Yesterday* I did a quick search on twitter using the hashtag #blessed.
I found a lot of tweets from young athletes, who reported feeling #blessed after receiving college admissions offers. Other tweeters reported being #blessed with a fresh new haircut, an A on an exam, and an awesome gynecologist.
A surprising number of the tweets were about food; black beans, enchiladas, tacos – apparently Tex Mex is especially blessed, although there was also a memorable reference to “pillowy pockets of Nutella heaven.”
All this blessedness is a somewhat new thing. Growing up I don’t remember people claiming a blessing every time something positive happened in their life. In fact, I don’t remember my family ever using the word except when someone sneezed, and even then, we favored “gesundheit” over “bless you.”
I thought maybe this was maybe just a regional thing, but it turns out that blessing has in fact been on the rise. One historian of religion has traced the sudden increase of blessedness in the past decade to the rise of the prosperity gospel – a particular interpretation of Christianity that promises material wealth and health to its believers.
The prosperity gospel may be on the rise lately, but it is nothing new; it is the televised American reboot of an idea at least as old as the book of Proverbs, where we read: Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous. It is a program of divine behavior modification, in which good things come to those who are good, or who believe. We get what we deserve, or what we have earned.
Out of curiosity, I also searched the hashtag #lucky. I found many references to the Chinese New Year. I also found many folks who felt lucky in love. Some felt lucky to have children. One felt lucky to be traveling to Barcelona. There was less Tex Mex food here, but one person did report feeling lucky to be eating popcorn.
We often use the two words – blessed and lucky – as if they mean the same thing. If we experience good fortune, we say we are blessed. But there’s a difference between a blessing and a stroke of luck; for starters, fortune is a noun, but blessing – to bless – is a verb. There is a subject, an actor, a source of every blessing. Luck, on the other hand, just happens.
The third possibility, of course, is that we are the masters of our own fate, and that nothing befalls us by grace or by luck, but only by our own effort or merit. In which case perhaps we should speak of our rewards instead of our blessings.
But there is a difference, between a reward and a blessing and a stroke of luck. It is a difference that becomes more stark, when our luck runs out.
When I was in my late twenties, I was injured in an accident; I was riding along the Potomac with a friend and for reasons I still don’t know my bike flipped and I came down hard. I was wearing a helmet, but I actually hit my face. I cracked the bone behind my upper lip, lost seven teeth, herniated a disk, and cut my face and mouth so that I needed three dozen stitches.
When I say all that aloud, I still think, wow, that sounds really bad. And it was, pretty bad. But I haven’t told you the whole story. Here’s the rest of it:
My friend rode with me in the ambulance, and waited for me while I got x-rayed, stitched up, and discharged. I was pretty dazed, and it wasn’t until we were leaving that I thought to ask: How are we going to get home?
I called Sarah, she said, and she’s on her way to pick us up.
What happened to our bicycles? I wondered.
They’re at the police station, she said. Cathy will pick them up tomorrow.
Okay, good. I remembered something else. My housemate’s out of town this weekend. I’m not sure I should be alone.
Don’t worry, she said. Simon and Carin are coming over to spend the night. They’ll have to go to work in the morning, but Deb can come and spend the day with you.
In the time it took me to get my stitches, an entire team of friends had assembled to get me through the night. By the time we got to my house, there was even chocolate pudding waiting for me – which, by the way, is exactly what a traumatized toothless person needs.
I was unlucky that day. But I was also blessed.
My bike accident, bad as it was, was really just a temporary trauma. There are injuries far more lasting, and losses far greater than the loss of a few teeth. And not everyone has a circle of friends ready to pick them up when they fall.
When suffering is prolonged and severe – when we experience, not one, but a whole series of unfortunate events – the question of blessing becomes all the more urgent. For which is easier to believe: that God still loves us, broken as we are; or that God would fix us, if only God still loved us? Catholic writer Henri Nouwen once observed that for many of us, the sense of being cursed often comes more easily than the sense of being blessed. Our brokenness is all the more painful to us, because we see it as evidence of that curse.
For if prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, what are we to make of adversity – our own, or our neighbor’s?
Enter Jesus, on a hillside in Galilee.
Some of you were probably wondering, when I was going to get to him. I sometimes take a roundabout path, but I do get to the scripture, sooner or later.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a lavish litany of blessings.
Blessed are the peacemakers, and the pure in heart, and the merciful. Right.
Blessed are the meek, and the poor in spirit. Okay.
Blessed are those who mourn. Umm… Jesus?
Blessed are you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Okay, what is going on here?
Jesus radically uncouples God’s blessing from our good luck, by extending it not just to the healthy and wealthy but also to the broken and bankrupt. What sort of blessing is this, then, that belongs even to the meek, the merciful, and the mourning?
This is no prosperity gospel, my friends. This is an adversity gospel.
If we read the Beatitudes as a prosperity gospel, a gospel of reward for righteousness, we come away with the impression that God desires for us to be meek and mourning and reviled. This is how I used to read this scripture, as a list of desirable traits for which we would be rewarded.
But what if that was not the point of these blessings at all? What if Jesus was trying, not to instruct us, but simply to bless us? To bless us, in our adversity? To bless all the folks he saw on that hillside in Galilee – not just the lucky ones, but even the unlucky ones – especially, perhaps, the unlucky ones?
As Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, the ones who had come to believe that, for them, blessings would never be in the cards. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grow on trees?”
And those of us who wish to follow Jesus: should we be any less extravagant? If there is a lesson here, perhaps it is not that we should be meek, but that we, too, may bless the meek? Not that we should mourn, but that we, too, may bless the mourning? Not that we must earn our blessing, but that we, like Jesus, like Abraham, may become a blessing to our neighbor?
It isn’t really that hard to do. Sometimes all it takes is some chocolate pudding.
The evening after my accident, I sat in my living room, surrounded by my friends, eating chocolate pudding. If I was in pain, I do not remember it. I remember only two feelings: hunger and happiness. Broken though I was, I was blessed.
And so are you, my friends. So are we all.
For this is the story at the heart of our scriptures:
that even an enslaved people may be God’s chosen people,
that even a condemned man may be God’s beloved son,
that even the broken may be blessed.
For I the LORD am your God
You are precious in my sight,
and I love you
*Sermon preached February 5, 2017,
at the First Church of Deerfield, MA.
Photo: Carl Nenzen Loven, unsplash.com