SECOND OF LENT, MARCH 8th, 2020 GENESIS 12:1-4a
Just when you thought that the digital revolution had gone too far, and crossed a line between helping the human race and destroying it, along comes a new invention from a church in Hesse, in Germany. It’s a robot that does something previously only performed by real, live human beings. We’ve had Robocop, Robodrivers, there’s even a Robochef in India, but now comes a technology that leaves two of us here today a little nervous about our jobs, Robopriest. I say, ‘Robopriest’, but actually it only performs one priestly task, so JF and I can sleep slightly sounder in our beds, and that task is – it blesses people.
The robot goes by the comforting name BlessU-2, and it’s made from the body of an ATM machine. The person in need of divine inspiration activates a touch screen on the robot’s chest and is then gives the option of hearing a blessing in a male or female voice and in either German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. When you’ve made your choice, the Robopriest raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a Bible verse and says: “God bless and protect you.” If you like, it will even provide a printout of the words.
Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse, says that the purpose of BlessU-2 was to start debate. Goal achieved.
It begs the question of what actually is a blessing. Does a blessing from a robot work? If it does work, is it more or less effective than a blessing from a human being? And, even more fundamentally, who is actually doing the blessing – is it a person, or a robot – or is it God, and the robot or human is merely speaking on God’s behalf? Are you up for some deep theological wrestling tonight? No? Well, me neither. So, let’s content ourselves with an easier question – is the blessing issued by the ATM that is now Robopriest any better than the blessings it used to dispense when it was still an ATM? Are the things we normally think of as blessings – money, stuff, pleasant circumstances – really blessings? Jesus would probably not consider the blessings from an ATM at the bank as blessings at all. At least that’s the impression we get from the Beatitudes – Blessed are not the wealthy, the healthy, the popular and privileged; but blessed are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Hmm. That puts the stuff that ATMs spit out in perspective, doesn’t it? Someone might say ‘I was blessed to win the lottery’. But were they really?
Abraham won the lottery. His numbers came up in today’s reading from Genesis. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Oh, this isn’t an ATM. That’s just money. This is a dynasty, a reputation, the blessing of being the founder of a great nation. This is blessing in a different universe. That reading is just 3.5 verses long, but the word blessing occurs five times.
The desire for more is human. We yearn for wholeness, we long for contentment. We strive for enough. Those feelings are not wrong or bad. In fact, they’re helpful. They show us we are incomplete without God. They tell us that we are made for more than this material universe, and we will never be truly whole, fully content until we are made perfect and dwelling with God in eternity. That is the agony and the ecstasy of being human. Having so much, but knowing we were made for even more.
Abraham becomes the Father of many nations. He is the Patriarch of the entire house of faith. The members of three of the largest faith populations in the world – Christians, Muslims and Jews think this passage of Scripture is important, because they see their own origins in Abraham. Between us we make up 55% of the world’s population – that’s 3.9 billion people. That’s a lot of blessing. And let’s draw Sarah into this as well, the Matriarch of Faith. Abraham and Sarah’s blessing was a son, lots of land, and this extraordinary legacy of faith for hundreds of generations to come.
But why? Well I have two secrets to share with you. The secrets of blessing. Here’s number one. The sheer unadulterated, over-the-top, undeserved gift of God. Abraham and Sarah had done nothing to earn the right to be the parents of faith. They weren’t extra holy; they didn’t impress God with their prayers or their pledge. God chose them because that is what God does – he takes normal men and women and blesses them. It is God’s nature to give, and we can’t stop him doing it. Try as you may. You can set out to do bad things, but you can’t change God’s nature. You can elbow people out of your way to get to coffee hour first and eat all the cake, but you won’t stop God blessing you. God blesses you because that is who God is not because you are who you are. Every day – here it comes – more grace, more gifts, more signs of God’s love for us. This week God is going to bless you in ways you can’t even imagine – because he loves you. You can protest all you like that you don’t deserve it, but it is God’s nature to bless and he will not act against his nature, even if you give him a thousand good reasons why you don’t deserve his gifts. God blesses Abraham and Sarah because that is what God does. I like that secret. But there’s another one. A secret so miraculous, so transformative, that if we really grabbed it, clutched it our hearts and never let it go, we would turn the world upside down.
God says, “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. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
I first heard the story of John Laing when I was a teenager, and it still moves me. As a boy I was familiar with his name. It was plastered all over building projects in London, Manchester, all over the UK. Laing was simply the largest construction company in the country, with a turnover that, as a child, I could not have imagined. His resume featured several hospitals, an airport, Britain’s first motorway, and the rebuilding of the gorgeously reimagined Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Second World War. What I had not known about Sir John Laing was that he was a deeply committed Christian. He pioneered employment practices that honored his workforce, such as paid holidays, annual outings, and a culture of care for their families. But more counter-cultural than that was Laing’s salary. Early in his career he made a pledge to God that he would live on just 500 pounds a year. When the profits from his business reached tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, and then millions he kept his word and gave it all away except for 500 pounds a year. Today the John Laing Group is a multi-billion-pound international enterprise with an annual turnover of 250 million pounds. But when Sir John Laing died in 1978 his personal estate was valued at £371. The rest, he’d given away.
That is the big secret of blessings – we get them in order to give them. “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.” Of all the deep spiritual truths that the Christian Church has failed to understand in our 2,000-year history, this is surely the most tragic and the most damning. There is evidence everywhere in the developed world of the Church’s historic greed and lust for power. As a modern European Christian, I feel embarrassed by the splendor of the historic wealth of our buildings and treasures. Somewhere, I suspect pretty early on in our history, we stopped seeing God’s blessing as the way we bless the world, and saw it as something to be hoarded, fought over, and jealously kept to ourselves. Today we tourists marvel at the buildings and the artifacts, and rightly so, but what was Christ’s Church doing accumulating land and making jewel-encrusted headgear for its clergy in ages when people were starving?
Blessings are for giving away. We are blessed in order to bless. Yes, this is absurdly challenging, and yes, I am a hypocrite. I don’t live like John Laing and my lack of conviction in what I’m preaching makes me resist living like John Laing. Forgive me.
For John Laing it was the blessing of money. For you it may be too – or it may be the blessing of time, of energy, of intellect, of education, of experience, of love, your creativity, your leadership skills, your business acumen. Hear the Word of the Lord, we have been blessed. My, have we been blessed – but not to stockpile our blessings, not to hoard our riches be they material, mental, physical or spiritual, but to bless others.
Eco-systems exist because of flow. Cut off the flow of water in a stream and before long you have a stagnant pool unable to sustain life. It’s true of love. You receive love in order to give it away. That flow keeps you healthy, happy, thriving. Data from the Gallup World Poll, a survey of more than 1.7 million people from 164 countries has put a price on optimal emotional well-being. It’s $95,000 a year. That is the sweet spot for feeling positive emotions on a day-to-day basis and be able to pursue long-term goals. The researchers from Purdue University observed declines in emotional well-being and life satisfaction after the $95,000 mark, leading to the conclusion that getting a large raise in income may well give short-term happiness, but people making half a million a year are likely no happier than people making $95,000. We receive and we pass it on. To stop the flow, to receive the love and keep it for myself results in narcissism and spiritual sickness. Build a dam, stop the flow, keep it for myself, and I’ll fester as odorously and deadeningly as the stagnant pond.
We have been blessed. May we now be a blessing.