Sermon–January 29, 2017


Epiphany 4—Year A

January 29, 2017

William Bradbury

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who have no power, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice….” And I’m wondering what does it mean to be blessed? What is a blessing? In one of my favorite Christmas movies, the 1954 classic, “White Christmas”, Bing Crosby sings to Rosemary Clooney who is having trouble getting to sleep: “So if you’re worried and you can’t sleep, Count your blessings instead of sheep, And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.” Unfortunately, it may be that many of us have more experience counting our problems, since that seems to be the default setting of the contemporary American mind.  

For me blessings are gifts from God that heal our souls. This is a lesson for us all: we are free to count either our troubles or count our blessings, but only one of these will heal our soul.

In the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Old Testament, as the children of God struggle to survive their hard journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land there comes this amazing passage:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, “Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,

‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’

The LORD says: “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

The people are receiving the undeserved blessing of YHWH, their creator and redeemer. Good teachers, certainly all those who are part of this community of faith, know how important it is to bless their students. I clearly remember Mrs. Feely, my Fourth grade teacher looking into my eyes and telling me how nice and kind and special I was. This was a powerful blessing upon a timid, insecure boy.

I’ve told before, however, the story of my daughter’s third grade teacher who told the class on a regular basis how bad they were. Katie’s class picture from that year shows an unsmiling, sad little girl.

Unfortunately there are still parents today who think it is their job to curse their children in this same way. They think they are being realistic and showing tough love, but all they are doing is transferring the pain of their lives onto their children, thus creating another generation of hurting people.

Also, there are pastors who think it is their job to tell their congregations how bad they are, so that they will then turn to the grace of God.  But this gets the cart before the horse: the only way we come to know our sin is when we come into contact with the grace of God’s blessings. As Leslie Newbigin puts it, “the knowledge [of our sin] is the result, not the precondition of grace.” The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigin, page 180

This is why Jesus tells us that we should stop worrying about getting rid of the speck in the eyes of our neighbors. Our neighbors will see the speck in their eyes soon enough, when they experience the blessing of God. Hopefully the Church will make a preemptive strike of unconditional blessing on those who don’t know their need of God.

But let’s face it, there is a place in each of us that wants to curse our neighbors or at least withhold our blessing from them. Just remember the pain in your gut when you learn a friend has received a promotion.

And now this morning Jesus gives 9 blessings to his disciples and any of the crowd who are listening.

Yet, they are strange blessings, aren’t they!

I mean, in what world is it a blessing to be poor in spirit, to be depressed about your life, even to the point of despair?

In what world is it a blessing to be overcome with sadness at the death of a spouse after 50 years of marriage?

In what world is it a blessing to be without power or to be filled with hunger and thirst for a justice which never seems to come?

In what world?

Only in the world in which Jesus Christ is Lord and draws near to those who are overwhelmed by suffering. Only in Jesus’ presence can we be embraced and experience the blessing of God.

Jesus is not proclaiming a new law here, as if he is calling his followers to deliberately go out and get depressed, or lose a loved one. These are not new laws to get good at, rather these are proclamations to those receiving the curses of life.

But here’s the thing: blessings only stay blessings when we pass them on.

 In Genesis 12:2 God says to Abraham: “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…so that in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Jesus, who is the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham, is teaching his Church to receive God’s blessing so that we may be a blessing to others. The Church judges its faithfulness by asking two questions: First, do we open our hearts to receive Christ’s blessing? Or do we only live off the blessings of wealth, power, and success? Do we live at the foot of the cross or on the mountain of our self-sufficiency?

And second, do we open our hearts to share Christ’s blessing with those the world wants to curse? In too many centuries the church demonized the Jews instead of blessing them, even though the Jews have blessed us with Jesus, Mary, and all the Apostles.

We are now in a moment in which our nation is struggling between two positive values: the value of self-protection and the value of “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” which is written on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

This may be an appropriate struggle for a nation, but for the Church of a crucified Lord our only call is be a blessing.

So how can we do this? Leslie Newbigin, Anglican bishop who served as a missionary in India for decades wrote a seminal work in 1989 that evangelical seminaries, like Fuller Seminary in California, are still reading and promoting. It is called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society: In it Newbigin asks, how should Christians deal with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists? Should we stand far off and yell, “You are not going to be saved” which some conservatives are want to do.

Or on the other hand, should we ignore them because everybody believes the same thing anyway, so there is no urgency in sharing the good news of Jesus with them, which some liberals are want to do?

Newbigin says the Church of Jesus Christ should hold the view that, “it is our first privilege to seek out and to welcome”… “all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not know Jesus as Lord.”

Our first duty is to see where and how God is blessing them, to see where and how the Light of Christ is shining through those who believe differently from us.  Then he says we work with them on those projects that further the kingdom of God in history.

So we count our blessings and we share our blessings from Christ and in Christ.