Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, February 2, 2014
Matt 5:1-12; Micah 6:1-8
Are you blessed? How many people here consider themselves to be blessed? I certainly feel blessed with health, with family, with friends, with a comfortable home and money to travel. But what do I mean by this? Do I mean that God blessed me with all of this? If so, why doesn’t God bless everyone else with the same?
There is a very dangerous theology out there called the prosperity gospel. This belief tells us that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. If you are poor, you must be sinning and if you are rich, you must be living according to God’s will. We could hardly take this seriously were it not for the fact that tens of millions of Christians follow this doctrine. One investigative journalist argued that millions of adherents of the prosperity gospel may have “pumped air into the housing bubble that caused the Financial crisis of 2007–2010, by ignoring the dull stuff of hourly wages and bank account statements, rational cause and effect and the prudent calculation of what spending can be afforded, in favor of financial miracles” A preacher of the prosperity gospel was even quoted as saying that “Jesus had a nice house, a big house,” that “Jesus was handling big money,” and he even “wore designer clothes.”!!! Not the Jesus I know! I can’t “buy” into this theology.
We know that wealth and health are not necessarily dependent on holy living. Even more, we know that poverty and sickness are not necessarily the consequence of living in sin. Blaming the victim has never taken us very far. Conversely, giving God credit for our health and wealth may be a bit misleading.
I may be healthy because I eat well and exercise, or because I simply have good genes, or because I live in a country that has good health care, or all of the above. I am blessed by circumstance and by genetics. What role, then, does God play? If God doesn’t bless us directly with wealth and health, how does God bless us? Or does God simply stand off, aloof and apart from us, indifferent to our world? Sometimes it feels like that.
I have found something called process theology to be helpful with this dilemma. It suggests that God is both transcendent mystery, holy other as well as intimately known and involved in our world. God does affect change in our world by sending what process theology calls aims, or what I call Spirit nudgings, towards each one of us, opening us to love, courage, humility, hope. These are the blessings of God. I don’t believe that God directly intervenes to change the course of events in our world or in our own personal lives. If I believed that, I would not be able to understand why God didn’t intervene in some of our world’s greatest atrocities. What I do believe is that God tries to indirectly change the world through us. God sends us constant nudgings to help us make beauty in our world and in our own lives—so that we become the hands and feet of God’s blessing.
I have seen this a few times when I bring a prayer shawl to someone in the hospital or a nursing home. As they wrap the shawl around them, they literally feel the warmth of our church’s blessings enwrapping them—God’s blessings through the hands of the knitters. It is a tangible way for them to know that they are not alone; that God is walking with them, blessing them, holding them, even, in what may be a very difficult time.
This theology is the opposite of the prosperity gospel. Instead of saying that God blesses us with wealth and health, it says that, in spite of our wealth or poverty, God blesses us. In spite of our health or sickness, God blesses us. This is what most biblical scholars agree is the meaning of the beatitudes. These statements of blessing in the beatitudes are not given because of particular circumstances, but in spite of them.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This could be translated as God’s favour is upon those who are spiritually poor, not because they are poor, but in spite of their poverty. Even those who are poor are not abandoned by God. God’s favour is upon the meek, not because they are meek but in spite of them being walked over by the powerful, God’s nudgings of affirmation of worth lifts them up. God’s favour is upon those who mourn, not because they mourn, but in spite of being wracked by the heavy chains of grief, God has not abandoned them, but holds them in the Spirit’s comforting arms. God’s favour is upon those who hunger spiritually, not because they are hungry, but in spite of a gnawing emptiness inside, the Spirit fills them with a sense of enough.
“God’s favour precedes all endeavours,” Fred Craddock writes. We each receive the blessing of God’s favour not because of what we do or even who we are. We are each favoured by God simply because of God’s love that envelops every one of us, without condition.
Have you ever had a parent or a partner or a friend hold you and love you no matter how much you might have screwed up? In that moment, you might feel unworthy of their love, but that’s when you realize what it means to be blessed with unconditional love.
Fredrich Neitzsche called the Beatitudes prescriptions for sheep and slaves, but I think he missed the point. These blessings do not encourage people to be meek, to mourn, to be poor and hungry, persecuted and victims. Rather, they promise us that, in spite of our condition and our circumstance, God will never leave us, but will bless us with gifts of an inner strength and peace that nothing can destroy. In spite of our condition and circumstance, God blesses us with Spirit nudgings to be God’s blessing to others.
When we put our blessings all together, we can become a formidable force of love. Pete Seeger sang about this power through folk songs that have inspired social justice movements for decades. Last week, we lost a folk hero, but his songs will continue to inspire us. In spite of very difficult circumstances of racism and poverty, we can be living blessings of love, courage, and compassion that can overcome violence and injustice.
Let us conclude the sermon with a commitment to being blessings as we sing the song that Pete Seeger adapted and led in the Civil Rights Movement (We Shall Overcome).
John Avanzini, quoted in David Jones, “The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity Gospel: An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics” http://bible.org/article/bankruptcy-prosperity-gospel-exercise-biblical-and-theological-ethics