Garth Callahan lives with his wife and daughter, Emma, in Glen Allen Virginia, little town outside of Richmond. About ten years ago, when Emma started kindergarten, Garth assumed the daily duty of packing Emma’s lunch for school. So into Emma’s lunchbox went a sandwich, cookies, an apple, a juice box or drink of some sort, and Garth always packed a napkin.
The napkins got to be special, though, because Garth thought he’d have fun with them. Every day, on Emma’s napkin, he wrote her a little message. They were simple, fun, and meant to lift her spirits. Messages like: “Honey, I believe in you, believe in yourself! Love, Dad.” When Emma opened up her lunch, along with food for her body, she found a little food for her soul.
Every day, for years, Garth Callahan has been putting a napkin in his daughter’s lunch to say something encouraging or uplifting or fun or funny. And the message behind all of the messages is “You have a father who loves you!”
Emma is now in tenth grade. Since about third grade she has saved every napkin her father sent her. What a blessing for this young woman to have a symbol, a tangible symbol, of a father’s love. What a tremendous blessing.
In the Gospels Jesus often speaks about blessings. His beatitudes are really a compilation of God’s own napkins in the lunchbox of his beloved children. At the very beginning of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount He speaks nine words of blessing: Blessed are the poor in spirt, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Nine of them. What does he mean by all that? What does it mean to be blessed?
If you want to do a little linguistic analysis with me, the word in Greek is μακάριος (makarios), it is a slippery Greek word because it can mean a lot of things. It can mean happy, joyful, blessed… It has a lot of meanings so it really doesn’t help us much as we try to drill down into what Jesus is really driving at in his beatitudes. But if we look behind the Greek, to the Hebrew word for blessing that informs Jesus’ thinking, the word we find is בְּרָכָה (berakah).
That still doesn’t help us much until you realize that the Hebrew language is concrete. Every word and every concept in Hebrew can be driven down, if you work hard enough, to some concrete action or gesture. And so where does berakah coming from?
The first place we see it is Genesis 24:11. Abraham is getting on in years and he wants his son to have a good wife, a girl that’s part of the family. He’s doesn’t like any of the Canaanite girls where they’re living, so he sends one of his trusted servants back to the old country. He has his most trusted servant swear an oath to go and bring back a girl suitable to be Isaac’s wife. “Look”, Abraham says, “go to my family’s place in Aram and there find a good wife for my son.”
The servant is understandably hesitant: “What if I find a girl and she doesn’t come with me?”
“In that case,” Abraham concedes, “our deal is off and you’re released from your vow.”
So the servant sets off with ten camels and plenty of good things to find Isaac a good wife back in Mesopotamia. He goes across the desert with the camels and he’s saying to himself: “how the heck am I going to do this? How am I going to find the right woman? Geez Louise. The old man gave me a tough job.”
When he gets to an oasis in Aram the servant does what I would encourage all of us to do in a similar tight spot. He prays. And he says, “Lord, help me. Help me to find the right girl. I’m standing by this spring where the daughters of the village are coming to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl ‘please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ let her be the one You have chosen for your servant Isaac.” (Genesis 24: 14).
The servant of Abraham hadn’t even finished praying yet and along comes Rebecca with her jar to get water from the spring. She gets her water, comes up from the spring carrying it, and Abraham’s servant says, “Hey, I don’t suppose you could get me a drink could you?”
Rebecca, kindhearted as she was, says, “No, problem. And I’ll give a drink to your camels too.” BINGO!
Earlier in the passage the servant of Abraham had the camels kneel (in Hebrew וַיַּבְרֵ֧ךְ) beside the well. The word to kneel is the root of berekah (blessing). As we follow this thread we discover that the gesture at the root of “blessing” is to kneel in order to receive what is life giving (water). The camels can’t live without water, and so the concept behind “blessing” is to be in that place and have that posture from which we can receive a life-giving gift.
That’s what Jesus is driving at.
So let’s go back to the Beatitudes. Are they a cookbook for blessing? “You want to be blessed, so go out and get poor; mourn. make peace …” I don’t think so. Jesus knows the people with whom he lives. He lives in honor and shame society, and in this kind of culture being meek is no honor, strength is what they value; being a peacemaker is no honor, victory is what they want. Conquer, don’t make peace. Mourning is no honor, you’re weak when you mourn, so keep a stiff upper lip.
The first hearers of the Sermon on the Mount would have been struck by the incongruity. There is nothing blessed (happy) about the poor, the mournful, the persecuted, … What could Jesus’ mean by all this?
The first thing he’s saying to that entire crowd, everybody within earshot, is “you’re all blessed. You’re blessed with life. You’re blessed with God’s love. You are children of God.” We are all God’s children, just as surely as Emma is a child of Garth Callahan. You and I are children of God, and he loves us because he loves us. He is constantly pouring love, grace, abundance, and favor into our lives whether we know it or not. God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is writing on our napkins every day.
So what about this meek and poor stuff? What is Jesus driving at there?
Isn’t He is saying that there are certain postures that put us in a position where we can more easily realize and accept the gifts God is giving us? Like those camels kneeling to receive water, sometimes we need to kneel to receive the gift of life-giving love and salvation. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t rely on our wealth. We can’t rely on how “together” we are. We can’t rely on our relationships. In the final analysis we can only rely on God. Who knows that better than the poor in spirit? Who knows that better than those that are broken to pieces with grief and loss? Who knows that better than the peacemakers or those who hunger and thirst to do God’s will instead of their own?
Jesus is saying you’re all blessed. God blesses every bit of His creation, and he blesses it abundantly because God so loved the world He sent His only Son. And the love of God shows up in the most amazing and unexpected places.
In the Jewish culture Jesus lived in, where they thought the poor, and the crushed, and the weak were being punished for their sin and were unworthy of God’s interest Jesus says God loves the smallest and least and most insignificant of his people.
He loves us just the way we are. He loves us in our sinfulness. He loves us in our disgrace. He loves us even though he sees all the stuff we don’t want the rest of the world to see.
All of us have things about us that we don’t want the world to see. We don’t want them to see our weakness, our insecurity, our sadness, our vulnerability. But God sees all of it and He loves us right now. He doesn’t say go get perfect and then I’ll think about you; He says I love you just the way you are, more certainly than Garth Callahan loves Emma. He shows up in amazing places with unexpected people telling them and using them and loving them and calling them to be the building blocks of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t need the mighty to build the kingdom. He needs and calls us. He doesn’t say “let me get a squadron of billionaires with jets to fly around the world evangelizing.” He says I send you.
Clara Harms, one of the high school students who comes to our church, told me the other day that she and some of the other girls at her school formed a group to go out and bring the love of God to the people on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. They went out to give beachgoers bottles of water, to talk to them about the love of God, and to pray with them. God used this young girl and her friends to bless others. To change the lives of others.
He sends us to be a blessing, and to share the Good News too. We may not have heard the call, but that doesn’t mean he’s not calling.
Garth, about two years ago, learned that he has cancer. He doesn’t know how much time he has left – at this writing he is doing okay. And this loving dad wants to make sure his Emma gets a napkin with a love note in it every day until she’s out of high school. Whether or not he’s here to write it on a daily basis. One day a year and a half ago he sat down and wrote out more than 800 napkins, just in case, because he wants his little girl to know that his love is even stronger than death.
Isn’t that the message of the resurrection? That the love of our father is stronger than death, so much stronger that death now has no power over us because Jesus risen is the lord of life; and he continually blesses us who hear his voice and know enough to get into the posture to receive the gift of life.
That’s what blessing is. It’s the gift of God’s loving kindness that none of us could ever earn. All we have to do is humbly accept it – be in the place and posture where we can accept the gift of life.
The challenge of the beatitudes is, in the first instance, to open our lunch boxes and read the love notes the Father sends us all the time.
Then we have to accept what God tells us we are: His beloved children. God’s love is personal. He doesn’t say, like Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” He loves He loves us individually. He loves us all by name. He has written our names on the palm of His hand, like kids do when they have a crush in grade school. That’s how much he loves us.
Since her dad got cancer little Emma Callahan has been doing something special herself. She now leaves napkins for him, telling him how much she loves him, her father.
God never blesses us and says “sit on the blessing. Take this to the bank. Don’t tell a soul I’ve done this.” He blesses us so that we in turn can be a blessing. He blesses us so that we can go to the beach and hand out water bottles and bless people, and pray with them. He wants us to go out and proclaim the blessing that we all receive as a gift from the Father that just adores us.
Now here’s the problem. It’s a little frightening to do that? You have to approach perfect strangers, or people you don’t know that well, or even friends that you may not be that sure of. You don’t know how they’re going to take it. Some are going to make fun of you; maybe even some of your friends or neighbors. Some are going to resent you. Some will even say bad things about you.
“When that happens rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. This is the way they treated the prophets who went before you.” (Matthew 5:12)