I got my first introduction to U.S. American worship and spirituality when I was a teenager in the 80s back in Germany. I think it was in the 8th grade when our religious studies teacher showed us a clip from ‘The PTL Club’ – PTL stands for ‘Praise the Lord’ – also known as the ‘Jim and Tammy Show’.
Jim and Tammy are televangelist Jim Bakker and his then wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, and their show was quite successful back in the day – did anyone here ever watch it?
Now in the clip our teacher showed us, Tammy Faye Bakker sings a song. And it’s quite a production, with a real stage, a band, and several backup singers.
And then there is Tammy Faye herself, with typical big 80s hair and impressive makeup – it was so unlike anything I’d ever seen in church (remember, I grew up in a somber and quite stark German Lutheran church).
And Tammy Faye sings this cheerful tune, ‘We’re blest, we’re blessed, we’re blest, we are blest; we got shelter, clothing and strength, we are blest! We’re blest, we’re blest, we’re blest, we are blest; we don’t deserve it, but yes, we are blest, we don’t deserve it, but yes, we are blest.’ (To listen to the song, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bccc4L4fQdI)
I won’t sing the entire song now, but let me give you a summary of what the song is about: we are blessed because we have all we need and we are well off, so there is no reason to complain. And then there is one verse that already disturbed me back in the 80s and disturbed me even more greatly when I just listened to this song again to refresh my memory about it to prepare for this sermon.
In it, Tammy Faye talks about different kinds of misfortune that befalls people – people who die in a plane crash, the friend who is ill an can’t get well, the hungry child who is abandoned by their parents – and then I would expect something like, well, we are blessed, so we should help them. But no, instead, the lyrics go, ‘Well, it comes to my mind we better stop and think about how we’ve been blest and blest and blest. We’re blest, we’re blest, we’re blest…’
So what this song basically says is that there are those who are blessed and those who are not – and too bad for those who are not – there must be a reason for it. And I realized that a blessing is understood as something that makes our individual lives pleasant and comfortable, that a blessing is understood as something quite material – and materialistic.
And I remember thinking back then, as a teenager: that’s not what I’ve been taught in confirmation class. Martin Luther never said that. Jesus never said that. And more about that in a moment. And so I got my first introduction to this quite typical U.S. American religiosity, that’s extremely individualistic – it’s about my personal Lord and savior, my relationship to God, and God’s favor and blessing manifest themselves in how well I’m off. The American dream – God’s dream.
Since moving to the U.S. 20+ years ago, I’ve encountered this kind of distorted interpretation of Christianity repeatedly. And, if you ask me, this distorted kind of Christianity explains why this country is where it is right now.
But what is a blessing – in the biblical sense?
Let me give you a simplified answer: in a blessing, God gives the stamp of approval. In the very beginning, for example, as God creates heaven and earth, God blesses everything God created; the first human beings are blessed and commanded to be fruitful and multiply. In a sense, God’s blessing is an endorsement. And see, everything was good. But with the endorsement, with the blessing comes responsibility. A blessing signifies the special relationship we have with God, and it’s a two-way-road. It is a gift, and we better handle it carefully.
Those who receive God’s blessing throughout the Old Testament – from Noah to Abraham, Jacob and the prophets – are given the assurance my God that, despite the fact that the road may be long and difficult and promises may not be fulfilled right away, God is with them, through thick and thin.
Yes, a blessing can lead to wellbeing here on earth – after all, God wants the best for all creation – but prosperity is not necessarily a consequence of God’s blessing. More importantly, a blessing signifies fulfilment in the relationship with God and neighbor, it is what the Old Testament calls ‘Shalom’ – peace, wholeness, harmony – and this is what gives our individual and collective lives meaning. This is what life is all about, not the accumulation of wealth and stuff.
And this is something no money in the world can buy, on the contrary – when we are filled up with too many good things, when we have all we need and more than that, these things tend to distract us from real relationships, be it with God or with one another.
Today’s lesson from the gospel according to Luke touches on that. Here, Jesus says, not ‘Blessed are you who have shelter and clothing and strength’, but: ‘Blessed are you (in the sense of ‘y’all’) who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.’
Jesus speaks a word of endorsement to those on the edge of society, those who fall through the cracks of human society: the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the rejected. Jesus says to them, ‘God cares about you, God loves you, God is with you.’ And Jesus himself is God’s blessing incarnated, made flesh, for he actively seeks out the sick, the poor, the powerless, the sinners, and brings them healing and wholeness by reminding them how important they are to God, by bringing them into community with God and with one another. Rejoice, you’re blessed – God is with you.
And just as Jesus Christ is God’s blessing incarnated, we as the body of Christ become God’s blessing for each other and for all those who are down, to heal and to help. Blessings abound where we share God’s love and favor.
And wouldn’t it be great if I could just stop here and say, ‘amen’?
But, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus also describes the flipside of blessing: ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’
Ironically, all the material things and the wellbeing that are so often described as a blessing, all the things that Tammy Faye cheerfully claims to be blessings in her song, according to Jesus are cause for woe, for sadness and distress – the opposite of shalom.
Which makes you think about where we stand. We have everything. We have shelter, clothing, and strength to various degrees, plus all those things we don’t really need but that make our lives so much more pleasant and comfortable. Are we blessed? Or does Jesus cry out a ‘woe’ unto us?
Well, as good Lutherans we can say ‘both – and’. After all, we are sinners and saints at the same time, right?
We are blessed in the biblical sense of the meaning: God has endorsed us, God has put a stamp of approval on us as God created us; and this bond of blessing has been strengthened indefinitely in our baptism. God blesses us with community. We are poorer and hungrier than we might think: poor in peace of mind and relationships, hungry for God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, hungry for true community; we need God and that relationship with God and neighbor that gives our life meaning, and makes our lives truly rich; we need shalom – and I think we can all agree that this is something that’s sorely missing in this country right now and in the world.
But then the ‘woe’ applies to us as well. It is a warning: be careful that you are not too full of things, too full of yourself, for what will remain at the end of the day when all this is taken from you?
Jesus reminds us of the trap of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness that often goes along with material wealth, strength and power. Woe unto us if we disregard the need of our neighbor; woe unto us if we deem ourselves better and more deserving than others. God’s blessing is a gift, and we better handle it responsibly.
We mustn’t forget to share what we have. We mustn’t forget that we are blessed, and that we are to be a blessing for others. We mustn’t forget that we only find live to the fullest if all have life to the fullest. God’s vision is not the American dream, but a vision that includes the shalom, the peace and wholeness, of all creation. This is the kingdom of heaven. This is what we are called to live into.
That’s how we are blessed. Blessed are you. And so may God bless you and keep you, now and forever.
Picture by Kerstin Weidmann
This post is also available in: German