January 29, 2023
Blessing and Vulnerability
In this sermon series, called “Walk in the Light,” we will spend the next several weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches us how to walk in the light, how to carry the light into the darkness. Today we begin the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, one of the most familiar passages of scripture, along with the story of creation, the Ten Commandments, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
These blessings, which are the opening statement to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, bring us immediately into the paradox, the contradiction, and what we might called the Spirit-filled tension of the realm of God. Listen for the word of the Lord.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I want to think with you for a few minutes today about blessing and vulnerability. Each of these beatitudes, and all of them together, are a promise that we will find blessing in vulnerability. It’s a strange thing about vulnerability – I admire it in other people – when they take the risk to share their doubts, their exhaustion, their pain, their weaknesses – but I don’t like it much in myself. I don’t like to share my doubts. I prefer to have the answers. I don’t like to feel helpless or inadequate. I like to appear independent, strong, capable, competent. Now, I may be in the minority here, but I doubt it. Most people, and definitely most Presbyterians, value feeling relatively independent, and secure, competent, in control – and we hate to feel vulnerable.
And yet, the truth is we cannot avoid being vulnerable.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Or perhaps you remember the Velveteen Rabbit, who was loved so much it hurt: his hair fell out; joints became loose; and eyes came off? As the Skin Horse explains to the Velveteen Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you’re made. It’s a thing that happens to you.”
As much as none of us want to, or enjoy feeling vulnerable, I bet that if you think of times in your life when you have felt most cared for, supported, and loved – they are the times when you were most vulnerable. This week a national newspaper asked readers to share stories of times when they experienced kindness, and I was struck by the two that were shared.
A man said his wife had just died, and he was totally empty inside, a shell of himself at home and at work. His employer assigned him to work with a new boss, and said, “Do whatever she tells you.” With a mix of challenge and grace, she managed him into new life. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the ones who show mercy.
The other story was a woman who remembered the early days after her divorce, standing in a huge yard full of leaves, raking for the first time, wondering how long it would take to do it all and feeling totally overwhelmed. Soon a neighbor came with his son and their rakes. Then his son’s friends showed up, rakes in hand, and soon the yard was full of help and hope. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the ones who make things whole.
In these blessings, these beatitudes, Jesus invites us to believe this promise: when we are vulnerable, not only are we alive, not only do we become real: we are blessed.
Now, whatever understanding of blessing Jesus is trying to communicate here, it’s counter-intuitive. Usually, we do not expect to find blessing in vulnerability. We expect to find blessing in strength. I spent some time this week looking at the use of the word “blessed” in scripture – the Hebrew word barak in the Old Testament – and most of those instances reveal the very intuitive understanding of blessing that we expect.
A family has healthy children, and they have healthy children, and they have healthy children, and the legacy grows exponentially from one generation to another. They are blessed. A farmer has rich fields and good weather, which yields great harvests and big profits. He is blessed. A man learns to hang out with good people and ignore bad advice, to stay away from trouble and do the right thing. He is blessed. A woman is loved and praised by those who know her, is successful in business, lives a long life and dies quietly in her sleep. She is blessed.
Blessing in the Old Testament is not much different than it is at your house and mine: family, integrity, prosperity, health, long life.
Yet, Jesus is saying something else here, and something new. He is saying something upside down, counter-intuitive, a new dimension of God’s realm, something Spirit-filled. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the ones who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are ones who are hungry and thirsty for things to be right. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for doing right.
If that doesn’t sound a little strange to us, we are probably not paying close attention. Sometimes religious language can just wash over us as “religious language”, and thereby lose its power to turn our conventional wisdom upside down, lose its power to turn our lives inside out, lose its power to bring us into the presence of God. And in this case, lose its power to bless us in the very vulnerability we admire in others, but are so afraid to experience in ourselves.
There are nine beatitudes, or blessings, in this list. The first four are blessings on people in need. Jesus is blessing broken people.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are you when you have nothing left to give. Blessed are you when you are crippled with anxiety. Blessed are you when you know you don’t have what it takes, or what you need, or what they expect.
Blessed are they who mourn. Blessed are you when you bury the one you love. Blessed are you when you cry an ocean of tears. Blessed are you when you aren’t “over it yet.” Blessed are you when you feel that the vacancy inside will never be filled. Blessed are you when the bottom drops out and everything changes.
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the doubters. Blessed are those who have the courage to say “I don’t know”. Blessed are the ones who are doing all they can. Blessed are you when the challenge you face will take more than you have. Blessed are you when all you have is prayer.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are you when you trusted and are betrayed. Blessed are you when you are endlessly trapped in the system. Blessed are you when you never thought it would happen to you, and then it does. Blessed are you. Jesus blesses empty people with grace.
In the next three beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who give this grace to others. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are you when you stop to help. Blessed are you when take the time to listen. Blessed are you when you withhold judgment. Blessed are you when you understand. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are you when you wait in line. Blessed are you when you check your privilege. Blessed are you when take time to pray. Blessed are you when you have the courage to trust.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are you when you try to put what’s broken back together again. Blessed are you when you work to make it better, even when everyone says it will never get better. Blessed are you when you look for common ground. Blessed are you when you give up the right to get even. Blessed are you when you draw the circle wider so no one is left out. Jesus blesses people who take the risk to give grace.
And then, in the last two beatitudes, Jesus blesses all the ones who get in trouble for doing it. Because needing grace is not easy, and showing grace is so often hard. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you on my account.
In the words of Nadia Bolz Weber, “Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers. Blessed are the kindhearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.” Those who need grace, those who give grace, those for whom it costs too much. You are all blessed.
Vulnerability and blessing. The place of vulnerability is the place of blessing. These are the blessings of a wounded Savior, a Crucified God, and they fall not on those who are strong or successful or independent, but on the ones who have failed, who are inadequate, who are naïve, who see the pain of others, who are faithful in the small things, who are ready to give up. You are blessed.
That word “blessed” is hard to get our arms around. The translation “blessed” sounds super-spiritual, and a more exact translation, like “happy,” sounds too shallow. What does it mean? The scholar Dale Bruner says that when Jesus says, “blessed are,” what he really means is, “I am with you.” I am on your side. When you are empty, when you are weak, when you are in need.
When you’re a shell of yourself at the office. When you’re standing in the yard of a life that’s gone to pieces. When you admire vulnerability in others, but hate it in yourself, and end up crying in a group of people, and wish a trap door would open in the floor. You are blessed. You are a child of heaven. You will be comforted. You will be filled. You will be shown mercy. All of God’s promises will be yours. You are vulnerable; you are alive; you are real; you are blessed.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina