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 honored,
and I love you
(Isaiah 43:3,4)



*Sermon preached February 5, 2017,
at the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

Photo: Carl Nenzen Loven,



Why did they follow him?

Those very first disciples — Simon, Andrew, James and John – what made them drop their nets, and go? I mean, if a stranger approached you and asked you to follow him, would you go? Wouldn’t you at least ask for some references, maybe google him first?

Yet they leave their nets, their boats, their father, even, and follow Jesus, no questions asked. No one asks, Where? Let alone, Why? Don’t you think you’d want to know, before you started following someone, just where they were going? You know the joke, about the motorist who gets caught in a terrible fog; he slows way down, but still he can’t see a thing, except that he can just barely make out the taillights of the car in front of him, so he follows them, until they suddenly come to a stop. He rolls down his window and calls out, why did you stop? And the driver of the other car answers, “because I’m in my driveway.”

Let’s face it, no one wants to think of themselves as a follower. We all want to be leaders – entrepreneurs, innovators — co-creators, maybe, but certainly not followers. It’s downright un-American, to be a follower. We are supposed to be rugged individualists, marching to the beat of our different drummers. Years ago, my Mom asked a friend of hers, a prominent international reporter, what he thought was the most distinctive characteristic of Americans. He answered, our belief that we have nothing to learn from anyone else. The mere fact that someone else came up with an idea first, is enough to make us reject it.

So despite our sentimental attachment to Jesus as the good shepherd, none of us really wants to be a sheep. To call someone a sheep is to accuse them of mindless conformity and thoughtless obedience. As the pig is the symbol of gluttony – fairly or not – so the sheep is the symbol of gullibility. Because an animal that can be easily led, can also be easily misled. Sheep are vulnerable creatures.

History affords any number of examples, of bad shepherds and false messiahs, who led their people into violence, delusion, or despair. The word Fuhrer, we should remember, simply means Leader.

Jesus warns his disciples of this; he tells them again, near the end of Matthew’s gospel, to beware of false shepherds. “Many will come,” Jesus says to them, “claiming to be the Messiah. If anyone says to you, Look, here he is! – do not believe it.” Of course, if they had followed his advice back in Galilee, they would never have become Jesus’ disciples in the first place. It’s a bit of a catch-22, really.

Some of us can relate to the fishermen’s enthusiasm. You know who you are — adventurous souls who are happy to go off the map, or trusting souls who will leave the details to others. Some of us prefer to travel familiar roads, with a map in hand.

Or at least to ask a few questions, before we sign up for the trip.

The fishermen were ready to follow Jesus, no questions asked. Not so, John the Baptist. John, after all, knew a thing or two about bad shepherds. He had already been arrested by one. I imagine him, waiting in prison, knowing he may never leave there, and wondering, what will become of his own disciples? And remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. But John will not endorse candidate Jesus without a bit more information. So John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

And Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon their oppressors? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely leader who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?

So what about us? Who are we waiting for? Are we waiting for One who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this messiah, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah? Or are we looking for someone else?

Like John the Baptist, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for?

And Jesus replies: You tell me. Am I?



by Liza B. Knapp
sermon for The First Church of Deerfield, MA
January 26, 2020

Photo: Ronnie Overgoor,



Hope, Rising

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 1-12; NRSV)

The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.

Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.

Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.

By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.

The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago.  When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.

It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.

I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.

We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.

In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.

The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.

This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge:  Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.


1. The Orion Nebula, birthplace of stars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.
2. Orion on film, by Matthew Spinelli

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.