1 Corinthians 15:12-20
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I have a friend who comes from a part of the country where you don’t say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. So, when we were hanging out, and I would sneeze, there would be just silence. And I thought this was pretty awkward. Where I grew up, saying “bless you” was an automatic response. You just said it, and if you didn’t, you were being pretty rude. So I told him this, and he rolled his eyes and said, “Oh come on, you don’t need a blessing each time you sneeze.” We teased back and forth, and then, later, when I sneezed, he rushed over from the other side of the room, patted my hand, looked at me with a comforting (and sarcastic) face and said, “Tim, God bless you.”
Let’s turn for a moment to the Eucharist. During our service, there are a number of very important moments, and one of them is the blessing of the bread and the wine. Now, this happens towards the end of the prayer we use, so I say, “Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of faith:” and you all say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” Now pay attention: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.” Sanctify them (I always feel like I should add “please” here) – Sanctify them, bless them (that’s why I make the sign of the cross) to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. One of our other prayers, prayer D, says it (I think) better: “Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ.” But whatever the words, what I’m doing is blessing the bread and wine. I could easily say, “Bread and wine, God bless you.”
We use the word “bless” a lot. We say “bless you” if someone sneezes or if they’re in a tight spot. We visit with the sick, the tired, the hungry, and the downtrodden, which is a blessing even if we don’t use the words. We bless our food, we bless others when they travel, or when it’s their birthdays. We even, sometimes, bless God, which is one of the older forms of blessing. So, with all these sorts of blessing, what does it mean to “bless” something or someone?
In short, a blessing is a sign or prayer for grace. Saying “You have been blessed” is recognizing God’s grace in a person’s life. During the Eucharistic prayer, I pray that God’s grace is made manifest in the bread and the wine. Blessing God is recognizing that God, and nothing else, is the source of all the grace in our lives. One early Christian leader (whose name I can’t find, unfortunately, but who I think was St. Augustine) said that we should be blessing things all the time. And this is to say that we should be looking for and recognizing and telling other people about God’s grace all through the live-long day. Because God’s grace is all around us, and we should recognize and live in that grace always.
And yet when we come to our gospel reading today, we may be surprised (like the people of the first century were surprised) that Jesus calls the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn: blessed. Where is the grace in being poor? Or being hungry? Or being hated? Luke doesn’t record them, but you can probably imagine the faces of people when they heard this: what in the world is Jesus talking about?
The grace that Jesus is talking about, though, is not in being poor but in the way, and the fact that, God is with the poor. All throughout the gospels, and all throughout the Bible as well, we constantly hear that God is with the poor and the outcasts. From the laws and the prophets through God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, time and time again God shows that he is with those who are at the bottom of society. Gustavo Gutierrez, a modern theologian, has said that this isn’t because the poor are somehow better than others, either morally or religiously, but “simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”
There is a grace in knowing this. For when you’re poor, or hungry, or in despair, the world becomes grim and terrible. This is especially the case with despair: for despair is not simply “grief”, which can be healthy. We grieve for good things that are lost, or broken, or forgotten, and this grief, if directed to God, can heal us and make us whole. But despair is different. When a person is in despair, that despair becomes their world. Even the light of the sun becomes a sorrow to them. Despair denies that any power, any effort, any hope, even God himself, can overcome one’s sorrow, that despair itself is king of the universe.
Jesus reminds us, instead, that we have a deeper identity. How much money we have, how much food we have in our bellies, how much joy or sorrow we have in our hearts – these things don’t define us. We are defined, each of us, by our relationship with God. Our identity is not in the bank, on our voter registration card, or in the sort of car we drive; our identity as human beings is in Jesus Christ. And for someone who is poor or in despair, who has nothing, not even hope, knowing this is a grace. For someone who is rich, or full, or happy, on the other hand, the idea that our money or mood can change is something scary. We who “have” want to pretend that we’ll always have. But how easily may those good things in our lives become idols we put before God.
This is, of course, why we do things like the food bank, and why we invite people to our breakfast and dinner ministries: not just because it’s kinda fun to help people and, hey, the stoves’ on anyway, but because whether you’re poor or rich, hungry or full, in the depths of sorrow or the heights of joy, you’re still a child of God. Christ is in each of us, working for the glory of God. But the world we live in doesn’t look like God’s kingdom. And so we do what we can, with our hands and with our prayers to make that grace and love of God more fully manifest in this world. For, in the end, God has blessed us, like Abraham, so that we too may be a blessing.