Monday, March 27, 2017

John 11:1-45

This passage is found in the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent, Year A and All Saint's Day, Year B  (Most recently for April 2, 2017); The All Saints reading is shorter, verses John 11:32-44.

Summary:  This emotional passage does not need to deep exegesis to understand.  But as always, the Greek amplifies the emotions, especially of Mary.  Furthermore, the Greek offers some poignant connections to other parts of John's Gospel.

Key words:

ερχομαι & οραω (11:32 and 11:34, also 1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 19:33; 20:8 "Come and see").  These two verbs come together a number of times in John's Gospel. A quite impressive list actually:
A) When Jesus begins his ministry and calls his disciples.
B) When the woman at the well returns to her hometown to invite others (different cognate for "come");
C) When they bring Jesus to Lazarus' tomb.
D) When they find Jesus on the cross.
E) When they come to the empty tomb.

John's Gospel invites us to come and see, even Jesus on the cross and finally the empty tomb.  The result of coming and seeing is believing.

In this passage, however, the two words come together in two very emotional ways.  The more obvious one is when they invite Jesus to see the tomb of Lazarus.  The more subtle one is that Mary came (ηλθεν) and saw (ιδουσα; note feminine participle endings may be more difficult to spot, sadly).  In this case, she falls at Jesus feet (see next note).  She has done what a disciple should do, she has come and seen. What happens when we come and see, not in intellectual or hopeful curiosity, but in grief?

ποδος (from πους, meaning "foot" as in words that have "pod" in them; 11:32)  Mary will fall to Jesus feet twice in a short time.  Mary cries at Jesus feet in this story; after her brother is revived, she will fall to Jesus feet to anoint them.  Twice she worships at Jesus feet; the first in lament for her situation; the second in lament for Jesus situation.

Two other powerful scenes happen at Jesus feet.  The other is when the women (including Mary) gather at the foot of the cross.  The last is when Mary (Magdalene) stoops down to where Jesus' feet were in the tomb.  Also, in chapter 13 of John's Gospel, Jesus will wash the disciples' feet.  In short, if there are feet involved, it is likely an emotionally charged passage, relating to the profound cruciform servant-hood of Christ and his followers!

κλαιουσαν (from κλαιω, meaning "weep" 11:33)  Simple point:  People in the Bible cry.  We give so little permission for people to cry today.  Jesus himself cries here (11:35; it is a different word, εδακρυσεν) but don't get caught up in that.  Death produces tears even from the Lord of Life.

ει...αν (if, if; 11:33)  Mary has a particularly harsh construction of Greek here for Jesus.  This combination of ει...αν indicates "a hypothetical that is actually false."  In short, it should best be translated, "If you had been here, WHICH YOU WERE NOT, my brother would not have died."

εμβριμωμενος (from εμβριμαομαι, meaning "snort in", 11:38)  This word means "admonish in anger" visually in the sense of a "horse snorting."  I think its this word that has given rise to all sorts of terrible interpretations that Jesus is really mad in this passage that they don't believe.  I think this is kind of nuts.  I think a better translation is simply this:  "Jesus was so worked up about this death that he looses control of his breathing..."  To put it another way, Jesus does the uncool thing of lose control of his emotions.  Unlike the rest of humanity, when Jesus' gets angry, no one is hurt, but the deepest emotion, love, and deepest power, resurrection, is unleashed.

Lastly, if this passage were not for all Saints, it might be worth focusing on what it means to unbind Lazarus, but I think the interaction of Mary is where its at!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

John 9:1-41

This passage occurs in the RCL during Lent (year A), most recently March 26, 2017.  This passage also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary for Transfiguration Sunday, most recently 2014.

Summary:  Jesus' claim to be the light of the world doesn't simply put him above it all.  Rather it puts him in the midst of it all, even amid people's problems and divisions.

Some key words:

ημαρτεν (aorist form of αμαρτανω, meaning "sin", 9:2 and 9:3)  A few comments here
- The Pharisees want to ascribe sin as the cause for problems in this man's life.  Jesus says that this problem is really an opportunity for God's glory.  There is always a tendency in us to ascribe God's judgement to a situation rather than see things as an opportunity for transformation and God's goodness.
- Afterwards the Pharisee's obsession with sin and the law means they cannot see God's goodness at work.  This is a passage that personally challenges me.  I can easily find fault in situations rather the see God's goodness.

επτυσεν πτυσματος ( "spit" (aorist form) and "saliva", 9:6)  In order for Jesus to give man sight -- to be the light of the world -- he must spit.  John uses the word as a noun and verb to make sure we picked this up.

οφθαλμος ("eye", 9:6)  This word appears 10 times in these verses.  I especially like the phrase "open my/your eye."  I can't help but think that John wants to draw attention to the physicality of everything.  Jesus is literally touching this man's eyes!

νιψαι ("wash", from νιπτω, 9:7)  This word comes back into John's Gospel at another interesting juncture:  When Jesus washes their feet!  Again a reminder that being the light of the world, washing people, is a very humble and earthly task.

αποσυνάγωγος (literally apo-synagogos, meaning "banish from synagogues", 9:6)  This word appears three times in the Gospel of John (12:42, 16:2)  John is the only biblical writer to use the word.  It is hard not to imagine that this was becoming an issue for people as John's Gospel was being written -- that claiming Christ was getting people kicked out of their religious communities.  It is a reminder that claiming Christ has a cost.

ευρων (from ευρισκω, "find", 9:35)  In the very next story, Jesus talks about how he is the good shepherd.  Well, in the Gospel of Luke we hear about a shepherd that finds lost sheep.  Here Jesus is finding lost sheep.

φος ("light", 9:5)  One can go many directions with light.  It is interesting to see where the word light appears in John's Gospel.  Almost all the time there is a contrast of living in the dark vs living in the light.  Can we read John's Gospel (and preach on it) without getting into the current cultural clashes over a variety of issues?  The Jesus of John's Gospel is a prophet in many ways, who speaks out against the church and culture of his day.

Here are the light passages in John that reference light vs dark

John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
John 3:19:  This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
John 8  Jesus says he is the light of the world, but immediate the pharisees protest against this
John 11:9-10  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.

John 12:35-37 Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.  Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.

John 12:46
I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The economics of church decline (and rebirth?)

So we've all read countless blog posts about all of the sociological and cultural reasons the mainline church is dying.  I would like to take a different approach, one based on economics (and one that focuses on my denomination).  I do this because I believe that economics may help us see the necessity of certain solutions.

I also write this on St. Patrick's Day, because I believe that part of the secret to the Irish monks was their capacity to develop an economic model that allowed for mission.

Economics is all about supply and demand...and we have a supply problem

Right now, the Lutheran denomination that I am a part of, the ELCA, is facing a huge crisis of supply in terms of its pastors.   This year there are far, far fewer pastors available for placement than in previous years (Like we have enough pastors for less than 1/2 of vacancies we have).  This is sadly not an aberration, but a trend.  Furthermore, we are just about to face a huge way of boomer pastor retirements.  We are probably producing a third of the pastors we need to. 

I'm sure we could find numerous blogs that talk about all the cultural reasons why younger people don't want to go to Seminary.  I want to propose a simpler and economic solution:  It costs too much money.  Seminary requires three years of study and unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  There is also an internship year that offers a monthly income of $1,600+housing if you have to move.  Even though many Seminary students get scholarship help for tuition, the real cost of Seminary is simply living for those years without significant income.  When I worked in the financial aid office at my seminary, we estimated that tuition only represented 1/3 of the total costs of Seminary.  I had friends that graduated with 5 figures of debt from health insurance alone.  And that was 10 years ago!  It is also worth remembering that Seminary bills come on top of existing loans that many people have from undergraduate.  It is not uncommon for students to come out with $80 to $100K of debt.  (At 5% for ten years, that is $850 a month).  My sense is that we've been saying this for years, namely, that Seminaries are too expensive and that debts are too high.  I think the people not in Seminary heard us!

(Sad irony, the church wants to become more diverse.  To the extent to which wealth and race are correlated in our country (which they are), we end up pricing out non-white students at a faster rate than we price out white students).

(Second side point:  Many people talk of bi-vocational pastors -- "tent-making" to use Biblical language.  I am really skeptical of the desire or capacity of people to accrue so much debt and go through so much education for a part-time gig.)

Solutions proposed help, but not enough

I want to commend some of the solutions:  Trim overhead at seminaries through various mergers; allow more students to work at churches during seminary; give students financial coaching to improve the personal finances.  While such moves are noble (and surprisingly painful), we cannot cut costs by ten or even twenty percent and double the Seminary student population.  We would need solutions that cut the cost of Seminary by 50 to 60% -- like entirely new models, such as, say a national seminary that had one room satellites in every synod. 

I confess a fair amount of grief as I write this.  I had a "Hogwarts-like" experience at Seminary.  But I truly believe those days are over.  The solutions we are engineering will not provide the necessary and drastic reductions in cost we need.

Furthermore, we also will need a huge number of non-pastors who will assume theological, pastoral and programmatic leadership.  How can we train them at low cost?

We also have a demand problem
We also are facing a huge shift in the demand for pastors.  Let's do some basic math.  For many years 80-100 people in weekly worship attendance was a stable number for congregations.  At this size, you could afford a pastor.  You probably had a sexton, an organist and a secretary, all of whom were part-time and one of whom was (quasi)-volunteer.  It was tough but it worked.  This number worked out well because 100 people in weekly worship probably equated to about 150 people significantly involved in the ministry. 150 people is a nice number for a tribe.  One pastor can connect this many people. 

Then health insurance costs started spiraling.  This really impacted congregations.  Even if you took in the same amount (adjusted for inflation) with 80-100 in weekly worship, you could not meet your budget any more.  Health insurance for most churches is 10K greater than it was 20 years ago (again, even adjusted for inflation).  Again, even if you had as many people (which most churches don't), giving the same amount (most churches have lost money to skyrocketing number of non-profits), and you didn't have the massive deferred maintenance bills from building expansions in the 1960s and 1980s (you are lucky), you would still find yourself short.  You probably need 120 to 130 people in weekly worship to now afford a full-time pastor with full-time benefits.

But this is problematic because this begins to be a larger tribe than one pastor can handle.  Especially if you consider that most people come to church less frequently than they did (but still consider themselves integral to the congregation).  That 125 per week needed to pay the bills equals 200 to 250 people who are involved in the ministry.  Which, even for a raging extrovert, is too large for pastoral care. 

My point here is that we are beyond the need for a good stewardship series and even better discipleship.  In every industry there are stable size points.  Our stable size points shifted drastically in the last 20 years.  We must shift how we approach our basic models of ministry. 

Impact of these shifts

Congregations have done a number of things to cope with this problem:  cut their minister's compensation (making them 3/4 time; hoping they have a spouse who can pick up the health insurance costs); added online giving; tried stewardship campaigns; deferred maintenance even more; begun living off endowments; or cutting mission support, especially money to the larger church. 

All is not lost: The healthiest churches, including pastoral size ones, are figuring our ways to create secondary income sources, partner with other ministries to share staff and developing lay leaders to take on traditional pastoral roles.  But the fact is that the basic model -- one pastor, one congregation, one building (especially an old one) does not add up any more.  There have to be other income streams, additional staff or volunteers taking on significant leadership.  Congregations need to find strategic partners to share costs, resources and staff.  This may mean our church looks like it did 100 years ago, with far more 2 and 3 point parishes.  Or it may mean our church looks like it did 250 years ago when ordained clergy were the aberration and not the norm.

While this analysis focuses on pastoral size congregations (which were the bread and butter of my denomination), the same math is hurting larger congregations and smaller congregations.   Larger congregations are moving to a point where they have fewer and fewer full time staff and more part-time staff.  Smaller congregations are often calling part-time retirees who are on Medicare; or they find themselves needing to move from a two-point to a three-point parish to pay for a pastor, which means they now have a video sermon on Sunday.

In short, while the overall size of the church has decreased, the demand for pastors has decreased even faster as the math tilts against congregations.

A new equilibrium?

So, we may end up with an equilibrium point where we have fewer pastor spots and fewer pastors.  Good right?  No, actually pretty horrible!  What to do with all of the churches that don't have pastors, especially smaller churches?  How to make pastoral size churches feasible?  How to staff large churches when associates become so rare?  How do we give future leaders the time and community they need to mature into strong proclaimers of the Gospel?

What I would like to see happen:
1)  We implode the seminary system to produce something drastically cheaper.
2)  We expand drastically the number of lay-ministers/TEEM pastors who do not need the full seminary to lead worship at our smallest congregations.
3)  We do mission starts that from the beginning focus on cooperative ministry and sustainability, recognizing that the hoped for norm -- the traditional pastoral size model -- is not viable.
4)  We begin fostering and authorizing lay leadership to assume an incredible number of tasks reserved for pastors, especially related to pastoral care and even worship.
5)   Congregational leaders will be blessed with the patience to renew our congregations; we will also be blessed with the courage to try to new models.
6)   Congregations find ways to partner with other churches, non-profits and even businesses to create not simply economically stable situations, but ones that are oriented toward mission.
7)  The Holy Spirit revives our congregations and our people grow in faith, hope and love.

What I think will happen
1)  Money to the synod and national church will continue to dry up.  DRY UP.  Large congregations will replace the synods and national church as the leadership in what remains of the denomination.
2)  Large churches will use seminaries less and less and begin training their own leaders.
3)  Small churches will worship without pastors or they will close.  Many pastors who are currently sent to rural or poor congregations only serve three years in those places (statistics on this are pretty strong).  Pastors out of seminary will skip this step and go right to larger congregations in wealthier communities.
4)  We will talk about minority and poverty ministry, but the only places that will be able to afford attractive calls will be wealthy and primarily white communities.  Healthy congregations will grow as the vast majority of congregations shrink.

Monday, March 13, 2017

John 4:1-42 (woman at well)

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Lenten Cycle (most recently March 19, 2017); in the narrative Lectionary, Year 4, Lenten Cycle.
Summary:  Chapter 3 and 4 couldn't be more opposite:  man vs woman; Pharisee Jew vs sinful non-Jew (a dig at the Samaritan people, Jews intermixed with five other tribes); night vs day.  There is fertile ground here for many sermons.  What struck me this time was the continuity in both chapters regarding the notion of salvation, and life -- it is found in Christ; it begins now here on earth. 

A question this text leaves me pondering:  How does Jesus convert her?  He says to her brutal truth:  her religion isn't complete and she is a sinner.  What converts her?  What converts all of them?  Simply his word of promise?  Actually, he is only proclaimed as savior after he stays with her.  I suggest it is also his vulnerability, his admission that she can help him and finally, his willingness to be with them.  To evangelize entails meeting people where they are, but also staying where they are until they are ready to move ahead.

Low hanging fruit:
ωρα εκτη (sixth hour, 4:6)  This means noon.  Don't miss the obvious symbolism.  Nicodemus comes at night (chapter 3); the woman comes in the day (chapter 4).

γυνη Σαμαριας (Samaritan women, 4:7)  Again, don't miss the obvious symbolism.  Samaritan woman means total outsider; someone powerless in the whole system.  Obvious symbolism again:  Nicodemus gets a name; this woman doesn't.

Slightly more interesting:
εις τον αιωνα ("eternally," literally "into this age," 4:14)  This really struck me.  The word for forever or everlasting in Greek means "into this age," literally that which keeps going into this age.  In short, when we hear "forever" we assume this means "life after death," but nothing grammatically or even theologically in John's Gospel, certainly in this chapter, suggests this.  This is a continuing theme in John's Gospel:  life in Christ begins now and continues even through death.

σωτερια ("salvation" in the sense of saving, preserving, delivering, 4:22; σωτηρ 4:42)  Christians again assume that salvation means heaven, specifically life after death.  The word in Greek means saving, simply delivering, including if not primarily a very earthly sense.  John's Gospel includes resurrection and this is ultimate salvation, but this does not cover the entirety of Jesus' ministry.

μενω ("abide" 4:40) This is theme word in John's Gospel.  In this case, it was only after he abided with them that they declared him savior of the world.  This is a reminder that to me that the promise is truly incarnational.  In order for us to do better evangelism, we have to meet and STAY with people where they are.

κοσμος ("world" 4:42) A reminder that even though salvation comes FROM the Jews it is FOR the world...see last week's post --  The world doesn't love God!

Monday, March 6, 2017

John 3:1-21; Nicodemeus

This passage occurs in both the Narrative and Revised Common Lectionaries.  The Revised Common Lectionary breaks it up into two separate passages; the narrative leaves it as one.

Summary:  I don't know if one truly can summarize John 3.  It is the chapter of all chapters in Scripture.  The Greek shows a number of interesting wrinkles in the text, each of which can help get at the core message about the work of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in saving the world.  Perhaps one little tidbit: eternal life doesn't begin after death in the Gospel of John.

Νικόδημος ("Nicodemus" vs 1):  It is worth noting that Nicodemus gets a name; the woman at the well in chapter 4 will not.  Nicodemus, like the woman at the well, misunderstands Jesus.  His story should end in chapter 3, but it does not.  It keeps going.  Because God is author of our story, our own failures do not end the narrative.  In chapter 7 Nicodemus will defend Jesus; at the end of the Gospel he will help bury Jesus (19).  Jesus invites people to come and see.  For Nicodemus, this invitation changed his life, as he came and saw, and was drawn in. 

Little side note:  Nicodemus' general confusion is emphasized in the Greek that he repeated says "How can it be that..."

ο διδασκαλος ("the teacher", vs 2)  Nicodemus calls Jesus "a" teacher; Jesus calls Nicodemus "THE teacher."  Obviously Jesus is catching Nicodemus in his words!

ανωθεν ("again" or "above" vs 3)  'Above' is better here. Not simply because of the context (Jesus says you don't have to come out of the womb, but be born of the water and Spirit), but because above includes again.  If you are born from above, this is the second birth anyway!  We must be born again, but this birth isn't through human agency, but God alone.

πνευμα ("spirit" vs 5, 6 and 8)  The word Spirit is related to breath (see:  pneumatic in the word!), but also blow and wind.  So the verse that reads "The wind blows where it will" means "the Spirit blows where it will."  In fact, one could read it as "The spirit spirits where it will."

πιστευω ("believe" vs 15 and 16, etc).  Believe is only a verb in the Gospel of John.  It means trust; it is an action not a thing.  It is also in the present and active tense:  the one is who is trusting...

εχη ("have" vs 16)  The word here is in the present tense.  ETERNAL LIFE begins NOW.  It is not a future reality, but a present one found in Christ!  Whoever is trusting in God has life which continues into eternity.

κοσμος ("world" vs 16).  Throughout the Gospel of John, the world doesn't like God.  It doesn't understand God (1:10); it doesn't give like God (14:27) ; in fact, it hates God (7:7).  This is the world God loves!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

John 3:16

This passage occurs in the RCL Lent Season, Year A and B, most recently March of 2017.  It also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Epiphany cycle.
Summary:  We've heard John 3:16 a million times before.  For this week, I broke it down, word by word.  Awful for a sermon, yes, but a closer look reveals how this really is the Gospel in a nutshell.  Fun Greek fact:  The phrase eternal life is literally "eons of a zoo."  God's eternal party is a zoo!  Helpful Greek fact:  This eternal zoo is not a future reality, but a present one, available here and now.

John 3:16.  Broken down.

ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο θεος τον κοσμον, ωστε τον υιον τον μονογενη εδωκεν, ινα πας ο πιστευων εις αυτον μη αποληται αλλ εχη ζωην αιωνιον

ουτως γαρ:  Two interjections, combining to mean:  "For in this manner"  Don't spend too much time here, we have bigger fish to fry

ηγαπησεν (αγαπη):  This word supposedly means divine, only from God love.  In this particular sentence that's what it means: divine, pure, gracious, awesome, life changing love.  Interestingly, later in this section people will love the darkness more than the light.  First, this shows that agape is not simply a divine thing.  Second, it reminds us how absurd (and misdirected) some of our love really is.

ο θεος:  God (think theos as in theology)

τον κοσμον:  The world.  This word in English is cosmos, like universe or cosmopolitan or cosmetic.  The point is that in the Gospel of John the world does not love God (John 7:7; 15:18,19; 17:14).  God's love comes over and against the world that does not like God

ωστε:  that.  Conjunction.  Don't worry.

τον υιον τον μονογενη:  only begotten son.  Nice like adjectival participle here.  The son, the only begotten.  If you break the Greek down you get :  mono-gene.  The only one who has the Father's genes are the son.  In this case, Christ is the only one who really is of the Father, who has his dna to love a world that doesn't love him back.

εδωκεν:  Gave.

ινα:  In order.  God's giving of his son had a purpose

πας ο πιστευων:  Substantive participle:  All who believe.  Because it is present tense we should make it:  All who are constantly believing.  Remember, in John's Gospel, believe is a verb; faith is a not a think, it is an action, a constant trusting.
εις αυτον:   In fact you cannot trust in something but have to trust INTO something.

μη αποληται:  Be lost, be destroyed.

αλλ :  but

εχη :  STOP.  read carefully: This is a present tense verb.  This means that we HAVE the eternal life, not we will have, but we HAVE the eternal life.  In John's Gospel life begins here and in as we, through faith, live in the son.

ζωην αιωνιον:  literally:  eons of zoo.  That is the grand goal of God:  eons of zoo.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Genesis 12

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, year 1 (most recently Oct 14, 2014); it also occurs in the RCL during Lent (Year A), most recently March 13, 2017.

Summary:  Abraham was asked to do a lot.  The English gets you here ('to a land I will show you' isn't very much to go on); the Hebrew intensifies this.  As I continue to read this story, I am also reflecting a lot on what "bless" means.  I do not think one can walk away, in this or other stories, from the material nature of blessings in the Bible.  However, the Bible already shows the direction of God's blessing, namely, our neighbor.  Perhaps if we wanted to be most Lutheran, we would argue that the true blessing is the promise that allows one to live by faith.

Key words
לך-לך  ("lake - la - kah", "go immediately," vs 1)  This is often translated simply as "go."  It literally means "go-go" or "get up and go."  In Hebrew, when you have two verbs in a row, the first verb is often adverbial, as in "in a 'getting up' kind of way, go."  Or, more poetically:  "Immediatedly go."  The whole section in the Hebrew Bible is called "Lake-la-kah."  (The Hebrew Bible didn't use chapters; instead it divided up scrolls into sections, naming them after a key word near the beginning of the section)   Also, Abraham will be given this same command in Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac.

One wonders if the angel's commands to Paul (then Saul) in chapter 9 of Acts are the same -- "Get up and go" in the sense of "go immediately."

Grammatically:  Keep an eye out for dual verb commands in the Bible; they may reflect a Hebrew way of speaking whereby one verb functions as an adverb. 

Theologically:  God isn't about discernment in this passage, but about decision.  There is a sense of immediacy!

בת-אב  ("bet av", "father's house," vs 1)  This term means way more than simply "dad's house."  It was the fundamental social unit and reality of a person's life.  Here is a website with pictures:
I think for us in the West today, it is impossible to understand the impact of traditional and family on a person's psyche and worldview, and thus the significance of God's command.

ברך ("baruch", "bless", vs 2,3)  The first point I want to address is the meaning of the word baruch.  In Genesis, blessing can often be assoicated with material prosperity:
*  Genesis 39:5 From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.
*  Genesis 26:3 Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
*  See also Genesis 30:27

It also refers to children and descendents:
*  Genesis 1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,   and let birds multiply on the earth."
*  Genesis 17:16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."
* Genesis 22:17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,
I would argue though, if you press the Bible harder, you discover that blessing means something more than a big house and big family. 
It also means fundamental human relationships based on complentary differences (yes family, but not necessarily size!)
* Genesis 5:2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them "Humankind" when they were created
* Genesis 2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
God's peace and presence
* Numbers 6:23-27   23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,  24 The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Ultimately though, I do not think one can de-materialize the nature of blessings.  I think what good pastors and theologians can do is direct this blessing back to the neighbor:
* Deuteronomy 14:28-29 28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Or simply as God says here in Genesis 12 -- the whole world is to be blessed by Abraham!

Lastly, there is a rather technical point here about the translation here having to do with verb forms in Hebrew.  The question is whether to treat the verb bless as a passive (the nations will be blessed by Abraham) or reflexive, "in Abraham (or his name) all the nations will bless themselves."  The Greek goes with the passive here and that is how this passage is traditionally translated.  That seems fair and good, but perhaps it is also worth asking:  How do we actively bless ourselves through Abraham and his legacy?

NET Bible notes:
Theoretically the Niphal can be translated either as passive or reflexive/reciprocal. (The Niphal of "bless" is only used in formulations of the Abrahamic covenant. See Gen 12:2; 18:18; 28:14.) Traditionally the verb is taken as passive here, as if Abram were going to be a channel or source of blessing. But in later formulations of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen 22:18; 26:4) the Hitpael replaces this Niphal form, suggesting a translation "will bless [i.e., "pronounce blessings on"] themselves [or "one another"]." The Hitpael of "bless" is used with a reflexive/reciprocal sense in Deut 29:18; Ps 72:17; Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2. Gen 12:2 predicts that Abram will be held up as a paradigm of divine blessing and that people will use his name in their blessing formulae. For examples of blessing formulae utilizing an individual as an example of blessing see Gen 48:20 and Ruth 4:11.
קלל and אאר  ("qalal" and "arar", "curse", vs 2) These words, although both translated similarly in English as "curse", are different.  The first, qalal, means "treat lightly" in the sense of "disrespect" or "disgrace."  The second, arar, means remove from blessing.  Rather than think of this verse than as those who swear mean things at Abraham will have bad things happen to them, its probably better to think of it this way:  Because Abraham is a blessing, and an agent of blessing, from God, to disregard Abraham is to remove oneself from God's potential blessings.  The question is whether the Bible (God really) means all the blessings in the world, or the blessings from Abraham.  I'd be inclined to the latter.  In short, the Bible does not seem to be indicating quite as harsh as a sentence as "curse those who curse you" suggests, but it does offer a warning.