“On a Level Place”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 17, 2019

Luke 6:17-26

 

Our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke is the less famous sibling, the forgotten version, much less often read than its more familiar cousin.

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter five, Jesus delivers another speech, similar enough to this one to believe that they are probably two different recountings of the same event.  Matthew’s version, which gets a lot more air time than Luke’s version does, is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and this particular section as the Beatitudes.  Does this sound familiar?

 

“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.” 

 

(And Jesus goes on from there with several more lines of beautiful blessings, including that famous line, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” followed by several more chapters of beautiful and challenging teachings.)

 

In Luke’s version, the teachings are a little different.  Jesus offers just four blessings, instead of nine in Matthew, and in Luke those four blessings are paired with four woes.  Blessed are you who are poor; woe to you who are rich.  Blessed are you who are hungry; woe to you who are full.  Blessed are you who weep; woe to you who laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you; woe to you when all speak well of you.

But it’s not just the teachings that differ between these two versions.  In Matthew, we call this speech—sermon, really—the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus is said to have gone “up the mountain” with his disciples before he began to preach.  In Luke, on the other hand, it is known—less famously—as the Sermon on the Plain.  Here, the story says, Jesus “came down with them [the twelve disciples, that is] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”

Now, here we are at the Hill Church.  (Not the Church of the Level Place or the Church on the Plain…)  We like our hilltop vista, our pinnacle position.  If you’ve ever climbed up and looked out from our steeple, you know that the views are amazing.  You can see for miles in every direction, see the glory and beauty of God’s ingenious artistry in this corner of creation.  There is a reason our ancestors in faith chose to build this meetinghouse on this site, and the ones before it nearby.  On a hilltop you can defend yourself from attack.  You can see who’s coming.  You can proclaim your message—which, of course, you are confident is the Truth—for all to hear.  You can look down, literally and metaphorically, on those less fortunate souls in the valleys and hollows below.

Perhaps we Hill Church folks can be forgiven if we prefer Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  It seems more appropriate somehow, more orderly, to have Jesus up high (you know, like us), with his disciples a bit lower, and then the huddled masses lower still.  Life is much easier, after all, when you know who’s on top and who’s on the bottom.  Everything is simpler when you know where you stand.  Everything is clearer when there is a place for everything and everything in its place.

Of course, it’s easier to say that when you’re the one on top of the heap, when you’re the one with the unobstructed view while others are craning their necks to catch a glimpse from down below.  It’s easier to say that when you’re the one who occupies the privileged position, the one whose life has not been made more difficult by your race, or your sexual orientation, or your gender, or your immigration status, or your physical disability or mental illness, or any of the myriad other things we as a society use to decide who’s up and who’s down.

But even if you’re down, knowing where you stand (or sit) can be comforting, if not it its reality, at least in its familiarity.  There is a way in which we can grow accustomed to diminishment, can almost come to believe the stories they’ve told about us, can almost acquiesce to the constraints others put upon us because of who we are.

For many of us, it’s not as clear as a binary up or down, because oppression and marginalization function along many different, intersecting axes.  I might be up because I am white, but down because I am female.  I might be on top because I am a native English-speaker, but on the bottom because I am poor.  I might be elevated because I am cisgender (my gender identity matches my biological sex) but diminished because I am lesbian or gay or bisexual.  I might be admired because I am physically able but scorned because I live with mental illness.  You get the idea.

 

We may focus on a somewhat different set of characteristics in today’s American society than they did in Palestine two thousand years ago, but nevertheless, Jesus would have been familiar with our inclination to hierarchy.  The Roman world in which he lived was, if possible, even more rigidly stratified than ours.  You were up if you were patrician, or ruling class, and down if you were plebeian, or working class.  You were elevated if you were senatorial or equestrian, wealthy or politically powerful, and diminished if you were ordinary.  Based on your ancestry, your census rank, any honors you might have attained, and your citizenship, you knew your place in the hierarchy, and you were granted or denied rights accordingly.

But Jesus came down from the mountain with his disciples, and he met the multitudes on a level place.  A great multitude it was, with people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  The people of Judea were mostly Jewish, mostly rural country folk.  The people of Jerusalem were ethnically mixed but urbane city-dwellers.  The people of Tyre and Sidon were mostly gentiles.  The crowd must have varied in ancestry, in rank, in honor, in citizenship, in wealth, in race, in religion, in gender.  And Jesus met them all there on the plain, on the level place, together.  He did not climb up higher himself, build his meetinghouse on the hill.  He did not elevate his disciples to some higher status than everyone else.  He stood in their midst and spoke to them on that level place.  He spoke to them of blessings and of woes.  Of filling the hungry and emptying the full.  Of enriching the poor and leaving the rich disconsolate.  Of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  Of seeing through the falsehoods that would have us revile some and revere others.  Of deconstructing all the hierarchies that would place some of us above and others of us below.

Because Jesus knew that we humans are so, so good at separating ourselves from one another.  He knew that we are so, so good at setting up systems that privilege a certain set of characteristics and marginalize another.  He knew that, then and now, our human hierarchies would create tailwinds for some and headwinds for others.  And he wanted no part of it.

Jesus wanted no part of it because he had a special concern for those who were vulnerable, those who were suffering, those who were marginalized, those who were considered unimportant nobodies according to the logic of the time.  He wanted no part of it because he knew that those who are least valuable in the eyes of this world are cherished beyond belief in the eyes of God.  He wanted no part of it because any time any child of God is harmed, the whole family of God suffers.

And he wanted no part of it because whether we are up on the hill or down in the valley, when we are separated from our siblings, we cannot know the fullness of our connections, both human and divine.  Because whether we are elevated or diminished, we cannot know the fullness of ourselves, made a little less than God but nevertheless in God’s image, according to God’s likeness.  Because whether we are idolized or despised, our relationships with our neighbors, with ourselves, and with our God cannot but suffer.

 

So, Hill Church.  What would it look like for us to follow Jesus to the level place, to see the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up?

Would it look like meeting for Bible Study at the Main Street Grille?

Would it look like attending events with the Greater Putnam Interfaith Council or the Windham/Willimantic Chapter of the NAACP?

Would it look like having honest, vulnerable, complicated conversations about race and whiteness, as our Waking Up White book study is doing?

Would it look like sitting down at table with friends and strangers on Monday at our Community Kitchen lunch?

Would it look like approaching our neighbors in a spirit of humility and true partnership—not seeing ourselves as having answers or solutions or knowing how to “fix” “their” problems, but working shoulder-to-shoulder in a common effort to make this world look more like God’s realm?

Would it look like stepping out of our hilltop sanctuary, not expecting people to come to us, but meeting folks where they are, and seeking God there together?

 

It can feel confusing to stand on a level place when you’re accustomed to being on top of the hill or down in the valley.  Without the trappings of hierarchy, it can be hard to know where you’re supposed to look, who’s supposed to be in charge, to whom you’re supposed to pay attention.  It can be scary to meet the eyes of someone you don’t know, someone who is different from you.

But I think that’s exactly the point, because that’s exactly what Jesus did.  Over and over again in the course of his life and ministry, Jesus disrupted the expectations of who was important and who was not, with whom he was supposed to associate and with whom he was not, how true power and true kinship were, and were not, defined.

I think that’s exactly the point, because that’s exactly what God did.  In the person of Jesus, God took human flesh in all its vulnerable, fallible beauty.  God exchanged eternity for mortality, wisdom for foolishness, power for weakness, in order to have full solidarity with all of God’s creation—even you, even me.

May we have the courage to do likewise, to follow Jesus to the level place, where the glory of God shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

 


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