By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3
If I were to sneeze, most of you would be likely to say to me, “God bless you.” It’s not something most of us think about. It’s an automatic response; the polite, or at least expected, thing to say. But how did the custom begin? Many point to Pope Gregory VII. His papacy coincided with an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Since coughing and sneezing were symptoms of the plague, the pontiff encouraged Christians to say “God bless you” immediately following a sneeze as a sort of intercessory prayer beseeching God’s protection for the sneezer lest they fall prey to the dreaded plague.
But what is this mysterious thing called blessing really all about? Right there at the beginning of scripture in Genesis, chapter 1, the litany celebrating God’s work of creation concludes with this summary statement: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…’”[i] It would seem that, to live within this world God created, is to live as one who has been blessed. God is in the business of blessing.
And yet, the concept of blessing has been subject to much religious manipulation. “Prosperity gospel” is the current label given to what was referred to during my adolescence as “name it and claim it” theology. It is an approach that seems to envision God as a sort of cosmic vending machine. Should you be so adept as to insert the perfect change and push the right button, your favorite treat will come tumbling down. That theology, when subject to careful biblical study, will collapse like a house of cards. God is not like a vending machine or a magic genie in a bottle. And yet, as I’ve already noted, scripture does reveal God as one who blesses and is the source, in fact, of all blessing. The writer of the Book of James reminds us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...”[ii]
So, how are we to arrive at a sound theological understanding of blessing? Well, I can’t possibly – within one sermon – address all of our questions. But I hope to touch on at least a couple important truths about blessing this morning.
Genesis, chapter 12, has a lot to teach about blessing. It marks a pivotal turn in the book of Genesis. In chapter 11, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. People are gathered in one place; they speak one language and share one central aim: to climb into the heavens, entering God’s domain; to barge right in to God’s sacred space. But their plan is thwarted when God confuses their language and their speech becomes like babble to one another. Immediately thereafter, our bible writer draws our attention to one particular character and his family. It is a man named Terah and he is the father of Abram, who we will come to know in time as Abraham. Later in the story, God will change his name from Abram to Abraham. Terah’s family is migrating toward the land of Canaan but they stop short of their destination and settle, instead, in Haran. Now, the future of this family is dubious. One son is already deceased and, as for the son named Abram, his wife, Sarai, is unable to conceive. With no offspring, this family’s story will come to an abrupt and decisive end…
But a situation that appears hopeless is about to be transformed in a dramatic way by the God from whom all blessings flow. God interrupts this story and makes his presence known to Abram by announcing a promise and declaring a blessing. This family’s story is far from over and they’ve not yet reached their destination. Abram is to keep moving toward Canaan and to place his trust in the promise that God will make a great nation out of him and Sarai. They must leave what is familiar to them and walk into the future God is preparing for them. They will be blessed but they will also become a blessing to others. Yet, this encouraging Word of God, this promise, does require response. It asks something of Abram. It demands trust evidenced through action, through forward motion. There is an option here. Abram could have chosen to simply stay put; to remain right where he was. Yet, when God spoke “go,” Abram went, equipped with nothing more than that promise of blessing. It takes awhile; but, in time, that promise takes substance; that blessing takes on flesh; it becomes incarnate in a baby boy named Isaac.
Such a personal thing: the birth of a baby. Yet there is nothing personal or, at least, “individualized” about this birth. This birth represents the birth of an entire nation: the nation of Israel; a nation that will one day birth a Savior of the world: Jesus. In Jesus Christ – as the apostle Paul will tell the Christians in Galatia, the blessing given to Abraham has drawn us in. We have been adopted into this special, chosen family. The blessing was first given to Abram but it was never intended to stop there. Abram was blessed by God in order that blessing might come through him to others… even those born centuries, millennia later.
Just as a stone thrown into the center of a pond creates ripples that radiate outward, ever expanding, the blessing dropped into the lap of this elderly couple has radiated outward, an ever-expanding circle to ultimately incorporate everyone who is willing to believe in the promise and the promise maker; everyone who is willing to trust in the blessing and is ready to accept the gift that is Jesus Christ. We have become part of Abram’s family; a family defined not by genetic material but by the willingness to trust in the promises of God.
This promise to Abram is a blessing meant to be shared, meant to expand outward and multiply. In as much as the blessing of Abraham is a foundation for our faith as children of Abraham, it proclaims the good news that blessings are meant to be shared. Blessings are not meant to be hoarded because the very act of sharing them returns praise to God, the giver of the blessing. We are, like Abraham, blessed in order that we might be a blessing to others. And when we give, when we share our blessings, we celebrate not only the gift, but the giver.
Today and every Sunday throughout this month, we’ll have the opportunity to add a leaf to our blessing tree. Each week all of us have opportunities to use the blessings God has given us to be a blessing to someone else. It might be something big; but it can also be something simple like taking your grandchildren out for ice cream or buying a friend a cup of coffee. And that is the way we should view our giving to the church. Giving isn’t about guilt or even about supporting the church budget. Giving is our opportunity to praise God, to express our gratitude for the blessings God has given us.
Kent Millard who retired from St. Luke’s UMC in Indy shares a story of gratitude from when his son was in the fifth grade. Kent had been appointed to serve as a district superintendent and the family would need to move. Kent would be replacing Rueben Job who would later become a United Methodist bishop. Kent’s son, Kendall, did not want to move. He was adamant, refusing to leave his friends, his room, his church and his school. But Kent and his wife explained that they were a family and they would all move together. When they arrived at the district parsonage (their new home), in the large downstairs family room, they discovered an electric train and track set up and plugged in. Beside it was a note that said, “For Kendall from the Rueben Job family.” Soon a local Methodist pastor stopped by the house with his son, John, who was the same age as Kendall. They began to play with the train and then began to explore the neighborhood. The next day Kendall walked into his father’s study with his hands cupped. They were filled with coins that he poured out on his father’s desk as he said, “Here, dad, give this to God.” Kent was surprised and wanted to know why Kendall was giving his money to God. He responded, “Just to say thanks.” “Thanks for what?” Kent asked. “You know – the train, John, my new room.” Kent asked, “How did you decide how much you were going to give?” Kendall said he opened his piggy bank and counted his money on his bed and then decided to give half of it to God.[iii]
Friends, our motivation for giving shouldn’t be guilt or fear. Before we count our money, we need to count our blessings. Giving to the church, to a friend, a family member, or even to a stranger in need should stem from a sense of gratitude; from the wonderful recognition that we’ve been blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others.
[i] Genesis 1:28
[ii] James 1:17
[iii] Story taken from The Gratitude Path: Leading Your Church to Generosity by Kent Millard. Abingdon Press; 2015; pp. 1-2
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