Blessed to be a Blessing

From Psalm 121 and Genesis 12:1-9

Weston Olson was one of my students at Chapman University, where I worked in church relations and campus ministry for several years, right out of seminary.  He was a vocal performance major and has had wonderful success in musical theater.  Since January, he has been performing in the Broadway production of Les Miserables.  He has always been quite gifted.  When I knew him—like many students—he was working his way through college—trying to earn money for school and to gain valuable experience to put on his resume.

Weston worked as a musician at Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral—one of the biggest and most well-known churches in Southern California.  He loved his work.

He always told me about the church’s fabulous sound system and its unparalleled acoustics.  And the church was widely enthusiastic and supportive of his musical gifts.  But something was missing. . . .
It was clear to me that Weston enjoyed his job at the church, but when I asked him if the church nurtured him spiritually, he grimaced.  “I try not to think about that,” he said.  “What do you mean?” I asked. 

“Well, it’s a great job, and they pay me well, but I do my best to tune everything else out.  Their message is so exclusive and distorted; it doesn’t make any sense with who I know God to be.  I mean, the church is full of all these incredibly wealthy people who come to church to hear the minister tell them that they are rich because God approves of them and has chosen them to bless.  And ordinary people come there to hear the minister tell them that if they do right by God, then God will bless them also with wealth and prosperity.  It’s like saying that you can tell how much God loves you and blesses you and approves of you by how much money you have.  That just seems warped to me—and spiritually questionable.  And what’s worse is that people actually believe it!”

Weston’s struggle has since caused me to wonder:  Is this what it means to be blessed?  Can we judge and determine God’s blessing on our lives by looking at our savings accounts, tax statements, and stock portfolios?  Is there anything true about this so-called “prosperity gospel”—which basically says that our wealth (or lack of it) is a direct sign of God’s blessing (or curse)?

In the first chapter of Genesis—in the 1st creation story recorded in Genesis—the Priestly writer of Genesis says that God blesses the women and men that God made.  In this creation account—with this first blessing that God bestows—as well as in our scripture reading this morning—with the blessing God bestows on Abram and Sarai—“blessing” is translated from the Hebrew word berakah, which literally means “to give life.” 

In fact, berakah is the only word for “blessing” in the Hebrew language, and it consistently refers to God’s gift of abundant life.  Berakah refers to a sense of vitality, health, productivity, longevity, and fertility.  And God alone has the power to bestow this berakah—this blessing—because only God has the power to give life.

So here in Genesis chapter 12, we read about the blessing—the giving of abundant life—to Abram.  God does not give him vast riches and wealth, prosperity and a generous retirement plan.  No, God gives Abram a challenge, a calling—fraught with risk and the unknown—to live more fully, more usefully, more abundantly, with more possibility and grace, in this moment.  There is no map, no mapquest, no guidebook, no e-tickets, no public transportation. . . .  But “Go,” God says. . . .  And without a word, Abram uproots his life, plugs himself into God’s vision, and goes. 

And God also makes Abram an extravagant promise. “I will make of you a great nation. . . .  I will bless you. . . .  so that you will be a blessing. . . .” 

Yahweh, who called the entire world into being with a word, now calls again.  Yahweh calls to an aging Abram and a barren Sarai—people who surely didn’t expect God to be calling them—calling them to create a community and to offer fresh words—to open themselves up to God’s will in a world that has tried to leave God behind. 

Like God calls to us this morning, Yahweh calls Abram and Sarai so that they might embody, explicitly in human history, the unexpected inbreaking of God’s calling into people’s lives and the simultaneous power of God’s blessing—God’s berakah.  “Abram, Sarai, I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.”  “Abram, Sarai, I will give you abundant lives so that you can share the power and wonder of abundant life with others.”

This blessing does not mean, however, that all our human ailments subside.  God offers no magical blessing that eliminates harsh realities, heartbreak, or grief.  Even though we are blessed by God, our humanness remains part of us. . . .  Later in this Genesis story, famine strikes Abram and Sarai.  Abram sells Sarai in marriage to an Egyptian Pharaoh (for those interested in the traditional, Biblical understanding of marriage. . .).  Sarai struggles to have children.  And even the land God has promised them is already claimed and occupied.

Such problems and hardships don’t mean that God’s blessing has failed; they don’t mean that we are forgotten or unloved.  They don’t mean we should hurt others simply because we are in pain and want to claim God’s “blessing” as our own.  God is forever for us, never against us.  God stands with us in times of pain and adversity.  The Psalmist this morning reminds us:  “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord,  who made heaven and earth.”  And God’s blessings are abundant.  Even when we have a hard time understanding or seeing.  With whatever difficulties arise, God is with us—continually offering blessing and continually offering life. 

But we must learn to accept and embrace ambiguity.  Life in the real world is restlessly ambiguous—and sometimes we may not know, what is the blessing?  What is the curse?  And the reality is that nothing is finite. Everything is in flux. And God is still speaking. . . .  We are on a journey that casts new light on old and familiar places.  Faith never permits the people of Abraham to escape this ambiguity.  Faith is the act of balancing the ambiguities—balancing the fact that God has promised this land to these people but that other people—other people who God loves—currently occupy it.  Faith is believing, even when there seems to be little hope.  Faith is the decision to live into the promise and blessing of God, even in the places where the promise and blessing seem to be in question and at risk. 

This makes faith hard.  This makes faith hard, but worth the struggle.  We don’t live in a world of absolutes.  Nothing is simply black and white.  And forget gray; we live in a world of colors, rich and diverse, complex and layered, rainbow colors!  This is a blessing.  This is abundant life, even though it might seem difficult and hard to navigate at times.

Throughout time and throughout the Bible, this has been God’s message to us:  “I offer you my blessing, but that does not mean the road will be easy.  That does not mean I will privilege you at the expense of others—who I love just as dearly.  You are blessed to be a blessing.  You also have a role to play.  You are to bring my showers of blessing to the stale, rigid, and closed attitudes, prejudices, rage, and ways of living that choke out my wellsprings of hope that constantly attempt to nourish all peoples and parts of creation. 

You are blessed to be a blessing.  And you have to believe in that blessing—even when the going gets tough, and light at the end of the tunnel is bleak.  You have to invest yourself in that blessing—even when others curse you, even when your path seems uncertain, when money gets tight, when a loved one betrays you, when politicians try to legislate injustice, when you’re overcome with anger, grief, frustration, temptation, consternation.  You have to have faith.” 
You see, we are blessed . . . to be a blessing.

For we are given this blessing, we are given this abundant life, not only for ourselves.  We are given this blessing so that we can increase the quality of life of others.  Abram may have been the first person to hear this, but this message has come down through time.  It was also the message of Jesus Christ who also extends this blessing—this abundant life—to people regardless of wealth, rank, occupation, race, class, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, family situation, nationality, cultural identity, table manners, dress code, marital status, educational background, social history, or any other imaginable distinction and division.  This is the power of God’s blessing.  It is extended to all peoples—so that, as God says, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—and that through this blessing, all people might know what it means to live abundantly.

But to believe in God’s blessing means we must let go of belief in the prosperity gospel—in the belief that our wealth—our possessions, our stuff, our success—is a direct sign of God’s blessing.  This contradicts berakah—God’s blessing—at every point.  God is with us, no matter what!  Weston was right to feel a little queasy.  The music at his church may have been great, but something more important was missing—something spiritual, deep, and sustaining—an understanding that God’s blessing is offered openly to all people.  We can choose to be ruled by the fear and unfairness of life, or we can choose to live right into that blessing—come what may.  Like Abram and Sarai, we are blessed … to be a blessing.

Let it be so.  Amen.


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