TEXT:  Genesis 12:1-3; Luke 19:1-10



            When we get into really depressed periods of our lives, we are often advised to count our blessings.  There’s a great old hymn with that theme, and certainly it is good advice.  The happy people are the ones who focus on what they DO have, not what they don’t.  There is always something for which we can be thankful, and gratitude is what heals the heart.  But as helpful as it is to count our blessings, that advice is only the beginning.  The larger, more important question is, “WHY have I been given these things?”

            We almost never go there.  The reigning assumption about God in America seems to be that God exists in order to improve my life.  It’s all about me.  If I live right, God will give me good things.  If something goes wrong in my life, I’m being punished.  If I get something wonderful, it is a well-earned reward or a sign of God’s love for me.  Well, I have good news and bad news.

            The good news is that God does love each one of us as individuals.  God hears our prayers, has the hairs on our heads numbered, and cares about both the large and small things in our lives.  The bad news is that God does not separate us out as individuals from the larger group of the human family.  This is really hard for Americans to understand, but it is critical in understanding what the Bible has to say.

            The Bible details salvation history…not the salvation of individuals, but the salvation of God’s people.  It is always about the group first, and the individual second.  The Israelites clung to the promise of a savior, generation after generation for thousands of years.  They didn’t stop believing that God answered prayer just because they didn’t see it in their own lifetime, because they knew it wasn’t just about them.  It was about God’s promise to a people, and ultimately to the world.

            Let’s go back and look at the passage from Genesis.  It’s a famous passage…God’s call to Abraham.  All three monotheistic religions…Judaism, Islam, and Christianity...trace their roots back here, to this one man, and his faithful response to God’s call.

            God’s call to Abraham is asking him to take a great leap of faith…to leave the only home he has ever known and to venture to someplace he has never heard of.  In return, God offers him a blessing…a blessing for Abram and his descendants.  Now that much we would expect.  Okay, God, if you’re going to ask me to do something scary and wild like that, there had better be something in it for me.  You had better make the path easy and bless me for doing it.  We want reward, so that after we have done the hard work, we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors.

            But listen to what God actually says to Abraham.  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, SO THAT YOU WILL BE A BLESSING.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.”  The reason God blesses Abraham is so that he can turn around and pass that blessing on to others.  Not just members of his family or his tribe or his city or his nation, but all the families of the earth.

            We are blessed by God in order that we might be a blessing to others.  Counting our blessings without then asking how God would like us to use those blessings is simply greed and selfishness.  It’s not that we cannot partake in the blessing as individuals.  They are given to us, but they are not given ONLY to us.  In one sense they are a reward…they are a reward for faithfulness.  But the REASON that God rewards faithfulness is because faithful people share their blessing with others.  Once we start keeping all the blessings to ourselves, either as individuals or as a church, we are no longer faithful and the reward will stop.

            We need to stop looking at everything as consumers…I want what you will give and I pay you for it.  End of transaction.  End of blessing.  Two people are helped.  Instead of paying someone back for a blessing and ending the cycle, a movie a few years back suggested that we should “pay it forward.”  If I receive a blessing from Ginny, that I turn around and give a blessing to Mildred who can then give a blessing to Steve who can pass it along to Bill in a never-ending sequence of blessing.  Soon all the families of the earth would be blessed.

We find that attitude in the stories of the early church and today in the church in Africa and Asia and Latin America…the places where the church is growing.  You don’t find it often in America and Europe, where the church is declining.  I think there’s a connection.  When you do find it here, you find it in poor churches.  It is rare in communities that are middle class and above. 

I envy the opportunity you will have shortly to hear the Gospel through the lens of a Korean woman.  If you’re like most New England churches, that’s a step out of your comfort zone.  You can bet it’s out of her comfort zone as well.  And yet God has called you both and you will have the opportunity to hear the good news from the perspective of a culture that natively understands the importance of the group instead of just individuals and a culture where the love of God runs deep and the willingness to sacrifice to spread the Gospel is a given.

When I served on the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I had the privilege of interviewing many new folks coming into ministry.  One group I will never forget.  All those I interviewed in that session had been born outside the US—in Korea, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.  Every one of them had endured things to enter ministry that would have sent me running to be a banker or something.  Two had literally been beaten for their faith—one by her own mother.  They were persecuted, impoverished, ostracized, imprisoned, and had every obstacle imaginable thrown in their way.  But God called and they responded, leaving homeland and in some cases all of their family to follow that call.

I was moved to the core.  I went back to the church I was serving at the time and said “Wimps!  We’re all wimps!  Who am I to sit in judgment over whether these people can enter ministry?  They have followed where I doubt I ever would have gone.  They have courage I can only dream about and a love of God unmatched either in myself or in my American-born colleagues.  We have no idea what it means to sacrifice for our faith.  Stop fussing about comfortable pews and organ music and get out there and make disciples!”  They looked a bit shell-shocked.  But there is a reason that churches in Africa and Asia are sending missionaries to us here in the US. 

Just as Melissa has given you gifts and opportunities to pass those blessings on to others, you are being given a new set of gifts opportunities in your new pastor.  Be sure to thank God for them and to share them.

Zacchaeus understood the concept at a gut level.  When Jesus blessed him by agreeing to go to his home—an act that in that culture of hospitality made all sorts of statements about acceptance, friendship, and honor—he didn’t even wait for the dinner to happen before announcing that he would change his corrupt ways and give back four-fold to all those he had defrauded.  He didn’t take the blessing and pay Jesus, he used his blessing to bless others.

And what about the blessings we have in our local church?  Does our fine music only bless our own members?  I know it would never be true of this church, but there are some churches that keep the good news of the Gospel contained in the church walls and you can only get it if you go there for just a brief hour on a Sunday morning.  Jesus called his disciples out of their homes and comfortable lives to take the good news out to those who had not heard.  There would be no story of Zacchaeus if Jesus had stayed in the synagogue.  There would be no nation of Israel if Abraham had not been willing to get up off his duff and leave the city.

We are blessed to be a blessing for all the nations of the earth.  It’s true of our possessions, but it’s also true of our talents.  God has blessed me with a talent for writing.  God has blessed many with amazing musical gifts.  Some share their teaching gifts or administrative gifts or the wonderful blessing of just showing up and helping wherever needed.  It doesn’t matter what’s happening, those folks are always there to bless others with a helping hand.

            God has blessed you.  Count your blessings.  But don’t stop there.  You are blessed to be a blessing.  God’s intention is that all the nations of the earth should be blessed by the actions of God’s people.  Who have you blessed recently?  What blessing does this church give to the Nashua community?  If this church were suddenly destroyed and all its members scattered, would God see a need to rebuild it?  Are there groups outside the church that would say, “Well, how are we possibly going to get along without Arlington St. there to help us?”  Would Nashua mourn the loss?  I hope they would.  For some churches in some communities, no one outside the church would even notice their absence.

God is working the salvation of the world through us.  It’s our job.  The Jews were not chosen by God for special privilege, but for special service.  It is the same for Christians and for anybody else who receives God’s blessing.  Don’t hoard it…spread it.  Don’t pay it back, pay it forward.  For every material blessing you have received, for the gift of talent or health or land or a kind and loving spirit, for the good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ…whatever it is, you were given that blessing in order that you might use it to bless others.

            But please don’t hear this as saying that we cannot enjoy any of the blessings we receive--that we only look at the gourmet meal from the outside and never taste any of it.  Some Christians make that mistake, thinking their own lives are to be barren while they give everything to others.  No, it is a much more gracious plan than that.  It is like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As we share the blessing we have, the blessing grows and multiplies until everyone present…including us…is satisfied and there are huge amounts of leftovers still.

            It’s the basic lesson we learned in kindergarten.  Share.  One toy lovingly and willingly shared creates community.  One toy hoarded creates tears and temper tantrums.  Wealth and resources that are lovingly and willingly shared creates a grateful and peaceful world.  Wealth and resources that are stockpiled and hoarded leads to poverty and war.  For those who do not profess faith, there is no rule.  But for those who look to Abraham or to the Bible for guidance, it couldn’t be more clear.  Enjoy God’s blessings, count them one by one.  Then pass them on wherever they are needed that through God’s people all the nations of the earth should be blessed.  Amen.

Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson

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