“May God bless us, through Christ, to be a blessing,” Amen.
An article by Christian leadership consultant Scott Dannemiller circulated around social media last week. The article suggested that Christians should, must, stop responding to inquiries about their lives by automatically describing themselves as “blessed”. As in, “how’s it going?” “Oh, I’m blessed.” No doubt you’ve heard this response, perhaps made it yourself, I know I have. Do we stop and think about what this really communicates?
Like Dannemiller, I’ve been troubled by this expression from time to time. Not that we don’t believe in being grateful to God for all that we have — our friends and family, along with our physical and spiritual health, in addition to our material resources. At the same time, when those of us with vastly greater resources than the majority of the world blithely say we are “blessed”, do we unconsciously equate the resources we possess with God’s favor? And if so, does this mean, then, that “the . . . millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day” receive less of God’s grace than we do?
This kind of thinking in the 20th and 21st century has grown into what is sometimes called “Prosperity Theology”. And I’m not buying it. And neither was Jesus! When he schools the surprised Nicodemus — wealthy, powerful, and male — Jesus redefines blessings, just as he did in the Beatitudes.
As a Jewish leader, Nicodemus knew that he was blessed! He was a descendent of Abraham, for heaven’s sake! Nicodemus followed the law, and knew he was righteous. Imagine his shock when Jesus pointed out that Nicodemus still had work to do! That he needed to be “reborn” of water and “Spirit” – Spirit, a feminine word in Hebrew, ruach —a Spirit that, as in Jesus illustrates with playful use of ruach’s other meaning “wind”, could not be controlled. God’s blessings are not delivered to us like an Amazon order from our prayer “Prime” account!
Our view of what it means to be “blessed” can vary at different times in our lives – if we’re feeling large and in charge, or wandering in the desert. Even the book of Genesis — which, in our Bible Studies class today, we discover as a composite work written by different authors at different periods in history – contains different viewpoints. Today’s portion was written by a source that scholars call the “Yahwist”, who wrote during the times of the monarchy in Israel, around the year 1000 BCE, when the Hebrew people were on top, doing well, with a strong sense of nationalism. Here, let me put on my “Yahwist” lenses. Ah, now I see: Abram is sent to conquer Canaan, and get himself a wife (Sarai), because at that time, property and women were both owned by men. And Abraham would make a nation, because genealogies were tracked through men. And the Lord — Yahweh — would make this happen, like a powerful king who rules with no objections. This Lord blesses us, therefore, to reward our righteousness.
I wonder how this text looks when I put on a Paulist lens? The Apostle Paul wrote about Abraham more than anyone, ahhhh, and now I see why! Paul was speaking to an audience of both Jewish and Gentile members of the new Jesus movement. He was trying to connect the faith of Abraham to faith in Jesus the Christ. Abraham is central to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
Abraham’s grave is located in Hebron, a city in the West Bank that we visited during our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His tomb stands in the center of a large building, with a Muslim Mosque on one side, and a Jewish Temple on the other, with bulletproof windows on each side through which worshipers from both traditions view the tomb, pray and presumably, are blessed. Sarah’s tomb is also there, hey . . . what would happen if I read our lectionary using my “Sarah” lens?
Hmmm. Well, I sure don’t see my name anywhere in these texts. How does Abram think he’s going to get all those babies? I like when Jesus tells Nicodemus he has to be “born again”; there must be a woman involved somewhere in that, surely. Jesus often gets himself in trouble by talking to women, troublesome ones, and treating them as equals. Perhaps Jesus is trying to tell this powerful man, Nicodemus, that in order to find God, he must take the view of a child, of someone without power? If only those in power could try on the lens of those with less, might they learn to share their power? Perhaps then we could become a blessing, become a true ally? What would that look like?
As you can see, trying on different “lenses” — different viewpoints — can get messy, awkward, even uncomfortable. It’s much simpler to simply read the text through the lens we are accustomed to wearing; or better yet, to forget that we even have a particular lens at all, and assume that everyone shares our same experience.
Being asked to imagine other points of view may also make us feel guilty. During Black History Month, those of us who are European-American may feel uncomfortable thinking about our ancestors’ role in the oppression of black persons in our nation’s history. During March, Women’s History Month, men may not like to be reminded that women in America still earn only 80 cents on the dollar. Men often ask me, “can men be feminists?” and my response is a resounding, “yes of course!”. I’d like to suggest ways that any and all of us can become a blessing, an ally, for a person or group needing support. For example . . .
Next time you’re in a conversation, notice the comments and ideas spoken by women in that group. You might see them getting interrupted, ignored, or even being later attributed to a man in the group. To be an ally, you can try speaking up and saying, “I liked Sarah’s suggestion!”. If you’re in a group with a minority of people of color, or immigrants, or Jewish or Muslim persons, those of us in a majority can share our power to speak, and request “We haven’t heard from Sarah; I’d like to hear her perspective.” Sharing power does not diminish, it enhances. You can be a blessing, and it will bless you, and everyone in the room.
Of course, one lens we can use to read Scripture is the Literal lens. When I use that one, I interpret that Jesus is suggesting Nicodemus be “born again by water and the Spirit” through baptism. Makes sense. Through the sacrament of baptism, we take on the mind of Christ, and are marked has his own, forever.
In fact, we can view our baptismal vows as a roadmap to help us become a blessing to others: by teaching the richness of the prayers and sacraments; by tending to the needs of others; by telling the Good News of God in Christ; by treasuring the blessings that God gives to all his creatures; and by transforming unjust systems into those that share the blessings. Our Eucharist is a symbol of such advocacy — the meal is shared among everyone, and taken out into the community, beyond our walls, to become a blessing to all.
So: what are we to say? On a great day, or on a challenging day, when someone asks, “how are you doing?” How shall we respond? How about: “The wind blows where she chooses, and I’m following the best I can!”
May you be blessed to be a blessing, through Christ, who makes us new.