Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: "Blessed" (Matthew 5: 1-12)

My atheist friend hates it when people use the word “blessed.” He says that people who use the word “blessed” sound arrogant and presumptuous.
As he explained this to me, I realized that I agreed with him. People say things like, “God has blessed me with a nice house….God has blessed me with a nice family...God has blessed me by giving me that fancy sports car I always wanted… God has blessed America by giving us God-fearing leaders…”
They don’t say it … and maybe they don’t even mean it… sometimes it sounds like they are implying that, because they believe in Jesus and are a good person, God has blessed them this way. In other words, they are blessed with good things because they are a good person.
But I can’t help thinking of the countless millions of people in the world who are good people - some of them Christians - who struggle and suffer.
For example, I sometimes wonder how it is that I got to be born and live in California, clearly the best place to live in the world, a place where - as I mentioned in last week’s sermon - you can go to In-N-Out! How is it that I got to be born here, in the land of In-N-Out, instead of being born in poverty in some third-world country, in an area plagued by war or famine? Even as a child, I wondered: how is it that I got to be born close enough that my family could drive to Disneyland, spend the day, drive back home and go to sleep in our own beds.  I could have been born anywhere in the world, and look where I ended up!
I knew (even then) it wasn’t because I was any better than anyone else. I did think of myself as a good person, but not any better than countless others who lived in less desirable places under less desirable circumstances. Why would God bless me and not them?
Clearly, God’s blessings aren’t always distributed according to one’s worthiness.
Now, if you start reading the Bible, at first it may appear that God’s blessings do go to those who are faithful. You can read about Abraham, for example, who was blessed because he put his faith in God. He was blessed with property and descendants, all because he faithfully followed God’s call.
But then there’s Job. The Bible describes Job as the most blameless man on earth, yet he suffered terribly. In the end he was rewarded, but does that make up for all his suffering?
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who was very wise, wrote that there are fools who live in luxury, and wise people who live in pain and suffering. He asks: “Why have I been so very wise? What happens to the fool will happen to me also. The same fate befalls us all.”
Even Jesus was aware of this; Jesus observed that  the blessing of rain falls on the just and the unjust.
Today’s prosperity preachers ignore all this. According to the prosperity preachers, if you have faith, God will bless you. God will bless you materially if you have faith. God will give you wealth if you only believe.
That’s what the prosperity preachers say. It’s not what most scriptures say, but it’s what the prosperity preachers say. Maybe the prosperity preachers are more influenced by their own wealth than they are by the gospel. Maybe their mansions and their private jets and their invitations to participate in the inauguration of a billionaire president have led them to misinterpret scripture this way.
Jesus talked about being blessed. But he didn’t tell anyone they were blessed by wealth, or property, or descendants. Instead, he said, “you who are poor in spirit, you are blessed. You who are meek are blessed. You who are persecuted, you are blessed. You who work hard, long hours, tirelessly, for a kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness… you are blessed.”
Jesus’ idea of what it means to be blessed is not what we think. By our definition of what it means to be blessed, it was the Roman officials and the corrupt religious leaders who were blessed in Jesus’ time. They were the ones who lived in palaces.  They were the ones who walked around in fine clothes. They were the ones who had tables full of rich food. They were the ones who were “blessed.”
The people did not feel blessed. They felt forgotten. They felt discouraged. They felt abused and oppressed by society. They were lied to by a government that promised them prosperity and the “peace of Rome.” But wealth at the top did NOT trickle down to them, just as it does not trickle down today. The people mourned loved ones who died due to lack of care, and they mourned the ideal kingdom, God’s kingdom, the kingdom of peace and justice that they had all but given up hoping for.
To them, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Your meekness, your spiritual longing, your commitment to peace and justice, your persecution,... the world needs to see these things. Take it to the streets! March through the city! Don’t hide, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed because you are poor in spirit. Don’t hide the fact that you aren’t powerful in the ways of the world, that you are vulnerable and subject to persecution. You have a light within that needs to shine.
The world shines its light on that other kind of blessedness. The world shines its light on those who prosper, those who have nice cars and houses, those who take frequent trips to far off lands, those who have power and authority. The people who always post pictures on social media - “hashtag ‘blessed’” - don’t worry about them. You have your own light. It comes from within you, and was put there by God. So let it shine. Let the world see you say “I am poor, and I am blessed.” Let the world see you say “I work for peace, and I am blessed.” Let the world see you say, “I have loved deeply, and now I mourn; and I am blessed.” Let the world see you say, “I am persecuted and ridiculed because I was willing to take a stand, and I am blessed.”
The people who are blessed are people who are empty. They lack spirit. They lack power. They live without peace, which is why they must work to make peace. They live in a land that is broken and fragmented, which is why they are hungry and thirsty for what is right and what is just. Jesus says: “Your blessedness does not depend on having all these things. Kings and emperors and corrupt high priests have all these things, and you think they are blessed, but they are not. You are the ones who God calls blessed.”
This is such a different idea of “blessed,” so don’t be surprised if it’s making your head spin. It’s kind of like we’ve entered an “opposite world,” where things mean the opposite of what we think they mean. But that’s often how it is with Jesus.
If you are still struggling to think of a blessed life as anything but a life of luxury and wealth, consider this. More and more people today are discovering the blessing of having less. They live in smaller houses, really small houses. By choice! They take public transportation instead of owning a car. They limit their wardrobe to what will fit in their tiny closet and they limit their possessions to just those things that make them truly happy. They only keep those possessions that truly bring them joy. Everything else they get rid of.
And they find freedom in that. Freedom in not having stuff. Freedom in not having to deal with all the upkeep and maintenance and expense. Freedom in not having to keep up with the Joneses. Freedom in not feeling trapped by the expectations of a society which is always, always trying to sell you something.
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix about two friends, Ryan and Josh, young adults trying to figure out how to live lives that are happy and blessed.
In the movie, Ryan talks about how he was “blessed” according to our traditional definition of blessed. He says: “I had everything I ever wanted. I had everything I was supposed to have. Everyone around me said, ‘you’re successful.’ But really, I was miserable. There was this gaping void in my life. So I tried to fill that void the same way many people do: with stuff. Lots of stuff. I was filling the void with consumer purchases. I was spending money faster than I was earning it, attempting to buy my way to happiness. I thought I’d get there one day. Happiness had to be somewhere just around the corner. I was living paycheck to paycheck, living for a paycheck, living for stuff. But I wasn’t living at all. It got to a point in my life where I didn’t know what was important anymore.
“Then at some point I noticed something different about my best friend Josh. He seemed happy. For the first time in a really long time. Truly happy. But I didn’t understand why. We had both worked at the same corporation, we had both wasted our 20s climbing the corporate ladder together, and he had been just as miserable as me. I asked him: ‘Why the hell are you so happy?’ He told me about this thing called minimalism…”
Here’s how his friend Josh explains it: “I had a lot of stuff. Hundreds, thousands of books. DVDs. Closets full of clothes...When I started letting things go I felt freer, happier, and lighter. And now, every possession serves a purpose or brings me joy. I have a bed, a chair, a radio, some furniture in my dining room, appliances in my kitchen…But I don’t have any EXCESS stuff. Everything I have adds value to my life. If it doesn’t, I have to be willing to let go.”
Is Josh living a “blessed” life? It depends on whose definition of “blessed” you are using. Josh is happy. Happier now than when he had lots of stuff. And so is Ryan, now that he is also living a minimalist lifestyle.
Are you living a “blessed” life? How do you define what it means to be “blessed?” If you’re not sure, go back and read the Beatitudes. Go back and read the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, chapter 5. It just may be that all these things that you think are signs of a blessed life are really just clutter that gets in the way, and keeps you from discovering what it really means to be blessed.

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