My Sermon on the Sermon on the Plain (my first sermon!)

Cosimo Rosselli, Florence, 1439-1507

I preached this sermon at St. Lydia’s on Sunday, January 27 as part of our exploration of the Gospel of Luke. I’ve led bible studies and I’ve testified scads of times, but this was my first proper sermon! Thank you so much to my pastor, Emily Scott, for inviting me to preach to my own spiritual family. It was an honor and a terrible responsibility. You can read the passage first here: Luke 6:17-45.

You might have felt like you recognized today’s reading, but not quite. This Sermon on the Plain in Luke and the much better known Sermon on the Mount in Matthew share some exact phrases and the same structure. Some scholars believe these are two different retellings of the same event. Others believe Jesus had a stock sermon with these elements, and these are accounts of two similar talks. Still others believe there was no such event, but that the authors grouped all these things into one fictional sermon as a storytelling device.

Whichever it is, today’s reading is a core teaching.

Not to take away from anything else, but it’s fair to say living in line with Jesus’ description here of the Kingdom of God is sufficient. You can measure your life against it again and again throughout the years.

I feel like it’s incredibly presumptuous of me — in my first sermon — to tell you what is the essence of all Jesus’ teachings, but that’s what this passage is about.

Jesus begins by describing how the Kingdom works. In the Kingdom, he says, the poor and hungry are blessed, while those with plenty of money and food are not. That sounds great if you’re poor, but does it jive with our experience?

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a old being describes the ancient law of the jungle, saying, “It’s not about right; it’s not about wrong. It’s about power.” Power does seem to be the law in this material realm sometimes. We’re surrounded by examples that might makes right.

How do we make sense out of this contradiction between Jesus’ teaching and the world around us? If we let the powerful win, aren’t we suckers? If we accept that this is the way it is, is that wrong; are we just in denial that we should be fighting against it?

Some say that yes, bad people may win sometimes on Earth, but after death, the good will be rewarded and the wicked will be deprived. Or that after the Second Coming, everyone will get what they deserve.

But there’s a far more radical understanding of what Jesus is saying.

In Luke 17, Jesus says it flat out: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

To quote Milton in Paradise Lost, we:

Can make a heaven of hell,
a hell of heaven.

The kingdom of God is here now, among us, in us, if we live the way Jesus describes:

  • Don’t seek wealth, excessive comfort, security or frivolous happiness.
  • Approach everyone with love — non-judgmentally and with an open heart — whether family, neighbor or stranger, friend or enemy, whether you think they’re worthy, find them grateful, know them to be sinners. Everyone.
  • Cultivate presence; be here now, fully alive, seeing and feeling the truth in front of you.
  • Measure success not in power or possessions, but in living in harmony, giving and receiving love, being of service to others.

None of us does this perfectly, but to the extent we do, we are blessed. There are several words in scripture rendered as “blessed.” Makarios here mean happy, not shallow happiness but the true happiness that comes with living from the heart, connected to God and those around us. Some translators use the word “blessed” to capture that deeper meaning but

it doesn’t mean, live this way and you’ll be rewarded or praised;

it means you are truly happy through living this way.

So, the poor are not happy as a reward because they have suffered; the poor are happy because they’re connected to God.

What Jesus is telling us is profoundly more countercultural than some idea that eventually the poor will rise up and win a victory over their enemies.

He’s saying the game is a lie. Stop playing.

Not just the game of materialism, of consumer culture. Also the belief in his time that the sick and handicapped are being punished. Also the view, prevalent then and still common today, that those right with God will prosper on Earth, with its implied judgement that those struggling may not be right with God.

Jesus is saying, No!, the ones in union with God are the poor, the marginalized. Join the poor by giving up your attachment to possessions and your illusion of security; join the poor by putting your focus instead on relationships and dependance on others and God, and then you will be truly happy.

I’ve spent much of my life hanging out on the margins. I’ve made a few choices along the way, and a few were made for me. I grew up in a dysfunctional alcoholic home and ended up on the streets at 15. I crashed and burned a high-profile editorial career, moved to the country and raised sheep for a while. I share support regularly with alcoholics and addicts. I live with no debt and no credit. I don’t own property. And I don’t value money enough to work at a job I hate.

It would be easy to be self-congratulatory about my non-attachment to things, and say, See, I’m like the poor.

But then Jesus says, if everyone loves you be worried, and if you’re reviled celebrate, because folks admire the wrong people anyway. See, for me, reputation is far more powerful than money. My dad was a professor in a relatively obscure field. He never taught his children that money mattered, but reputation was everything — both maintaining a reputation as a good and honest person, and measuring one’s success by the recognition of your peers.

When I stepped down as an officer at a nonprofit recently, it was a public failure. I knew it was the right thing to do, but that some would see me as irresponsible. People would talk behind my back. What kept me up at night for weeks before and after was not whether I was right to leave but worrying about what people would think of me. Jesus is saying none of that matters, and they probably will think ill of you if you’re doing the right thing.

So if I met Jesus on the street and he told me to drop all my possessions and follow him, it wouldn’t be much of a hardship for me; but if he said, follow me and do good work with me, but people will hate and distrust you and you’ll work all your life without recognition — well, that is a hard teaching for me.

And by hard teaching, I don’t mean something that’s hard to do, I mean a teaching that’s hard to hear because in the hearing of it you know it’s true but that following it will involve change and sacrifice.

I may not be attached to possessions, but I sure am attached to my reputation.

In the first half of today’s reading Jesus describes what the Kingdom looks like; in the second half, he describes the characteristics of someone living in the Kingdom, and it gets even more challenging.

Law — whether Jewish, Roman or current-day — focuses on actions.

If you violate rules, you get punished.

If you follow the rituals and obey the law, you are good.

Jesus goes beyond law. He says, it’s not enough to not kill; you shouldn’t hate people. It’s not enough to give the obligatory donation; you should genuinely care about the poor. If someone punches you or steals from you, it’s not enough to seek no more than the punishment allowed by law; you shouldn’t want retribution at all.

Jesus spoke about living from the heart, not the law. My patron saint, Augustine, famously said, “Love, and do what you will.”

Start from love, and you are right with God and others and your actions will take care of themselves.

Start from fear and attachment then you’re disconnected, and even if the world seems to be rewarding you, you are not truly happy.

In the recovery world, there’s often a lot of focus on right actions. And it’s true, you can do the right thing even if you’re not feeling it, and sometimes that’s really important. And sometimes you can “act your way into right thinking.”

All my life, I’ve done what most of us in the city do, keeping my eyes averted from beggars and judging some as legitimately needy and others as con artists, or good musicians or not great musicians. I started a practice about five years ago that during Lent I would make eye contact with every beggar and give them a dollar, and it has changed my thinking; it has broken my heart open — it has changed my attitude towards those who beg permanently. There’s a street punk on my block who I genuinely care about now, cause I’ve truly seen her on and off for several years. In the past, I would have just dismissed her without looking, thinking she could go home to suburbia if she really wanted to. That doesn’t matter; what matters is the suffering human being in front of me.

But the thing about behavior modification, especially when it comes to doing things I don’t want to do, is that it works until it doesn’t. It’s not enough on its own. You have to change interiorly.

And I’ve got a little anti-authoritarian streak in me too. If you tell me I should do something without my understanding why, there’s a little voice in me that still says, Screw it. Maybe that’s just part of human nature. Augustine says it’s part of Original Sin.

So whether it’s not drinking, eating healthily, getting to work on time, exercising, obeying some seemingly arbitrary government regulation, if my only motivation is to behave, then doing the right thing can be impossibly hard. And miserable.

When I got sober in my early 20s, though the immediate cause was my out-of-control drinking, I really did it for three reasons:

  • fear — a number of friends had died;
  • to repair my marriage; and
  • to be a “good” person.

All strong motivators. But when things got really tough and enough time had gone by that I didn’t remember the pain, it wasn’t enough.

When I got sober again, I did it for only one reason: to reconnect — to restore my spiritual grounding — to be fully alive and present. (For me this requires not drinking; for others, it doesn’t, but you probably have your own things that take you away from being spiritually centered.)

That’s what this is all about, as I see it. Over and over, throughout the Gospels, Jesus focuses not on behavior — and he didn’t seem to care much for arbitrary rules either — but on living from your heart:

  • on loving people, all people, not things and reputation,
  • on restoring and strengthening your connection to God, and
  • on being fully alive and present.

On living in the Kingdom of God today.

I measure my life against this again and again.

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