From a Level Place – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26 for Epiphany 6C

February 17, 2019

Today’s gospel reading reminds me of the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have often heard this phrase applied to good preaching, and the words we are about to hear from Jesus certainly qualify. But I was surprised to learn that this phrase was first used to describe not preaching, but newspapers.

In the early 1900’s, Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”[1]

Mr. Dunne was lampooning the power of the news media to shape events by the way those events get reported. Even in the early twentieth century, someone who worked for a newspaper could make fun of the way newspapers influenced the news.

After all, newspapers are supposed to keep opinions about how things should be on the editorial page, and report objective facts in the rest of the paper. Newspapers are supposed to just bring you the news.

And that is what Jesus was doing as the people gathered around to listen to him teach. He presented the objective facts about the Kingdom of God. But those facts, like a good newspaper, can have the affect of comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.

He came down with them 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. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[2] 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.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:17-26)

Here’s some background: In the verses just before today’s passage, Jesus has been up on a mountain praying all night. When the sun comes up, he calls together twelve of his followers and makes them apostles – or sent ones (Luke 6:12-13). Then he comes down to a level place, and starts to teach. He hasn’t even had breakfast yet, and people are gathering from all over the place to come hear him.

They are coming from as far away as Jerusalem in the south, and Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast – several days worth of walking have brought Jews and Gentiles alike to listen to Jesus teach.

He started up on the mountain in prayer, gathered his friends on the way down the mountainside, and engages in his mission at the bottom of the hill. Henri Nouwen suggests, “We tend to do things the other way around. If we have a problem or a task, we try to go it alone and solve it ourselves. If that fails, we might call on a few friends. And when all else fails, we put our hands together and pray.”[3] But Jesus starts in prayer, gathers his friends, and then gets to work. And that work includes more than just talk.

Luke writes, “All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (6:19) Jesus doesn’t try to get away from the crowd by getting into a boat this time. Jesus is right in the middle of the crowd, sending out healing power to everyone within reach. And Jesus doesn’t seem to care who is Jewish and who is not. He heals all of them while standing on level ground.

Last week, I mentioned that when Jesus sent Simon Peter out into the deep waters, there was an Old Testament connection to the idea of chaos. We have another Old Testament reference this week, in the term ‘level place.’ In the writings of the prophets, it “often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.”[4]

Yet at the same time, those prophets looked forward in hope to the time when God would renew the level places and reveal God’s glory and salvation in them. Jesus stands with us in our broken level world and teaches the ways of this renewal through the Kingdom of God.

At first, it sounds like the very things that bring us woe – riches, good food, and prestige – are the same things that bring us blessings when they are scarce. But let’s look deeper at these blessings and woes. What do all the blessings have in common? The kind of poverty that depends completely on God. What do all the Woes have in common? Seeking our own satisfaction.

We are blessed when we are God-centered, regardless of our earthly circumstances, and we find woe whenever we are self-centered.

When Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, the sorrowful and the ridiculed, he isn’t saying that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, sorrow, or being verbally abused. He is saying that God is present with us, even when the world has abandoned us, that God loves us, even when everyone else hates us. We find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, and loving the people God loves.

When Jesus announces woe to those who are rich, eat well, and enjoy fame and admiration from people, he isn’t saying that wealth, good food, and popularity are bad things. He is saying that when we are focused on satisfying our own appetites, we have turned our attention away from God, and our self-centeredness will be our spiritual doom.

When we seek God, we feel the pain and sorrow God feels for people who are hurting. We stand up to injustice. We affirm that every human being is worthy of love in God’s sight. When we are hungry for God, we want the things God wants. God wants every person on earth to know him and love him.

Jesus isn’t commanding you to work at becoming poor so you can receive blessing. Jesus is stating how things are and how things will be in the Kingdom of God. The things we value in this world have no value in God’s economy. In God’s economy, the only thing that has value is grace. God’s economy levels the playing field for everyone and quite often, that is not comfortable for us.

Because, whether or not we want to admit it, we often prefer the way the world elevates some and values others less. I mean, when we are on top looking down, the view is pretty sweet. The vistas are clear. Nothing stands in the way of what we want to see. Still, we have to realize that the top of a mountain can be a lonely place.

Karoline Lewis writes, “We can’t help but realize that the view looks down – down on those who haven’t made it to our level. Down on those whom we really don’t want on our level. Down on those we’ve deemed unworthy of our level”’[5] But we don’t much like being at the bottom of the heap looking up, either. Which leaves us only the level plain. And even that makes us uncomfortable.

“… The level plain reminds us of how much we don’t feel worthy to be on the same level as others; that as soon as we start to see ourselves on the same level we start to wonder — where should we cast our gaze? Up? Or down? We start to wonder why it is so hard to look sideways. To look around us, beside us, in front of us.”[6]

And that brings us back to verse 20: Jesus looked up at his disciples. This is why I think Jesus was on the level place down by the lake, and the people were sitting on the hillside where they could all see him, and he could see them. He made eye contact. From the level plain, Jesus stands looking us in the eye. God sees you.

God sees you, whether you are poor or rich, and Christ names your poverty or your wealth for what it is. Jesus isn’t encouraging you to get rich or become poor. Jesus is inviting you to put everything at his disposal and follow him. He sees you. He knows you – the real you, not the good face you put on so others will think well of you. After all, people thought well of the false prophets.

God sees you, and will stand with you on the level place. When it is hard to see, when things are going south for you, when you are experiencing the kind of suffering and hardship that happens on the level places of life, Jesus is standing there with you, sending healing power your way.

God sees you, and wants to bless you. There isn’t anything you can do to change that. Nothing you do can make God love you less, and nothing you do can make God love you more. God won’t give up on you. God’s blessing is for you whether you come from holy Jerusalem, or from the pagan coastlands of Tyre and Sidon. Whether you’ve been a Christian all your life, or you’re a heathen who just wants Jesus to make you whole, Christ pronounces God’s blessing on you.

“To be “blessed” does not mean an absence of struggle.” It can “… invite hatred, exclusion, being reviled, and being defamed as others reject [God’s Kingdom] and its witnesses. To be blessed is to live through such opposition aware that the struggle is temporary and that ‘your reward is great in heaven’ …”[7]

Karoline Lewis writes, “Asked of us in this story, demanded of us in this story, is our call to find the level plains of life and ministry. The level plains that insist church, faith, and belief see the world from that perspective. The level plains that seek to call out the haughty and uplift the lowly. The level plains of being okay with a less-than-clear view. But, a less-than-clear view might reveal vistas that actually enable us to see the Kingdom of God.”[8]

Throughout Luke’s gospel, the emphasis is on God with Us – Emmanuel. Jesus stands on a level plain with us, showing us God’s Kingdom in the middle of our chaos, in the middle of our need for healing. The only question is whether we will reject such amazing grace, or be willing to stand in that level place with Jesus and receive God’s blessing.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finley_Peter_Dunne

[2] Luke 6:22 Gk cast out your name as evil

[3] Walter Raymond ( February 12, 2019 at 11:21 AM) commenting on Ronald J. Allen, workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960

[4] Ronald J. Allen, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960

[5] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5287

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ronald J. Allen, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960

[8] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5287

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