Faith: Seek God’s blessing for trying
I recently watched a recording of an interfaith conference. On stage were a Wiccan, a Jew and a Christian. No, this is not the start of a joke.
The Wiccan started by talking about the ritual blessing that ends her rites: “Blessed be.” She talked about how it was a blessing not just on the people who had been involved in the working, but also on the earth, on the spirits invoked and upon all that the people met as they left that place.
The Jew echoed these words for their ritual greeting “shalom.” However, the poor Christian could not even think of a ritual blessing that belongs to Christians. I say poor, because the man was divorced from his roots. We actually have several. The most common one is “the peace of Christ be with you,” but another is some variation of the ancient Levitical blessing, “May God bless you and keep you, and make God’s face to shine upon you and grant you God’s peace.”
It was the Wiccan’s words though that stuck with me. She was right. All our blessings, whether Wiccan, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian, have that same construction. We bless ourselves, we bless the powers that we have invoked and then we send forth a blessing on those whom we meet.
It is why I dislike the modern tendency to translate the Beatitudes with the words “happy are.” Marakoi is admittedly a hard word to translate. It is made more difficult by the tense. This word which we either translate as “blessed are” or “happy are” is in a form that indicates an action that started at some point in the past. It continues into the present and on into the future. However, it would be quite annoying to translate this one word as “Having been blessed may you continue to bless.” Or worse “Having been happied may you continue to happy.”
It is also a word that implies action on the part of the human recipient of the blessing. Jewish Rabbis speaking about the “chosenness” of Israel will point out that they are blessed to be a blessing. The idea is as old as Paul’s teacher’s teacher, Hillel. Really it is older. You will find it in Isaiah, Jeremiah and in Micah 6:8. God speaks to his people about how they’ve faltered. They are not doing justice, or embracing faithful, covenant love, or walking humbly with their God, so God brings a lawsuit against them.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of “Slaughterhouse Five,” wrote in an essay, “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
The texts from Micah and Matthew ask us to imagine a different kind of world: A world full of mercy and justice, a world where people charge no interest, where they always keep their promises. Vonnegut was not a Christian, but he has accurately understood the message of the Beatitudes.
Jesus is asking for nothing less than a reformation of our entire life and values. He asks us to fight our genetic heritage and imagine a new kind of life. Instead of seeking wealth or pride of place, we are asked to seek poverty and a lower place. Instead of seeking to make our lives easier, we are asked to embrace the mourning that comes from living a difficult life. We are to risk speaking out against a world of hatred and violence and claiming the Man of Nazareth as our hero and pacesetter.
Jesus reminds us over and over that the creation of absolute laws and rules is easier than mercy and peace, but mercy and peace will lead to a blessed world. Jesus called us to a difficult life. There is no doubt about it. We are asked to acknowledge that we are spiritually poor; to mourn our own failures in regard to what God requires; to be humble; to desire what God desires; to be merciful to others; to strive for purity of heart; to “make peace”; and to accept persecution for God’s sake. This is a hard way to live. It requires us to be constantly examining ourselves. We are asked to lay our lives open to God’s scrutiny and to see ourselves the way God sees us.
We know we will squirm as we look at our hearts. This hurts. I know that there are times when I have failed on each of those minimums. There are times when my mercy gets lost in a desire for revenge. I also know I can get distracted from purity of heart by financial struggles. It is easy to take shortcuts in such a time, rather than living with full integrity.
The challenge comes with grace. We are promised blessing, not for success, but for trying. We do not have to succeed. We need only try. We are asked to live the life of Jesus in a world where brownie points are given to success, to the dominant and the proud, rather than those who look like failures, to the gentle and the humble. We are asked to tell the truth in a world that rewards lying. We are asked to open our arms in mercy in a world that always seeks to build walls between us and the stranger. We are asked to risk death in order that others might live.
The price can be high, but the reward is greater. Now go and seek to be God’s blessing.
Rev. Deana Armstrong is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Craig.
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