Sermon Given Feb. 13, 2022
We’ve skipped ahead again in the Gospel of Luke this week. Since last week’s reading, where Jesus called the fishermen, he’s healed three people, called Levi the tax collector to be his disciple, talked about how you have to put new wine in new wineskins, and broke the Sabbath rules to the ire of the leaders of the Pharisees. Directly before our passage today, Jesus went up a mountain to pray and chose twelve apostles, the leaders who would bring his message to the world. He came down the mountain with these newly appointed twelve and the others who followed him, leaving the sacred moment of call and bringing forth new mission and ministry into the world.
A huge crowd met them on a level plain. People even came from up north in Syria, from Tyre and Sidon to meet Jesus there. I’m always amazed at how his popularity spread. People had to have been so impressed and awed by Jesus that they shared about his work and ministry all along the trade routes of the area, spreading his message as they sold their wares. People were so impressed by what they heard, they made it a point to seek him out, and in an age where communication was done via letter and word of mouth, people were amazingly good at finding Jesus in droves. Think about what dedication and commitment that took, especially for those who came because they were sick.
The energy in that crowd must have been incredible, and once the Holy Spirit began to sweep through, it was uncontainable. Power was going out of Jesus in radiant glory, and all were coming to wholeness, to a feeling of completeness and unity with God. They were all being healed, not just of physical infirmities, but the deeper needs of the soul. They were finding connectedness and being rooted in that peace that passes all understanding.
Jesus was bringing them to their roots. He was planting them like trees by the stream. While others who rely on all those things that aren’t God may become parched and barren in a land with no water, these people are now planted by God’s stream. Even in the hardest times, they will endure. God keeps the water flowing, even when everything else seems to have dried up around them.
Jesus, in the midst of the crowd, with everyone flowing with the power of the Spirit, everyone becoming drunk on the water of life, turns and looks directly at his disciples. He begins, “Blessed are you…”
Blessed not as in modern day hashtags, which are sometimes accompanied by a picture of someone’s cappuccino, but blessed as in “honored by God”. These are the people who trust and rely upon God. They are rooted by God’s stream. They have learned to come together to advocate for their needs, to work together for a society that better reflects God’s desires.
Jesus is sharing with the disciples what their journey with Jesus will be like. They will be poor. They will go hungry. They will be persecuted. In fact, a good number of them will be martyred and die at the hand of the state, Jesus included. Sometimes we ask where God is when bad things are happening, but Jesus very clearly states that God is with the suffering, the poor, and the murdered. Those are people whom God comes alongside, feeds, and helps them through. They are not rejected by God, they are rejected by their fellow humans. That’s a big difference.
Jesus then goes into a set of woes. I really dislike the word woe here. Jesus isn’t really condemning these people. He’s cautioning and warning them. It might be better translated as, “How terrible for you”. How terrible for you who are rich, who have plenty, who laugh now.
Why is it terrible? It’s terrible because at those moments when things are going very well, they can forget about their responsibilities to God. We see this in the story of the people of Israel. The people weren’t doing well. God led them through, providing amazing miracles like freedom from captivity and bread from heaven. But as soon as they got established and were doing well, they forgot their devotion to God. They forgot their responsibilities to fellow Israelites who were still suffering, who needed the support of the laws God gave them. But the people did not pay attention, they broke the commandments, and they ended up in exile. There is a pattern playing through. They relied on God until they had enough, then they made their own rules and relied upon themselves. There was no worldly reason not to. They were getting more riches, amassing more power, becoming more prestigious, all up to the point when everything crumbled. They uprooted their trees and planted them in the desert. They did well until the next drought came, then they shriveled up.
Once again, the problem isn’t numbers in a bank account or being liked by your peers. The problem is the elevation of the individual to the detriment of those in need. The Holy Spirit has a hard time moving a crowd of well to do people who question whether there is a need for God at all, who rely very heavily upon themselves. The Holy Spirit can easily overwhelm and overjoy a crowd bringing their needs and vulnerability before God. Our hearts have to be open to receiving each other, to sharing needs with one another, to honor those with deep needs and be willing to help as we are able. This is a communal act, and Jesus is talking using a communal “you”. Rich or poor, powerful or not, we all have to come to the level plain, take a good look at our community, and provide for each other as we are able. God’s kingdom is lived out on the level plain, when resources are distributed so there is enough for all.
It is hard to live this out. There’s not a lot of praise or accolade that comes with it. Jesus heals and the people in power complain. His disciples spread the good news, working to bring about the Kingdom in their lifetime, and many end up dead because of their actions. Jesus doesn’t pretend that bad things don’t happen to good people. He knows he’ll end up on a cross. But in the end, helping each other, building a better community, providing for the betterment of all, is worth it. Even when bad things are going on all around us, when we can’t see how good could ever prevail, it’s worth it. We are promised a grounding and rooting in God, so that we can endure it all.
I think about those who stood up and against the Third Reich in Germany in the Holocaust. There weren’t a whole lot of them, most died because of their efforts, but those who did stand and say no, did so because they refused to endorse genocide, violent take overs of other states, and the idea that there was a superior race. They looked into the eyes of their neighbors who were being corralled into death camps and they saw God’s face. The idea of walking away from the humanity and divinity in these beloved children of God was unthinkable. So they endured, even when some of them themselves became locked up and were gassed.
I think about all the slaves who declared their worth against oppression, the early abolitionists, the underground railroad and those who made a stand against slavery. People were whipped, tortured, and called chattel in the name of big business and industries considered too big to fail.The idea that slavery would someday not exist in the United States was scoffed and laughed at. It was inconceivable when this country was founded. This country almost split apart because of this notion, the idea that black people aren’t as deserving or capable as white people, and this idea isn’t even completely dead, it still has an influence on this nation. But people fought for freedom and equity, not just in the Civil War, but from the moment the first slave ship landed on these shores. They weren’t the majority, but there were people who looked into the eyes of their neighbor in need and couldn’t look away. They couldn’t endorse the forced poverty, the abuse, the degradation of others, the belief that there was a superior race, and they fought. They pushed. Many died. Still they believed so much that they were willing to take that risk, willing to put themselves on the line for the betterment of all humanity, a humanity that is degraded when a portion of people are treated as animals. Jesus says to them, “Blessed are you. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Jesus calls us to that level plain. He spreads his power far and wide, healing and redistributing so that all can have the basics they need, not just to survive but to live into their calls, their vocations, and God’s dream for them. He calls out and cautions us never to give into ideas of superiority. Degrading others has no benefit. It only destroys God’s vision for a shared life together. Jesus asks us to think again, to dream anew, to allow the Holy Spirit to plant us next to the stream of living water so we can endure through it all.
It sounds like a lot, but remember, last week we were reminded that God doesn’t even need us to be awake or able to fully articulate what is happening. God just asks us to trust and risk saying yes. Once we open ourselves up, God can take it from there. God is the one who blesses us. We don’t bless ourselves. We take this journey with the Holy Spirit as our ever present companion, who will show us the way. So let us go forth, called, blessed, and infinitely loved by God. Amen.