Finding Good in the Flat Land – a sermon

The Sermon begins at 15:35


Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that post-industrial Americans are pre-disposed against flat land.  Back when we had to rely on agriculture, people coveted long stretches of flat, rich soil, but these days, nobody ever says that they are hoping to vacation in Kansas, Iowa, or central Illinois.  We seem to prefer topography, whether it is the soft, wind-swept dunes of the coast or the majesty of the mountains rising up on the skyline.  This prejudice might explain why we tend to love reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, but only rarely get any bits of the Sermon on the Plain from Luke.

One might wonder why these two Gospel writers chose different geographic locations for Jesus’ foundational teachings.  New Testament Scholar, Ronald Allen, suggest that Luke uses the location on the “plain” or the “level place” very intentionally.[1]  In prophetic literature, the level places of this world were thought to be the home of death, disgrace, misery, hunger, and mourning.  But the prophets who spoke of God’s great redemption knew that even those level places would one day be redeemed.  In the coming Kingdom of God, no longer will the world be a place of highs and lows, haves and have nots, rich and poor, east coast, west coast, or flyover country.  Rather, the world as God intends it will be flat, all will be made level.  It is the promise of Isaiah, repurposed by John the Baptist, that the highway of God will be made when the valleys are filled in and the rough places made smooth.  On one particular level place, Jesus shared his vision of the great level place that God has been longing to create since Adam and Eve first broke relationship.

Our rare foray into the Sermon on the Plain began last week when Jesus, surrounded by a great crowd of followers from all over Judea, began to preach.  He began his Sermon on the Plain with a series of blessings and woes that essentially turned human expectation on its ear.  This morning, we get part two, which starts with Jesus doing a kind of check in with the crowd.  After that list of blessings and woes – blessed are the poor, woe to you who are laughing, and the like – I’m guessing some in the crowd were already beginning to back away from Jesus.  Looking at them, he says, “Are y’all still listening to me?”  They could certainly hear him, but were they really listening to what he had to say?  The world of Jesus’ time didn’t carry quite so many demands on one’s attention as ours does, but he knew that humans have always struggled to truly listen.

“If any of y’all are still listening to me,” Jesus went on, “I say this, love your enemies.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to listen to Jesus on this one.  I’d like to use my prejudice against flat land and ignore a good portion of the Sermon on the Plain, thank you very much.  We’ve had a week to recover from those blessings and woes, but for the crowd gathered on the level place, this is happening in rapid succession.  Right on the heels of “Woe to you when people speak well of you,” Jesus adds, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”  The life to which Jesus is calling the crowd, and all of us, seems to be downright impossible.  At best, we will make ourselves to be doormats for those who want to take advantage of us.  At worst, our faith will be crushed by the impossibility of the demands that Jesus is laying upon our shoulders.  It is as if Jesus didn’t care one bit about the kinds of sermons preachers would someday have to write for late Epiphany, Year C.  Didn’t he say somewhere else that his yoke is easy and his burden is light?

Anyway, the longer I wrestled with this text this week, the more I began to wonder if the impossibility of it all might not be the whole point of the Sermon on the Plain.  The great equalizer for us all is our ability to fall into sin, to build up ourselves, and to fail to live lives that are totally devoted to love of God and love of neighbor.  Back in my old evangelical days, where we would talk more openly about our need for a savior, one of the images that got thrown around to describe the chasm that sin has put between human beings and God was trying to swim the Atlantic Ocean.  If I tried to swim the Atlantic Ocean in one go, I might, might make it a half mile before I drowned.  Ironman Triathlete Shawn Rhodes might make it three or four miles.  A few crazy fools who have swam the English Channel, might make it 20 or more miles, but all of us would fall way short of the 3,716 mile trek.  Zoomed out to view the whole thing, all of our attempts would look quite meager. The same is true of all of our attempts to follow the example of Jesus.  Our attempts, noble as they might be, will inevitably fall woefully short.

We know that no one can live up to the expectations that Jesus lays out in this sermon, but we also know that God desires to bring us all back into right relationship.  It doesn’t make sense then, that God would just leave us out here floundering all on our own.  No, what Jesus lays out here is a case for a relationship with him.  Jesus invites us to trust in him, to follow his example, and to seek a relationship with God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, and merciful to all.  It is, after all, God who sent Jesus here to begin with.  It is by God’s grace that we are invited into relationship and it is with God’s help that we can strive toward the kind of life that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Plain.

This whole concept has been summed up in the theological idea of theosis, or the transforming effect of divine grace.  Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century summed up the idea of theosis quite simply when he wrote, “God became human so that humanity might become like God.”  It is through our relationship with God, being guided by the Holy Spirit to live Christlike lives, that we can even begin to follow the difficult teaching that Jesus espouses in the Sermon on the Plain.  It is only when we find ourselves on a level playing field, all in need of the saving work of Christ, that we can begin to see the world the way God sees it, and live the way Jesus invites us to live.

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of this makes me actually like the Sermon on the Plain, but difficult as it may be, it is a teaching from which we can learn quite a bit about the dream that God has for creation and for each of us.  I may not be scheduling a vacation to central Kansas anytime soon, but this week I gained a bit more of an appreciation for the things that can happen in level places.  I pray that in the days to come, we all might experience the difficult teachings of Jesus as an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, to trust the Holy Spirit, and to model our lives after the impossible example of Jesus, knowing that even in our feeblest attempts at love, the kingdom of God is made known on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3960 (Accessed Feb 21, 2019)

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One thought on “Finding Good in the Flat Land – a sermon

  1. Born & raised in Western Kansas the “flat land” discussion was interesting, although scarce by population, folks are truly down to earth and a good source of moral substance! I hold those fond memories very close to my heart.

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