Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:9-15 Part 7
What does it mean to be blessed? Does it mean to be lucky, prosperous, successful, or fortunate? Is it to feel at ease, safe, satisfied or happy? Can blessings be counted? Can they be earned, won or bargained for?
How should a pastor deal with a parishioner who thinks his prosperity is a sign of blessing that gives him license to lord it over his family or fellow parishioners? How should a pastor respond to a parishioner who reacts to an illness or set back as if it meant the loss of blessing? What should a pastor think about a parishioner who speaks convincingly of feeling blessed in the face of profound loss or illness?
These questions show that blessing has a wide range of meanings and levels of intensity. At lower levels where there is not a great deal at stake, blessing may mean little more to us than good luck, as in: "We were blessed to have such perfect weather during our vacation in Maine."
In the middle levels where what is at stake is a matter of some genuine concern, deeper connotations of "blessing" come to light. "I am blessed to be able to make my living doing something I truly love and believe in." Here, it is not some particular thing or event that is a blessing, but a quality of life that gives enduring meaning and satisfaction.
Still, it is only when what is at stake is a matter of ultimate concern1 that the meaning of blessing and blessedness is revealed in its full breadth and depth. "Though I know I am about to die, I feel at peace and hopeful—like a child comforted by that silliest and holiest of maternal promises: `It will be all right. Everything will be all right.'"In this case, it is the essential blessedness and preservation of life itself that has become a matter of ultimate concern, and which is affirmed in spite of death.
The opening scene of Mark's Gospel comes to a climax with God's blessing of Jesus at his baptism: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." The immediate aftermath of this baptism and blessing was forty days of torment in the wilderness. This text points to three further insights into the meaning of blessing in the light of ultimate concern.
First, blessing is about being not having or doing. The one who is addressed as God's beloved son lacks all the expected trappings of one who is destined for greatness of any sort. In Mark's Gospel, he appears to come out of nowhere. He has no royal or priestly lineage, no references, no fortune, no followers and no army. He has yet to perform a healing or preach a single sermon. He does not even presume to have any special moral qualifications. He presents himself to John in a humble fashion asking only to be baptized, which, as Donald Juel reminds us, was "a washing for the forgiveness of sins."2
The blessing Jesus received at his baptism was an ontic blessing—an unconditional affirmation of Jesus' being from out of God's being. This blessing signifies nothing more or less than the spirit to spirit connection between the one who blesses and the one who is blessed.
Thus, a person is not ultimately blessed with success, fortune, family, respectability or any of the things most of us use to measure ourselves and others. Nor, is a church blessed with an endowment, beautiful music, an abundance of programs, or pews filled with believers. None of these things can be a source of ontic blessing. For none of these things can inspire the courage to affirm the blessedness of our being in spite of the loss of all these things. Such courage can only come from a relation with one who truly is or mediates the power of being itself—who sees and calls out the power of being in us regardless of our having or doing anything.
Pastorally, this means we should guard against coaxing hurting people to "count their blessings"—not even in the subtle ways we often do. Whatever we say or do, our attitude should be that of a humble witness to the essential blessedness of the person we are with. We do not do this by trying to convince hurting people of anything. We do it by treating them as if we regarded them as God's beloved son or daughter with deepest respect and compassion.
Thus, the second thing Mark teaches about blessing is that it is essentially relational. There can be nothing of pride or of feeling "self-made" in the experience of true blessing. To be blessed is to know our dependence on God and the angels God sends to us, in the forms of friend and stranger, loved one and enemy, guide and tempter.
Pastoral care givers should not offer their own blessings too lightly. To bless another is to bind one self to him or her. It is to promise to see and nurture the power of being in them. This almost always requires going some extra miles, if only the extra miles of listening or being with another. One should, therefore, not pronounce a blessing from the doorway of a hospital room or the outer gates of a prison ward. This is too safe a distance and conveys dismissal not blessing.
Finally, Gabriel Marcel wrote that the difference between hope and optimism or wishful thinking becomes most clear in a situation of trial, such as illness, separation, captivity or exile.3 The same can be said about the difference between true blessedness and good luck or good fortune. Mark makes this point by juxtaposing the blessing of Jesus with his forty days of torment in the wilderness. True blessing does not grant immunity from suffering or temptation. It can, however, be the source of life affirmation and the "courage to be in spite of."4
We must be very careful how we say this to those who are suffering. Any words about courage or affirmation amidst suffering spoken from outside the situation of trial will ring false and hurtful. That is why empathy is so necessary in pastoral care. Empathy is not sympathy, though it can include it. Empathy is not compassion, though it may lead to it. Empathy requires making a connection from within another's frame of reference, and thus itself requires an act of courage. Because empathy requires the same type of relation as does blessing, it can prove the truest witness to those who need reminding of their essential blessedness.
Wally Fletcher NOTES
1. Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp.1-4.
2. Donald H. Juel, Mark-Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress,1990), p.36.
3. Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator, Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope (Harper & Row, 1951), pp.29-67.
4. Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).