe the right way…
If you worship the right way…
If you give the right way…
God will bless you with abundance.
God will give you all that you ask.
God will bless you.
But in that theology, God’s blessing is not grace, it’s a transaction. And that is a very different view of blessing from what Christianity has traditionally taught.
For some people, I suppose, this may actually be a comforting image of how things work with God, so I can see why this would be a popular idea. It gives people a guarantee: “Follow the rules and God will give you your reward!” It also fits well with our American ethos. Work hard and you will be rewarded.
Of course, the problem with this system of belief comes when people follow the rules and they still get sick. Follow the rules, and still lose their jobs. Follow the rules, and still come into a broken relationship. Follow the rules and still have a loved one who is hurting and estranged.
So, the question is, can you still be “blessed” and have all earthly rewards and earthly pleasures stripped away?
This theology of “transactional blessings” tries to instill certainty in our earthly lives. But the truth is, life often hands us a lot of uncertainty and questioning. But that’s okay. Because I think we can still be blessed in the midst of our uncertainty. In fact, I believe those are the times when our blessings are the most powerful.
In the Book of Genesis that we read today, we get the story of Abram, who was the beneficiary of God’s covenant—God’s blessing.
Despite Abram’s advanced age, God had promised him that he would have descendants. Abram had traveled from his home in Ur to Canaan, then Egypt, and back to Canaan. He has waited for years, but yet he still has no children. He is becoming uncertain about how God is going to fulfill this covenant.
So, Abram asks: “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” He further explains: “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
But God says to him: “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” God then brings him outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He then says to Abram: “So shall your descendants be.”
The text tells us that Abram believes God, and the Lord reckons Abram as righteous.
The Lord then offers the land for Abram to possess. And Abram immediately asks: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I am to possess it?”
I think this is one of the most important verses for us to ponder when it comes to the question of blessing. Abram has just been judged righteous by God for his belief. Abram has just been shown the stars—by God—and promised that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. In short, Abram is the model of a covenant believer for us.
And what does Abram do in response?
ABRAM STILL QUESTIONS!
For us, we don’t even usually have the benefit of these clear-cut conversations with God about our futures, do we?
If we are hoping to get a promotion at work, we don’t usually have God come to us, take us outside and say: “look around, here’s my promise to you—I’m going to give you as many promotions as there are birds feeding off the herring in Richardson Bay!”
That’s not how this works.
We don’t get that kind of certainty.
But what do we get?
As we heard last week from our Bishop, we get the blessing of “God among us.”
Looking back at the Genesis story, when Abram asks how he shall know he will possess the land, the Lord instructs him to gather animals for the sacrifice. This part of the story refers to a covenantal practice in the Ancient Near East, where animals would be halved, and the person engaging in the covenant would pass through the middle of the carcasses. By passing through, the party was saying: “If I don’t keep my end of the bargain, may I suffer the same fate as this animal.”
In the Genesis story, Abram did not have to pass through the carcasses, but the Lord, as represented by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch, took on that obligation. In other words, God is willing to be self-sacrificial to answer our questions, to calm our doubts, and to bring us to peace.
Abram slept a deep sleep as God fulfilled the covenant. Abram did not gain the covenant because of unquestioning belief. Abram questioned constantly and God kept the covenant despite his questions.
God was there for Abram.
And God will be there for us — despite our questions.
In fact, I believe God was there for Abram because of his questions.
And God will also be there for us because of our questions.
Kate Bowler, the author of the Blessed book I mentioned earlier, also wrote a memoir entitled “Everything happens for a reason, and other lies I’ve loved.” In addition to being a professor of Christian history at Duke University, Kate is a 36-year-old wife and mother of a toddler. Last year, she discovered she had stage 4 cancer with a massive tumor. In her memoir, Kate reflects on the inevitability of her death and the lack of control in her life. She says that cancer “has kicked down the walls” of her life. She writes: “I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny.” But she also points out that “cancer has ushered in new ways of being alive.” She asserts: “In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered, and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard . . . .
I think the events in New Zealand this past week remind us all, yet again, that there is evil in the world. Even if you believe the right thing and do the right thing, life is so hard. Life is not fair.
And . . . in the midst of it, we can still affirm that we are blessed.
In the midst of last week’s tragedy, we are blessed when we see Jewish communities reaching out in compassion and love for Muslim communities that have been ravaged by the effects of hate and violence. Just as we saw Muslim communities reach out to a Jewish community in Pittsburgh last year after they were ripped apart by the same evil.
We are blessed through our love of one another . . . just as Christ loved us.
We are blessed in the Holy sacraments, through which we are able to participate in outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace.
We are blessed when we laugh together. We are blessed when we cry together.
We are blessed in community.
And we are blessed in uncertainty.
We are blessed because we can remind each other always that God is with us, among us, and that through us God’s love is taken into the world. So, as we continue on our Lenten journey, as we are blessed, may we also be a blessing to others. Amen.