Monday, 04 February 2013 00:00

"Plain", February 3, 2013

Luke 6:17-26
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 3, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk wrote: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

I like the plain truth she speaks.  It wakes us up and encourages us to take our faith seriously.  Those of us on the bell tour to Nicaragua found people taking the gospel very seriously.  Many of us felt moved to reconsider our own priorities in light of the economic disparities between our countries.  We now look at Scripture through new eyes, enlightened eyes and we might never be the same again.

The scripture story for this morning is a familiar one. It appears in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The imagery is similar and yet a bit different. Matthew takes 3 full chapters to do the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s account is a bit shorter and it does not occur on a mount but a plain. So did Jesus say one sermon and it was heard differently, or did he preach variations on a theme: once on a mountain and once in a meadow perhaps?


Matthew’s version is the one we are more familiar with. It begins with the beatitudes, 8 blessings that the soloists will sing about a little bit later.  It’s so much easier to think about just blessings.  But Luke’s version adds woes to the blessings.  What’s up with that?  Some would say that it’s more honest to balance the curses with the blessings.  Maybe the curses help us to embrace the blessings. When all of life seems to be trauma, everything that’s not trauma feels like a blessing.

Here is how Jesus begins the sermon on the plain.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Human One.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”(Luke 6:20-23)

Matthew’s sermon is 77 verses longer than Luke’s version.  Matthew adds five more blessings:

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:5-10)

But let’s look what Luke replaces these with:

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”(Luke 6:24-26)  
The language sounds similar to that in Mary’s Magnificat, also found in Luke:  “God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.

God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

The rich do not fare well in Luke’s gospel.  Luke contains the story of Zaccheus, the story of the prodigal son, the rich young ruler.  Wealth and possessions stand in the way of the beloved community.  In fact, it is Luke who gives us the early vision of socialism in Acts 2 and 4 where the early church held everything in common.

Luke is not the feel-good gospel, like John.  Luke is saying that you are already blessed if you are poor, because you know where your true wealth lies.  Woe to you rich who never ever see this.

Blessed are you who are hungry now for you know what you need.  Woe to those who confuse what they need with what they want.

Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.  You have gone to the depths of your emotions, you are not in denial of the state of the world.  You are someone who has access to the full range of emotion and you live in reality.  Woe to those who never feel that, who are so numb that they can’t feel for another’s pain.

Woe to you when people say great things about you, for the world is full of people who seek after favor.  Instead, blessed are we when we are hated, and when they exclude you, revile you, defame you all on the account of the Human One.  Jesus says we are to “rejoice in that day and leap for joy; for that’s the way they treated all of the prophets.”

This is hard for us to get our minds around.  It’s even harder for us to get our hearts around.  But if we take the Jesus we find in Luke seriously enough, we can’t help but be a bit of an outsider.

We can’t help but be seen as a bit odd.

We can’t help but be excluded now and again.

All because we can’t help but speak the truth, even to those in power.

Being a disciple is not something that will always be pleasing.  Jesus says to all of us, “follow me”.  He doesn’t say, “admire me for afar.”

He doesn’t say “etch me into stained glass.”

He doesn’t say, “just sing pretty songs about me or even to ring a bell here or there, although it really helps a lot of the time.”

Jesus says, “follow me.”

And we know that following him leads to persecution.

It leads to misunderstanding.

It leads to being labeled a heretic.

It leads to losing family and friends sometimes.

Some of us know this better than others.

But in the end it leads to a kind of salvation the world has never seen.

If we remember that God’s preferential option is with the poor;

If we remember that God wants the hungry to be fed and calls into question the systems we have in place that keep the hungry from being fed;

If we remember that God wants those who weep now over their plight to dance and laugh again;

Then we will see that we are called to worry more about that than we are to worry about how much people like us.

Think about the things that are blessings in your life.  What blesses you?  Community, jobs friendships, opportunities for service and witness…

Think about the woes: economic hardship, relationships in crisis, health challenges, war, fractured families, the multiple isms of the world.

Now think about them from the point of view of the discipleship that Jesus was suggesting.  You see, he was not just saying some people are blessed and some people are cursed in an abstract way, he was saying that he knew some people who thought they were blessed were actually cursed and those who never ever saw themselves as worthy had God’s favor, God’s second chance.

Maya Angelou once said “people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did.  But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s no doubt that we were blessed by the Nicaraguan people these past two weeks.  They blessed us with music, with poetry, with warm weather, with passion and with hearty laughter.

The people in Nicaragua could very well have cursed us for our wealth, our myopia, the fact that Nicaraguans know US history better than we know it, or at least they know the part that effects Central America better than we.  They could have cursed us for supporting dictators over the years, for endorsing economic policies that made us comfortable at their expense.  They could have written us off as hopeless sinners.  But to a person, they embraced us.  They showered us with gifts.  They let us into their lives.  We ate at their tables, walked with them in their land, dealt with smoky homes with dirt floors and no hot water and simple meals.  We experienced the exuberance of their worship services and the hearty laughter.  We never felt cursed, but blessed by their welcome.  The scripture is not encouraging us to say that poverty is a blessing.  It is saying that the whole of our priorities get switched around when we take the Gospel seriously.  We see that weeping is a form of solidarity, not a sign of weakness.  We see material wealth as stewardship meant to bring health and healing to the world.  We see a common hunger for justice and peace in the world.  And we find ways to keep it that way. That’s what the Gospel is about.

The plain truth is that there is inequity in the world.

The plain truth is that our lives are enhanced when we walk in solidarity with people different from us.

The plain truth is that we cannot settle for business as usual if that business fails to address the inequities of our world.  Our Gospel demands more from us.

In his Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s Jesus gives us the plain truth that we need to open up our minds and our hearts.

At our tearful goodbye service last Sunday, I found myself saying to our sisters and brothers as the Second Baptist Church of Leon, Nicaragua that our languages and customs might be different.  Our climate and clothing might be different, but we share the same Spirit of God which knows no borders.  I told them that we will never forget them because their hearts beat with our hearts and our blood is mystically mingled together.  And the plain truth is that we can’t go back to the way we were.  Thanks be to God.

The Gospel message of Peace, solidarity, hope, even blessing was made plain to us.  Now our task, all of us, is to make the Gospel message of peace with justice the plain truth of our lives so that we will continue to encounter liberating truth that will set us free.

May our lives be the blessing to which Jesus calls us and may the waking God draw us out to where we can never return.