If you’ve sat in church much, you hear words like “Blessed are you…” and you probably think “Oh yeah, The Sermon on the Mount.” Well, that’s not what you heard today. Today’s Gospel lesson is known as The Sermon on the Plain. You find the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and you find the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Each of our Gospel writers likes to take Jesus’ teachings and show them to us against different backgrounds. Put Jesus on top of a mountain and you have everybody picturing another Moses giving God’s law. That’s Matthew’s Jesus. Put Jesus on a plain, “a level place,” and you have everybody picturing a God who comes down to wherever we are, somebody who gets dirty with us and actually makes a difference in how we keep breathing. That’s Luke’s Jesus.
Matthew has Jesus start out, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But Luke has Jesus begin with, “Blessed are you who are poor”—not poor in spirit, just poor, period.
There’s still an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. Only this version sounds a little more threatening. For every blessing there’s a corresponding curse. If you’re poor, hungry, sad or unpopular, then you’re really OK. But if you’re rich, well-fed, happy or popular, then you’re in deep trouble. Everything’s turning inside out; nothing stays the same.
Let’s listen to another translation of this. This one’s from the Jesus Seminar, and it puts things a little more bluntly. Here’s the nice part: “Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. Congratulations to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and denounce you and scorn your name as evil …! … [T]heir ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.”
Now here’s the not-so-nice part: “Damn you rich! You already have your consolation. Damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now! You will learn to weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you! … [T]heir ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way.”
It just so happens that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar don’t think he really said any of that “damn you” stuff, just the nice part. They blame Luke and the early church for all the threatening stuff. But Anglicans like me don’t have that easy way out. We believe that the way the church remembers Jesus can be just as important as any Jesus cooked up by the latest scholarly fashion. So we’re not going to take the easy way out today.
There’s no escaping this down-to-earth Jesus. This Jesus stands with a whole company of prophets before him who insist that for God it really makes a difference what we have, and what we do with what we have. Yes, God loves everybody, no exceptions, no matter who they are or what they have. That’s true enough, but that’s exactly why God has a special regard for people who don’t get to share in all the good gifts this world offers. That’s why God even comes to us, in person, as someone who knows from the inside out more than a fair share of poverty, hunger, grief and rejection.
Remember, when Jesus preached this sermon, he preached it to his disciples—to the people he’s already welcomed. They’ve already gotten through the front door. And so have you. But he is colorfully describing how God’s reign can be both comforting and discomforting at the same time.
Here’s what the reign of God is. It’s something that’s already happening. The reign of God is our being caught up into the resurrected, common life that God already is, right here, right now, down here on the plain. God’s Spirit is making all of us one body in the risen life of Christ. In God’s common, risen life, we’re all becoming members of one another. We’re all beginning to share one another’s joys and accomplishments, and that can sound appealing, but we’re also beginning to share one another’s griefs and losses, and that may not sound so appealing. It’s awfully intense, and it’s certainly not convenient.
But that’s the way God lives with us, and that’s the way God draws us to live with one another, like it or not. We can try to slow the whole thing down, and in fact we seem to have done a pretty good job of it for at least 2,000 years. But God has all the time in the world, and God’s not giving up on us—not ever.
And it’s strange but true that the less you have, and the more you know of grief and loss, the easier it is to get drawn into God’s common life, and the easier it is to find the joy of resurrection in sharing everybody’s highs and lows. It’s those of us who have stuff, those of us who want happiness without noticing who’s paying for it, those of us who want to rely on ourselves and nobody else, who won’t find it so easy to join in.
It’s those of us who think this stuff gives us control over our lives who get frustrated over and over again when nothing ever turns out the way we plan. That’s most of us, at least most of the time. Most of us live in a place and time where it’s very easy to keep ourselves insulated from the intensity of living fully. But there are still times when that intensity breaks through anyway.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t know whether you wanted to laugh or cry? For lots of us that happens at times of major transitions—baptisms, confirmations, graduations, weddings, funerals, and, let’s not forget, ordinations. Those are times that can expose us to life’s intensity, where the day-to-day stuff that insulates us gets interrupted for a while and we just might have to deal with the overwhelming grandeur that surrounds and fills every beginning and ending.
Jesus’ down-to-earth Gospel tells us that we respond with this mixture of laughter and tears because we’re getting a very heavy dose of reality. We’re beginning to sense what it means to be members of one another, sharing in one another’s highs and lows, gains and losses. And there’s no telling where that glimpse of reality might take us if we let it make us over. It might move us to live into a community where nobody’s basic needs ever got neglected. Imagine that!
That’s where God is taking us, like it or not, and we can’t hold out against it for ever. And when we come here week after week to offer our very lives and receive them back in broken bread and shared wine, we dare to believe that little by little, or sometimes all at once, God is fashioning Christ’s body even out of the likes of us.