“Happy & Terrible” Colchester Federated Church, February 13, 2022, (Luke 6:17-26) Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

I am a big fan of Mister Rogers—his kindness and compassion are sorely missed in our world today.  Though his legacy thankfully lives on.  In some ways, Fred Rogers represents important traits of what it means to be a good person—respect, kindness, compassion, humility, and integrity (among many other characteristics).  He had a way of speaking to people that made them feel seen and understood. 

What we may not know is that Fred Rogers insisted that every word spoken on his show (whether by person or puppet) was scrutinized closely to ensure that the children who watched his program understood what was trying to be conveyed.  Writer Maxwell King wrote about the rules that Fred Rogers had for talking to children because he understood that children tend to interpret things literally.  For example, there was a scene once in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at a hospital.  A nurse was explaining taking someone’s blood pressure and that she had to “blow up” the blood pressure cuff.  Mister Rogers asked for the folks on his show to redub that line because he was concerned that children would hear that something was being “blown up” and might cover their ears expecting an explosion.  He didn’t want those kids to be afraid and miss what happened next, so the line was changed to “I’m going to puff this up with some air.”  When another show referenced needing to put a beloved animal to sleep, Fred Rogers had that rewritten because he didn’t want children to be afraid of going to sleep themselves.  The writers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came to lovingly call this process and the language used on the show “Freddish” referring to the constant rewrites of every script and the demanding steps that it took to get each and every word right.  Fred Rogers had studied under some of the leading 20th century scholars of childhood development and he understood that the inner lives of children were quite serious and that kids often took words literally.  This understanding of childhood development meant that even though this children’s show appeared to be simple on the surface, every word and detail was actually painstakingly vetted to help children understand the lessons.[1]

Think about how exacting this process was for both Fred Rogers and the writers of that show.  Because Mister Rogers understood that words matter.  Our words can be reflective of what’s happening inside our hearts.  Our words can heal and build people up.  And our words can wound and tear people down.  Let us not forget that our words matter and have power to do good or ill.

Jesus’ teachings have lasting impact because of the power of his actions and the power of his words.  We begin our Gospel story this morning with Jesus coming down the mountain and standing with those gathered before him on a large area of level ground.  In the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s version of events), Jesus gives these teachings on a mountain above the crowds.  Hence, these teachings are called the Sermon on the Mount.  Not so in Luke’s version—this is the Sermon on the Plain.  Very similar teachings with slight variations.  But it’s important that Luke sets the scene by saying that Jesus comes down the mountain to stand on a large area of level ground with the crowd.

This is the Sermon on the Plain.  A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people join Jesus there on that level ground.  It’s odd to point out that difference from up here in a pulpit.  Pulpits were sometimes exaggerated in their design to separate clergy from the congregation as if the Pastor is delivering a message from on high.  Now there were acoustic realities before sound systems and large sanctuaries where an elevated pulpit helped people hear and see what was happening.  That’s true too.  But some sanctuaries even have winding staircases that clergy have to climb in order to be way up above the congregation in the pulpit, and that is obviously by design and just a little much.

The point is that Jesus getting on the level plain with the people is an important detail in our Gospel story.  Luke wants us to understand this distinction.  Because it helps us to understand that Jesus wanted to meet people where they were and share these lessons face to face, person to person.  When he says “happy are you who are poor”, Jesus was looking at people who were poor.  When he says “happy are you who hunger now”, “happy are you who weep now”, “happy are you when people hate you”—Jesus was looking at people who were hungry, weeping, and hated and standing right there among them.[2]  Because Jesus was speaking to his own twelve apostles who were just called to follow him, to a larger group of his disciples, and to a crowd of people who were attracted to Jesus and his teachings but were not yet among his devoted followers.  There are three groups of people that Jesus is addressing in the Sermon on the Plain and he understood that when he was speaking about those who are happy and those who are in terrible circumstances.  Though who is in happy circumstances and who is in terrible circumstance?  Jesus is sharing a reversal of what we might think in first looking at another person’s life.

Because Jesus once again doesn’t mince his words in talking about wealth, “How terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.  How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.”[3]  Jesus is preaching about the upside-down Kingdom of God where the first will be last and the last will be first.  He’s preaching about the quality of life enjoyed by people who live in God’s compassion.  Needy people receive good news.  Jesus feeds the hungry and comforts those who are grieving.  But Jesus is expressing sorrow for the judgement that will come to those who choose to live outside of God’s intentions for our lives and for God’s creation where we are supposed to care about our neighbors.  For example, it will be terrible for those who are rich and have more than what they need and don’t share their resources with the poor.  It will be terrible for people who are happy living in the kingdoms of the world and not focused on helping to create the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus is speaking about happy people and doomed people—but reality is sometimes not as it appears.  That’s one of the challenges with the Sermon on the Plain.

In the end, it’s good for us to remember Jesus’ famous teachings about people who are happy and people who are doomed.  Especially when we have moments of personal struggles or weeping or when people hate us, reject us, or insult us.  It ends up that Jesus and his followers have been there before us.  It also ends up that Jesus came down the mountain and stood on the level ground to deliver this message, raising his eyes to those gathered to actually look at them face to face and see what exactly they were experiencing.  Sometimes I think that is one of the greatest gifts that we can give people with whom we are sharing our lives—seeing people as they are, noticing when something is wrong.  Weeping with those who are weeping and rejoicing with those who are rejoicing.  In a busy and distracted world, our presence for one another face to face on the level plain is more compassionate than we may realize.  May we be the people who are sowing the seeds of compassion in our families and among our neighbors here in Colchester.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Maxwell King, “Mister Rogers had a simple set of rules for talking to children,” in The Atlantic, June 8, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/mr-rogers-neighborhood-talking-to-kids/562352/
[2] Luke 6:20-22, CEB.
[3] Luke 6:24-25.