TEXT:  Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

            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 man heading up technology at the Westford church wrote and asked me what sort of internet connection I wanted in the house.  Did I want a 56K dial-up modem, broadband, or DSL?  I wrote back and told him that if I had to go back to a dial-up modem, they would find me in a corner of the parsonage, rocking back and forth, muttering unintelligible sentences.

            That interchange represents just how far off the straight and narrow I have gotten.  There’s only a miniscule portion of the world’s population with even a dial-up modem.  There are people with no home, no electricity, no water.  There are people being tortured, confined, and abused and others who are wounded, sick, and dying.  In the midst of my astounding and overflowing blessings, I would feel poor and ill-used if the church made me use a dial-up modem.  That’s really pathetic.

            So there is a deep wisdom in the “count your blessings” 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 your blessings, that advice is only the beginning.  It is truly helpful to recognize what we have been given and to be grateful for it.  But 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, at least among people who think about such things, is 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 a people.

            We don’t do that so well, which is one of the reasons that talk and literature about Jesus’ second coming get more out of control every decade.  For us to believe it, we have to think it will come in our lifetime…to us and for us.  We will be saved and others left behind.  But God is at work for the salvation of the world, not for the salvation of a few individuals.  As we look at the terrible state of our world today, heaven forbid that we should rejoice that it seems like the end is near.  We should pray that God holds off until more people can learn the ways of peace, so that we can learn to tend to God’s creation as we should, so that God’s will is more often done on earth as it is in heaven.

            Let’s go back and look at the passage from Genesis.  It’s a famous passage…God’s call to Abraham, whose name is still Abram at this point.  Abraham is the beginning of the three monotheistic religions…Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  We all go 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 brazen 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.  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, we are no longer faithful and the reward will stop.

            This concept was put very nicely into a movie a few years back called “Pay it Forward.”  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, the movie proposed that we 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.

            But the majority of people don’t do that.  Sadly, the majority of Christians don’t do that…at least not the Christians in this country.  You do find it 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 almost entirely absent in communities that are middle class and above.

            If we say we want the church to thrive and grow, we need to get past merely counting our blessings and move to sharing them.  This is not only a concept about material things, but it does include those things.  I will bet that almost every person in this room has at least one box somewhere that has not been opened in years.  We may not even know what’s in it anymore.  I am certainly making those discoveries as I am packing to move.  If you haven’t used it, worn it, or looked at it in a year, you don’t need it.  And if you don’t need it, it is a wasted blessing.  Move it on…give it away…find someone who can use a blessing and bestow it.  Got frequent flyer miles that you don’t really need?  Maybe someone needs to see a family member one last time but can’t afford to get there.  Got a vacation home you don’t use some weeks?  Maybe there’s someone you know who hasn’t had a vacation in years.  Got season tickets to something that you don’t always use.  Maybe there is someone who could never afford to go unless you share that blessing.

            In the end, this all goes back to the notion of stewardship.  Nothing we have is ours.  Not our money or possessions, not our family or our bodies.  It is all God’s and we are the trustees of God’s possessions.  God treats us well as trustees…we are greatly blessed.  But, like Abraham, the whole point of God’s blessing is to make us better able to share God’s blessings with others.  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.  There are times when that is simply a blessing for me.  It helps me communicate in letters, and enables me to do quickly what would take others days to accomplish.  But I know that my talent is given to me for a purpose beyond myself.  And so I also give of my talent to others…in books, in sermons, on the internet.  In that way others are blessed, and many of them have passed that on to still others.

            God has blessed many in this church with amazing musical gifts.  Because they have shared them with us, many others have been blessed by that blessing.  And maybe some decided to pursue their own musical gifts as a result which will then bless even more.  Some share their teaching gifts or administrative gifts or the wonderful blessing of just showing up and helping wherever needed.  Harold and Lucille Carpenter, Debbie Hollis, Jinny Scott, Bob Willome.  It doesn’t matter what’s happening, those folks are always there to bless us 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.  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…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.

(c) 2005, Anne Robertson