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“#blessed” – a sermon for Youth Sunday
I think it’s safe to say this has been the strangest end to the school year any of us has had. How do you celebrate being out of school when you’ve already been away from the school building for three months? How do you celebrate summer, when all your summer plans have been cancelled or changed?
These are weird days. And hard ones. What does it even mean to be “blessed” in a time like this?
The old hymn urges us, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” And recent psychological research confirms what good practice this is. The research shows that people who regularly take the time to name what they’re grateful for – to count their blessings – actually lead happier lives and enjoy greater emotional health, and even greater physical health. .[i] To notice our blessings, to acknowledge them, to offer our gratitude for them, apparently opens us up to the power of those blessings even more fully.
But that can be hard enough to do in normal times. When life feels as rearranged and deranged as it does lately, noticing our blessings can be challenging – and it can be even more challenging to feel good about feeling blessed. There’s a sense of guilt about it, isn’t there? How can I embrace a sense of blessing when there is so much suffering? It doesn’t seem right or fair.
And of course it isn’t fair that there is so much suffering. It isn’t fair that so much injustice is built into our system. And it isn’t right to ignore or deny the tough realities we’re facing in our country and our world right now.
But it also isn’t right not to see and acknowledge and cultivate gratitude for the real blessings. When someone gives you a gift, you don’t ignore it or deny that you’ve been given a gift, or devalue it because there are also hard things happening in your life when you receive it.
As you heard during Time as Children, this is how we’ve been talking in youth group about what “blessing” means – a gift. This concept comes from the original Hebrew understanding. The Hebrew word berak, means “to bless or to kneel.” The sense of “blessing” in Hebrew is that of bringing a gift to another while kneeling out of respect.
It’s such a simple concept and yet there’s so much richness and depth and complexity in it, and even reciprocity. To bless God, to say, “Bless you, O God,” is a way of kneeling before God, of bringing the gift of our attentiveness, our gratitude, our awe, to God. To acknowledge that we have been blessed, is to see that we have received gifts – most of which are not material or physical. And to see that we have the power – even in hard times – to bless other people is to understand that we have gifts we can give, and that if we really want to bless others, we can start by having an attitude of respect and reverence towards them.
So there are three simple yet difficult aspects to the blessed life. We bless God. Because God has blessed us. So that we can bless the world.
You can hear all of that in the very beginning of the letter to the Ephesians, which actually opens with the longest sentence in all of Scripture. The sentence takes up 12 whole verses. But if you look in your own Bible, you’ll see it broken up into multiple shorter sentences – that’s because English translators have found it unmanageable in its original long form. I like that, because it reminds me of the wild unmanageability of the blessings of God. They start and don’t stop.
But even broken into those shorter phrases and sentences, the beginning of Ephesians has this pressing, forward flow, an unstoppable message of blessing and wisdom and power and praise and grace. And the beginning of the long, unstoppable sentence begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the cosmos.” Do you hear the pulse of that verse? Its pulse is blessing. Three times in that one verse: blessed, blessed, blessing. Blessed be God who has blessed us with every blessing. Blessed, blessed, blessing.
This first long sentence in Ephesians actually follows the pattern of the Jewish berakoth – did you hear the Hebrew word for blessing in there? berak – the berakoth are the prayers of praise recited at various points in the synagogue liturgy as well as in private prayers. The function of these prayers of blessing is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing. Most berakoth begin with words that may sound familiar to you, “Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Ha-Olam.” “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”
That’s where it all starts of course. And to refuse to see how blessed we are is to refuse to acknowledge the Giver of all gifts. To fail to see our blessedness is also to fail to share it. Because that’s what it’s for. Not to hold onto, but to share. The writer of Ephesians says this is our calling as the church. This is our vocation, this is our purpose: to bless God and to bless the world. Just as God told Abram, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2), we too, are blessed so we can bless.
And has the world ever needed blessing more than it does now? Has our country ever needed it more? Have our communities ever needed it more? Have our neighborhoods, our schools, our households, our families, our children ever needed this more than now?
It may be more difficult than it once was, for us to recognize our blessings. It may be more difficult than it once was, for us to bless others. How do you bless the world when you’re so often stuck at home? It may be more difficult, but it is not impossible, and it is so necessary, and it is still our calling .
We are called to bless the world. We are equipped to bless the world. We are empowered to bless the world. And we are blessed – to bless the world.