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God Bless

2010 October 27

In reading Walter Brueggemann’s latest book, Out of Babylon – a fantastic read full of thought provoking insights – I was intrigued by his discussion of blessing. In referring to the confidence of the Davidic dynasty in the years leading up to the exile, he writes –

These [texts] concerning dynasty and temple, regularly reiterated in state-sponsored liturgy, gave certitude and entitlement to those most closely gathered around the center of Jerusalem power. All this certainty about God’s blessing of Jerusalem, its king and its temple, gave the people of Jerusalem an excuse to ignore the social facts on the ground. If God was indeed blessing the power structure of Jerusalem unconditionally, then they need not worry about the economic exploitation and political oppression going on around them.

I think we all too often use this idea of blessing to ignore the needs of others. Living for ourselves, demanding God’s blessing for ourselves, prevents us from opening our eyes to the needs of others. And often enjoying that blessing (politically or economically) results in the direct exploitation and oppression of others. What we see as blessing is simply ill-gotten gain – what we call blessing others live as misery. Brueggemann goes on to say how even with the empires at their backdoor many in Jerusalem lived in denial as they tried to keep up this certainty of blessing with false mantras of “shalom, shalom.” His point is that only the poetic utterances of the prophets quietly challenged those false assurances by implying that the mere saying of “shalom” does not create peace. Saying “we are blessed” while others suffer for our false sense of blessing has nothing to do with actual blessing.

The parallels to modern day America are obvious (which is where Bruegemann goes in the text). We claim God’s blessing with the certitude of a blood drenched flag backing it up and the exploited poor suffering in our wake. We’ve mistaken greed, power, and consumption for blessing. Yet, beyond this obvious comparison to America, what these words on blessing brought to my mind was how often the church acts in these ways as well.

If a church is growing – determined almost exclusively numerically these days (the counting of butts and bucks) – then they deem themselves to be at the receiving end of God’s blessing. If people are showing up and spending giving money, then they must be doing something right for God to bless them in such ways. Unfortunately the same rationale could be applied to a movie theater or football stadium. Claiming God’s blessing because people are showing up to be entertained or affirmed in their pursuit of the American Dream makes no logical sense, but sadly has become a handy excuse for the church to continue ignoring its participation in communal sins of exploitation and oppression or even ignorance. For if God is blessing a church (growing numbers), then why should they change or examine who they really are? Why bother asking what it means to sacrificially follow Christ when everything is going so well?

At the church I attend we have entered into an intense period of discernment as a community. Part of why we are doing so is because the numbers aren’t there, we’re hurting. I think it could be easy to see this struggle as a lack of blessing, or at least to say that we are in need of more of God’s blessing (not that I’ve actually heard this being said). But what I’ve been reflecting on during this time is that perhaps this is an opportunity to help us realize that any blessing we have exists for the sole purpose of us by extension blessing others. It has been providing us a chance to really examine who we are – which I do hope will lead to a response of sacrificial living. I don’t want us to have confidence in our own community for the sake of itself alone, for sometimes even in the midst of struggles it can be easy to do so, just like Jerusalem saying “shalom, shalom” with certainty as empire breathed down their necks. It can unfortunately be just as easy for the struggling as well as the numerically “blessed” church to turn inward and start existing only for acquiring “blessings” for themselves.

The nation of Israel was told that they were blessed to be a blessing to the nations. This wasn’t some warm fuzzy perk – this was a task that required sacrifice, generosity, and ongoing humility. Existing for the sake of others is hard work. Ensuring that the people around us are finding justice, not being oppressed, and being showered with the blessing of God is a lot harder than getting a few more butts in the pews or dollars in the plate. Giving up perceived blessing when that blessing feeds a system of injustice is even harder, but it is only in such actions that the true path to blessing can be found.

So I appreciated Bruegemann’s reminder that blessing can be a tricky thing. It is easy to think we are blessed and miss the point entirely by failing to be actively serving others and seeking justice for all. But we can also easily desire blessing for ourselves without realizing that that is not how God works at all. A church should never exist for the sake of itself, no matter how great of a community it might be. The body of Christ is called to bear witness, to be that communal voice answering the call of Christ – seeking justice for all. Blessing can only be used to bless – to be the healers of this world. Just as saying “shalom” does not bring peace, simply saying “we are blessed” (in praise or supplication) does not make it so unless there is the evidence of a simultaneous blessing of others.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. October 27, 2010

    Julie–thanks so much for this. I love the idea from Brugg. and others that to claim God’s blessing is also to require certain responsibilities from us. To be chosen is about serving, rather than taking. Marc Ellis, my colleague at Baylor, is really good about this from the standpoint of Jewish chosenness–

    Blessings–

    Greg

  2. October 27, 2010

    It just so happens that we were given a preaching exercise in class today, tying it in with Thanksgiving. We had ten minutes to write a sermon based on either a portion of Ephesians or Deuteronomy 26.1-15 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=155223632). I chose the Deuteronomy passage and talk about what we, Americans, did in inhabiting this continent and what it means when we view it as God’s blessing. What if justice does roll down like a mighty water?

  3. Steve Wojujitski permalink
    October 27, 2010

    Just a thought, but maybe churches like yours aren’t growing because they’ve abandoned the gospel, accommodated to culture to the point of pluralism, and are little more than therapeutic outlets in which to self-actualize one’s frustrations with the modern church.

    Frustration at patriarchy, empire, and capitalism can only take a movement so far. Sometime along the path, Jesus needs to be the Savior of sinners, not just sinful societies and abstract structures.

    We’ve all long known that semblances of Emergent are dying and we predicted it. Now, it’s all just coming true.

  4. October 27, 2010

    Steve – I find it telling that you assume that my church isn’t “growing” because we don’t have tons of money. I personally see the gospel more actively followed there than at many other churches I’ve attended. But I guess if you associate American wealth with God’s blessing, then I guess we aren’t “growing”. Sadly, that has become the litmus test for growth for the church these days. I just wish the church would abandon such cultural accommodation and get back to the gospel.

    • Steve Wojujitski permalink
      October 28, 2010

      Yeah, I completely understand. Jesus was NEVER interested in numbers. I guess we can take that command at the end of Matthew about spreading the gospel to mean that Jesus was really just a silly, ol’ church growth guru. If you read read between the text, I can see how one can interpret Matthew 28 so that the church should not grow numerically, but should just have more candles and yoga.

  5. Rach permalink
    October 28, 2010

    What an excellent post, Julie. And that book sounds like an interesting read. I really appreciate your willingness to express what others are so quick to deny. The focus of so many churches is this (false sense of) ‘growth’ while those within their walls may be doing anything but growing up in Christ.

  6. October 29, 2010

    Your post has evoked several images – one is of manna. Our spiritual ancestors were blessed with a daily rain of manna. But if they hoarded it and kept it to themselves longer than a day, it spoiled and became worthless. When we gather up our modern blessings and use them to feed our own (personal OR corporate) aggrandizement, the blessings will spoil. But if we use them to feed others, they fulfill their intended purpose and do not spoil.

    The second image is the one of the cross — and a metaphor which is far from being new. Vertically, we accept the blessings from the Father and praise Him for that. Horizontally, we pass those blessings on to others. That metaphor is probably highly overused at this point, but I am focusing on the strongest part of the cross — the center. Implicit in this intersection is a decision — we decide to hoard or decide to disperse. We decide to consume or decide to distribute. We decide to sun ourselves in the light or venture into the darkness with His light. We decide to rest in the assurance of our own redemption or decide to get off our pew-butts and work to weave justice/righteousness back into Creation. That decision is at the core intersection with our relationship with the One who hung there. That is where you have taken me this week, Julie. And I love you for doing that!! Thanks.

  7. October 31, 2010

    Thanks for the reminder of Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful way of challenging people. We have seen him on film for our Living the Questions course. He has the gift of being able to encourage us to new heights and depths and ways of living out faith, but to do it in a gentle and loving way. I often “wish” blessings for people as a way of hoping for the best for them, your post has made me think again of what this means. Every Blessing

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