Feb. 17, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 17, 2019 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)

February 17, 2019

Luke’s version of Jesus’ beatitudes is always disturbing. We really don’t want to be those things Jesus says are “blessed” – poor, hungry, weeping, reviled. We also notice with just a little squirm, that we spend a fair amount of our lives working towards all those things he says are impending woes. We consider it a good thing to have sufficient income, and not have to worry about security or those we love going without. Furthermore, I like laughter—it is one of the more joyful and God-given noises of this life. So, what is Jesus getting at? He is talking to us and about us when he addresses these words to his disciples and the crowds that day. The first thing I want to draw our attention to this morning is not our usual concentration on the words, “blessed are they” or “woe to you.” This morning lets focus on the word “with”—it’s from the opening lines;

Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.

With is important because that’s where Jesus always is in relation to us, with them, with us. Furthermore, that sense of with means wherever we are, and today the gospel says that place is where, “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place…” That’s the second piece for us to focus on; “a level place.” You might remember that there’s another version of this famous sermon of Jesus’ in the gospel of Matthew, but in that telling he preaches from atop the hill, so we call it the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, where today we call it the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ as in on level ground. This isn’t just topography! The mount recalled for listeners how often God speaks the most powerful words to leaders on the mountain—Moses, Elijah, Abraham, and so on. To set this sermon on a “level place” and emphasize it by saying “Jesus came down” to it is pretty much the opposite.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures ‘level’ usually referred to places of suffering, hunger, misery, corpses, death, disgrace and mourning. Jesus is preaching to them about the world of the Kingdom of God from right in the middle of such a lowly and desperate level place. And yet, level places were also where prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel saw God’s glory revealed, and where they expected to see God’s renewing hand at work in the world. So, while coming down to be with them in the brokenness of their ‘level world’ Jesus is teaching them about the ways of coming renewal and new life in the Kingdom of God.

Far more than setting the scene with interesting topography, this setting is symbolic, and those multitudes who gathered to hear him, to be healed and cured and renewed, were suffering and hungry for what he brought. He tells them the response to a life mostly existing in those difficult level places of poverty, hunger, and grief was to expect also God’s blessing to come. I imagine for them to have seen others so happily rich, sated, laughing, or seemingly unaffected by those things which had brought them so low, could have looked like God’s favor, yet Jesus says that’s not what it is. They too will come to life’s low and level places of suffering—they too will have their woes. Jesus is telling those whom he is with, in that lowly level place, to manifest hope and faith in the Kingdom of God and know God’s blessing of love comes to them. I said it was symbolic; so what are the places where we know only vast level stretches of sadness or devastation or poverty, be it of spirit or poverty of means to live? Do we heed God’s call to open our eyes when we are living a charmed or oblivious life? Or do we think it unfair, that others don’t understand how things are for us?

Jesus tells them, tells us, that God does understand and care, and in a literal manifestation of this promise, Jesus’ response is to physically be with those in that place; healing troubled spirits, teaching hungry souls, curing diseases, and pouring himself out as we reach to touch him. His presence is to bring God’s blessing. “Blessing” here refers to being in a place of, or movement towards, God’s kingdom. It doesn’t mean absence of pain or struggle, and in fact as Jesus says, that posture of faith can even lead to being reviled, excluded, defamed and hated, because that faith is rejected by others or a threat to them. To be ‘blessed’ in this case is to live through all of that because it’s temporary for those looking towards God’s kingdom in the end. “Woe to you…” is unfortunately a judgement word, or at best an expectation of suffering, and Jesus is inviting them to turn towards God. In that time people expected the end of the world to come soon, and they might hear this to mean rapidly approaching eternal punishment for mistaking a life of wealth and good fortune for God’s favor or as evidence their lives were turned to God. Juxtaposing blessing and woe in this teaching is Jesus’ way of urging his listeners to choose the way of blessing, to take stock and see the pain and difficulty of the world around them, not just their own happy circumstances. Luke’s gospel uses words like hunger, poverty and weeping to be simultaneously descriptors of the real moment and (even more so) as being symbolic of greater spiritual truths. In this way he shows Jesus surrounded by people ‘hungering’ for God’s kingdom and ‘weeping’ for God’s blessing. Jesus wants those described as having wealth and standing to escape condemnation by amending the way they see the world and turning towards God’s kingdom, by putting their resources to work for those in need, to awaken to the blessing of sharing their wealth.

We tend to put ourselves into one camp or the other, the haves or have nots, blessed or woeful even. And yet – look at how this whole passage is addressed, and to whom. Jesus isn’t doing the healing thing and then teaching the whole multitude. He ‘comes down’ and does what we heard, and then from where he is, “he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you…’” Rather than address the “great multitude” he looks up and speaks to his apostles, the twelve he called after coming down from spending all night on the mountain in prayer, just before this passage. He instructs them by his actions first, and now by this teaching. He’s showing them the blessing of trusting and turning to God, just as Jeremiah talks about in our other reading today;

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

His calling them and his teaching them is like that which nourishes the roots of a tree and strengthens it for drought. These are teachings given us in the same way, to return to again and again whether enjoying having been planted by streams or enduring drought. Yes, much as we might strive for plenty, we are also those in that difficult ‘level place’ whom Jesus goes down to help and heal, and we are also the disciples watching his good news in action, and now being called to action ourselves as he looks up and teaches us not just what to do but how to see the world around us, how to turn to God. To do that, we cannot only long to be up in that desirable, easier place, we have to be with—as Jesus was. Meals, food-bank, giving, serving, seeing, healing – not from above it.

Here’s how I think about encountering God’s grace living into that level place: Each year as I look for places to go backpacking, I use the Washington Trails Association site which gives you options to filter in just the type of hikes you’d like. I often check boxes for views and vistas, lakes and waterfalls, as I love the vastness of the open sky over ridge after ridge of mountains, seeing swathes of color in the hills, birds soaring, sunsets and sunrises. Last year I did the same and headed out, anticipating hitting one especially promising vista near my intended campsite just about sunset. Forest fires changed all of that – it was just grey from morning until night! No views, no swaths of far-reaching green hills. The sun rose and set like a dull flashlight hidden under a grey wool blanket. No colors at all! It made me look down instead, look around me more. The lake’s water disappeared into a foggy grey horizon, the glassy surface interrupted by fish elegantly jumping and birds dipping in to find dinner. Mosses and tree bark textures filled my camera instead of sunsets, flowers, and frogs instead of distant snow caps. ‘Level’ held all of the awe and wonder that my lofty ambitions had sought, only these were near enough to touch. No wonder Jesus went down to the level place, to be where “all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” 

May we go and do likewise.  Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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