“You know what I’m sick of?” a friend asked me a few years ago as we sat down for coffee. Which is a rough way to start a conversation; nothing positive is going to come after a rhetorical question like that. And the answer could be almost anything: the political polarization in our society; those five-second ads that pop up in the middle of a YouTube video; people who don’t use proper grammar in everyday conversation; people who complain about people who don’t use proper grammar in everyday conversation; anything.
So I went the safe route and simply replied, “No, what?” “The gratitude-industrial complex,” she replied immediately. Now: whatever I was expecting her to say, that wasn’t it. “The what?” I replied. She rolled her eyes. “You know,” she said, “all these people trying to make us live with an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ and keep a gratitude journal, and who are always telling you to ‘count your blessings’ whenever you’re frustrated or disappointed about something. Yes, I’m grateful I’m healthy and have access to clean water, but does that mean I’m not allowed to be unhappy that my three year-old hasn’t let me sleep more than 90 minutes in a row since he was born?”
She sighed, and her shoulders slumped, and she stared down into her gigantic cup of coffee as if she was looking for answers instead of enough caffeine to get through the afternoon. I could almost see the defiant snarky tone draining away before she concluded, without looking up: “I don’t think that’s how blessings are supposed to work.”
Despite being someone who believes deeply in the practice of gratitude, I do think she had a point, a point that is embodied in her snarky phrase “the gratitude-industrial complex.” That phrase, of course, is a play on President Eisenhower’s famous warning against the dangers of an unrestrained “military-industrial complex,” the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. military and the defense contractors that supply and sell to it.
And the truth is, sometimes we veer from practicing gratitude to weaponizing it, using it as a means of threatening emotions and discussions that we don’t want to deal with into silence and submission. Authentic gratitude and legitimate complaint are not mutually exclusive; being grateful for good and life-giving things doesn’t mean we have to accept or ignore things that are difficult or even destructive in our lives. The book of Psalms in the Bible is perhaps the best example of that, where soaring declarations of praise and thanksgiving sit side by side with laments of longing, pain, sadness, and anger.
A big part of the problem is that we often think and talk about blessings as commodities, goods or services that we receive because we’ve paid the price for them. One of the most problematic expressions of Christianity in the world today is what is known as “the prosperity gospel,” which basically views Christian faith as a contract we make with God: God wants to bless us with financial prosperity and physical wellness, the prosperity gospel argues, so if we have faith in God and demonstrate that faith through envisioning ourselves living prosperously through God’s blessings, and through giving financial gifts to the ministry of a prosperity gospel preacher, then God will bless us with material abundance in terms of our health and wealth.
Many preachers even describe the financial gifts they ask their followers to give them as a “seed,” as in you “plant” your “seed” by giving to the preacher, and then God will grow and multiply that seed into a bountiful harvest of money that is more than you gave in the first place. But even without descending into the muddy and dangerous depths of the prosperity gospel, it’s still easy to think about blessings simply in terms of the good things that we receive in our life, which can still quickly slip into language of transaction and possession. Just the language of “counting your blessings” does that, as if we’re taking inventory of the good things that we have received and stored up to sustain us through times that might otherwise be cold and lean.
This story from Genesis about the call of Abram gives us a very different view of blessings, though. The story opens very abruptly, with God suddenly speaking to Abram out of the blue and telling him to leave everything he knows and “go…to the land I will show you.” That’s a pretty tall order. And there’s nothing to indicate why God chose Abram for this mission.
In fact, we don’t know much of anything about Abram: if you read the rather dry passage right before our reading today picks up, you get his ancestry; that history also mentions that he’s married to a woman named Sarai, who is unable to have children; and if you read just past the passage we heard today, it’s mentioned that Abram was 75 years old when he leaves his country and his kindred and his father’s house and goes, as God commanded.
And other than that, all we know about Abram is that he does go, apparently without any questions or hesitations or caveats, despite not knowing anything about where he’s going or what the road will be like. What he does know, though, is what God tells him: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing….and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This is actually one of the most important passages in the entire Bible; these four short verses are the foundation on which God builds God’s plan of redemption for all of humanity, after humanity has done nothing but rebel against God’s will. But God chooses Abram as the first building block of the nation of Israel, God’s people chosen to be a light unto the nations, and to whom the Son of God will be born in Jesus as Lord and Savior not just for Israel, but all humanity. And that plan goes into motion when Abram says yes to God’s command and yes to God’s promise of blessing.
But notice that God’s blessing is not a promise simply of good things that Abram will receive and enjoy for having said yes to God. In fact, if you read the whole story of Abram, it is a story of a person who experiences both good things and bad, who acts out of both courage and cowardice, who exhibits great faithfulness and great failures. But throughout all of that, Abram is continually blessed by God, because the whole point is that he is blessed to be a blessing, and that through his family all the families of the earth will be blessed. God’s blessings, in other words, are not prizes that are won or benefits that are enjoyed, but resources that are used for furthering God’s purposes. We count our blessings not so that we can appreciate what we have but so that we can share it; that is how blessings are supposed to work.
Today we are ordaining and installing leaders in the life of this church, each of whom is blessed with significant gifts, and each of whom is called to use and share those gifts to be a blessing in this congregation as an Elder or Trustee or Deacon, so that we as a congregation in turn can be a blessing in and for the world. But everyone who is in this room that has been baptized has already been ordained to the Christian ministry, called to use the gifts with which you have been blessed in active and loving service to God.
So I want to invite you, for a moment, to count your blessings. Consider in what particular ways you have been blessed by God, and how you are being called, here and now, to be a blessing by sharing those blessings in your life and ministry. It may be the reaffirmation of a call you have long understood; it may be recognizing a new call, one that God will show you, as God called and promised to Abram. But listen, and then go and serve and share, and rejoice that we are blessed even in the very act of being a blessing, and the more we give the more we have, until all the families of the earth are blessed.