“Sermon on the Plain” Colchester Federated Church, February 17, 2019, (Luke 6:17-26) Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Right now we’re in the midst of the Epiphany Season in the Church.  This liturgical season lasts from January 6th through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (this year that’s March 6th.)  With Easter falling later this year, the Epiphany Season is on the longer side and our scripture readings continue to focus on the miracles and teachings of Jesus to prepare us for Lent to come.  Last Sunday you heard about the call of the disciples and Jesus telling his first followers that they were going to fish for people.  This Sunday we’re getting into some specific lessons that Jesus taught his disciples.

Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and with a great multitude of people from all over the place.  Folks had come to hear Jesus teach about the kingdom of God and to be healed.  Everyone in the crowd is pressing in on him and trying to touch him, for Luke tells us that power came out of him and Jesus healed all of them.  After these healings, Jesus focuses on his recently called disciples and teaches “the blessings and woes” (as they later came to be called.)  This is how Luke tells the story of some of Jesus’ most famous teachings—the Beatitudes.

Let’s pause for a moment because it ends up that we are much more familiar with the Beatitudes as they appear in Matthew’s Gospel.  Just in case we need a refresher, those teachings are: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[1]  That’s how Jesus’ famous teachings appear in the Gospel according to Matthew.

On the other hand, Luke has four blesseds and four woes.  There are similarities, of course.  But also serious differences.  Luke’s Beatitudes that we just heard are: “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 Son of Man.  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.  But 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.”[2]

It’s important to hear the Beatitudes in both Gospels and consider the differences because it helps us to understand the focus of Luke’s Gospel.  Because Luke isn’t talking about the poor “in spirit” being blessed, he’s talking about the poor.  Luke isn’t talking about those who hunger and thirst “for righteousness” being blessed, he’s talking about those who are physically hungry right now.  Luke’s focus is on people who are poor and suffering in this world and Jesus proclaiming that they are blessed.  Despite their present circumstances, God has not forgotten them.

To bring that message home, Luke has Jesus come down to a level place to preach the blesseds and woes.  Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus up on the mountain looking out over his people.  Luke has the Sermon on the Plain.  Jesus standing on a level place with people pressing in on him and touching him and Jesus looking them in the eyes as he teaches about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God.

These stories are part of why ministers have endless debates about whether to preach from elevated pulpits or not.  Some strongly prefer to be on the ground walking among the congregation.  Others strongly prefer to be above looking out at the congregation.  (It honestly doesn’t matter to me though the lectern isn’t as conducive for me always talking with my hands.  And the Search Committee gave me feedback back in the day that some folks in our congregation strongly prefer that CFC’s Pastor preach from the pulpit, so here I am.)  It’s certainly something to think about.  The point is that Jesus is depicted as preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.  And yes, the teachings are similar.  But not exactly the same.

Liberation Theologians will often declare that God has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.  We can look to Jesus’ words here in The Sermon on the Plain to see why that belief is held.  “Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry now.”  “Woe to you who are rich.  Woe to you who are full now.”  Jesus’ words can be consolation to some and uncomfortable to others.  Though we can consider Jesus’ words as a call to action.  Remember that he just called his disciples.  Discipleship is about what we believe and putting our beliefs into action.  It’s about praying for a better world, a world that is more loving and just.  But it’s also about working for a better world.  We need beliefs and actions.  We need prayer and work.

It can make us consider a news story about a woman in Chicago named Candice Payne who got concerned about the homeless population in the midst of the polar vortex that people across the Midwest experienced recently.  Temperatures plummeted to 22 degrees below zero and there had already been 22 deaths connected to the dangerous weather conditions across the region.  Candice Payne wanted to do something to help.  So she impulsively charged 20 rooms at a local hotel onto her personal credit card and posted about it on social media.  Soon additional donations of money and food came in and this small group in Chicago was able to fund 60 rooms for 3 nights for 80 homeless people at a hotel on the South Side.  People showed up to make food and ensure that people were settling into their new surroundings.  Jermaine and Robert (two of the men who benefited from Candice Payne’s initial kindness by staying in one of those hotel rooms) referred to her as their “angel.”[3]  Her kindness made national headlines.  Though part of what struck me about the story is that when watching the interview on CBS the caption when interviewing her was: Candice Payne, Good Samaritan.  How fitting.

Now in the Church we know exactly what that means.  We know that it means helping the stranger.  And not just the stranger, but sometimes people who are the most vulnerable or who are even seen as the enemy.  Remember that the Samaritans were hated at this time and Jesus ensured folks saw the Samaritan as good and the hero.  It’s a story found only in the Gospel according to Luke because again the focus is on people who are poor and vulnerable, possibly even misunderstood.

So we remember that Jesus said that the poor are blessed and gave a stern warning to those who are rich.  The story out of Chicago can remind us that people who are homeless have many reasons for being homeless and not staying in shelters even in difficult conditions.  Sometimes shelters are overcrowded and there’s not room.  Lack of affordable housing is a huge issue in our country after all.  Sometimes people have been assaulted or harassed in shelters.  Some people fear that what little personal belongings they have may be stolen because maybe they were previously.  Some shelters don’t allow animals, and if you are living on the street with your dog—do you leave your dog behind in the cold to fend for themselves?  Or do you stay with them using fire and blankets and a tent to keep you both as warm as possible?  The point is that until we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is experiencing homelessness, it’s hard to know what that person’s experiences have been like and it can hopefully make us pause before judging.  For we recall that Jesus said the poor are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

In the end, when Jesus taught his followers the blesseds and the woes there would have been people in the crowd who were poor (especially considering Jesus’ own economic background and the economic background of the disciples.)  And there would have been people in the crowd who were rich since Luke tells us that there was a great multitude of people from Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  This is a message meant for everybody.

Jesus looked all of them in the eyes, on the level place, as he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  It can feel uncomfortable.  Though it does matter how we use our resources, it always has and it always will.  Wealth can isolate us from God and from the difficulties of the human condition.  People can live in luxury apartments near The Magnificent Mile in Chicago and easily ignore the homeless living in a tent city on Chicago’s South Side.  People can also see one another and get involved to help.  The point is that we have free will and choices that we can make every single day.  God sets before us the ways of life and death.  And seeks in holy love to save us from aimlessness and sin.  We’re not left to fend for ourselves, and we’re not in this alone.

Jesus challenged us to believe and act.  To pray and work.  To not ignore the poor and vulnerable because God certainly isn’t.  “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.”  Words that continue to challenge, from The Sermon on the Plain.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 5:3-11, NRSV.
[2] Luke 6:20-26.
[3]Christopher Brito, “Meet the woman who rented hotel rooms for homeless in Chicago during dangerous polar vortex,” CBS News, February 1, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/candice-payne-homeless-in-chicago-candice-payne-hotel-rooms-polar-vortex-cold/