Sermon on the Plain, part 2: Extremist for Love

Preached on 24 February 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

The Sermon on the Plain, part 2: Extremist for Love.

The writer of Luke from the very beginning, sets up a recurring theme that we see throughout the Bible:
The theme of reversal.  We first hear it in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is borrowed from Hannah’s song in the book of Samuel.  She glorifies the Lord for scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty form their thrones while lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry.

In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then claims that this Scripture is being fulfilled that very day.  Again, we hear about reversals: good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.

Then, last week, in the first part of the sermon on the plain, we heard him offer a set of blessings and warnings, each with a reversal.  Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God, blessed are the hungry who shall be filled, those who weep who will laugh, those who are reviled because of him, whose reward is great.  But woe to those who are rich, who are filled, who laugh, and who are held in high regard; they have received their reward.

The kingdom of God does not look like the status quo.  It is not the promise of a future reward.  The kingdom of God is now.  It is within us.  It is possible to dwell there even in the midst of this broken world.  Part 2, what we heard today, is not separate from this.  Jesus continues, preaching what sounds unthinkable.  Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.

Jesus reveals the character of God as unbounded mercy and love for all of us.  He calls us to reveal this character of God by embodying it in our own lives.  We can’t do it by sheer will, but only through the grace of God.

We are already blessed and loved by God, not because we are “doing it right,” but because loving is the very nature of God.  Our response to the world with love and mercy flows out of that reality.

Still, I struggle with this.

On the one hand, I think Jesus really means it.  Love not just your neighbor, but your enemy.  Turn the other cheek.  Give, lend, forgive, not just those who will do the same for you, but those who won’t.  And you will experience the kingdom of God within yourself.

On the other hand, these verses have been used so often by people with power in order to bolster and perpetuate injustice, oppression, violence, and abuse.  Those who suffer are told to turn the other cheek.  Don’t stand up for yourself.  Love your enemies.  Forgive them.  Wait.  Wait for some future reversal.  Wait for justice.  Wait for freedom.  Wait.

How do we square this teaching with the promises in our baptismal covenant: persevere in resisting evil; strive for justice and peace; respect the dignity of every human being (including oneself)?  For that matter, how do we square it with the reversals in the first part of the sermon?

I find it particularly jarring because this is Black History Month.  We’ve been seeing highlights of African Americans in history; reading about some pretty amazing people, their lives, their achievements and their contributions.  The history books have ignored them and often their achievements have been attributed to white people.  But of course, one doesn’t have to be amazing to be worthy and valued; to deserve love and justice and dignity.

Oppression doesn’t cease simply by the passage of time, though, not even centuries.  Alongside those stories of amazing people in history, we hear the news stories of racial hatred.  Whether it’s actual hate crimes, or racist speech or discrimination or bias, or just plain bad and hurtful behavior toward people of color, we see that this country is still steeped in the sin of racism.

It’s one thing for Jesus who, like those to whom he was preaching, lived under the occupation of the Roman empire, it’s one thing for him to preach this message of radical, extreme love.

Or for Martin Luther King to likewise preach to those who like himself lived under segregation laws and oppressive racism.

But who am I, a white, comfortable, middle-class person, with an education, the fancy robes, a paycheck, and a microphone; who am I to preach this message to love your enemies and those that persecute you?

I cannot, in good conscience, tell people who may be oppressed or abused at home, at work, at school, or in their community to just turn the other cheek.

Yesterday, I read Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail.  It was addressed to a group of white clergymen who had written an open letter to him and to the people protesting in Birmingham in 1963.  He challenged them, responding point by point.

When it came to them calling him an extremist, he wrote that at first, he was offended.  But then he embraced the label.  He pointed out that Jesus was an extremist; an extremist for love and he cited this Sermon on the Plain, and listed other biblical figures as extremists.

Perhaps I can square Jesus’ sermon with all those other principles this way:

When we resist evil; when we strive for justice; when we love those whom the world deems unworthy; when we challenge the powerful, we will be met with resistance.  Guaranteed.  At times, we will be met with persecution or even violence.

We then can choose to respond with malice, with hatred, with violence; we can choose to retaliate.  OR we can choose to respond with mercy and forgiveness and love.  We can choose, through the grace of God, to be extremists for love.

 

Still, I struggle.  I guess the best I can do is pray that through the grace of God, I can persevere in resisting evil – both within myself and in the world around me – while embodying God’s mercy and love, even for those who do me harm.  Because I, too, need God’s unbounded mercy and love.

What about you?

Perhaps through the grace of God, we can become extremists for love.

 

 

 

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View from the Plain

Preached on 17 February 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

“Like all the gospels, Luke was written to equip ancient believers with the vision, convictions, and tools they needed to navigate their way in an imperial society – a system that was not going to go away on its own.  Luke did not urge those believers to overthrow the system, but the Gospel did tell them that they were participants in a seismic, divinely-directed shift toward renewal. Those participants were not spectators, but agents endowed ‘with power from on high.’ They were empowered to love, sacrifice their prerogatives, and enact the gospel through generous hospitality.”  That’s what Matt Skinner writes in his overview about preaching the Gospel of Luke in year C.[i]

Ancient believers in an imperial society.  A small number of people with little influence and no power.  What do they have to do with us?  Well, we may not have an emperor, but there are very large, powerful entities that have a great deal of influence on the shape of our society and the world.  Our society, too, can be difficult to navigate as believers.

God’s vision for the world has not changed.  We, too, are called to be participants in God’s renewal, empowered by grace to love, to give of ourselves, and to live the gospel in the little part of the world we inhabit.
How does today’s reading equip us?
Well, it reveals to us something about the heart of God.  It reveals God’s priorities and a bit of God’s vision.  It also reveals to us our own biases, to some extent.  And there’s even a bit about how we might go about participating with God.

So, let’s start out by backing up a bit.

If we had been here last week, we would have heard Jesus call the first three disciples, Peter, James, and John.  Right before today’s reading, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray through the night.  When day comes, he names the twelve apostles.

So, first he centers himself in God through prayer.
Then he gathers a community; he’s not going to go about this alone.

Today, we see them go together back down the mountain to a level place where a great multitude of disciples and other people have gathered.  They’re from all over the countryside, even from as far away as Tyre and Sidon, way up north.  They have come to be healed, to be restored, to see him, and touch him.

Jesus doesn’t go up the mountain where everyone can see him; where he can preach to them.  No, he and the chosen apostles go down to be with the people.  It’s significant that it’s a “level place.”  Here there are no lowly, no high and mighty.  It sounds a bit chaotic, all those people jostling, trying to see Jesus, to touch him, to be healed.

Jesus and the apostles move about among them and see to their needs.  All are healed.  Only then, does Jesus look up and begin to speak to the people gathered.

What does this tell us about God’s vision, about God’s priorities?  We see that the priority is to be with people; to be among them, to heal them, to free them from the demons that hold them captive.

And what about his preaching?

If we’re not uncomfortable, we’re probably not paying attention.  Not only does each blessing and woe point to a reversal, but each one is usually seen both by the people on that ancient plain and by us, as the opposite of what he says.  That’s what I mean by revealing our biases.  Where do you want to find yourself in that list?  And how does it begin, with a “Blessed are those” or a “woe to those…?”

Here’s a challenging question, how do you feel about other people in each of those circumstances?  Do you look up to them?  Do you look down on them?  In today’s reading, there is no looking up to or looking down on.  Everyone is at the same level.

Now, let’s look at the words, blessing and woe.  This isn’t a pronouncement of a final judgment between the saved and the damned.  No, this is in the present.

Evidently, there are a few different words that are translated as “Blessed.”  In this case, according to one commentator, it has the sense of feeling satisfied, unburdened, at peace.  So often we speak of being “blessed” when we have good fortune; when things are going well.  We might even see that as a sign of God’s favor.  That’s not what this is about.

Being blessed may be more about our standing with God, our trust in God.  So, we can be blessed even in poverty or hunger; even when weeping or when we are reviled or hated.

Similarly, “woe” is not a curse, but a word of warning: “Watch out!” Or “Beware!”  It’s a call to repentance, to a change of behavior.

It’s a warning that, You may be doing well right now, but that doesn’t mean you’ve earned it, or it will always be true.  It doesn’t mean that you’re God’s favorite.  And especially, beware, lest you forget that you are reliant on God’s grace.

The blessings and woes bring us up short; they make us say, “wait a minute, I thought I was…” fill in the blank.  They invite us to ask ourselves, and to ask God, “who am I?”  Where do I stand with God?  How would God have me change my behavior?  Does my wealth or health blind me to God’s presence in my life?

And finally, what does today’s gospel reveal to us about God’s vision?  I think we see God’s desire to be with us and among us.  We see God’s vision of a world without poverty or hunger, a world in which our community shares our joys and comforts us in sorrow.  A world in which all may live with dignity.

Next week, we’ll hear the rest of Jesus’ sermon.

[i] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5256

Today

Preached on 27 January 2019 at Church of the Ascension Seattle Washington
The third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Today.  Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your presence.  This is Jesus’ hometown sermon.  Sometimes that’s the most dangerous kind – they already know you, your history.  They watched you grow up.

He’s been preaching and teaching around Galilee, but now he’s come home.  The words he reads from the prophet, Isaiah, are no doubt familiar to the people.  But then he sits down.  And all eyes turn to him.  They’ve heard the stories; they know what he’s been doing in the other towns.  He looks them in the eye and says, in essence, This is Real.  It’s True.  And it’s right now.  Today.  In your presence.

While the NRSV translates it as “has been” fulfilled, it’s actually more of an ongoing meaning:  It has been fulfilled, is being fulfilled, and it will continue being fulfilled in every Today.  It’s not about a particular date in history.

We’ll see this proclamation of Good News play out all through Jesus’ ministry.  We’ll see the release for those held captive by demons and disease.  People who are blind will receive their sight; hungry people will be fed, and so on.  It doesn’t end with the sermon on that day.  It doesn’t end at the cross or even the ascension.  The fulfillment of God’s promises continues, as we see in the ministry of the Apostles.  It doesn’t end with them, either.  This Scripture continues to be fulfilled in every Today.  It is not only a declaration, but a promise.

When you look around you, what do you see?  What do you focus on?  It’s easy to notice what we think God should be doing.  But what is God already doing? In this Today?

As Evelyn Underhill wrote, “God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment.  Meet and receive God there, with gratitude in that Sacrament.”

It has been a joy to spend the last, nearly a year with you; to be part of your community; to meet and receive God in this Sacrament of the Present Moment, over and over again.  To see God at work in and through the lives of the people of Ascension.

You have a lot to celebrate.  This has most certainly not been a fallow year, a year of rest.  No, we’ve continued and expanded our programs and ministries.  People have stepped into new roles, onto new ground, tried new things.  And we’re looking to the future, to what this new year holds for us.

You’ll hear a bit about some of those things when we move over to McLauchlan Hall after communion.
Like how “Becoming Beloved Community” is moving forward from learning about and talking about race and racism, to taking action; making some small steps to dismantle racism.  And we’ll hear about how Outreach Ministries are reaching out to include more of our people.

You’ll learn about the many opportunities to join together to form the bonds of community and Spiritual friendship as we support one another in our lives in Christ – from the littlest children to our members who need a ride to church.  Think about what you might like to do with your church friends, to support our mission and ministry.

You see, when Jesus says, “Today, this Scripture has been / is being / will continue to be fulfilled in your hearing, it’s not only a declaration; it’s not only a promise.  It’s an invitation.  An invitation to partner with Christ to fulfill the Scripture in every Today.

What we do, does make a difference, no matter how small that act seems.  God is already at work in our lives – through our lives – for the sake of the world.

As one commentator wrote, “Jesus’ sermon is ours to finish.  Well, not to finish, but ours to keep on preaching; ours to make sure keeps happening.”

Today.  And every Today.