Blessings


Transcript of my sermon delivered on Sunday 29th January 2017

This sermon uses two passages from the Bible, and questions what are blessings, and how do we recognise blessings in our lives. The passages are Micah 6: 1 – 8  and Matthew 5: 1 – 12and I began my talk by showing this piece of video from “The Life of Brian” – the Sermon on the Mount

It might seem a bit surprising that a clip from an anarchic film such as The Life of Brian could be used in a sermon in church, but I like this clip because it shows us so much about human nature, and the very real way that we can not only fall out over insignificant things, but also how if we’re not careful the Word of God can be misheard and mis-translated. It also ties in with our gospel reading today, where Matthew writes about Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If you know the film, or if you are familiar with parts of it, you will also know that later on, there’s a scene where the elders are all sat round and the conversation goes something like “pah, what have the Romans ever done for us?”. (Aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public order, health, peace etc)

The scene that Micah writes about in our first reading is not dissimilar: he speaks of the Israelites who are complaining about “what has the Lord ever done for us”, and Micah points out that God led them out of slavery, he sent great leaders in the shape of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and he saved them from Balak’s plans to have them cursed by the magician Balaam in Moab. Not only that but when they were stuck in the sinful city of Shittim, God led them to safety by crossing them over the river Jordan to the safety of Gilgal. You can almost hear the answer “yeah, well, apart from all that, what has God ever done for us?!”.

How many of us can say, hand on hearts, that we have never said something similar? How many of us have felt that we are hard done-to, or downtrodden, or that we deserve all the misery that is in our lives at the minute? I think it’s fair to say that at some time or another – some probably more than most – we have all failed to see what God has done for us, and we have simply not acknowledged his presence in our lives. Through Micah we are reminded that the Lord has done, and continues to do great things for us.

It’s the same message that we hear from Matthew too. The Beatitudes – a collection of blessings that Jesus is reported as saying in his oft referred to “sermon on the mount”. Scholars now argue that what Matthew wrote here is more of a series of headlines or soundbites rather than a word for word account of a single address given by Jesus on a hillside. I don’t know either way – I’m not a Biblical scholar and I have still got a lot to learn about the teachings of Jesus – but if these are really just headlines, then I feel it’s up to us to put the meat on the story, so to speak.

So what is a blessing then? What does it mean to be blessed? 

It’s perhaps easier to think about what a blessing isn’t. It isn’t the same as being happy, for example. If that were the case, then most of the beatitudes are nonsense. Can you imagine saying “happy are those who mourn?”. Nope, that doesn’t work for me.

Tom Wright says we can understand “blessed” to mean “good news”. That works a little bit better for me – “good news for the poor in spirit…” does feel a little closer, but it’s still not quite right.

We drop the words “blessing” and “bless” into our everyday language and conversations with each other. If I were to sneeze now, how many of you would respond by saying “bless you”? How many times have you heard or said “aw, bless him”, or “that’s a blessing in disguise”? In the words of the Johnson Oatman hymn “Count Your Blessings”, we are encouraged to think about our blessings in terms of what the Lord has done for us and to acknowledge his touch on our lives. For me, this is getting a bit closer to the real meaning of blessing, that when we are blessed, we have received the touch of God.

For those who mourn – the touch of God will comfort them; for the meek, the touch of God means that they will inherit the earth.

You see where I’m going with this?

It doesn’t quite go all the way, and it starts to go awry for me when we hear about those who are merciful, or those who are peacemakers and the righteous because the point is that we can only ever be these things by God’s touch in the first place. Peace-making, showing mercy, righteousness – without the touch of God we cannot be any of those things. We need God’s touch, his presence, throughout all aspect of our lives so we can be those things in his name. It doesn’t come naturally to us to be merciful or righteous – those are gifts from God and we must acknowledge that. We must be honest with ourselves when we claim to be righteous, or humble or any of the things we are called to be, because no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are only ever at the beginning of a long pathway, and even then, it is only with God’s grace and touch that we can even begin to see the first bend in that pathway that leads to him.

I feel that even though it has a flaw, my interpretation of what it means to be blessed is close enough for us to understand what a blessing is, and in such a way that enables us to be able to share with others the gospel message.

Because after all, what are we doing as Christians if we don’t share the good news with other people? How do we let the meek, the persecuted, the bereaved, those who are poor in spirit know that there is good news for them? How else do we let them know that Jesus Christ lived and died and lives again so that we can be part of God’s kingdom, that we can enjoy fruitful and meaningful lives here and now even though life feels hard and bleak sometimes. That with the touch of God and the blessings of God, even the most dismal and heart-breaking of situations are transformed, if only we take the time and trouble to acknowledge them.

Too often we find comfort in being down, and miserable. Sounds daft, but we do. We would rather put up with a poor situation, or a hurtful relationship, or stick with the old, destructive patterns of thinking because we take comfort from their familiarity. We know where we’re up to with that friend who always puts us down, and we know that if we always have the same reaction to situations in the news – immigration, poverty, injustice for persecuted groups – we don’t have to think too hard or put too much effort in to speaking out against them and those who inflict them.

I’m not just talking about straightforward pessimism and optimism here; people are far more complicated to be labelled either a pessimist or an optimist.

[Hold up glass half filled with water]

Is the glass half full, or half empty?

Your answer shows if you have a pessimistic view of life, or an optimistic one depending on whether you see the glass as being filled or emptied; but as a Christian, you should have a third answer up your sleeve; that with God’s touch on your life, with his grace, his love and with his blessings, this glass is infinitely refillable.

Are you in mourning? Do you grieve for someone, or something you have lost? You are blessed by God! [Fill up the glass to the brim/overflowing]

Do you show mercy to others? Do you let compassion and love for others flow out of you? [Emptying glass part way]

You are blessed by God – Jesus told us so! – and you will receive more mercy than you will ever need [fill glass to overflowing].

Do you feel pure in heart? [hold up full glass]. With God’s touch you will see him in everything you do! And if you see him in everything you do, then others will see it in everything you do too.

And for this grace, these blessings, this full glass, these touches of God which transform our lives, what does God ask of us in return? How on earth can we ever say thank you enough to him for his blessings? How can we ever repay him?

As Micah says, it won’t take the sacrifice of your first-born, nor ten thousand rivers of oil, nor the masses of calves and rams as burnt offerings, nothing like that. All God asks of us in return is that we act justly, that we love mercy, and that we walk humbly with him.

So as we go from here today, let’s think about what it means to be blessed by God, to have his touch on our lives in the darkest and bleakest places as well as in the joyful and bright ones. Think about how your lives are blessed by him every step of the way, and how those headlines on that mountainside are as alive and meaningful to us today as they were to those who heard them two thousand years ago. But more to the point, think about what God asks in return from us; not a lot really – simply that we act justly, that we love mercy, and that we walk humbly with him.

Amen

Wednesday Hodgepodge


1. When were you last on a ‘mountaintop’?  You may answer in the literal or figurative sense of the word. 

The setting of a mountain top is pertinent to me as a Christian at this time of the year. It seems that everything major that went on in the Bible was done on a mountain – from Moses and the 10 Commandments to Jesus and his temptation by the devil – so this is a timely question, thank you Joyce! Figuratively, the last time I was on a mountain top (ie somewhere where I removed myself from my life and looked down on it from a distance, reminding myself of all the goods, the bads, the terribles, the downright awfuls, the challenges, the joys, the tests and the achievements etc) was yesterday, as it happens. The time before that would have been months ago, so yet again, a timely question!

The reason I found myself on my lonely mountain top was because of a culmination of a lot of things, resulting in me feeling that I really should do an assessment of my life and get a grip. You may know already but I have a health problem (I’m not going to go into it here, it gets boring for me as much as it gets boring for my readers!) and you probably don’t know that I also suffer from depression as well. It would be easy to write off my depression as being because of my continuing health problems but if I’m totally honest, I have suffered from depression on and off throughout my adult life and it would be hanging over me whether I was as fit as a fiddle or not. Anyway, I’m digressing.

My mountain top assessment came about because there was absolutely nothing in my life that I could put my finger on that I was good at or useful for….not an unknown train of thought for me….and, recognising the danger signs I took myself away and managed to halt the destructive thought patterns in their tracks. As it stands today I’ve not been able to get rid of them totally, but at least the driving seat is occupied by me and not my “black dog”, as Winston Churchill famously referred to it. If you’ve suffered from depression you’ll know that it’s ugly blackness seeps into every area of your life and affects you in ways that you don’t recognise until your whole life is just one patchwork of dark. People’s seeping blackness happens at different rates, and if you’re like me, each bout of depression has its own characteristics and sometimes the blackness can descend overnight. Sometimes it can take months. Sometimes it is because of a single event, other times it can be because of a sequence of events. Sometimes there is no definite start or event to it and you only know it has crept up on you because you wake up one day and you realise that sunshine makes you cry with an undescribable and undefinable grief.

My last literal mountain-top visit is more difficult to pin down. We spent some time last summer in Wales and we had a glorious time on top of the Great Orme (or the Great Orme’s Head as it is on the map). I love being on mountain tops and I love being beside the sea, so being on a mountain top by the sea is my idea of heaven.

2. Do you establish and maintain a strict budget in your household?  What is one piece of financial advice you would offer someone just starting out on their own? 

HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!! No we do not have a strict budget in our household. We are usually trying hard to rob Peter to pay Paul that to commit it to paper as a budget would just put into reality exactly where we can’t make ends meet. My one piece of general financial advice I would offer someone would be “don’t borrow money/get credit”. My one piece of advice I would give my daughter, very specifically, is “maximise your qualifications and get a good enough job that you can be self-sufficient and you don’t need to rely on a man to support you”.

3. Cherries-yay or nay?  Cherry pie-cherry cola-black forest cake-or a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s Cherries Garcia…pick one.

I love cherries. I love them fresh, in jam, on cakes, as preserves, in ice-cream etc but I am not fond of cherry “flavoured” things. The essence of cherry gets lost when it is reduced to a series of E numbers in cola or chewing gum!

4. Should you ever discuss religion or politics with people you don’t know?

Hmmmm… “should you” is very different to “do you”. I think generally speaking you should be careful when discussing both religion and politics with people you don’t know because they are both highly emotive subjects and the scope for causing distress or anger is immense. However, I am quite comfortable with discussing my faith with people I don’t know (depending on the setting) so long as they either bring it up first, or the conversation is heading in that direction. Politics is a tricky one because it affects so many people in so many different ways. I regularly discuss politics with a close friend of mine and we more often than not end up falling out with each other because of our opposing views. Not good is it really?

I think it’s important to talk about difficult things though, and if it’s handled with sensitivity and compassion then even politics and religion can be discussed with strangers. And if there’s a brick wall or computer screen between you…..!

5. When you take a road trip do you prefer to be the driver or the passenger?  Where were you headed on your last road trip?

I love road trips and it doesn’t bother me whether I’m a passenger or the driver. Both have their benefits. In our family, we have an unspoken “rule” that the driver is in control of the music and the internal temperature in the car, and the passenger (or the “co-pilot” as we refer to ourselves on a long trip) is in charge of the snacks, the map and the word-games with the kids. Being a passenger means that you see the best of the scenery but being the driver means you get the say-so about when and where to stop. We have the best of both worlds in our family!

My last road trip would have been holiday time last year when we toured the Midlands with our new (to us) caravan.

6. If we peeked inside your closet, what colour would we say is most prevalent?

My total wardrobe is made up of black, white, grey and blue with the occasional splash of yellow. And I do mean occasional…..!

7. Who’s your favourite senior citizen and why are they special?

My Gran, Flo. She’s special because she is spirited, forward thinking, strong willed, a gifted story-teller and even though her body is letting her down she refuses to give in. Her greatest strength is that she lives for the future, even at the age of 96 she is still making plans for later this year, next Christmas etc. She is nearly totally deaf and blind, “walks” with a frame (by “walk” I mean shuffles along an inch at a time on bandaged and crippled feet), is nearly doubled over with a shrunken spine when she stands up, can’t lie down in bed without help, has failing kidneys and asthma, and she can no longer make herself even a cup of tea and a sandwich, but she absolutely refuses to go into a nursing home and constantly talks about the positive side of life. She never complains, she never moans and she never gossips about other people. She is always concerned about other people’s health problems and she is cheerful to the point it puts me to shame. She is a total inspiration and I love her.

8.  Insert your own random thought here. 

We began our Lenten bible study this evening, which was fascinating. We are studying the Lord’s prayer throughout Lent and we explored the opening tonight: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name”. We talked about the concept of “our” father, that he belongs not to the chosen few, or the favoured few but to all of us. ALL of us. He is our father and we don’t need anyone to talk to him on our behalf thank you very much. Would you get someone else to say thank you to your Dad for giving you a gift? Not only someone else, but a stranger?? When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray and he gave them these words he was subverting the establishment in ways that we probably can’t comprehend today.  OUR FATHER… we are all children together are we not? So why all the hatred and mistrust? If we just accepted that we are all in this together and we all belong to Him then maybe, just maybe, the world might be a better place for everyone.

 

our father

 

 

sermon on the mount