Fr. John Allison
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
January 29, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
What does it mean to be blessed?
Whatever your answer, it likely doesn’t conform to much of what Jesus offers in the Gospel passage we just heard, what is commonly known as the beatitudes and begins what is perhaps Jesus’ most well-known sermon—the Sermon on the Mount. It comes early in Jesus’ ministry, just after we learn in the preceding chapter he has been traversing the countryside “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and “curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” News of Jesus’ miracles has spread and great crowds have begun to follow him. It’s then that he ascends the mountain and begins to teach his disciples. That’s where our reading begins today and it’s not what anyone was expecting.
And so I ask again, what does it mean to be blessed? Jesus’ list of the blessed is perhaps as surprising today as it was two-thousand years ago. Like us, no one in Jesus’ circle wanted to be poor in spirit or in money; No one wanted to be grieving; being meek had the same negative connotations as today. No one wanted to be persecuted or reviled. Shouldn’t blessing, we ask, be more about having a comfortable life, being healthy and happy and having lots of friends. Well, there’s something to be said for all those things, for sure, but I think Jesus is pointing us to something more, showing his listeners, many of whom were poor and mournful and meek, that what is valued in the kingdom of heaven is far different than what is valued in the kingdoms of the earth. In that sense what we hear today is a consolation of sorts for those who live fretfully on the margins of a society under Roman occupation and a warning, perhaps, to those who live more comfortably, perhaps at the expense of others.
Like much of what Jesus offers in the Gospels the ethics he proposes here represent a kind of reversal that challenges our expectations; indeed what Jesus offers calls into question the things and qualities we most commonly hold in high esteem and, if you’re anything like me, you come to the end of the list and ask, what about me? Or, for those of us who do find ourselves in the list of the blessed—the poor and dispirited, the mournful and meek—to say, well, I don’t feel blessed. Life just seems hard.
I’ve read many explanations and rationalizations that attempt to clarify the seeming paradox at the heart of this teaching but, for the most part, I’m still left pondering the question, what does it mean to be blessed? We could say that the beatitudes are rooted in Christian hope, that in spite of all the hardships we face here on earth there is something better ahead—and I do believe that, that all will eventually be reconciled through Christ. That’s the foundational to our faith. The problem is that saying such things seems to avoid the very difficult truth of human existence: life is sometimes quite hard. We suffer personally in various ways; we suffer when those we love suffer; we despair at the state of the world—at the persistent prevalence of war and violence, of illness and disease, at poverty and hunger and homelessness.
It’s hard to understand how we can live in a broken world where there is so much discord and hardship and yet, those who perhaps have it the hardest are the ones who are blessed. Paul says today in our reading from First Corinthians that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Paul is talking most specifically about the fact that God came to earth as Christ, was executed as a common criminal in a very shameful way (crucifixion), and rose from the dead to be savior of the world. As he says, the fantastic nature of the story itself can be, at the least a stumbling block and, for some, sheer foolishness that we attempt to explain away or rationalize.
And yet, here we are. Gathered together, the Body of Christ, we know God’s blessings and seek to be God’s blessing in spite of the incomprehensibility of it all. Even though I don’t always understand what it means to be blessed or how there can be so much suffering I catch glimpses of God’s grace in the world around me—often when or where I least expect it.
One moment always stands out when I think about these reversals that characterized the Kingdom of Heaven as Jesus describes it. I was sitting with a person who was quite down on his luck—homeless, without work, without any close friends or family—I offered a prayer and then, in the brief pause before I could say amen, he offered his own prayer for me. His words were eloquent and and conveyed an uncanny awareness of my sufferings. I was deeply touched and as we said, Amen, together I was moved to tears. I know now this man was a vehicle for God’s blessing but I could easily have walked past him and never noticed. He wasn’t what anyone would have expected. It seemed, to paraphrase Paul, God had made foolish the wisdom of the world that I, a priest offering a prayer, would be blessed by this sad and downtrodden man. I thought I knew what it meant to be humble and kind and then realized I’m still learning.
It’s moments like that, when I have an unexpected taste of God’s love in action, when I’m a recipient of God’s love from a source I couldn’t have imagined, that I am reminded to trust even if I don’t understand. Sometimes allowing ourselves to not know or understand can open us to see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Sometimes our faith journey begins as simply as that. We may not always understand but if we trust in God’s love for us we begin to live into a future that is larger than ourselves.
The Israelites to whom the prophet Micah is speaking in our Old Testament reading today had forgotten what it meant to trust in God’s love. Though they had been freed from bondage and sustained in the wilderness and experienced a host of blessings through the generations they had forgotten what it meant it meant to be coveted with God and we’re not treating one another well. When God confronts them with their various misdeeds they at first respond by offering acts of contrition and sacrifice but that’s not what God wants.
Micah says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God calls them to these actions not so that they will be rewarded but so that they might be a blessing to others and it’s in participating in God’s blessing to the world that we have a foretaste of what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. God calls us to do justice—to be a voice for the oppressed, for the poor and for those who come from foreign lands, to fight for the rights of minorities and the elderly and the handicapped and for every person who is treated as less than God’s child. In doing justice and in being kind and walking with humility we are simultaneously blessed by God and bless God in that our actions become a revelation of the Holy.
We may not always understand what it means to be blessed but if we trust in God’s love for us and follow God’s instruction to do justice, to be kind, and walk humbly we move beyond a system of beliefs and begin to live into a new way of life. We begin to be a blessing. God’s love incarnates, takes on flesh, in us. May we all be such blessings in a world in great need. Amen.