How Do We Count Our Blessings?
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Dear friends, grace and peace to you from Jesus our Christ, the One who blesses and turns the world right side up. Amen.
It is so good to be back after a few Sundays away. I have missed you and I have missed worshiping among you – even all of you way back there near the Allina lot!
The last couple of Sundays, I was with a small group of pastors from around the country at a monastery, outside of Madison, WI. We were delving into the practices of contemplative Christian faith. These practices are simple. They don’t involve great preparation. There’s no special place to practice them, though being in a monastery surrounded by beautiful nature certainly helped to start. We prayed and chanted the psalms three times a day, and spent a full 24 hours in communal silence. I know…right! The truth is, it wasn’t as hard as you might think though. This time allowed me to pay attention to the ways God is constantly calling us into deeper relationship with each other, creation, and with God.
One of the most meaningful things this time of prayer, practice, and study taught me was that to deepen our experience of God, we’ve got to create spaces in our lives for stillness – stillness of mind, body, and spirit. It doesn’t have to be much, but a little stillness goes a long way. Because when we find an inner stillness, we find a depth of God’s love and blessing waiting for us that we otherwise run right past.
Running is what we do best. We have a pandemic of busyness in our culture. We busy our bodies with overstuffed schedules. We busy our minds with constant input from our screens. We busy our hearts with fret and worry over things we can’t always control. Now, I’m not pointing fingers, because I’m guilty of all these things, too. But I wonder if our ease with busyness blocks the blessings God attempts to put in our path. In fact, if we’re honest, the disruptions of the last couple of years taught us something about how stillness – even if we didn’t choose it – provided a different perspective on what really matters in life.
We’re starting a new series on the Sermon on the Mount today. One could say the Sermon on the Mount shows us a lot about what really matters in life and faith. Some scholars have said that the world would be a different place if Christians spent their entire lives just living in these three chapters. These passages are the heartbeat of Jesus. They show us how Jesus loves and what kind of life Jesus calls his followers to live. Here, Jesus teaches us that when the world seems so upside down, so divided, so loud and busy – how following in these ways turns it right side up again. We’re going to slowly work our way through Jesus’ sermon on the mount over the next several weeks because in order for Jesus to work on us through these teachings, we’ll need to sit still with them for a while to let them sink down deep.
Let me set the stage a bit. Jesus has just begun his public ministry. He’s been teaching and healing all over the area. In fact, Matthew tells us, Jesus became so popular that his fame spread well beyond his home region of Galilee, and great crowds started followed him. Jesus was not too busy to show up for the people with compassion and care, though. He spent time with the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who had hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. He showed people who were blessed by being with those he blessed.
And then Matthew tells us, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain…” When we hear about mountains in the Bible, our ears should perk up. You might think of Moses and the burning bush, or the Ten Commandments being given, or Elijah seeking God in thunderstorms or earthquakes and finally hearing God on that mountain in the sound of sheer silence. Stillness. When Jesus goes up the mountain his disciples follow him. And just behind the disciples are the crowds. Something holy is about to happen, and it seems everyone wants to be in on it. Then he starts teaching the disciples, and he lets the crowds overhear.
Here’s the thing though. If the disciples had not been following Jesus around the villages, seeing him cure the sick, comfort the grieving, and give voice to those who cry out for righteousness, the disciples might not have understood what Jesus was preaching. And if he hadn’t told them that those who were persecuted for their faith were blessed, they may not have been prepared for what he would call them to do for his sake in the future.
Because the way we often talk about blessings and the way Jesus blesses don’t always line up very well. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those with big houses, for there’s a bigger one waiting in heaven, or blessed are those with fast cars, for their tank will always be filled. Or blessed are those with good health, for they have taken good care of their bodies”.
Rather, Jesus’ blessings show up in those who experience heartache, yearning, humility, and who know their dependence on God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God…” The disciples needed to see who Jesus blessed before they could understand his blessings. Friends, how and where are you following Jesus to see the blessed among you? The blessed know they can’t go it alone. They know there is something more than the upside-down world that they (and we) live in. Jesus’ blessings aren’t material, in fact they are for those whose lives often look anything but the way we often think of blessed.
The other day, I was at the License Center to change my address on my driver’s license. As I stepped up to the counter, I overheard the transaction happening next to me. There was a man standing at the counter, maybe 30 or 35, heavy bags under his eyes, hair all disheveled, tattoos up and down his arms. The ink depicted some pretty rough things, most likely personal to this guy’s life. He was talking loudly, so he was hard to ignore. He seemed confused. He didn’t have all the information he needed to get his tabs so he could get his car out of the impound lot.
It would have been so easy to jump to all kinds of conclusions and judgments about why this guy was in the situation he was. But instead, I wondered about his family, how he was raised, who showed up or didn’t show up in his life to offer him with the time and attention he needed along the way. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was one of the poor in spirit Jesus was talking about. One of the blessed of Jesus, who would inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The man finished his transaction before I was done with mine. I didn’t have a chance to offer him any word of blessing. I didn’t say anything at all. All I could do was see how Jesus walked alongside the man as he left and give Jesus thanks for helping me see the man not as a problem to be fixed, or as a lost soul to be pitied, but as a person on the same human path as everyone else in that office, and most importantly as God’s blessed and beloved child.
One of the ways Jesus’ blessings turn the world right side up again is by calling us into community. Jesus breaks down all the ways we build walls of exclusion, he works in our hearts to see those who seem so different from us as sisters and brothers, joined together by the unending grace of God. Jesus shows us just how to count our blessings; not by what we have, but by experiencing grace in our own need and offering it freely to others in their need. Jesus knows your deep yearnings, the ways you are poor in spirit, the grief you carry, the mercy that is in you, the peace you seek, the ways you hunger and thirst for the things to be right in the world, and he shows up to bless us, to unite us in our shared humanity and our shared need. When we follow where Jesus goes, and see who Jesus blesses, we count our blessings differently, and might even see that it’s in our need, not our bounty that we are indeed blessed. Amen.