“Bless You!”
 — Karen Holcomb-Merrill

September 7, 2014

Genesis 12:1-9
Matthew 5:1-12

It’s September so you know what that means… Back to school, football season… and allergy season. Lots of sniffling and sneezing. And with those sneezes come lots of “bless yous” and “God bless yous.”It’s customary, almost expected, to say one of these after someone sneezes. Even if the person sneezing is seemingly healthy otherwise. But we don’t say these when someone coughs, has a fever or is throwing up. And why is that?

Well there are a number of suggestions as to why we bless someone who has sneeze and you may have heard some of them.

One is that a long time ago sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of the bubonic plaque—not a good thing. The story goes that blessing someone with this early symptom could halt the dreaded disease.

And then there are some who have claimed that your heart stops beating momentarily when you sneeze. The blessing is meant to encourage your heart to keep beating. I can’t report that I’ve found any scientific evidence to verify this.

Some had suggested that sneezing was the body’s effort to force out an invading evil spirit. Blessings could supposedly help shield you from this evil.

And on a more positive note, some Buddhists believe that a sneeze can provide a moment of what they call “clear consciousness,” when a person is open to greater understanding. The blessing is intended to support that moment.

Whatever the reason, blessing one another or asking God for blessings is a good thing! Something we should not limit to sneezing.

With that in mind, let’s think about blessed and blessing. And when I say blessing, I mean it as a verb—something we do. But wait, can we bless people? Don’t we have to go to seminary to have the power to bless people? Isn’t that something that only God can do?

No. We can all bless one another and we can be a blessing to others. God has blessed us so that we can bless others.

And what does a blessing look like? Well it can be as simple as a positive thought, including someone in your prayers or something more tangible such as actually doing something for someone. Blessings take all different forms.

We sometimes talk about blessings of the heart. The human heart is actually a great analogy for receiving and giving blessings. The heart pumps blood in one valve and then sends it out another. It never stores the blood. It continuously receives it and then sends it.

What if we thought about blessings that way? As children of God, we are all blessed by God’s grace. So what do we do in return to keep the blessings flowing?

How many of you have heard of the concept of “pay it forward?” This comes originally from a novel by that name. The idea is that a good deed is returned by doing a good deed for another. And in recent years, I’ve heard more people talk about paying it forward.

Commonly someone going through a drive thru to get their Biggby or Starbucks coffee pays for the coffee for the person behind them. I’m a diet Pepsi drinker myself and several weeks ago a stranger bought me my morning diet Pepsi. By the time I knew what he had done, he was long gone. That’s the point. The good deed is done without the expectation of acknowledgement or thanks.

I’ve heard several stories of young families being at dinner and when it comes time to get their bill, they’ve received a note saying: when we were a young family someone once bought our dinner for us. Now we are returning the favor. We hope later in life you will do the same. Enjoy!

And just in the last week there have been a string of posts on Facebook, that if you comment on someone’s status, that person will make something homemade for the first five people that respond.

Think about the ripple effect of paying it forward. You are the recipient of a good deed and you in return do a good deed for someone who does a good deed. And so on.

What if we take this concept and apply it to blessings? We acknowledge that we are blessed and we pass blessings on to others. Perhaps that is already happening in your life.

Imagine for a moment that you have a piece of paper. One side it says “blessed” and on the other it says “blessing” or “blessings.” Think for a moment about the side that says “blessed.” Think about some ways in which you have been blessed. Now, think about the side that says “blessings.” Think about some ways in which you have blessed others or have been a blessing or want to be a blessing. And while that may be a little harder, I know you all have things you could list.

Any surprises in doing that? Maybe it was harder or easier than you thought to come up with examples quickly? The idea behind this exercise is to raise our awareness about how we are blessed and about how we are blessing others. While we did it with imaginary paper in our heads, it is actually a great thing to do on real paper. Perhaps at the end of your day or at the end of a week, to really reflect on how you have been blessed and how you have blessed others.

I suspect that many of the blessings you wrote down are not new blessings. But how often do we stop to count our blessings, as we say? It’s an easy thing to forget. We get busy and forget about the blessings that we carry around with us. Sometimes we need blessings from one another to remind us of what we already have.

I know for a fact that this congregation has been pretty busy with its blessings lately. I’ll let you in on a little secret….ministers often share with one another the joys and challenges of their ministries. I know what a blessing you have been to Pastor Phil and his family as they’ve dealt with their baby Patrick’s health issues. I know what a blessing it was that you all made it possible for Pastor Phil to take a sabbatical early so that he could have more time with his son and daughter. And I’m sure that during the times when Pastor Phil has been absent, that you’ve learned to care for and bless on another in new ways. Perhaps I should invite some of you up here to give this sermon on blessings!

This idea of being blessed and passing on blessings is nothing new. In this morning’s reading from Genesis, God calls Abraham and asks him to take a leap of faith. He asks him to leave the only place he has ever known to venture to some place that he’s never even heard of. In return, God offers him a blessing—a blessing for him and his descendants. And we hear God say “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing… And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God blesses Abraham so that he, in turn, can pass that blessing on…to all of the families of the earth.

Fortunately we don’t have that kind of pressure on us and we’re not expected to bless all of the families of the earth.

The reading from the Gospel of Matthew that we heard this morning gives us some insights into blessings. The reading comes from the Sermon on the Mount and is referred to as the Beatitudes. The term comes from a Latin word meaning happy, fortunate, or blissful.

Some have read these passages to mean that there are some conditions or requirments on being blessed that. That Jesus might have been setting some terms for blessings.

When we read, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we might wonder are we really striving enough for righteousness? “Blessed are the merciful,” but do we show enough mercy toward others? “Blessed are the pure in heart,” but is our heart pure enough? “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but are we working toward peace?

We might read these in this way because we feel unworthy of being blessed. We know our faults and see ourselves at our worst. And in that vein, we might wonder if we are worthy.

This idea that Jesus blessed only those that earned it or were worthy does not ring true for me. Jesus blessed all kinds of people, all people. The most vulnerable, the outcasts, the ones left behind, those appearing to be undeserving. All of them. I understand the Beatitudes to be an illustration that the rich and poor, those that are mourning and those that are celebrating, the meek and the persecuted are all blessed.

And for us today, it is a reminder that we are called to bless and be a blessing for those outside of these walls. For those who are struggling, for those not welcome by others, for those who are maginalized or left behind. So as we consider how to live into the blessings that we receive each day through God’s grace, it is natural that we are most inclined to think about our families and friends and others in our lives. But let’s be bold and also think about how we can be a blessing to those outside of these walls.

And if you’re really up for a challenge, think about blessing the people in your life that are most challenging for you. The co-worker that might make your job more difficult. The annoying person in your life. The person who tries your patience the most. Think about blessing those people. See if blessing them doesn’t also transform you.

May it be so.