A Sermon on and of Level Places

       Tradition tells us that the author of Luke’s Gospel was a physician from the Greek city of Antioch, situated in ancient Syria.  Given his obsession with level roads, however, I’m beginning to think that maybe he was a Dollar General executive who had his teeth rattled during his commute down I-65 every day.  This isn’t our first foray into level places with Luke.  Way back in Advent, we heard the story of John the Baptist coming onto the scene.  In it, Luke uses Isaiah’s prophecy of a great leveling for the Israelites living in exile in Babylon to describe what John came to do.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  In Luke’s understanding of what God is all about, this leveling of the world makes it possible for all people, from all over the globe and every walk of life, to make their way to Jerusalem and the final victory of God.

       Fast forward a few months, in real time and in the Biblical narrative, and this morning, we hear another prophetic sermon on a similar theme coming from Jesus.  Often referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain”, I’d like to propose we retitle it “The Sermon on and of a Level Place.”  Either way, it is one of the longest recorded teaching discourses we have from Jesus, and the first chance he has to impart wisdom on the newly formed band of twelve disciples.  Having just spent the night in prayer atop a mountain, Jesus comes down to a level place, names the twelve, and immediately begins to teach them (and anyone who would listen) the basics of what the Kingdom of God will look like in reality.  The scene is a chaotic one.  There are people everywhere.  Jesus had spent the day before healing people, and the crowds that morning were swollen with people just hoping that some kind of power might fling off of him in their direction.  He doesn’t spend much time switching gears. His goal that morning was simply to lay the foundation for what he was hoping to inaugurate.

       I’ve mentioned in sermons before that Jesus, while a perfect Messiah, wasn’t a great church growth guru.  We see that again here, as the massive crowd pressed in on him, and he began to preach, saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.”  I can imagine several members of the crowd shifting uncomfortably on their feet.  “Blessed are you who are hungry… who weep… when people hate… exclude… revile… and defame you.”  I’m sure there were many in the crowd who knew hunger, poverty, anxiety, and exclusion, and I’m equally sure very few of them would consider themselves blessed.  He goes on, “Woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.  Woe to you when people speak well of you.”  There were certainly some in the crowd, even among the twelve he had just named as Apostles, who had experienced abundance and joy and were equally confused about what seemed like a curse coming their way.

       The opening lines of the Sermon on the Plain are, admittedly, pretty intense, but they are not without purpose, and they fit perfectly within the worldview of Luke’s Gospel and his affinity for level places.  We must be careful not spiritualize these words to assuage our guilt.  It would be easy to run over to the Matthew’s Gospel, climb up from the Level Place and into the more comfortable and familiar Sermon on the Mount, and rest as Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but that isn’t what he says to us this morning.  He simply says, “Blessed are the poor.”  It would be easy to look at the big picture and assume that Jesus just means that one day, after the resurrection, the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God, the hungry will be filled, and those who weep will find joy.  If only those who suffer are patient, they will get their reward, someday.  The Church has teamed up with the powers-that-be and used this passage to pacify the poor while it enriched itself on far too many occasions.  It would be even easier to look at the woes and rationalize our way out of categories like rich and full, so that we might catch an easy blessing and avoid an uncomfortable woe, but that doesn’t quite work either.

       Instead, we must take this Sermon on the Plain at face value, in the context of the themes of Luke’s gospel, and see that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is envisioning here is the same one that God promised through Isaiah and John the Baptist.  It is the world as God intended it in creation, where there are no desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches, potholes, and deep ruts will be made smooth.  Here in his Sermon on a Level Place, Jesus anticipates a world made up only of Level Places.

       While I was on vacation last week, inside a beautiful, seaside resort surrounded by walls to keep the effects of generational poverty and Colonialism at bay, sitting by a pool that featured two water slides and a lazy river, waiting on our server, Kermit, who rode a bus an hour each way to serve drinks to relatively rich people from around the globe thirteen days out of every fourteen, to come back with my pina colada, I passed the time reading a book.  In an unintentionally ironic move, I was reading How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur, creator of shows like The Good Place, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  It’s a book on ethics, written by a comedy writer, and I highly recommend it.  Anyway, in his chapter on Aristotle, Schur translates eudaimonia, the Greek word that Aristotle used to describe the end goal of human existence, not as “happiness” as many modern English translators have, but as “flourishing.”

       Immediately, I was transported to several of the meetings we’ve had with our City Shapers cohort where we’ve discussed what it means for our entire community to flourish. What City Shapers, Aristotle, and, I believe, the blessings and woes in the sermon on the plain have in common is the understanding that flourishing, the telos, or end goal of all humanity, what Jesus would call “blessedness,” only happens in a world of balance: a level place wherein all thrive, and no one has too much, and no one has too little.  Luke’s Jesus invites us to work on filling in the gaps.  Jesus doesn’t go so far as to hand us a shovel but is clear that those of us who live in the luxury of the hills, dangerously close to woe territory, ought to get to work leveling out the playing field, working toward a more just society, and helping to smooth out the valleys that our neighbors live in every day.  In his Sermon on and of a Level Place, Jesus calls on all his would-be disciples, us included, to build a world in which all are thriving, all are well fed, and all find joy.  It is only in the level places that all can truly be blessed.  Amen.

Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

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 are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

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“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Vestiges of Rite I

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of my GOE scores and comments arriving by USPS.  I can still remember the power that silly day held over so many of us.  In the two years I studied at VTS before I took the General Ordination Exams, we were all but told to walk on egg shells around the seniors on GOE score day.  These Exams held our futures, and whether we passed or not could mean huge delays in the ordination process.  Of course, by the time January 2007 rolled around, several dioceses had started ordaining folks to the transitional diaconate in the fall semester of their senior year, thereby neutering the power of the GOEs for many.  As I am wont to do, I engaged in some of the anxiety around it all, after all, I wouldn’t be ordained a deacon until after I had successfully graduated from seminary, but I was also keenly away that the GOEs were wearing no clothes.

Rather than ramp up the anxiety machine by making the next generation of GOE takers scared to death to talk to me, I immediately blogged my scores, comments and all, because honestly, like any comprehensive professional certification exam, the whole thing is process of market manipulation and hazing, and ain’t nobody got time for that in the church.  Back in those days, scores were 1-5, with anything less than a 3 was considered a failing grade.  The Liturgy and Church Music question my year asked us to compare Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching our Worship to Eucharistic Prayer I from Rite I in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  I got a 3 and this was part of the comments, “The limited use of theological terminology inhibits the paper’s capacity to compare and contrast the two prayers.”  So, I guess I answered the question barely, which was enough to pass.

Anyway, my focus in that essay was the basic posture from which the prayer is made.  In EOW, the anthropology is quite high.  We come before God almost in our post-resurrection state.  In contrast, Rite I’s basic anthropology is our sinful wretchedness.  I used to think that EOW missed the boat and Rite I was way more accurate a read of humanity, but over time, I’ve started to realize that depending on they day, sometimes, we might need to be bolstered up in our belovedness rather than weighed down in our brokenness.  That being said, it is helpful to occasionally be reminded that God is God and we are not; that God is good, and by and large, we are not.  Which is why I’m grateful for the collect for Epiphany 6/Proper 1.  This prayer, which dates from the mid-eighth century, is quite clear in where humanity falls on the goodness meter.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,  “The collect reminds us that without the grace of God we can neither will nor do any good thing nor be pleasing to God.”  This certainly doesn’t jive with modern “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology, but let’s face it, that’s got to be ok.  If all we do is good, then there is no need for God.  It doesn’t take too long in the world today to recognize that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, and that, as Dr. Cox would remind us:

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I’m grateful for the vestiges of Rite I, and for the occasional reminder that no matter how good I might think I am, I, like everyone else, am in need of a savior who can lead me into the goodness that God has planned for me.

Paul’s Logic

If you thought yesterday’s Proper Math was challenging, then you must not have read the New Testament lesson appointed for Epiphany 6C.  Anyone who has done any reading of Paul’s letters can attest to the fact that he could really spin a yarn.  A former Pharisee and a Greek citizen trained in rhetoric, Paul loved to dive into the weeds of logic, and only occasionally came out the other side with something that made any sense.  I even saw recently that someone on Facebook had nominated him at the Patron Saint of dependent clauses.

Paul’s penchant for circular arguments is made all the more difficult when the situation which he is addressing is a complicated one, and boy howdy was the church in Corinth a complicated situation.  Having dealt with arguments over class and privilege, over apostleship and gift, now Paul finds himself face-to-face with a group of Jesus followers who came from a tradition that didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead.  It is likely that among them were some former Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

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What makes Paul’s argument so convoluted is the problem that occurs in most religious arguments – they always begin at a point of presumed certainty, which then requires some kind of mental acrobatics to fit within the logic structure of the other.  The gospel that Paul proclaims is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The basic premise of his interlocutors is that there is no resurrection of the dead.  In the world of Venn Diagrams, these are mutually exclusive sets.  How then can Paul prove that Jesus’ resurrection is a real thing to someone who doesn’t believe that resurrection is possible?  Well, you can read Paul’s attempt and see that it ain’t easy.

What I learn from Paul’s mind experiment is that religious discussion must always begin from a place of vulnerability and humility.  Logic is not the way to win a conversation with someone who believes differently than you do.  Winning shouldn’t even be the goal.  Rather, the goal of any encounter with an “other” is to learn and grow yourself.  Conversion is not our main end, that’s God’s work.  Ours is only to tell the story of the Gospel as we have experienced it.

Paul may never convince these former Sadducees that the resurrection is real, but he can certainly share with them the power of his own experience of the resurrected Jesus, from the road to Damascus all the way to imprisonment in Rome.  That’s the crux of evangelism.  Not well crafted apologetics, but a true accounting of the hope in which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, live our lives.

Proper Math

If I’m honest, and who would care enough to lie about such things, I much prefer Luke’s Blessings and Woes to Matthew’s Beatitudes.  I think it has to do with the visceral nature of Luke’s version of some of Jesus’ most famous teaching.  Rather than the poor in spirit being blessed, we hear from Jesus that it is, in fact, the poor who are blessed, the hungry who will be fed, and those who mourn will find themselves overcome with laughter.  If the Kingdom of God is about some kind of grand reversal, then these moves from one fully relatable state of being to its opposite helps me visualize something that is otherwise way beyond my ability to comprehend.  What’s frustrating to me is that we so rarely get to hear Luke’s version of the Blessings and Woes.

I like to consider myself something of a rubrical snob.  I think clergy should learn to read italics, if only to know what rules they are violating as the illusion of common prayer slowly fades into the mist alongside apostolic succession and Dom Gregory Dix.  I have to admit, however, that my understanding of the liturgical calendar and its partner in crime, the Lectionary, is less than adequate.

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Epiphany 6, Year C, the only time when Luke 6:17-26 is appointed for the Sunday readings, is something of a lectionary anomaly.  Let’s look at the proper math.  Epiphany 6 is also known as Proper 1, but according to the rubrics on 158, Proper 1 is never actually read on a Sunday, but rather, it informs the lessons used for a celebration of the Eucharist that occur during the week following the Day of Pentecost, and even then, only if Pentecost falls on or before May 14th.  If Pentecost occurs between May 15 and May 26, there is no chance that Epiphany 6 or Proper 1 are read at all.  Only if Easter falls on or April 10 will we have the chance to read Epiphany 6, and to get Luke 6, it also has to be Year C which begins on Advent 1 of the year before a year that is divisible by 3.  Got that?

I’ve lost most you by now, I’m sure.  Please check back later this week for some real content for preaching.  Suffice it to say for now, that I’m going to savor Luke’s Blessings and Woes because by my math, I have no idea when we’ll get to hear them again.