February 17, 2019 Sermon
“Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?”
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 17:5-10
Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-who can understand it? I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
New Testament Scripture: Luke 6:17-26
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Sermon: “Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?”
We all pretty much know the Sermon on the Mount, don’t we? Jesus, high above, blessing the poor in spirit, blessing those who hunger for righteousness, all that. The beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew. My good friend, Sue Lewellen has famously added a beatitude, “Blessed are those who are flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” That one might be my favorite.
Anyway, we know the Sermon on the Mount.
And today’s scripture sounds an awful lot like the Sermon on the Mount. Until we really listen to it. And then, we might find ourselves being bent out of shape, maybe just a little bit, no matter how flexible we thought we were.
Because today’s sermon in Luke is not quite the same as the version in Matthew. And I’m not sure we like it as much as we like the one in Matthew. I know I don’t.
But one of the blessings of preaching from the Lectionary is that occasionally, we have to preach hard things. We can’t always stay with our comfortable scriptures. Sometimes, we find ourselves reading and teaching and preaching scripture that we find difficult to accept in our own lives. And today is one of those times. And so, as we begin today’s sermon, I want you know that the things we’re about to explore cause me the same unease and discomfort that they will probably cause you. We’re all in this together today. And it won’t be easy.
First, let’s look at some relatively non-controversial differences between today’s scripture and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. If you want to compare the two, the Matthew version starts in Chapter 5.
We begin with an interesting location for the Sermon in Luke: not on the mount. Luke goes out of his way to make it absolutely clear that Jesus is not raised above, not up and far away, but on the level, up close and personal. He’s not on a hilltop. He’s in our face.
Luke is careful to say that Jesus stepped down and was on the same level as the people. This is so different from the Sermon on the Mount that a lot of scholars call this scripture the Sermon on the Plains. I guess that makes sense. But, as I’ve said before, everybody knows the Sermon on the Mount. Nobody’s ever heard of the Sermon on the Plains.
One other relatively non-controversial difference is the way the Gospels describe Jesus speaking. In Matthew, the author says that Jesus sat down and began speaking. In Luke, the author says that Jesus raised his eyes and began speaking. In other words, he made eye contact. He looked his disciples in the eyes and said these words. And they are not easy words, for them, or for us.
Now, there are some similarities, of course, between these two stories. In both, there is a huge crowd, needing help, needing healing, needing Jesus. In both, Jesus specifically addresses the disciples. This is an inside the church type sermon. Others may hear it, but it is intended for those closest to him.
OK, so now we’ve set the stage for the Sermon on the Plains. There is a huge crowd who need things. Jesus in in our faces, looking in our eyes. And then he really gets started.
Blessed are the Poor. Woe be to the rich.
Blessed are the Hungry. Woe be to the full.
Blessed are those who weep. Woe be to those who laugh.
Blessed are those who are despised on my account. Woe be to those with reputations as good Christians.
Ouch, Ouch, Ouch.
No wonder we like the Matthew version better.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, Matthew says. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, Matthew says. And there are no woes for the rich and happy and satisfied.
Let’s face it, Matthew’s sermon is a lot easier to hear. Luke’s version strips all the spiritual sounding stuff away, and we stand bare before our God, convicted by our own reluctance to agree with what Jesus says.
And I wonder if that isn’t the point.
Because Jesus isn’t saying this sermon out of the blue. It’s not an afterthought. It’s not off the cuff. He is standing toe to toe with his disciples, looking them in the eye, and saying these incredibly difficult things.
One would have thought they already knew this stuff about giving to the poor, about feeding the hungry, that sort of thing. Surely, this is not the first time they’ve heard about the concept of charity.
And so, why, I wonder, does Jesus hit them over the head with such stark language? Why does he literally get in their faces, and say such hard things?
I think I know why. And I think you know why as well.
It wasn’t that the disciples didn’t know about generosity, about hospitality, about taking care of the least among them. They had been taught that from birth. The Old Testament is full of commandments to do just that. In fact, you may remember just a few weeks ago, Jesus was in the synagogue, reading the scripture about this very subject from the book of Isaiah. There is nothing new here in terms of what compassion looks like, what faithful living looks like. This is not a new concept.
No, I think Jesus is going further than that today. And his disciples don’t like it. And we don’t like it.
Because today, Jesus makes it clear whose side he is on. He makes it clear whose side God is on.
Let that soak in for a moment. There’s no doubt where Jesus stands. Blessed be the poor. Woe be to the rich.
You see, I think Jesus had seen into the hearts of his disciples, and saw something he didn’t like. Sure, they helped the poor. Sure, they fed the hungry. But there was something in their hearts that convinced Jesus that they needed to hear these words once more, this time without any sort of spiritualizing, or rationalizing, or self-delusion about what was really going on.
God is on the side of those the world is against. It’s really that simple.
Now, let me take a step back from the edge.
It seems to me that both Matthew and Luke are telling the same story, from two different perspectives. They are remembering the same event, each in their own way. Or maybe, some have suggested, they are talking about two separate occasions, when Jesus said remarkably similar things in remarkably similar situations.
I don’t know the answer to that, you will have to work it out for yourself. But, regardless how you resolve the differences and similarities of these stories, it is very tempting to use the Matthew passage to temper the Luke passage.
It’s easier, I think, for me to hear the language, blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. It’s easier, perhaps because I can see myself in that group. I can see myself being blessed by Jesus, and I like it when Jesus is on my side.
Today’s scripture from Luke takes that away from me, and not only that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I likely fit more with those with the woes than with those with the blessings.
Because I’m not poor. I’m obviously not hungry. I’m not mourning. And most of the time, I’m not despised, or if I am, I don’t know about it. As far as I know, people speak well of me.
And so, we have a choice to make. We can use the Mark version to make the Luke version easier to stomach - that is, we can say, well, what Luke meant to say was blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT, he just forgot that last part. We can do that. And we do do that. Even if we don’t say it out loud, when we hear Jesus in Luke’s version blessing the poor and the hungry and the weeping, we fill in the blanks with Matthew’s version, and it comforts us. And we pass over the woes altogether.
So, that’s one choice.
Or we can take Luke’s version as it is and examine our own hearts. Do we believe that the poor are blessed? Do we believe wealth is deserving of woe? When we look at those who are hungry, do we assume the best or the worst of them? When we look at the rich and famous, do we assume that God must on their side, why else would they have all that money?
Whose side are we on, honestly? Do we assume God is on our side, or are we on God’s side? And if we are on God’s side, whose side is God on?
And that’s where I think we find the disciples today. I think that they had come to believe that God was on their side. That they were blessed, because they were doing good works. That they were blessed because they were saying the right things, and hanging out with the right people. God is on their side because they believe in Jesus.
And I believe Jesus sees this attitude, and doesn’t like it one bit, and so he takes a moment to remind them that God is not on the side of the well-fed, the rich, the successful, the happy. He’s on the side the of the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated.
Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us if we don’t fall into that category. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care for us. That doesn’t mean that everything we have isn’t a gift from God.
But it does mean that there is a special place in God’s heart for those who have nothing else but God. There is a special blessing for those who the world has ignored, abused, rejected, or overlooked.
And that means things for us.
Jesus is reminding his disciples that our faith is more than outward appearances. It’s also what’s in our hearts. If we care for the poor with condescension, a sort of arrogant superiority; if we disregard the hungry, or blame them for their own circumstances; if we are unable to empathize with grief or mental illness; if we believe that those who extend the helping hand of grace to everyone, regardless of race, or religion or circumstance - like those who first ministered to AIDS patients, or those who decided the Bible does not, in fact, condone slavery, or those who leave water in the desert for migrants seeking asylum in the United States - if we think they should be mocked or judged as people with substandard faith, then we haven’t been listening.
And woe be to us.
Now, if this was the last word of Luke’s Gospel, we probably wouldn’t call it a Gospel. The word, “Gospel”, after all, means, Good News. And there isn’t a lot of Good News in this passage, at least, not for comfortable, happy, well-off, people. For people like most of us, as a matter of fact.
But there is Good News here for those on the margins. And whether we know it or not, there will be a time in our lives when we find ourselves on the margins. Times in our life when we have no one to turn to, and the only thing we have is God. And in those times, Jesus reminds us that God is indeed on our side. In our lives we will face times of grief, or illness, we will experience loneliness. There may even be times when we find ourselves without the sort of daily comforts of food and shelter we take for granted. They may be times when we take an unpopular stand for what we believe to be true about God, and our neighbors and our friends, our community turns it’s back on us.
And in those times, when there is nobody on our side, Jesus is. There is nothing in this world that can come between us and our God.
This is what Jesus is trying to remind his disciples. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is only Good News for us if it is Good News for everyone. The blessings of God will be given first to those who need them most.
So, what do we do with this? As I said a little earlier in the sermon, we have a choice. We can use the Matthew version of the Sermon on the Mount to make the Luke version a little easier to swallow, or we can decide to take Luke at his word and examine our own assumptions about social issues like poverty, hunger, mental distress, or religious persecution.
It’s a tough choice.
Whose side are we on, anyway?