Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I like to think I am a relatively sophisticated thinker when it comes to theological matters. This, I hope, is generally to the good, but it comes with a bit of peril. Sometimes the “theologically sophisticated” can live in a sort of echo chamber and, because of the sin of pride, can look down on popular or putatively “un-sophisticated” spirituality. All of that is to say that I’m turning over a new leaf, and I’m going to stop making snide little jokes among friends about the habit of some to append “#blessed” to everything they put on Twitter. Yes, it’s perhaps overused–and the release of “Hashtag Blessed: The Movie” a couple months ago didn’t help–but it’s harmless and it’s usually totally genuine and sweet. If only I could recognize that I am blessed at every moment and in every experience in life, I’m sure I’d be a better, happier person.

On the other hand, there is one popular turn of phrase which I cannot come to terms with, not because it’s a little trite, but because it strikes me as potentially genuinely harmful. I’ve seen it pop on social media and inspirational posters and I could swear I’ve seen it in needlepoint, but maybe that’s some kind of hallucination. It is the phrase “too blessed to be depressed.” However well-meaning, this strikes me as a rather cruel sentiment when one interrogates it. It suggests that counting one’s blessing, cultivating gratitude (wonderful practices in themselves) somehow prevents depression, and thus it implies that somebody struggling just needs to be more grateful already.

This is pure victim-blaming. I know that’s not the intention, but it can dismiss the reality of lots of folks- namely, that past trauma, present obstacles to thriving, and basic chemical problems in the brain can’t just be magically erased by coming up with a gratitude list. I believe that therapy, medication, social support, and spiritual practice can and should all work together to address depression. So, basically, I’d like the phrase “too blessed to be depressed” to be put in the bin.

One may counter, here, that the word translated “blessed” in the beatitudes, μακαριος, can be translated literally as “happy.” This is true, but here Jesus, I contend, must mean something more than what we commonly refer to as happiness. Take the first of the beatitudes in St. Matthew’s version. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” could be translated “happy are the sad.” So either blessedness means something more than mere cheerfulness, or Jesus is speaking in riddles or koans or something. Christ did not come to confuse us, but rather to give us the truth that we might be free, so I believe it must be the former.

What, then, is blessedness? Rather than a subjective feeling it is, I contend, an objective status–namely, the quality of being favored by God. To the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the excluded, and the persecuted Jesus is not saying “just look on the bright side.” Rather, he is saying “God has favored you. You have a special place in God’s heart and in his plan for salvation, and you will be justified.” It is right that those going through difficulty should take hope in this, but God’s blessing, his pronouncement of Grace and his promise, abide with those upon whom he pronounces it, whether or not they subjectively experience happiness or hope from it.

I suppose that this is what distinguishes both sacramental and traditional reformed Christianity from more evangelical or pietist or pentecostalist versions of Christianity. This is not to deny the good points of those latter Christian traditions; God knows that the “frozen chosen” such as myself can sometimes benefit from a less intellectual and more heart-felt faith. That said, I still contend that how God’s blessing “hits us in the feels” is less important than the fact that God has objectively made us worthy to stand before him.

I know I’ve said this perhaps a hundred times from the pulpit, but it bears repeating as frequently as possible: the Grace of God, the free gift of his favor bestowed on us, is objective and indissoluble. We were, most of us, baptized as infants before we knew anything or had a free will to accept or reject the blessing, and God made us his own for ever. We receive the Grace of God in the Eucharist at this altar week after week, and it works a miracle in and for us, whether or not we can get our minds and hearts around all that that means. And we are reminded today in the beatitudes that God’s special blessing comes down upon the heads of the most weak and marginalized among us, and he gives them a promise which cannot be revoked.

It is, of course, all the more wonderful when we can recognize and respond to that Grace. It is “icing on the cake”, as it were, when we find subjective strength and comfort and (yes) happiness in that Grace so freely bestowed. Let’s be open to that, but let’s also recognize that even when that joy seems illusive, even when we’re not “feeling it” God is still at work in us and he is still for us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.