A Plain Sermon
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 17, 2019
6th Sunday after Epiphany
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26
The verses preceding our reading from the Gospel of Luke tell us that Jesus has been on the mountain praying to God all night, seeking wisdom regarding his choice of disciples. When morning comes, he calls his disciples and chooses twelve of them, whom he also names apostles. Then Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place—or on the plain—as it is sometimes translated. A great multitude from far and wide gathers to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Finally, Jesus looks up at his disciples—not at the multitude of people—but at his disciples—and delivers a series of blessings and woes.
If I felt compelled to write a series of blessings and woes this morning, I might come up with something like: Blessed is the preacher who does not preach guided by the lectionary and woe to the preacher who does. Or, how about blessed is the preacher who is on vacation the 6th Sunday of Epiphany and woe to the preacher who is not. Now, why would I think such thoughts? Because this is a very challenging text. So much so, I tried everything in my power to convince Jane Shelton, our Commissioned Ruling Elder, that today would be a perfect day for her to preach. She refused to buy what I was selling.
So, why is this gospel reading challenging? Because it seems to pit Jesus against anyone who is wealthy, satisfied, happy, or favored by the world. Could Jesus really hold the rich in disdain when his own ministry is supported by certain women of wealth? Could Jesus really show love to some people more than others when, throughout the gospels, he proclaims that God’s love is for all people? Surely there is something more going on here.
Let’s take a closer look. The Greek word for “blessed” is μακάριος, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, well off, happy. The word for “woe,” οὐαί, is an exclamation of grief as in, “woe” or “alas.” These words spoken by Jesus are, it would seem, polar opposites. When we hear Jesus’ list of blessings and woes preached in his Sermon on the Plain, surely our minds hearken to another text, found in the Gospel of Matthew—the Sermon on the Mount. It is a much longer sermon that begins with the Beatitudes. While Matthew’s Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke pairs four blessings with four woes, contrasting the rich and poor, the hungry and full, those who weep and those who laugh, those who are hated and those who are esteemed. Furthermore, while Matthew speaks of the poor in spirit, Luke simply speaks of the poor. While Matthew speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Luke speaks clearly of those in real physical need. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount feels gentler, more spiritual, if you will—not so, the Sermon on the Plain. On the plain, Jesus speaks plainly. He offers no cotton candy gospel. Rather, Jesus portrays a radical way of discipleship that will turn the world upside down.
In many ways, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain echoes the radical words of his mother in the Magnificat, found also in Luke. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary continues, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Radical words, indeed!
Prior to his Sermon on the Plain Jesus takes care of the needs of the people and then turns his attention to the needs of his disciples. At this point, Jesus’ audience is the disciples. In other words, Jesus’ audience is the church. So, what is Jesus trying to convey to believers? In the new kingdom Jesus is ushering in, why does Jesus speak woe to the rich? Does God really bless the poor and exclude the rich? Does God play preferential games like we are prone to do—only in reverse? Of course not! The miracle of the fishes and loaves is ample evidence that God is a God of abundance—not scarcity. In God’s reign, there is enough for everyone.
Then why the seeming disdain for the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, and those well thought of in the community? Maybe because such people—those who SEEM to have it all—are less likely to recognize their NEED for God. Consequently, wealth can be a stumbling block to a heart open to God. It’s a danger—thus—a woe. The poor, the hungry, those who weep, or are derided, on the other hand, are in a better position to receive and respond to God’s promises. Out of necessity, they may be more able to recognize they are not self-sufficient. Out of necessity, they are more likely to depend on God to provide the blessings they crave.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord speaks these words: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water…” Radical trust and dependence upon God—that’s the root of all blessedness. And to be a disciple is to take up the cross of Jesus and travel differently in the world. Make no mistake, it is a blessed and a costly endeavor. As one scholar puts it,
God asks for—indeed demands—our all. Everything. Material goods and money are but a part of what God expects us to give up and give over. God wants the entirety of our lives. The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God. God watches over them and blesses them abundantly in God’s way, not the way of the world: they will be filled, and they will laugh, and they will inherit the kingdom of God. To be disciples is to follow in this way. To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.[i]
Truly, to be blessed of God is to have nothing but God. Once more, let us open our hearts and minds to Christ’s teachings by hearing our gospel reading as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.
Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and then he returns to a level place—to a place with the people—not above them—but with them. He then turns to the disciples to give a plain and simple sermon based on the reality of what is and the hope of what can be. Jesus’ vision of radical discipleship turns the ways of the world upside down. Blessed are believers who yearn for God more than anything else in this world and woe to believers who do not.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] David L. Ostendorf, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1
*Cover Art “Litany of the Blessed” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription