Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ, who brings hope. Amen.
The blessing was all that mattered. (If you’re a 7th, 8th or 9th grader taking worship notes for confirmation, I’ll give you a hint…here’s the thing you should write down): “The blessing was all that mattered.”
You might remember the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Twins, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, this clan set the standard, a new high bar, for family dysfunction for thousands of years. Jacob and Esau were always very jealous of each other, and to say they were competitive would be an understatement. Easu was born first, but the scriptures tell us that during childbirth, Jacob was literally holding on to Esau’s foot, as if to try and pull him back into the womb so that Jacob could be born first.
Esau was a big, strong, hairy man…and was favored by his father. Jacob was smaller, softer, and relied more on his intellect. He was favored by his Mother.
In Jewish tradition, before a Father’s death, he would give his “blessing” to the oldest Son. Now you have to understand that the giving of a blessing was a huge deal in the Jewish culture. A father had one blessing to give…and really it equated more to our idea of “inheritance.” To give a blessing was to give everything…the wisdom and experience of the Father, the family land, the family property, and the role of family patriarch. Really it was a matter of transferring the family identity from one male family leader to the next.
It would kind of roughly be like this. <walk up to someone> Here, here’s my wallet…here is my cell phone…here are my keys. Now, you pretty much have complete control of my life…you have my stuff. My house…my car…you can get into my bank accounts on my phone…my ID…our airline tickets for vacation are on there…you have my identity. <start to return to pulpit> On second thought…
So to give the blessing was to give everything. In Jewish culture, the word “blessing” meant a lot. You didn’t say “bless you” unless you really meant it. So the story goes on and has Jacob and his Mother scheming to steal the blessing from Esau. Why? Well, the Blessing was all that mattered.
Contrast that with the way we understand the word “blessings” today. We use that word all the time. I sign letters my letters and emails with the phrase “God bless you!” When children come forward for communion, we bless them. I’ve had restaurant waitresses (usually in the south) end our interactions by saying to me “bless you sweetie!” I was sitting down at Central Park coffee last week…it was still allergy season and I sneezed. Someone four tables away shouted “Bless You!” Thanks!
We talk all the time about the abundance of blessings that come from God. And while it’s good to recognize and understand these things, I think maybe we’ve lost some of the majesty of what it really means to be blessed.
So fast-forward with me a couple of thousand years to the time of Jesus. Our Gospel text today from Matthew 5 is commonly called the Beatitudes. Jesus had gone with his disciples up onto a mountain. He would often retreat this way, presumably to rest, and recharge. But on this day he sat down with the disciples and began teaching:
- 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 those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
9 different times in the beatitudes, Jesus uses the word blessed. 9 times! Now we hear that, with our cultural understanding of the word blessed, and we think to ourselves “oh…that sounds nice.” We hear it as a presecriptive phrase…as in that’s what’s going to happen. Yes, someday, the poor will receive what is due them…yes, someday those who mourn will get over their grief…yes, the meek…someday they will get their inheritance. For us, these phrases are just that…phrases. The kind of things we might put on the front of a nice greeting card.
But for the disciples, men who had been steeped in the Jewish tradition, Jesus’ teaching, the beatitude…would have completely rocked their world.
Because the beatitudes were not presecriptive…they were descriptive. Jesus was describing how God worked in the world right then and there, not how it someday might be. And he was intentionally using the word “blessed”.
Jesus was saying “blessed are” in present tense. In other words:
- God’s blessing: his inheritance, his identity, his whole self…has already been given to the poor in spirit.
- God’s inheritance, God’s identity, God’s whole self…it has already been given to the meek.
- God’s inheritance has been given to the peacemakers.
- God’s inheritance has been given to the hungry, to the pure in spirit, to the merciful, to those who have been persecuted.
During Jesus’ time, for those who lived in a culture where inheritance was based on birth order and social class, Jesus was completely turning the tables and changing their understanding of who God was for!
And this was doubly shocking for the disciples who sat with Jesus that day, because he was telling them that the “system” of blessing and inheritance that they had grown up with was going to change…and he was telling them that they, the disciples, and all of God’s people are the full inheritors of God’s grace, of God’s love, of eternal life. This was their identity…God was claiming them as his own. It had to be a jaw-dropping moment for the disciples.
And, it should be for us. Because in the beatitudes, Jesus is making this same claim on our behalf.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit…yeah, that can be me.
- Blessed are the meek? Yes, from time to time.
- Blessed are the peacemakers? I hope so. And so on.
In the waters of baptism we all heard the words where God claims us as his own: “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.” You are claimed! You have an inheritance! You are blessed! You are blessed!
These are incredibly helpful and hopeful words for me to hear today.
Because this is the day that we celebrate “All Saints Sunday.” This is the day that we hear the names of those from our community, our friends, our family members, who have died in the past year. This is the day that their name is followed by the ringing of a bell. This is the day that we might light candles to remember them.
We all have people to remember.
- I have Jerry Allan Buegler. Born November 27, 1936. Died January 9, 1999. My father.
- I have grandparents, Elmer and Gertie Buegler. Elmer worked for Woolworth’s, he opened new stores all around the Midwest, she was a homemaker…and then Elliott and Grace Moody, farmers from near St. James.
- I have a father-in law, Lyle Tjosaas. A dairy farmer, a Dodge county commissioner, a father of 7; Grandfather to my boys.
- I have a good friend, Jim Campbell. A photographer and college buddy. One of the funniest people I ever knew.
I have experienced loss. I have many others, who I have come to know and walk with over the years, who have joined what the apostle Paul called the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” who have gone before.
We all have our names. Pause, and think for a moment, who are your names? <pause> We have all heard their names read. Perhaps we have heard a bell ring. Maybe we lit a candle.
We have all experienced the grief of losing someone we were close to. And so hearing the beatitudes today gives me great peace and great hope.
It gives me peace because I know that my father…who I still miss dearly, 15 years after his death, who I’d trade almost anything to have one more conversation with, I know that he heard those words. “Jerry Allan Buegler, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
With these words, my Dad was received his blessing…his inheritance. And now in death he is fully experiencing that gift and grace, in that his relationship with Jesus is whole.
It gives me peace to know that my Grandparents were blessed, and received their inheritance.
My father-in-law Lyle, only gone a little over a year now, and whose loss is still an open wound; this text reminds me that he was blessed. And that he received his inheritance.
My friend Jim, who died in an accident in Colorado; the same. He received the blessing.
They are among the saints who have gone before, who received God’s blessing and inheritance. And on days like this, when we remember and we grieve, knowing this brings me peace.
It also brings me hope. I have hope because I know that someday, my name will be on the list that is read. Someday, the bell will ring for me.
It will hopefully be a long time from now. Hopefully when my name is read people will say “Pastor Todd? Oh yeah, he’s that old pastor who retired what…40, 45 years ago?” Hopefully. But you never know.
And that not knowing is a part of our life, and a part of our faith. And that is why I choose to trust in my blessing…my inheritance. It can be what gives me hope.
We have to be honest, and we have to acknowledge that someday, all of our names will be on this list. Someday the bell will ring for all of us. Because the last time I checked, the human mortality rate was still somewhere right around 100%. But as God’s children, we have this blessing. As surely as Isaac blessed Jacob, God blesses us.
Without the blessing, without the promise of the inheritance, we would look to our future with a sense of emptiness.
But with this blessing, you are a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
You are blessed. You are inheritors of eternal life. You are a part of the great cloud of witnesses. You are a child of God who received a blessing.
And the blessing is all that matters.