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Plain Speaking on Level Ground

Epiphany +6, Common Lectionary Year C

Luke 6:17-28

©2019 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

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“Listen for what is familiar,
listen for what is strange,”
I invited you as we began the Gospel text.

For many of us, we are familiar
with that teaching of Jesus that begins
with the word “Blessed.”
In fact some of us are wondering why
we haven’t yet sung
“Blessed are they, the poor in…”
But right there we come up against the strange,
because we want to sing “poor in spirit”
but it’s not there!
At least not here in Luke’s telling.

For Luke, it is the poor, the humanly poor who are blessed,
and the hungry, physically,
the grieving,
and the persecuted who are blessed.
That’s all. Four.
Matthew has five other “Blesseds” to go,
but Luke stops at 4 and turns those blessings upside down,
and sighs out a word that defies good translation-
(“How terrible” “What great sorrow” “Beware!” are among some of the attempts to translate it)
but it sounds like “Woe” – [1]
A dire warning sound,
for the rich,
for the amply fed,
for the joyful and contented
and for the popular and the well-liked.

We’ll come back to those in a minute,
but first I want to point to the other “strange”
that really grabs my midrashic attention today,
in this season where we’re figuring out
the practical implications
of what it means to be followers of the Way
of this Jesus.

Where Matthew, more famously,
has Jesus, like a new Moses,
delivering this sermon “on the Mount,”

Luke makes it very plain,
with his meticulous description
of Jesus making his way down from the higher places
to be with those who have gathered
on level ground. [2]
Luke’s camera pans the scene,
making sure we notice the crowded plain,
filled with hoi polloi- the ordinary folk,
from all over Judean Palestine
and the Gentile beyond,
the well, and the sick in mind or body or spirit,
the poor, and those wealthy enough
to travel from foreign lands in Tyre/Sidon.
Luke places Jesus in the midst of
“a crowd of the whole earth.”
He is healing, touching and being touched
by all and sundry.
And then, with equal precision, Luke tells us
that Jesus “catches the eyes” of his disciples
(that’s you and me),
as he begins this
plain speaking on level ground.

And in that plain sermon,
he leaves little wiggle room,
before he’s done,
he’s gathered all of us in,
with the promise of blessing,
or the warning of woe,
the great levelling we all experience.
Who here has not mourned?
Who here is not globally speaking rich?
Who here has not experienced great joy?
Who here has not at some point been excluded,
or left behind, or left out?
or ridiculed or outright rejected
maybe even because you’re part of this community of faith in a secular society,
this community of faith that is intent
on building longer tables, when others are
erecting or shoring up barriers of exclusion?

Jesus is levelling the ground.
Or helping us to see
that the strange economy of God
is to bless those in need,
and to warn those who think they have no need.

The more I think about this plain speaking of Jesus
the more it makes sense in the scheme
of Luke’s Gospel about him.
Jesus was all about coming down
from the lofty places
(where people expect God to be)
to be with [3] the company of earth,
particularly the lowly and lost:

  • a vulnerable birth at the margins, heralded by angels of heaven and shepherds of earth.
  • a nursing mother who sings of the great reversals and upheavals of God’s justice,
    where the mighty are brought to level ground,
    and the downtrodden are lifted up;
  • where Jesus rolls the scroll to Isaiah’s great vision of God’s Jubilee,
    and declares it to be happening now, in our sight and hearing:
    where the poor are fed and sheltered,
    the bound let loose,
    where the lame dance,
    and the blind paint pictures of God’s splendor
    that the sighted have never seen!

This Gospel where Jesus fasts for 40 days,
and is blamed for feasting with sinners and tax collectors like Zacchaeus or Levi, even though he feasts with Pharisees too!
This Gospel where Sabbath rules are set aside so he can feed the hungry and heal the sick,

  • where God’s blessing includes Roman soldiers and their children,
    as well as those whom the soldiers police.
    This Gospel where Simon Peter, who from beginning to end is both/and sinner/saint, forgiven.

This plain speaking on level ground levels us.
We find ourselves as a community, and individuals,
among the company on the plain,
of those both blessed and warned.
Whenever we (individually, or together)
are brought low by life’s slings and arrows,
whenever we are ridiculed for how we live this life of God,
we have this plain speaking of Jesus to hold on to:
there is no ground too low, too high, beyond the reach of God’s Healing, Redeeming,
Sustaining, and Blessing.
And, wherever we take our blessing
or advantage for granted,
or worse, as just reward,
his equally plain speech warns us with a Woe!
Reminding us to come down with Jesus
to level ground,
where the blessing we have can be shared
with all, no matter who, all.

That’s for us to prayerfully discern,
year in year out,
in the level ground of our life together.
But my hunch is that we bless and are blessed
in the ways that we build those longer tables, *(slide)
within and beyond our walls,
especially beyond our walls,
to include as many of God’s creatures
in the sharing of God’s abundance and blessing.

What did Luke say, again?
“Jesus came down with them and stood on level ground…”
Of course he did!
So that we who bear his name,
will do so too,
stand among both blessed and warned,
“to love our enemies,
to do good to those who hate,
to speak blessing in response to those who curse,
and pray for those whose way is to persecute others.” [4]
Now, there’s a whole other sermon, and a life’s work!

[1] ???? – ouai.

[2] ???????- pedinos

[3] Thanks to David Lose for pointing out this word in v.17.

[4] Luke 6:28.

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