How many of you have heard the saying “blessed to be a blessing?” Maybe you’ve heard “too blessed to be stressed.” I’ve also heard that “stressed” is just “desserts” spelled backwards. I like that logic. I know many of you know todays Gospel. We’ve heard it before. Maybe for you, it’s passage that brings joy or comfort. Whatever the case may be, this is the start of Jesus’ ministry. Our lectionary, that is, the readings that we hear every Sunday, are going to bring us a lot of readings from Matthew this year. Some of them may be difficult to comprehend. There may be times when I come back and reference this scripture from today. Let these verses, these beatitudes, serve as a benchmark.
See, this is the first thing that we hear Jesus say after he has spent some time in the wilderness–where he was tempted. Jesus is essentially saying “this is what this ministry is going to be all about.” And with that, what Jesus also says is “this ministry isn’t going to be about what you think it should be about.” Jesus does what Jesus is known to do best–he takes what is expected and turns it upside down. And here’s the other thing: this is not a prescription for living. Jesus doesn’t say “in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven, you have to be poor, meek, mournful, hungry, etc…”
But what Jesus does talk about is being blessed. When was the last time you were blessed? Do you even know what it feels like? When was the last time you got something for nothing? Honestly, I think receiving blessings makes us uncomfortable. We often don’t know what to say and it can feel awkward. And if we’re going to be honest, having someone “bless” us makes us feel like we need to somehow repay that person. Or, it makes us skeptical. For example, if someone you know said “I am going to give you $500 because you’ve been a blessing to me” what is our first reaction? “What’s the catch” or “now what” maybe even “what did I do to deserve this?” And even if we were to take the money as a gift–as it was intended, it seems we are always waiting for that other shoe to fall. I’ve fallen victim to the thinking of “well, I’m not going to spend it because he/she might want it back.”
What is it in us that makes us think or believe we don’t deserve a gift? I have problems accepting gifts. Chris will verify that when it comes to buying things, I hate buying for myself the most. Unlike the common stereotype, I am a woman who doesn’t necessarily desire to shop for herself. Chris usually has to talk me into buying something for myself. When I do, it’s usually something that I’ve found on the clearance rack. What is it, friends?!? Trying to figure out why I cannot, for the life of me, receive a gift graciously plagues me. Please tell me I’m not alone with these troubles.
But the thing is, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed too many times to count. In fact, I am so blessed that when someone says “oh I’m lucky” I usually correct them and say “no. You’re blessed.” I don’t have to look outside my own home to see 2 of my greatest blessings in Chris and Ellen. God has trusted me with the hearts of these two people and that is a blessing. Then I can literally look around my home and see the blessings: I have heat in a year when the price of LP is frightfully high. I have a refrigerator full of food on a day when we’re collecting for those who go without. I can turn on the faucet and not only do I get water, but it’s warm or cold on demand and it’s clean. I’ve never had to make the decision between medication and something else. By all definitions, I’ve been blessed. The fact that we can gather in this place, week after week, and freely worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without our government or higher authority telling us otherwise makes us all blessed.
In reality though, what does it mean to be blessed? My dear friend James said it best (I think he would be amused that I am quoting him in a sermon). He said that being blessed means saying “everything is okay–even though nothing is okay.” And perhaps that’s just a little of what Jesus is saying here. “I know not everything in your life is great, okay, or even near perfect, but in my death and resurrection, you will be blessed.” And here’s the other thing: what we may consider a blessing may not be a blessing in the sense that Jesus speaks about here. I mean, I doubt any of you would rejoice in being poor in spirit. I would struggle to call that a blessing.
That’s what’s crazy about Jesus though. He takes your perception of reality and says “let me challenge that for you.” With these words Jesus is about to embark on the idea that following him means radical hospitality, loving the outcast, nurturing the sick, and willing to submit to an idea that the most important person in your life isn’t you, it’s God. Look friends, this is a difficult way of life, I know. It’s easy to say that God is the most important part of my life, but when I look at my daily habits and rituals, I know that’s not true. When I speak poorly about those whom God calls blessed, I know it’s not true. When I look at a problem or tragedy in the world and think “I wonder who is going to take care of that” I know that I am most concerned about myself and not about what God is doing.
But today friends, today, you are going to receive a blessing, a gift. You did nothing to earn it. You cannot repay it. In fact, when you receive this gift, you will hear the words “for you” not once but twice. Because the body of Christ is given for you. And the blood of Christ was shed for you. It is an amazing gift. Someone gave their life for you. Someone thought you were worth dying for. That, brothers and sisters, is a blessing. Accept this blessing and everything that it means. Don’t deny the love that Christ wants to give to you in this meal. That is exactly what is happening: this is a love letter from Jesus to us. Take it, eat it, let it penetrate your soul. It is a blessing. And you are blessed.
I don’t always like to bring different versions of the Bible into worship, but this passage was beautifully captured by The Message and I want to share the words with you so that perhaps you will think about these beatitudes a little differently:
“ When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Brothers and sisters, we are blessed. Let us never forget what a gift this is. Thanks be to God!