Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – February 17, 2019
Imagine a flood of people sweeping over the plain, coming to hear Jesus. They’ve heard stories of his preaching and teaching, and of the wonders he’s done, healing people and making them whole. Now they’re streaming in from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and the northern seaside cities of Tyre and Sidon. It’s a mixed crowd of Jesus’ followers. The poor and oppressed have come, but there are also people from prosperous Roman port cities – pagans even – hoping to hear a life-giving word from this teacher. They arrive, trying to fasten on to him – desperate to finally be healed through and through of everything that ails them in body, mind, and spirit. And as they press in, the power of God flows freely to heal and save.
All are healed before Jesus even speaks a word to these crowds and yet his words continue to bind up wounds, although perhaps not in the way his listeners expected. His words point to the larger healing that God’s kingdom – God’s realm – is bringing.
Before any of this has taken place, however, Jesus has been up all night on top of a mountain, deep in prayer to God the Father. In the morning, he calls his disciples and from the large group, he chooses twelve he will send out with the good news – the apostles. Walking with these twelve, Jesus comes down and stands on a level place.
What’s interesting is that “level place” doesn’t just mean Jesus was standing on a flat place. In the prophets, it often has a different connotation. Whereas the mountaintop was where God was thought to be especially present, the level places were places of death, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, and mourning. It is there that Jesus chooses to stand with his disciples and teach what God’s kingdom looks like.
“‘Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now… 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.’” They are blessed not because there is no struggle, but because they are seen and loved by God even if society has cast them off or treated them as less than or unworthy. It reminds me of the fictionalized movie “The Greatest Showman” about P.T. Barnum. Barnum hired “freaks” to star in his show, but rather than honoring them, Barnum merely used them as curiosities to attract people to his show. Rejected and marginalized, they raise their voices in defiant song against those who would try to put them down:
I’m not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one will love you as you are
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious
Those poor, hungry, weeping, cast off people hearing that the kingdom of God was theirs – that they’d be filled and full of laughter – they must have felt that same surge of resiliency and hope after Jesus’ sermon. They, too, were blessed and glorious.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Using a word that would have been familiar from the prophets, Jesus proclaims “woes” against the rich, those who are full or who are laughing now, and those who are spoken well of. Ouch! I wonder what the affluent people from Tyre and Sidon thought when they heard this… But it wasn’t unprecedented. As Jeremiah says, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.” These woes aren’t just putting a damper on good living or fun times – they are for those who mistake riches, popularity, worldly success, good times, and carefree easy living for following God.
Yes, Jesus has come down off of the mountain into the level, fractured and broken places to preach good news to those in dire need of it. But he’s also set the stage for what his life and that of his followers will look like. Jesus and his disciples will have “no place to rest their heads.” They will rely on the kindness of supporters during their ministry. They will weep in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the cross, and at Jesus’ tomb. And they will be hated, reviled, and persecuted even to the point of martyrdom for following Christ.
As Jesus’ followers, we hear both the “blessings” and the “woes.” We may find ourselves weeping or struggling to make ends meet. We may find ourselves excluded, criticized, or slandered because of our faith. But this passage also reminds us that we might also be on the other side of the coin. Jesus’ words issue an incredibly tough challenge to us, who, in the richest county in the United States, find ourselves, especially when compared with the other parts of the world, in the rich category. Think about it – we have indoor plumbing, running water, and electricity. Things not everyone in the developing world has access to. These are not words of condemnation, but a call to really reflect on and take to heart what it means to use our means for participating in the reign of God. Because Jesus is speaking these words to transform each of us into people living joyfully, blessedly in God’s realm. These words invite us to ask ourselves honestly, “Am I placing my money, reputation, or blessings ahead of my love of God and neighbor?”
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is call to stand on the same level place with others. Not only with those who are suffering, poor, hungry, weeping, persecuted and reviled, but also with the rich and those who are full or who laugh now. We’re called not to look down on others from mountaintops, or to look up as if we are unworthy, but to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with others on a level plain. To stand in a place of equal footing where every person has dignity and is loved. As a retired Soviet cosmonaut reflected, “After an orange cloud — formed as a result of a dust storm over the Sahara and caught up by air currents — reached the Philippines and settled there with rain, I understood that we are all sailing in the same boat.”
Our blessedness and happiness is not about what the world considers prominent, popular, useful, or successful, it’s about walking in God’s ways and participating in God’s kingdom. Because it is there that we find our deepest, richest joy. As the psalm declares, in following God’s way of life, we thrive, like trees planted by streams of water, our roots deep and leaves green and flourishing, able to bear good fruit. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t storms to weather, but that we are always rooted and grounded in the God who will never fail us.
Similar to the woes, the psalmist declares, “…the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.” What we shouldn’t miss here is that in Hebrew the word for “judgment” and “justice” share a common root. In other words, God’s justice is coming and is an integral part of God’s kingdom. As Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” The question is, will we participate in that kingdom as ones mercifully healed by God, sharing that justice and healing with the world? Or will we settle for what we have, thinking it’s the end all be all?
The psalm tells us that to thrive and flourish like a well-watered tree means to direct our lives toward loving God and our neighbor. Jesus’ blessings and woes echo this ancient biblical call to love, care for, and esteem the people and ways of life God does. All too often we settle for what the world offers us, failing to grasp the fullness God keeps extending us.
We are not only to hear and receive the blessings of God, but to examine our lives to make sure we are not propping up the woes. Because our roots are strong not only when sunk deep in the ground, but when they give nutrients to others, providing a flourishing ecosystem for all. We are all connected, blessed in our brokenness, and challenged in our privilege and complacency. Jesus comes to speak comfort and hope to those kicked aside by the world. But, blessedly, he’s also calling out and healing the dis-ease our affluence and wealth, our constant striving, have brought to us.
“Blessed are you…” “Woe to you…” In these words and through the Holy Spirit, power is still flowing forth from Jesus, bringing healing and wholeness to all of us. Thanks be to God! Amen.