This is my sermon (more or less, because I preach without notes) from February 17th, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. You will find the lectionary here.
Today’s Gospel is the “Sermon on the Plain”, one of two accounts of Jesus’ beatitudes. It is easy to confuse or conflate the two but Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is not Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. There is no “poor in spirit” or “those who hunger for righteousness.” There is only “you who are poor…you who are hungry now…you who weep now…you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.” And there are the corresponding woes, which are not a part of the story in Matthew. This is quintessential Luke, bringing the Good News to the people in ways that are raw and real, demanding an examination of one’s heart and choices as a prerequisite to discipleship. In Luke’s version of the story, there can be no doubt what Jesus wants, who Jesus prefers.
Jesus wants disciples who focus on God’s desires, God’s dream. These are people who choose to follow his example and to do it in real and sacrificial ways. True followers of Jesus modify their dreams and desires, their goals, their very lives, to demonstrate an understanding that the measures of success we humans all too often prioritize will not get us deeper into the heart of God. The Sermon on the Plain is a good reminder that the Gospel is not intended for our comfort, but for our transformation. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
This is a challenging and often deeply uncomfortable message for those of us who are privileged – and we here are all privileged in one way or another, some of us greatly and multiply so. Luke reminds us that in the Good News there is a preferential option for those who lack privilege. Failing to recognize our privilege and to see the obstacles faced by others leads to a self-congratulatory confidence that can be our demise.
I thought about that this week when I watched part of an interview with Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia. In the interview, Gov. Northam was explaining how he has changed and continues to change since his medical school days, when he posed in blackface alongside a friend in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Gov. Northam seemed contrite and genuinely interested in better understanding why his actions from 35 years ago are so offensive and hurtful today. One of the things he said is that he did not know, and continues to try to better understand, that his privilege blinded him to the very different experiences of others. He was talking about those not lucky enough to be born white male, and middle class, with all of the opportunities that combination of accidents of birth provides. His privilege was and continues to be an obstacle to his ability to see and understand that the trappings of traditional success are unattainable for many and often are the mechanisms by which others are oppressed, kept in a particular place, and not seen and valued for who they are: beloved children of God.
Luke speaks to this quite directly, at least by scriptural standards. He has Jesus come down and stand on a level place with the apostles, disciples, and all who came to hear him and be healed. Jesus speaks to the crowd and apostles together, giving all of them the same message about God’s grace, which is unequivocally about the preferential option for the poor, the hungry, the outcast. Luke reminds us that Jesus seeks out the underdog, those left behind or cast aside. Furthermore, he says that discipleship is a life-altering proposition. It is, in the words of theologian John Stott, “inconvenient because it requires a rethinking and reworking of all manner of things.” You must change the way you live in order to have a transformed life.
The Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ commitment to leveling the playing field, so to speak. My former bishop, Doug Fisher, calls this, “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.” It is Good News, though it is not easy, not without considerable cost for those who are followers of Jesus and called to a particular way of living and seeing the world. This business of being part of the Jesus Movement and to “walk the way of Love,” of working with God’s Holy Spirit “to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it,” to quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, is no easy feat.
To fully experience God’s grace, to know God’s love and feel God’s presence, requires that we look at ourselves and others with God’s eyes, God’s ears, God’s heart. It means living our lives with an embodied faith, with Jesus as model, as well as guide. It is aspirational and incarnational. As we seek deeper understanding and to move further into the heart of God, we act in ways that acknowledge others are beloved and beloved in the way that Jesus would choose them first. And, as odd as it sounds and as hard as it is to believe, this is not about exclusion, even exclusion of “you who are rich…you who are full now…you who are laughing now…”. It is radically inclusive. It is about realizing that God has provided all that is needed for everyone – every single person born and living in every single circumstance – to thrive in God’s world. The blessed are those who know that this is possible only with God’s help, by God’s grace, and who choose to live their lives that way, offering what they have to the good of others.
When I read Luke’s version of the beatitudes, with the corresponding woes, I am comforted, my heart is gladdened, the challenge to my privilege notwithstanding. Luke brings Jesus’ message of blessing and grace to the most basic terms: poverty, hunger, sadness, and loss, all of which are real and prevalent, all of which can be helped if we with privilege and resources choose to live our lives generously and with an openness of heart. Sharing what we have and paying good attention to the accidents of birth and other circumstances that prevent others from achieving the same, is one of the most important and necessary aspects of Christian discipleship. Through it we actively live the “love your neighbor” command, all while we grow in faith and experience God’s love and grace in deeper and more meaningful ways.
When I read this Gospel, I can almost hear Jesus saying:
Blessed are you who know you have need, for you can love others. Woe to those abide in your privilege, for you fail to love fully.
Blessed are you who love others well, for you choose to love me. Woe to those who fail to love fully, for you are blind to my grace.