Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impersonate? Imitate? Participate?

Have you ever wondered WHO you really are? Do you look at that face that stares back at you in the mirror and wonder ... “Who am I?” What does it mean to be “me”?

The late Peter Sellers was the exquisitely talented actor of “Pink Panther” fame along many other movies. It was said that he entered into the many characters he played so completely that he largely lost sight of who Peter Sellers was ... he was an actor who portrayed other people ... and almost nothing more.

Who are you? What does it mean to be you?

These are “existential” questions ... questions that ponder one’s existence, including one’s emotions and thoughts, decisions and actions, roles and responsibilities, the meaning and the purpose of one’s life. Somehow the word “existential” kept popping in conversations this summer. When we take time away from our ordinary duties and responsibilities, existential questions are bound to bubble to the surface of our consciousness.

“Who am I?” What does it mean to be “me”? Who are you? What does it mean to be you? To ask questions like these means that we may not always be absolutely clear about who we are? They are fair questions for which we may not have easy answers.

The German martyr of World War II, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously asked his own existential question while in residence at the Nazi concentration camp where he was later hanged for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. “Who am I?” he asked with a deep ache in his voice. Many around him saw him as strong and self-confident which was quite at odds with the frightened and lonely person he knew himself to be. He felt like a hypocrite and a weakling mocked by what he called his “lonely questions.” But what saved Bonhoeffer, ultimately, in his existential agony was knowing “whose” he was, knowing that all of his self and his life and his purpose and his meaning—and even his lonely questions—ALL of these were wrapped up in the infinitely larger reality of God’s own being to which Bonhoeffer belonged.

It’s interesting to note that God’s own self-claims of identity stand in startling contrast to any existential mumbling or moodiness we might experience. You’ll remember that when God meets Moses at the burning bush and calls him to lead God’s people out of slavery, Moses asks God: “Who shall I say has sent me?” God says: “Tell them I am who I am has sent you.” Oooo-kaaay. Apparently God doesn’t lie awake at night lost in an existential funk. I suppose if you are, as Paul Tillich said, the ground of all being, “I am” is all the calling card you need.

It is the Apostle Paul who triggers this line of thinking with his words written in his love-letter to the Christians in Philippi. As with the God who called him, we rarely think of Paul as one who struggled with his self-identity or as being overly plagued with self-doubts. It was Paul’s uber-confidence in himself and his calling that was his great strength as well as a bone of contention for his opponents.

I have known people like Paul ... and when they get a bee in their bonnet ... when they become possessed with an idea OR the TRUTH, you’d best get out of the way if you don’t want their footprints on your back.

No ... self-doubting was rarely a problem for Paul. And certainly if there was a time for self-doubting, it would have come during his own time of imprisonment, for it was from prison that Paul writes his letter to the Philippians. But unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, far from weakening his confidence, Paul’s imprisonment seems to have strengthened it. I want you to know, beloved,* Paul writes in the first chapter of Philippians, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel ... and his confidence while imprisoned has given confidence to others to proclaim the gospel “with greater boldness and without fear.”

When you read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, his deep love and affection for them is obvious. Even from a prison cell, he bubbles over them as one lover to another. The young church in Philippi has been one of Paul’s successes and it is due, in no small part, to their mutual love for each other. Paul begins his letter to the Philippians saying: I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you ... Paul has planted a seed of the gospel in their midst and he continues to be amazed at its flourishing.

But even really good people and really good churches can have their struggles. It can’t ALL be “sweetness and light” ALL of the time. Honeymoons can’t last forever. Invariably a time comes when opinions can differ and equally good folk can stand on different sides on an issue. There is a small rift in the church in Philippi that Paul has caught wind of. It grieves Paul to think of there being disunity in his beloved church. And it worries him that the disunity will weaken their ministry and their witness.

And so Paul does what any wise parent does for her or his child: he reminds them of who and whose they are.

Paul begins by reminding the people of what they already have: they find great strength and encouragement in their Christian faith, they share deeply the empowering Spirit of God, and they have great compassion and sympathy for one another that flows into the world beyond their community. These are things we would be happy to have people say about this community of faith ... about Shell Ridge. Strong faith ... deep Spirit ... compassionate ministry. That’s who you are, Paul tells them. You are these things already. Now, he implores them, “Be yourself.”

... make my joy complete: Paul tells them, be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in ... and here Paul comes to the heart of the matter. If REALLY you want to know who you are, he is saying, the One who has claimed you with an undying love and filled you with an unassailable hope, that One has modeled with his own being the lives you are to live and the selves you are to be.

It is this point of his love-letter to the Philippians that Paul takes a poem or a hymn that is already well known to the Christians of that time and places it at the center of his letter ... he uses it to re-ground the Philippians in their faith and their self-identity. Paul exhorts them with the familiar hymn:

Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God ...

Jesus is God’s humble servant ... self-emptying ... refusing to grasp at power ... humbled, obedient and serving even to the point of death ... and then raised up and exalted by the Power beyond all power ... and it is this humble and serving one—not the warriors and self-exalters, but the humble and serving one who will ultimately claim the allegiance of all earth.

Carlyle Marney was an old southern preacher whom I note from time to time. He spoke with a drawling, booming voice that was described as sounding like God’s ... only deeper. Willis knew Marney, I believe. Marney was smart and wise and compassionate. One of his special passions was for preachers like himself who needed to find their way back to the simple joy of ministry on behalf of the one we’ve just heard Paul describe with the hymn of the humble and self-emptying Christ. A well-known story about Carlyle Marney has him sitting with a group of pastors helping them out the kinks in their souls when an argument broke out. Even while serving the humble, self-emptying Jesus, preachers can be haughty and proud. The argument grew hotter and fiercer until Marney, who had sat silently until that point, said: “Friends ... friends ... do ... you ... love ... Jesus?” Do you love Jesus? It was all he had to say ... it was the only reminder he had to make ... to draw back into their midst the one who had been pushed out ... God’s humble servant ... self-emptying ... refusing to grasp at power ... humbled, obedient and serving even to the point of death ... and their model for Christian life and ministry.

Do you love Jesus? It’s Marney’s question ... it’s Paul’s question ... and I suppose it’s my question to you and to me. And at this point it’s neither my intention to get “heavily theological” nor “heavily evangelical” ... but simply to ask: Does the servant of God we know as Jesus draw you, compel you, move you, deepen you, touch you, change you? Do you love Jesus?

We often say that the simplest definition of what it means to be a Christian is “a follower of Jesus”. It’s hard to bind your soul to the soul of another—be it your life-mate or the person of Jesus—if LOVE is not a part of the equation. Paul would likely agree that as we love Jesus, so we move and follow and deepen our likeness of him.

For some of us it has been many years since we trolled our souls in the waters of baptism. And like the beloved subjects of Paul’s letter, we need the simplest of reminders of whom we love and who loves us. It is Jesus the Lord, Paul says, humbled and exalted, servant of God and the very bearer of God’s own name. Remember who you are, Paul says then and says to us now. Remember who you are.

Paul concludes this word of reminder and encouragement to the Philippians with an unusual phrase. And perhaps he offers it to his beloved friends lest they or anyone else get the wrong sense of what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus. He says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

H. Richard Niebuhr was a mid-20th century theologian and ethicist and brother to the more famous Reinhold Niebuhr. H. Richard Niebuhr was a very influential part of my own education and training as a pastor. A young evangelist once stopped H. Richard Niebuhr near the Yale campus where he taught and asked Niebuhr, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” the theologian thoughtfully replied. “When?” the evangelist pressed. “Every day,” replied Niebuhr.

You mean ... you mean there’s more? We’re not through?

Hmm ... apparently this “once and done” version of Christianity isn’t Paul’s ... the version where “dipped and saved” gets ‘er done, the version where having muttered the right sinner’s prayer and bought your soul’s heavenly fire insurance ... you can go back to being the same miserable scoundrel Jesus saved.

You’re not there yet, Paul seems to be saying. You’re on the way, the right path, but you haven’t arrived. You’re following in the right footsteps, but the journey continues.

I’m fond of quoting my dear friend and senior colleague James Chuck who like to say to people, for whom it’s true: “I like who you’re becoming.”

“I like who you are” Paul tells the Philippians. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. I say these words to you and to us in the least “self-congratulatory” way possible: Shell Ridge friends: I like who you are. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. Keep tending your souls ... keep deepening your being ... keep strengthening your service.

I lost a colleague recently who was a well-known and appreciated pastor. But it’s possible he was best known for something altogether different. He loved to impersonate Elvis. When the late Ted Keaton retired—Ted was a member of this church and a past president of our seminary in Berkeley, when Ted retired, my colleague put on a wild Elvis costume complete with rhinestones, bushy sideburns and white-rimmed sunglasses and crooned Elvis’ greatest hits to Ted’s great embarrassment ... and to everyone else’s enormous enjoyment.

As someone has noted, impersonators go to great pains to make people believe who they are not. Let us be very clear that Paul, in inviting us to be of the same mind as Jesus and to work out our salvation is not asking us to impersonate him. A better word that hits closer to Paul’s call is “imitate” ... striving to live up to the challenge of the person we look up to. Not impersonators of Christ, but imitators of Christ. Not a costume that we wear and words we only half-heartedly mouth, but seeking sincerely to live and work and speak and follow in the ways of Jesus.

We might add one more word to this trajectory of words if we wanted to take a final step. It would be the word: “participate”. The words means to share in ... to be involved in ... to mingle one’s self in. To “participate in Christ” is to not simply follow and imitate, but to join yourself to Christ ... to join yourself to Christ’s work ... to join yourself to Christ’s peace.

Perhaps we’re not all the way there yet. But we’re on the way, the right path. We’re following in the right footsteps and the journey continues.

Later today, those among us who are able will “participate” in Christ as they join other participants in a walk of hope on behalf of many in our world in desperate need. The CROP walk is only one of many ways we can participate in Christ with body, mind and soul. But it is a step along the way from imitation to full participation.

Shell Ridge friends, let me say it again: I like who you are. And I also like who you’re becoming. Now ... don’t stop ... don’t quit ... don’t step away from the path of the one who goes before you and beckons to you to keep following. Keep tending your souls ... keep deepening your being ... keep strengthening your service.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nice work... if you can get it.

I began my working life as a day laborer. It was the late-1960’s on the Olympic Peninsula in the drowsy Pacific Northwest. Each morning an old rickety school bus would prowl the neighborhoods, picking up any child unlucky enough to lack an excuse to go to the berry fields where child labor laws seemed unknown. In my town, many children my age were summer produce pickers ... it was how we earned a little spending money—very little in my case. It was also how our parents got us out of their hair during the summer. It felt like punishment. I avoided it as often as I could. My heart wasn’t in it ... on one particularly memorable and deplorable day, I picked raspberries all day long and made a grand total of 67 cents. That’s somewhat less than a denarius which is the wage in this morning’s scripture which is reportedly what it took to feed one person for one day.

The day laborers of my summer childhoods were a modest help to the local farm economies of that time. But throughout history, whole economies have been built on the backs of the working poor, including their children. These working poor have been variously named, whether day laborers ... or indentured servants ... or slaves ... or sharecroppers ... or migrant workers. These are the folk who inhabit the lowest levels of any workforce. They are completely at the mercy of those who might hire them ... they are paid the most menial of wages ... they work in sub-standard conditions ... the work they perform is often backbreaking drudgery ... and all this to simply earn enough money to put a day’s food on the table.

Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard does not seem to make its primary point about the plight of the working poor. It has another point to make as we’ll see. But I very much believe that the “homely” and rustic settings of many of Jesus’ stories cannot be too easily dismissed. We do well to not rush too quickly by the simple surroundings of the stories and some of the truths they can tell if we pause to watch and lean in to listen.

The secondary point of the story has to do with lifting out of obscurity these peasants who are not much better off than sparrows pecking at seeds in the dust. Every day is a monumental struggle to survive. Every day contains a belly-full of desperation. Every day one must exhaust oneself simply to earn enough bread to ease you on to the next grueling day. And there are scores upon scores of others just like you with whom you must compete for work and food. The system in which you operate, though it depends upon your life and your efforts, is utterly indifferent to you, for you are quickly and easily replaced. Your health and your strength, your relationships and your sanity are all compromised ... are, in fact, luxuries that many can never afford.

Presumably Jesus told this parable over and over ... enough times that it became embedded in the collective memories of his followers. And there must have been times when the listeners of the story would have momentarily paused to consider the humble actors who occupy the story’s stage, instead of forever looking past them to some deeper “spiritual truth.”

Every culture has its invisible people ... those who dwell in the shadowy places of poverty. The great shock for many of us in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, after the shocking power of the storm, was the extraordinary poverty that was exposed and could not be ignored. Who knew, right? Some knew, but many more assumed such poverty could only be found in so-called “developing countries”.

In India, the lowest caste of people were long known as the untouchables. Actually, they were not a caste within the caste system per se, but were below the caste system. Like the lepers in Jesus’ time, they lived in the extreme margins and contact with them was to be avoided at all costs. Even though castes have been illegal since 1948, the reality of the caste system persists. It’s estimated that 160 million Indians today are considered “untouchables”.

Gandhi was among the first to give serious attention to the untouchables and to advocate for their rights and even bestowed upon them the name “Harijan” which means “children of God.” Following in the spirit of Gandhi, a humble Albanian nun by the name of Teresa made a practice of touching the untouchables and caring for them and kissing and holding them, finally, as they died.

In telling his parable, Jesus brings us back to the humble day laborers again and again. And each visit reveals those whose plight is worse than the group before. Those who are hired in the morning may have a day of backbreaking labor ahead of them, but at least they know that at the end of the day they will eat, however simply. Each subsequent group that gets hired wonders if they’ll get hired at all until we finally come to the end of the day and the final group spells out their frustration and fears. The landowner asks them: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” We might hear in his question a sense of blame for their “idleness.” And they say in return and in their own miserable defense, “Because no one has hired us.” It’s a bleak response from a people with no prospects.

I have driven into the Home Depot parking lot on many an afternoon and I have seen our own local day laborers still waiting ... standing in a gloomy funk ... still waiting ... still wondering. If your language permitted it, you could approach them and ask: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” and the response would likely be, “Porque nadie nos ha contratado.” “Because no one has hired us.”

We could say that it’s the lucky ones who’ve gotten to spend the day mucking out ditches ... stacking rocks ... laying pavers ... doing all nature of menial, difficult work that ... somebody’s got to do. And I suppose some would say that others are even luckier who don’t have to wait around building supply parking lots for work, but have regular jobs as janitors and dishwashers and gardeners and field workers. They’re the lucky ones ... right?

It would seem to me that a compassionate reading of Jesus’ parable would insist that we do not rush through the story to its end, but pause to get to know the otherwise invisible characters who are yearning to be noticed and known and heard, who simply want a fair shake out of this life that we have in common where the roles we occupy could be so easily reversed and are ours only by virtue of the accident of our births.

In a Labor Day Sunday sermon two weeks ago, I was reminded of the saying that some people are “born on third base and act as though they’d hit a triple.” And others ... many others come to the plate with two strikes already against them. Such is the difficult and inequitable game of life.

Every time I go to Mexico to build a home ... or every time I have to participate in some particularly difficult and dirty job at home or here at a church work party ... I and others like me can often be heard to say: “Boy, I’m sure glad I don’t have to do THIS for a living.” Pity the poor souls who do ... and who barely eke out a living doing it.

When my older son, Jordan, began working as a waiter and would come home with stories of the unique difficulties of that line of work, I suddenly began to notice waiters. And around that time some of us were reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal documentary, Nickled and Dimed in America which tells of the enormous difficulties of “making it” as a part of the service workforce. When you have children working in that workforce and when you read books like Ehrenreich’s, it becomes harder and harder to ignore and turn a blind eye and a cold heart to those who are bussing your tables and mowing your lawns and cleaning your restrooms.

It is at the very center ... the very heart of Jesus’ parable that the least of the least come into view and into sharp focus. With the sun beginning to set and their stomachs rumbling loudly and their hope slipping away, they are given the universal lament of anyone who has ever been out of work: “No one will hire us.” “No one will hire me.” Jesus wants us not to pass by these unhired workers without seeing their faces and hearing their voices and sensing their need.

I suppose this could be a part of the sub-text of the movie, The Help, which is moving moviegoers these days to laughter and tears. Amidst the related themes of racism and sexism, are the indignities that get heaped upon the lower working classes, servers and servants, cooks and wet-nurses. The movie invites the viewer, as with the listeners of so many of Jesus’ parables, to see people as they really are, behind the starched aprons and culturally appointed roles and the old biases and blindness that can afflict us all.

And if we were to be painfully, brutally honest, in the midst of our new vision, we might say to the servers and servants and “day laborers” among us: “Thank you ... thank you for working at odd hours doing loathsome, backbreaking work at despicable wages so that I can enjoy clean restrooms, pleasant landscapes and fresh vegetables. Thank you.”

Now it’s the end of the day in Jesus’ parable. The sun is setting, the tools have been put away, the hunger of the workers is keen. The workers file in to receive their modest pay. And in an unusual twist, the landowner makes those hired first wait while he pays those hired later. To the amazement of both the workers as well as the hearers of Jesus’ parable, those hired as the day was ending receive a full day’s wage. And so it is with those hired before them all the way to the workers who were hired in the morning and spent the whole day working in the fields.

The amazement of the first-hired turns to anger and an acute sense of injustice. And it is at this point that the story ceases, really, to be about “day laborers”, for it would be a cruel storyteller, indeed, who would pit one unfortunate and powerless person against another to make a fine theological point. It is at this point that the setting shifts and we see that what is at the heart of Jesus’ message is the enormous and overwhelming generosity of God.

To claim that point, that message … does not in any way negate the implied point which I’ve taken up the lion’s share of this sermon making … that the worker deserves her or his pay … or, more widely: that EVERYONE deserves a decent job with a living wage and reasonable benefits for themselves and their dependents. And the bridge between the two points is that it is a crime against heaven and earth for people and societies who know better and whose faith has taught them better to allow the working poor to suffer or the unemployed poor to remain that way … if it is in our power to bring change where change is needed.

Let’s come back to the reminder that the common understanding of a denarius is that it was enough to feed one person for one day. Can you imagine being an employer and having your late-starting employee come before you for her pay and saying, “I know very well that what I am about to pay you is a starvation wage … waaay less than what what it will take keep the wolves from your door … but … fair is fair … here you go and have a nice day.”

Jesus’ parable hints broadly, but strongly at a God whose generosity is … frankly … ridiculous. This landowner/God won’t stay in business very long being “compassionately equitable” in that way. But heaven isn’t a corporation and the bottom line isn’t what matters most. Better to irritate the bean-counters than to knowingly send one away to suffer.

I don’t know if President Obama’s proposed jobs initiative or the coming proposal that the rich pay a fair share of their taxes … if either of these has any rootage in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers and the generous landowner. I kind of doubt it … at least not very directly. But more and better jobs with better benefits and an equitable sharing of the burdens of life and society are, at least, moving in the right direction. It moves us ever so slightly in affirmation of a phrase that a colleague uses when he says: “Everyone has enough, no one has too much.”

I’m not a politician or a creator of public policy … no one here is as far as I know. So the challenges that grow out of this parable for us may not be the same ones that should be heard by our elected representatives. For us, it may be that the best place to start is that wherever culture and society and traditional understandings have created a gulf or built a gap and allowed these to remain … perhaps our job is to build a bridge. Last week I gave a jump start to the truck of the Vietnamese woman who takes care of the yards in our neighborhood. You’d have thought she won the lottery. She thanked me with her hands pressed together and a small bow. We’re becoming friends in our own small way. For years the Russian women from next door have congregated in the Shell Ridge courtyard and every time I see them I rack my brain for the Russian greeting that best matches the time of day … dobra utra … doba dien … dobra vee-aitcher. They’re always kind and gentle and smiling in their corrections of my mistakes.

At the restaurant … at the checkout counter … at Home Depot … in your neighborhood … in the classroom … among different nationalities and languages and faiths and varieties of ethnic dress and customs … among the varying socio-economic classes … in every setting where you are with someone who is not you and especially someone who is quite different than you … build a bridge … be a bridgebuilder and a straddler of gaps wherever they exist in the human family.

We use the word “Shalom” a lot here on Shell Ridge … Shalom is a comprehensive peace marked by a compassionate and generous justice for all. Today’s parable hints at a world marked by Shalom. Shalom is probably less a place of precise arrival than it is a goal that can be steadily sought and slowly realized. In a world marked increasingly by Shalom, it will be increasingly true that “everyone has enough, and no one has too much.” No more filthy rich and no more dirt poor. And who are the creators of Shalom? The sons and the daughters of God, which is to say, ALL people … including YOU … including ME. It’s our job. It’s what we do.

So fall in love with humanity all over again … stretch your wings and your boundaries. Mimic the best you can the ridiculous generosity of the God who gives life to one and all.

Fall in love -- you won't regret it.
That's the best work of all -- if you can get it.
Oh that is nice work if you can get it.
And you can get it -- if you try.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dinner Hearts and Sneezers

How many Jeopardy watchers do we have in the house? Anyone watch Jeopardy? Well the title of the sermon today is a Jeopardy answer. Dinner, Hearts and Sneezers. Does anyone know the question? What do these have in common? Right they are all things that are blessed. (I cannot give it to you though because you did not put it in the form of a question.) We say blessings over our meals before eating them. If you are from the South or have a relative from there no doubt you have heard them use the expression, “Bless her Heart.” Usually this is done after some unpleasantries have been said about someone. “She’s dumb as a pole, bless her heart.”

And sneezers. Anyone have a sneeze today. Did you get a blessing? According to the Internet which is never wrong the blessing of sneezers was mandated by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) who ascended to the Papacy just in time for the start of the plague of 590. To fight it, he called for litanies, processions and unceasing prayer. Because sneezing was thought of as a symptom of the plague, sneezers were immediately blessed in the hope that they would not subsequently develop the plague.

So 10 points for all those who go the Jeopardy question right today, but I have an even more pressing question. Are you blessed? Do you feel blessed? If you really think about it, it is not such an easy question to answer. For one thing, it assumes that we all have the same definition of what a blessing is. And that just may not be true. So maybe the best place we should start is by asking, What is a blessing?

Now the Bible here is full of blessings. In Genesis Abraham was considered blessed by God and was given livestock, wealth and the promise that his descendents will be like sands on the seashore too numerous to count. Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob. Jacob, who was so concerned about getting his father’s blessing that he tricked poor old Isaac out of giving it to his brother Esau. He comes away with all of the inheritance and family wealth. Jacob gives birth to Joseph who was also considered blessed by God even before his birth. He becomes one of the highest rulers in Egypt second only to the Pharaoh. There is king David and his son Solomon, who were look on favorably by God and fantastically wealthy to boot. Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon, all considered blessed with extraordinary riches. Even Job who faced unbelievably horrific trials comes out blessed in the end with twice what he originally had.

Are you starting to catch a theme? These Biblical characters are all considered blessed and all have great wealth. Their favor with God is easily measured in stuff: gold, cattle, and slaves. Riches. Possesions. And the biggest measuring stick of them When Moses led his people out of Egypt they crossed the desert for 40 years. The reward for their perseverance? A land flowing with milk and honey, Canaan. Given to them because they were blessed. Never mind that there were people already living there.

Blessings of land. Blessings of wealth. Maybe blessings are simply something given to the people by God. Some thing. If this is the case, then it becomes easy to see who is blessed and who isn’t. The rich and prosperous are blessed. Those who occupy the land are blessed. You might think that this is ancient thinking but it is alive and well. Known as the prosperity gospel it is a theology that is preached to justify the wealthy and entice the poor. But at what point does believing that “God will provide” become “God gave me a 12 million dollar house?” Now it is not bad or wrong to be thankful for what we have. But when possessions and things become the benchmark of being blessed, then something is wrong. When the disparity between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger then we need a new benchmark. A rich man once asked Jesus how to have eternal life. Jesus replied that to be perfect, he had to sell everything he owned. This was Jesus’ new benchmark.

So I ask you again. “Are you blessed?”

Possessions are not the only benchmark in the Bible for being blessed. When the Israelites were captured, they lost their wealth. They lost their land. And they cried out. The blessing that they sought was not only that they wanted their country back, but that they wanted to feel the presence of God. They wanted to believe that God was with them. God’s very presence was the blessing they sought. Just listen to the anxiety in Psalm 121. I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? Imagine looking to the vastness of the hills and feeling that kind of emptiness. Where will my help come? The psalmist goes on, “My help comes from the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” This psalm ends with one of the most beautiful benedictions. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. Doesn’t that make you feel blessed just reading it?

So is God’s presence proof of being blessed? Because I have felt at times like the author of this psalm. I have looked to the hills and wondered from where my help would come. I remember one particular time. I was in high school and I was having a really hard time. I carried around a lot of guilt about who I was and who I was supposed to be. I was all mixed up and very frustrated. For a long time this made me really depressed which just added to my frustration. One night I prayed for personal peace. I said, “God I don’t want everything to be figured out. I don’t need to have all the answers. I just want to feel like I have some personal peace.” After praying I opened up a devotional book and do you know what that day’s devotion was titled? “Personal Peace.” Lest anyone think that God does not have a sense of humor.

It was a reminder that God was with me. Like the writer of the psalm, I realized that my help came from God. So are we blessed because God is with us? But isn’t God always with us? Don’t we believe in an omnipresent God? If this is the case then we should feel blessed all of the time. And maybe some of you do. But maybe some of you don’t. Maybe you fell like you could use a blessing. Maybe, like the Israelites that cried out for a Messiah, like the hungry who ask for food, like the sick that cry out for comfort, maybe merely knowing that you are blessed is not enough. Maybe you need a blessing.

So I ask you again. Are you blessed?

When Jesus climbed atop a mountain to speak to those that had gathered around him, he no doubt saw people in need. His people were a people that had been occupied, people that had lost their country to Rome. They were desperate people looking to him for something. In short they needed a blessing. And Jesus gave them one.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now each one of these blessings that we call the Beatitudes is a sermon in and of itself so I will leave that for another sermon series. But there are some things that I want to point out about this wonderful list as a whole.

1. The list has a rewards system. For each condition there is a blessing that is given. But the rewards are not things like money and land. We have moved past all that. The rewards are states of being. Comfort. Mercy. Even the Kingdom of Heaven.

2. This list is not about the powerful. It is not about the political leaders or the wealthy. It is about the lowly. The poor in spirit. The meek. It is about the making the last first. These are the people that need to hear this. Both then and now.

3. Here is what is most remarkable about this list to me. Jesus does not say where these blessings come from. He does not say God blesses the meek or God blesses the pure in heart. He just says Blessed are the meek and blessed are the pure in heart. Am I being too detailed? Is it obviously implied? Maybe. Or maybe the intent was that the blessings come from one another. If we look at the beatitudes in this way then we are not only the recipients of the blessings but the givers as well. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes we are the hands and feet of God. We are the ones who bestow God’s blessings here on earth. We are the ones to bestow mercy. We give the world to the meek. We are to stand up and declare that peacemakers are indeed the children of God. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness it is we who are creating a righteous world. My Lutheran housemate says that it is God’s work. Our hands. I like that God’s work our hands.

So, maybe the question we should ask ourselves is not are we blessed? But rather are we blessing? Are you blessing? Start with dinner. Move on to sneezers. Along the way bless a few hearts. But then try to comfort someone who is mourning. Give mercy to the merciful. Lift up all those who strive for peace.

If you truly want to see how blessed a world can be, then start by giving it some blessings. And God’s people said, Amen.