I know something of blessings and blessedness and after the last year I know some things I didn’t know before. Or at least I am more deeply aware of some things I never thought about enough before.
Because you see last September we began a Year of Blessings at the congregation I now serve.
It happened almost by accident. Or maybe not. It was late in August and I looked out at the congregation and it dawned on me that our college students would be returning to school in the days to come. And some of them were there that morning. So at the end of worship I called them up and the children and I surrounded them with prayer. We blessed them on their way.
At our Tuesday morning staff meeting one among us commented on how meaningful that was. And somehow out of that hour’s conversation came the idea to do a Year of Blessings. We decided to bless something or someone every week for a year. That would be 52 blessings!
Colleagues and friends wondered if we could do it. How in the world would we come up with 52 blessings?!? But you know, we did. We blessed the usual things: like volunteers in our Christian Education program in the fall and seeds in the spring. Of course, we blessed babies at baptisms and children receiving Bibles. We blessed prayer shawls and their knitters and we blessed the property committee. We blessed health care workers and those who are employed at the University. We blessed those leaving on mission trips. We blessed special wedding anniversaries and birthdays and… We blessed and blessed and blessed.
Or I should say, God blessed. For here is what was so wondrous about this. When I arrived in this place among these people we were coming off a difficult and broken time. Some may have wondered if we would ever fully come out of it. Probably all of us wondered how we would move to a place of wholeness again. The details don’t much matter for this telling, but what happened next is a story I’ll probably tell for the rest of my life. As we kept thanking God and praying for and blessing, something changed. Spirits lifted. Hope was reborn. I can’t explain it, I just know it was so. For now all I have concluded is that somehow over that year we came to remember that all of this and all of us belong to God.
Now I know there are different ways to think about ‘blessing.’ Unlike some, I am not among those who believe that something necessarily ‘magical’ happens when we lay hands on something or someone and invite God’s blessing. It is not as though nothing bad will happen now or that the object so blessed carries some kind of power it didn’t before. And yet… something does happen in the remembering and the thanking and the commending. In the act of blessing. Something certainly does. Indeed, if you look closely at the word that is translated ‘blessed’ in this week’s Gospel lesson, you will find that it can also to be understood simply ‘to be happy’ or ‘to be fortunate.’ No matter what word is used, in this context we understand it to be a ‘privileged recipient of divine favor.’
And so today we listen in as Jesus speaks of ‘blessing’ — or more to the point — of those who are especially blessed. The poor and the hungry. The weeping and those who are persecuted for their faith. On first glance, or the second one either for that matter, these would not seem to be particularly ‘blessed.’ In fact, even in Jesus’ sermon for most of these he seems to say that their happiness will be found in the future ‘when their hunger will be satisfied, when they will laugh again, when they know some sort of heavenly reward.’ For them the blessing almost seems to be a promise of what will one day be. Even if they can’t see it yet.
And maybe for the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted, perhaps it is also so that as they and we simply stand still in the presence of God and remember that God holds us all, that the blessing begins. Perhaps that is what begins to change everything.
But in the meantime, it seems especially important that I also hear the second half of today’s sermon for most of the time, this is the part that is meant for me. For I am not poor. I have never known real hunger. Yes, I have known grief, but it does not mark my every day. And most of the time? Folks speak pretty well of me — at least so far as I know. It would appear that I am marked by God’s divine favor now, wouldn’t it? And yet, it would also appear that this is not favor that will last. At least not if I rest in it for it’s own sake. At least if I forget to stand still in the presence of God and remember that God holds us all and that all of the good gifts I have been given are not mine because I deserve them, but because God gives them to me.
It is interesting to me that these are the words assigned to us once more on All Saints’ Day: this special day when we light candles and remember those who have gone before and the blessings they have been and the ways in which they shared their blessings with us all. As we remember them it is almost impossible to do so without resting in the truth that they are held by God — even as they always have been. Perhaps by pausing there, it helps us to remember this is so also for us. When we know ourselves to be ‘blessed’ and also in those moments when we forget to remember these gifts all come from God. And surely in those times when we wonder why God’s divine favor seems so remote and we find ourselves yearning for a happier time. Perhaps by remembering with gratitude those who have gone before and entrusting them to God’s tender care once more, we more easily stand still in the understanding that this is also so for us.
For this is the gift of Jesus’ words today. All that we are and all that we hold and all that we hope to be belongs to God. And remembering this, we are indeed ‘blessed.’
- How do you understand ‘blessing’ as Jesus speaks of it now?
- How have you experienced ‘blessing’ in your life? Where do you locate yourself in Jesus’ sermon today?
- Our experience of a ‘Year of Blessings’ seemed to change our perspective. Can you see how that might be so?
- How do you believe these words speak to All Saint’s Day?