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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"Lenten Blessings": Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

I hope that you all are having a blessed morning so far today!

I’ve been pondering the idea of “blessings” this week.

One of the things I love the most about what we do here at St. Andrew’s is how much we take time to proclaim God’s blessing: we share birthday blessings, anniversary blessings, children’s blessings, and a monthly ministry emphasis blessing.

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke even ended with the familiar words: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Of, course, we say that blessing every week as well as part of the Eucharistic Prayer, right after the Sanctus (the Holy, Holy, Holy part).

Sharing God’s blessing is an integral part of our worship.

But as I ponder that idea of blessing and “being blessed” a little bit more, I stumble into bigger issues about the way our society often defines those terms.

It’s quite common in our society—especially in the South and Southwest—to hear in answer to the question “How are you?”… “I am blessed.”

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine line to walk. I know that I even did this last winter after my cancer surgery.

I had gotten a good prognosis after my surgery. I was surrounded by the love of my family. I was being visited daily and fed by loving parishioners. When I tried to think of an adjective to describe my situation, generally the one I came up with was “blessed.”

But there is also a potential problem with my use of the term.  

Kate Bowler, a Duke Divinity School Professor, has recently written a book called Blessed.

Bowler explains that in the last decade in American culture, “‘being blessed’ is a full-fledged American phenomenon.” She explains that it’s a “loaded term” the way most Americans—especially many Prosperity Gospel Christians—use it. On the one hand, “blessed” indicates gift—as in: “Thank you God, because I never could have gotten this on my own!” But on the other hand, she says that “blessed” is also used like it’s a deserved reward, as in: “Thank you, me, for being the kind of person who gets it right, and deserves what I get!”[1]

This is the danger of “blessing” and “being blessed” in our society. The prosperity gospel is, more or less, the idea that God will give you health and wealth if you have the right kind of faith.

If you only believe the right way…

If you only worship the right way…

If you only give the right way…

God will bless you with abundance. God will give you all that you ask. It’s a transaction.

This may be a comforting image of how things work with God. I can see why this would be a popular theology. It gives people a guarantee: “Follow the rules and God will give you your reward!”[2]

Of course the problem with this system of belief comes when people follow the rules and they still get sick. Follow the rules, and still lose their jobs. Follow the rules, and still come into a broken relationship. Follow the rules and still have a loved one who is hurting and estranged.

So the question is, can you still be “blessed” and have all earthly rewards and earthly pleasures stripped away?

The prosperity gospel tries to instill certainty. But, life actually hands us a pile of uncertainty and questioning. And that’s okay. I think we can still be blessed in the midst of our uncertainty.

In the Book of Genesis that we read today, we get the story of Abram, who was the beneficiary of God’s covenant—God’s blessing.

Despite Abram’s advanced age, God had promised him that he would have descendents. Abram had traveled from his home in Ur to Canaan, then Egypt, and back to Canaan. He has waited for years, but yet he still has no children. He is becoming uncertain about how God is going to fulfill this covenant.

So Abram asks: “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  He further explains: “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

But God says to him: “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  God then brings him outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” He then says to Abram: “So shall your descendants be.”

The text tells us that Abram believes God, and the Lord reckons Abram as righteous.

The Lord then offers the land for Abram to possess. And Abram immediately asks: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I am to possess it?”

I think this is one of the most important verses for us to ponder. Abram has just been judged righteous by God for his belief. Abram has just been shown the stars—by God—and promised that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars. In short, Abram is the model of a covenant believer for us.

Nevertheless,

ABRAM STILL QUESTIONS!

For us, we don’t even usually have the benefit of these clear-cut conversations with God about our futures, do we?

If we are hoping to get a job promotion, we don’t usually have God come to us, take us outside and say: “look around, here’s my promise to you—I’m going to give you as many job promotions as there are plastic grocery bags stuck hanging from the trees!”

That’s not how this works.

We don’t get that kind of certainty. We can’t get that kind of “blessing.”

But what do we get?

As we heard last week, we get the blessing of “God among us.”

Looking back at the Genesis story, when Abram asks how he shall know he will possess the land, the Lord instructs him to gather animals for the sacrifice.

This part of the story refers to a covenantal practice in the Ancient Near East, where animals would be halved, and the persons engaging in the covenant would pass through the middle of the carcasses. By passing through, the party was saying: “If I don’t keep my end of the bargain, may I suffer the same fate as this animal, and be torn in two.”

In the Genesis story, Abram did not have to pass through the carcasses, but the Lord, as represented by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch, took on the obligation. The Lord made a promise.

In other words, God is willing to be self-sacrificial to answer our questions, to assuage our fears, to calm our doubts, and to bring us to peace.

Abram slept a deep sleep in the terrifying darkness as God fulfilled the covenant. Abram did not gain the covenant because of unquestioning belief. Abram questioned constantly.

God was there for Abram, despite his questions.

God is there for us despite our questions.

God was there for Abram because of his questions.

God is there for us because of our questions.

Kate Bowler, the author of the Blessed book I mentioned earlier, is a 35-year-old wife and mother of a toddler, as well as a professor. She recently discovered she has Stage 4 cancer with a massive tumor. Bowler reflects on dying and the lack of control in her life.

She says that cancer “has kicked down the walls” of her life. She writes: “I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny.” [3]

But she also points out that “cancer has ushered in new ways of being alive.” She asserts: “In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[4]

Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. And we are blessed.

We are blessed through our love of one another as Christ loved us.

We are blessed in the Holy sacraments, through which we are able to participate in outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace.

We are blessed when we laugh together. We are blessed when we cry together.

We are blessed in community.

And we are blessed in uncertainty.

God is with us, among us, and through us God’s love is taken into the world.

So, as we continue on our Lenten journeys, as we are blessed, may we also be a blessing to others.

Amen. 

 

[1] Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” The New York Times, February 13, 2016, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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