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.

Don’t Call Me a Prophet

One of the silly idioms that I’ve learned from my dad over the years is one that gets a lot more use that I would have expected.  I’m not sure where it came from, but when someone would ask my dad, “What should I call you?” he would respond, “Just don’t call me late for supper.”  Being a priest, ordained at 27, and serving in a denomination with an average age of about 8,000, I get this question a lot.  It comes from folks who don’t feel comfortable calling someone their grandson’s age “Father.”  It comes from people who didn’t grow up in a tradition that used any honorific other than “Reverend.”  It comes from inside and outside the church.  Over the years, I’ve borrowed and adapted a response from the late Right Reverend Mark Dyer who would say, “When I die and get to heaven, Jesus won’t call me Bishop (I say Father, which is even more true) and you don’t have to either,” but recently, I’ve found myself living deeply into my dadness and replying that I don’t really care what folks call me as long as they don’t call me late for supper.

There is one other title that I don’t really wish to carry, but it was bestowed upon me way back in my seminary days.  Advent 2 being all about the Prophets, I’ve been reminded of the deep cut my spiritual director, Kathleen Staudt, gave me after one session in which I expressed some of my deep concerns about how the Episcopal Church seemed to be headed into a deep quagmire of Moral Therapeutic Deism and self-preservation naval gazing.  She told me, with a straight face and no wiggle room, “Steve, I think you are called to be a prophet to the church.”  Allow me to revise my earlier dad joke.  Don’t call me late for supper or a prophet.  The life of those who are called to speak God’s truth to the systems of power are never easy.  These systems create intentional barriers to protect themselves from those who are willing to call them out.  People who say difficult things often find themselves on the outside looking in, if they’re not on the inside of some kind of prison cell longing to get out.

In the years since Dr. Staudt bestowed that moniker upon me, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside a lot of great people who carry out the prophetic task with grace and dignity.  I’ve learned that while early John the Baptist might have liked the “You brood of vipers” imagery, the key to the prophetic word is creating space for it to be heard, and coming in hot isn’t always (or ever) the best way to make that happen.  The heavy handed approach often leads to one’s metaphorical and/or literal head on a platter.


JBap’s message wasn’t well received

Rather, as the Collect for Advent 2 intimates, the call to repentance must always come with an idea about what salvation looks like.  Being a prophet isn’t just about carrying a big stick, but about casting a vision of the future that is built on hope, restoration, and renewal.  One can’t tell the full story of God’s redemption without a call to repentance, but if it ends at shame, guilt, and grief, the take of the prophet is only half done.  Like Isaiah, modern day prophets are called to share the good news of God’s ongoing work of planting and re-planting the root of Jesse so that one day, the Church that follows Jesus Christ might live fully into the vision of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony for the welfare and peace of the world.

God cares about how we spend our money – a sermon

Technical difficulties mean the audio of today’s sermon will be delayed.  In the meantime, you can read it here.  UPDATE – you can now listen to it here.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words. I’m guessing that most of us are as well. In the days of Jesus, wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It was just assumed that those who were well-to-do in this life would also be well-to-do in the age to come. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably still feel that way. Surely, we know that some multi-billionaires have made their fortunes by nefarious means, but by and large, we’ve bought into the myth that money is a sign of God’s grace. Jesus won’t let his disciples live with that myth any longer, but he is not the first prophet to suggest that the rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God. Amos was an unlikely candidate for the role of God’s prophet. He lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom. Amos was from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, where he made a modest living as a migrant laborer: working as a herdsman, something like an assistant shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees also known as a fig picker. Somehow, despite his lowly background in Judah, Amos found himself called to the Northern a Kingdom of Israel where he would prophesy to the powerful king, Jeroboam II. King Jeroboam reigned for 40 years of relative peace and prosperity. As the years went by, the rich got richer, and as is often the case in times of great wealth, the poor got poorer. God grew impatient with the economic disparity in Israel and sent Amos to declare a day of judgment. Again and again the prophet speaks of God’s fury over the mistreatment of the poor:

  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… The strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… (2:7, 14)
  • Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. (4:1-2)
  • Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. (5:11)

The message of Amos is clear; God cares what we do with our money, and on the heels of the unlikely prophet’s dramatic prophecy, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man.

There is a tendency to hear these things with a certain ambivalence. It is easy to hear these stories admonishing the rich and think that they don’t apply to us, but the uncomfortable truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans would qualify as rich on the global scale. The average minimum wage worker makes $15,800 a year, which places them in the top 7% of wage earners in the world. Whataburger pays its employees $11 an hour, making them one of the wealthiest 2.5%. I make $60,000 a year, which means I’m richer than 99.81% of the world’s population. The desire to always push rich a tax bracket or two higher than our own may be tempting, but the reality is that, if they were around today, Amos, Jesus, and the rest of the prophets would have been speaking to most of us in this room.

At 35, I barely qualify as young anymore, but picture this rich, young man as me or you or your son or grandson. He grew up in a religious home. He’s always been a rule follower, and went to church all through high school. He’s done his best to keep the commandments since he was a youth, but deep down, there has always that nagging feeling that God had something more in store for him. Hearing that Jesus was passing through town, the young man dropped his work and took off sprinting after him. Gasping for breath, he approached Jesus with awe and reverence, knelt down before him, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man really wants to know the answer to this question. He, like all of us, is seeking after not just eternal life, but abundant life. For all the good he has already done, something is still missing. He knows it, and Jesus knows it, and so Jesus lists the commandments, adding one that isn’t normally in the top 10 – “You shall not defraud.”

In our Old Testament Lesson, we heard Amos decry those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The gate was the place where small claims court was held, where the rich would bring the poor before their friends who served as judges in order to extract even what little they had from them. It seems this rich young man, for all the good he had done in his life, had found ways to expand his bottom line through less than honest business practices, which usually come at the expense of the poor. This ill-gotten gain was what stood between him and the abundant life he sought. He knew it, and Jesus knew it, and so Jesus told him that he should give it all away. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor,” Jesus said, “And then you can follow me.” But note the tone in which Jesus spoke to the rich, young man. Mark tells us that before the man made the choice to follow Jesus or not, Jesus loved him.

The same is true in the lesson from Amos. Even as he prophesies of the destruction of Israel, Amos promises that God’s love is never-ending, that the Lord would be gracious to the faithful remnant. The same is true for you and me today. God loves us no matter what, but in that love, God also desires of us the same thing he desired of the rich young man and the same thing he desired of the Disciples, that we drop everything and follow him. More often than not, the one thing that holds us back from giving our whole lives over to Jesus is the money piece. It was true in Amos’ day, in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. Money is the all-time, #1 idol. We worship it in place of God when we fear that we won’t have enough, when we gain it on the backs of the poor, and when we hold onto it even when God invites us to trust him enough to give it away.

It really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter fully into the kingdom of God. Our economy simply won’t allow for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. It is the great irony of the American Dream: we’re stuck in a life that is something less than abundant because of the abundance of stuff in our lives. How can we avoid walking away sad like the rich young man? The answer is simple, we can gain abundant life by entering into relationship with the poor. By volunteering to teach a kindergartener the ABCs, helping bring one of the 80% of Foley Elementary School students who live in poverty one step closer to breaking that cycle. By helping a high school senior buy the clothes and school supplies he needs to be the first member of his family to graduate. By spending the night on a cot in the education building as Family Promise guests work hard to make enough to get back onto the economic ladder. By swinging a hammer on a construction site to help a Habitat family get on sure footing. Wealth tends to isolate, it tends to make us think that we don’t need anyone else and, worst of all, wealth tricks us into thinking that we deserve to be where we are. Jesus invites us to think differently; to remember that everything we have is a gift from God, that first and foremost we were created to be in relationship with all of our neighbors – the rich and the poor alike – and that abundance comes by giving away our resources in love for another. Without Jesus, it is impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, but with Jesus giving up our abundance in order to inherit abundant life means that anything is possible. Amen.