On Beatitudes and Blessing

Handmade gift wrap(Creative Commons image by erika g on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

Two questions animated — or maybe haunted — my exegetical study this week. I’ll ask you to wrestle with each of them along side me for a few moments.

First, what is blessing? Have you ever wondered about that? It’s one of those words that we have so thoroughly taken into our religious vocabulary that I think it’s quite easy to take for granted. But if one of your parishioners — or, better yet, a friend of yours that doesn’t go to church — were to ask you what in the world a blessing is, or what it means to be blessed, how would you answer?

I thought of this question while reading the Beatitudes and being struck once again by how notoriously slippery makarios — the word translated here as “blessing” — can be. In addition to “blessed,” it can mean “happy,” “fortunate,” “well off,” and more. Hence Robert Schuller’s famous — or was it infamous — “commentary” on these verses called “The Be-Happy Attitudes.”

But suppose, for a moment, that we stick with the traditional “blessed.” I still am having a hard time figuring out precisely what that means. This word, too, has several meanings. It can indicate special favor, unique standing, permission, empowerment, endowment, and more. So maybe the question isn’t what it means, but rather what it feels like. What does it feel like when you’re blessed?

Blessing is something that can’t be pursued, but can only be received as a gift.

And by asking the question this way, I begin to get a sense of Jesus’ promise. To be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.

When this passage came up a few years ago, I suggested closing the sermon or service with blessing, whether entering into a corporate renewal of baptism and blessing or having individual blessing. The outcome — in terms of comments, emails, and conversation — was staggering. What, I wondered, is so powerful about blessing? One thing that occurred to me is how rare it was then and still is today. Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame and he defied both cultural norms by offering blessing. We live, I’d suggest, in a culture of affirmation and blame, and need also to defy both by offering blessing.

Affirmation. Have you noticed how often our children receive medals, ribbons, and trophies merely for “Participation” — that is, for just showing up. One day a few years ago my kids returned home from an outing, each with a medal for participation in their hands. I couldn’t resist: “Do you know what you had to do to earn one of those when I was a kid?” I asked. “You had to WIN!” I answered, laughing so they would know that I meant no harm. But I needn’t have worried, for they laughed right along, as they had already come to learn that such awards mean next to nothing. Affirmation is nice, but often is empty.

And then there’s blame. This has become all but a national pastime — it’s the politicians fault (or, if you are a politician, it’s the other party’s fault); it’s the official’s fault; it’s my teacher’s fault; it’s my parents’/children’s fault; and on and on and on. Blame is a way of discharging pain and disappointment without taking any responsibility.

Sometimes I think we’ve been taught to pursue happiness, settle for affirmation, and — when neither of those work out — relapse into blame. So in place of empty affirmation and corrosive blame, let’s substitute blessing: God’s unconditional regard for us, assurance to accompany us, power to help us persevere and flourish, and promise that we deserve love, honor, and respect. Blessing is something that can’t be pursued — sorry, President Jefferson! — but can only be received as a gift.

Second question: Why these people? I mean, think about it, the people Jesus names as blessed most certainly are not the people society considers blessed, which is partly why I think Jesus chooses them. Because in this sermon he is not — contrary to all of the pseudo-Christian, pseudo-therapeutic preaching of these verses over the years — offering a recipe for success or the keys to happiness or a roadmap to having your best life now. Rather, he is demonstrating once again that God regularly and relentlessly shows up just where we least expect God to be in order to give to us freely what we can neither earn nor achieve: blessedness.

But that’s just part of it. Frankly, I also think that Jesus chooses these states or conditions to lift up because it’s precisely in our moments of disappointment or despair that we are likely finally to abandon cultural stereotypes about blessing (understood as happiness, wealth, fame, or power) and be open to the presence of God that gives without asking in return and blesses that we might be a blessing. My friend Andy Root makes a persuasive case in his book The Relational Pastor that to be human is to be broken. And when we meet ourselves in brokenness (poverty of spirit or mourning) and vulnerability (eschewing the way of violence for peace), we experience the power and presence of God mediated through the Christian community.

Maybe that’s what true blessing is, Working Preacher: drawing together as the family of God, seeing each other as God’s beloved children, meeting each other at the points of our brokenness, and conveying to each other our and God’s promises of regard, presence, accompaniment and, above all, worth. We are worthy of blessing, for God Almighty has created us and called us so.

Thank you for your faithfulness, Working Preacher, and may God bless your life and proclamation this week and always that you may be renewed and take delight in the calling you have received.

Yours in Christ,