(For those actually in service yesterday, you will notice that I really didn't preach this... but here is a part of what I intended to say...edited so it is slightly closer to what I actually preached. (sigh). The challenges of not reading a manuscript...)
Luke 18: 9-14
Life is a circle, we have times that are full of joys and times that are full of pain. Which of these are the blessings?
I want to read to you an article that I found that I think says it better than I could: (Scott Dannemiller article).
I say the same thing pretty regularly – that our challenges are also blessings, though this can be hard to recognize.
But I also want to say what I have said many times before and that is that this doesn’t mean that I think God intentionally causes us hurt. I think hurt happens in this world and God wants to bring the highest growth and highest good out of that. But I don’t experience God as Santa Claus rewarding the good and punishing the bad. I also don’t believe God is just a mean school teacher, testing us, and sitting up there somewhere saying, “Oh, you thought you could handle that? Well let’s see how you handle this!” though I’ll admit sometimes it sure has FELT that way to me. And while I think the beatitudes are an accurate description of what happens to us in life – those who are in pain will find comfort, those who are comfortable will find pain – I don’t believe this is because God is wielding out punishments and rewards. I think, instead, that it is an accurate description of life.
But God in this is about teaching, healing, growing us into the most whole people we can be, if we are open to that.
Frankly, it is really bad theology that describes God as a kind of Santa Claus, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. And scripture shows us something very different. We have the beatitudes, which do not discuss deserving and people getting what they deserve, but rather describes that those who are in pain will feel joy, and the reverse. We have the story of Job, who, despite his righteousness, lost everything that mattered to him. We have Jesus reminding us that the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous. We also have passages such as Mark 10:17-31: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This shows that it is not God rewarding us with riches. Those riches come, and will be taken away. They impede our ability to connect with God. They themselves are not blessings from God.
The reality is that we who are comfortable have a hard time feeling, knowing, experiencing our real dependence on God. It is often only through the struggles, through the times of difficulty, the times of loss, that we learn to experience God fully and to depend on God for everything. But it is hard for us to feel blessed by those hard times. I understand this. It is tough.
We celebrate the good things, calling them our blessings. But when it comes to the hard times, we complain and feel life is unfair. We focus on the pain and forget to be grateful for the challenges or to seek out the possible gifts or learning or growing that we can do through the pain.It is hard for us to rejoice in, learn from, or really self-reflect and grow into the challenges. But that is the call.
So we can take the beatitudes as a message of fear: only if you really suffer will you then find “blessings” by which we mean good things, riches, comforts, luxuries. Or we can take them as a description of life, reminding us that God is with us whether we are focused on the joys or focused on the pains. We can take them as a reminder that often it is through the gift of the hard and painful times that we remember to turn to God and to really come to trust God and the deeper gifts of community, support, and help that are available. We can remember that in being in solidarity with others who are struggling, as well as through helping to empower others and improve the lives of others, that we come to know and experience God at deeper levels. We can learn to let go and to truly depend on God. But we also learn that blessings can come in many forms and that we are surrounded by them every single day, just as in every moment we are surrounded by God’s love.
Those blessings we experience in this way, in times of great need, are often the ones that we also learn most deeply to share with others. There was a social experiment done a few years back in which a man went around asking strangers for hugs. “Normal” people would not hug strangers. But when the homeless were asked, none said “no”. They gave to others, probably from that place of knowing their own lacking, experiencing their own rejection, knowing what it was to not “have” what many of us take for granted. From that place, then, they were able to bless others.
Henri Nouwen also tells the story of coming to understand blessings differently when he began to serve as a chaplain for a community of people with intellectual disabilities. He talks about a woman, Janet, who was struggling and came to him asking for a blessing. He tried to make the sign of the cross on her forehead, but she wouldn’t accept it and said, “I want a real blessing!” He didn’t know what to do but that evening at their prayer service, he told the community that Janet had asked for a special blessing and he invited her to come forward. She came forward and wrapped her arms around him, giving him a tight hug. He was surprised but hugged her back and said to her, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.” Janet left with a huge, satisfied smile. Afterwards the other members of the community all raised their hands asking for a “blessing” too. That giving of love; that giving of time, and care, and attention; that seeing of one another; that appreciating one another – those are the blessings that God has given to us and that we can pass on to others.
Going back to the first article. I don’t believe it is wrong to say, “I have been blessed” or “I am having a blessed day.” When I am challenging here is the idea that “blessings” are only the good things we experience and have in life. In many ways, as the scriptures we have read today and the stories I have shared point out, the greatest blessings we can have and experience are the challenges we face in life. I remember a wise woman once saying to me, “A blessing is something that brings you closer to God. It is not something that brings you closer to fulfilling American cultural values.” Material wealth is not a blessing, your car and your house – these are not your blessings, your gifts from God. What are your blessings your gifts from God, are the times you have with God, the opportunities to grow, the gifts of love, faith, appreciation, gratitude, peace, hope, compassion, grace, trust. These are the blessings that God gives so freely.