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 all...land. 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.