Introduction to the Scripture: First Words
Last Sunday we celebrated the promise of resurrection: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. As you might recall, our Gospel reading did not end with the women shouting Hallelujah or all the disciples singing Joy to the World. We did those things; we had to. The Gospel of Mark ends with the women being seized in amazement and terror. They ran away and did not say anything to anyone for they were afraid…
That was last Sunday; that was the end of the Gospel. Now we’ve come back here again, and we’re ready for a new word of beginning. May God bless you.
In the Gospel of Luke, Mary learns she is pregnant and goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Once she steps into the house, Elizabeth knows. Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and she greets Mary by exclaiming “Blessed are you among women!”
Soon thereafter Elizabeth gives birth to John, her husband Zechariah gets filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” Zechariah’s prophecy begins the same way many Jewish prayers begin, with these words: “Blessed are you, O God…”
So blessing is the first word out of our mouths. Before the hello. Before any demand we have brought to place on each other. First, blessed are you. First, say the blessing.
A few years ago during Lent, we read a book called An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. The last chapter is all about blessing, and it is extraordinary. Its purpose is twofold. First, she makes the case that anyone can bless. It’s a churchy word, I know. But blessing is not just for rabbis, and pastors, and priests. Blessing requires no special credential or authority. That’s important because her second point is that our world is starving for blessing.
Early in the chapter, she writes this: “There remain a great many people who excuse themselves when asked to pronounce a formal blessing… If you are one of these people, then only you know why. All I can tell you is how much the world needs you to reconsider.”1Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World; A Geography of Faith. Harper One: 2009. page 194.
She goes on to explain that by blessing someone or something we are not making them holy. Instead, we’re recognizing the holiness that already exists, the part of their being that’s already connected to the divine. This is how human beings can bless God, and why we should. It’s saying, “You are holy O God, we see that and know that.”
It’s like telling a baby she is loved by God when we baptize her. Baptism doesn’t cause God to love her; God has loved her from the beginning —before the before of her existence. Baptism is our chance to notice that and say it out loud. Same with blessing.
One more thing to know about blessing: it comes with intrinsic reciprocity so there’s no way to bless something or someone and not get blessed yourself. Barbara Brown Taylor says there’s no way to bless someone without realizing they beat you to it.2Taylor 196. It’s like working with glitter. Wherever else you mean for the glitter to go, you know you will get it all over your own hands. That’s just how glitter works. Same with blessing.
Today we’re beginning a new worship series which will take us up to Pentecost. In these next weeks, we’ll examine the blessings Jesus pronounces in his Sermon on the Plain from the Gospel of Luke. This list is similar to the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. But in Luke’s version, each blessing comes paired with words of woe. And, instead of preaching from the top of the mountain, Jesus has come to stand on the flat place.
In Luke’s version, Jesus went up the mountain to spend the night in prayer to God. In the morning, he called the twelve disciples, then he gathered them and went down to the plain where a great multitude had assembled. The people were there for three things. They wanted to hear what Jesus had to say; they wanted to touch him; they wanted to be healed by him, because the power of the Spirit was coming out of him. So Jesus stands there and looks at all the crowd, every person needing something from him, and he begins to speak: “Blessed are you…”
Blessing upon our reading and hearing of the scripture.
Response to the Scripture: Unprovoked and Honest
A few minutes ago, I told you Jesus’ first words to the crowd were “Blessed are you.” As we heard, it’s actually more specific and more shocking. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.” You can be sure, for the poor and the rich, this was not the message they were expecting to hear. They had come to be healed! Instead, Jesus blessed them. And maybe something like this has happened to you.
A few weeks ago, I spent a Monday doing my taxes. Now I don’t know how the project of taxes makes you feel. I’m sure there are some of us here who find it rewarding or soothing. I am sorry to tell you, it is a project that does not bring out my best. Somewhere between the meticulous instruction-following and the math and Schedules C and SE, I lose myself.
This recent tax Monday turned out to be longer and more difficult than I expected. I had started in the morning; it was now well into the evening when I had what I hoped would be my last video conference with a CPA. So I meet the accountant, Joseph who finds out I’m a pastor. “Oh, I’m a priest,” he says. And pretty soon, we are not just talking about taxes.
You’ve got to understand. I was exhausted and frazzled. I didn’t mean for anyone to see me like this. I didn’t mean to tell him about myself. I meant to find out how the reciprocal agreement between Illinois and Iowa applies to non W-2 income. Now the guy who was staffing the tax help line had to go and treat me like a human being when I did not feel like one.
He says to me “God bless you, pastor.” And I heard myself answer: “Bless you, Father Joseph.” And I know this blessing language might be more common among priests and pastors, and I know that is too bad, because seriously, who doesn’t need blessing when they’re filing their taxes…
There is something about blessing that’s so unprovoked and honest. The people had come to the flat place to be healed and Jesus goes and blessed them. At first, it sounds like he’s just blessing the poor, but what if his words to the rich are really the underneath side of the same blessing…
Woe to you who are rich, says the Lord. You have already gotten what you wanted. Woe to you who have it made, who got the highest test score, or the promotion, or the prize you were working toward. Woe to all of us who walk around thinking money can save us.
That’s the same theme we hear in the Psalm this morning. Psalm Forty-Nine is a wisdom fable sung to the poor and the rich together, like the crowd who came to hear the Sermon on the Plain. Our version of the Psalm features this terrific refrain: “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp…” I love that language! We human people will die one day; we cannot live forever in our money.
Now please understand. Neither the Psalmist nor Jesus are condemning the rich. Nobody’s saying the rich are bad people. But what a shame. What a shame to give our lives to the getting of money, and if you get the money you’ve always wanted, then what? Then what’s the point…
“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. And in Luke, he does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He says blessed are the people living in poverty. And that’s unheard of! The prevailing idea is that if you are poor, it must somehow be your own fault. It should be “Cursed are the poor! For they must be lazy, or using drugs, or caught up with crime, or uneducated, or fill-in-the-blank.” Jesus’ message is the opposite of what we’re used to hearing.
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” And what if he’s right…
Imagine how it would feel to be in the crowd that day and be poor, then have Jesus look at you and bless you…
Now it would be one thing if these were his parting words to the crowd. If he looked at the people, said “Blessed are the poor, C-ya I’m out!” that would not be convincing or helpful. Yeah, thanks for the blessing, Jesus. I can’t pay for a car repair with your blessing; our children can’t eat your blessing.
It matters that the blessing comes in one of Jesus’ first sermons because then he launches into a whole ministry of inciting the kingdom of God. There is something about saying the blessing that makes us responsible. Blessed are the poor, for we will help them get into a shelter. We will give them food on Saturday morning. We will live up to the blessing we pronounce.
There’s something in saying the blessing that changes how we see, because there’s no way to bless without seeing some of God.
Friends, it really could be the case that our world is experiencing a deficiency of blessing. It’s not that the earth isn’t brimming with God’s love; it is. But somebody’s got to say it, even if it’s unprovoked. It’s being honest. It is noticing what has been here this whole time.
So I hope you will bless someone this week. If it feels strange to say, I recommend practicing on your pets or on people around you who sneeze. Just hear blessing come out of your own mouth and see if it changes how you see; see if you get blessed.
All the light is already here. All the love is already here. The kingdom of God is here. Behold. God bless you; blessed are you O God. Amen.