I ran across an old Zen story this week that I want to share with you this morning.There is a young man whose horse runs away from their farm one day and all of the neighbor's remark at what bad luck he has but his father says, "maybe this is a blessing." Then the horse returns a little while later with another horse and all of the neighbor's remark on what good blessing this is and his father says, "perhaps this is a curse." Then the young man rides the horse, falls off, and breaks his leg in several places and the neighbor's remark on what bad luck this is while his father says, "perhaps this is a blessing." A few years pass and war breaks out. The King calls all young men to go to war and many neighbors' sons never come back. But the young man, who is crippled from the fall, is able to stay with his father and care for him until he dies. (This story is told both in Wayne Mueller's book, Sabbath and in the children's book, Zen Shorts by .)
What is a blessing? How do we describe blessing? Is it luck? Is it fortune? Is it the opposite of curse? Or is it something else?
Blessing conveys something about our identity. So much of our identity we base completely on things that happen to us-- what family we are born into; what skin color we have; what country we live in; how many brothers and sisters we have, or whether we grew up with the parents who gave birth to us. We form our identity on what schools we go to, what jobs we have, whether we get married and whether it worked out; even on whether we are parents of boys or girls. As a mother of 3 girls, I know that I see myself differently than if I were a mother of 3 boys, and yet I didn't choose this at all! It actually says nothing about me, and yet we see each other differently because of these aspects of our lives. Jonathon who has asphergers is known for his behavior that is different from his peers even though he often isn't aware of the differences. Brooke, who at 8 years of age feels out of place because she can't eat gluten which means she brings her own food to birthday parties, school events, and often even as she comes forward for communion, watches as others treat her differently just because her body can't process gluten. And even what we might call positive things form identity in ways we can't control. Ask any lottery winner how people's perception of them changes.
There are so many ways that our identities are formed for us-- that the culture in which we live makes a judgment about who we are based on factors we have little control over and these things shape the way we see ourselves.
But the Gospel invites us into a new way of thinking of ourselves-- a new kind of identity. Jesus speaks to the crowd that day on the mountain-- a crowd that would've been a wide mix of income level, status, and so-called blessedness, and he turns the view of blessedness upside down. Instead of pointing out the obvious thinking of his day and, really, of ours: that the blessed are those who are smart; who are rich; who are healthy; that the blessed are those who live long lives and have perfect relationships and who have nothing to cry about-- instead of naming the list that we might make of how we feel blessed and how we count our blessings, Jesus creates a very different list.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for Jesus' sake.
And we wonder, "What kind of a list is this?"
If we were making the list, we would probably say, "Blessed are those who are full of God's Spirit." "Blessed are those who have no reason to mourn." "Blessed are those who have fulfilled all righteousness." "Blessed are those who live in communities in which there is no need for mercy." "Blessed are those who already live in peace.” “Blessed are those who are never persecuted!”
Our idea of blessedness is usually to be people who do not necessarily need each other; who do not need to work on how to get along; who are self-sufficient. But Jesus' list of people who are blessed are people who are all empty in some way. Who need God, and each other, and are needed by others. And here is where I think the blessing is.
Jesus says our identity is not formed by what the world says is important or even by our to-do list of accomplishments. Jesus says our identity, our blessedness, our sacredness, lies in what God has already done for us and in the ways we need each other. All of the beatitudes point to people who are empty in some way-- people who have space in their lives for God to squeeze in.
We have a tendency to think of all of the unexpected things of life as distractions or problems. But Jesus seems to be saying that even when we don't feel blessed-- even when we are feeling poor in the spirit; when we are mourning; when we are working hard for peace and not feeling that anything is changing; when we are being persecuted-- even when all of these things are happening, we should not begin to believe that God has abandoned us. God's blessing is upon us in those times, for God's blessing is not dependent on us, we are dependent on God's blessing.
It's interesting to me that after this whole litany of blessing, Jesus then goes on to speak in these great metaphors of empowerment. "You are the salt of the earth," he says, when you share just a sprinkle of all that God has bless you with, the whole world will taste it. "You are the light of the world," he says, even in the darkest night, just a word of blessing from you or a kind gesture will bring light to people who need it.
This blessing stuff seems to be cyclical more than one-sided. God sees us for who we are, children of God, and then God blesses us whether we deserve it or not. We receive the blessing in the times when we are empty enough to let is seep in, and then we begin to see ourselves and each other for who we are, as God's children, and we bless God in return. It's not that we haven't been salty the whole time, it may just be that it took something in life to show us our saltiness-- it took someone else reaching out to us and sharing their salt before we realized we had our own. It's not that we haven't always been the light of the world, but it's only in times of darkness that we are able to see the ways God is calling us to be light in that darkness. God has created us to be in community which means we are the most blessed when we depend on one another and on God. So let’s step into life this Lent through the beatitudes. Let’s take time to admit that more often than not, we are poor in spirit; let’s extend mercy whenever we can and strive to be pure in heart if we ever manage it; let's continue to see the people of this world and thirst for righteousness; to not be afraid to love so deeply that we mourn when we experience loss. Let's dare to be peacemakers. And let's go humbly, sharing God's salt; sharing God's light; sharing with the world God's blessedness.
Guided Meditation on Blessing
Notice your breath-- a gift of blessing given each moment without you ever thinking about it.
Think of one person who has been a blessing to you. What about that person blesses you? Where do you think that kind of blessing comes from?
Take a moment to thank God for that person.
Now think of one person in your life who may need your blessing. What in your life has enabled you to bless them?
Take a moment to thank God for that person.
Notice your breathing. Take a moment to thank God for your breath. When you are ready, open your eyes.