What we’re about to hear this morning is part of the gospel according to Luke. You might have heard of the Sermon on the Mount, which is in Matthew – and a lot of the ground that Jesus covers in that sermon is repeated in this part of Luke, but with some significant differences.
You may also know that part of that Sermon on the Mount is the beatitudes – a list of blessings and people whom Jesus calls blessed. Luke also recounts some beatitudes, but not the same ones that Matthew does.
So as we listen to this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, I encourage you to pay close attention to who is blessed, and why.
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 on 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.
Are we as blessed as we think we are?
We put the word on signs in our living rooms and caption our Facebook photos with it. We say we are blessed when we have everything we want or need; when we don’t spill our coffee when we slip on the ice; when we are surrounded by love and beloved people. We use it as a catch-all for all sorts of things – gratitude and pride and sarcasm and relief.
But Jesus flips the script on us.
Blessed are the poor, but woe to the rich.
Blessed are the hungry, but woe to those who are full.
Blessed are the depressed and anxious, but woe to those who laugh.
Blessed are those who are rejected, labeled, blamed, & cut off; but woe to those who are loved by all.
That’s not how this is supposed to work, right?
I’ve never known anyone to post a selfie and say “had to put back the chicken at the grocery store today so I wouldn’t overdraw my account! #blessed”
Throughout history, and throughout the world today, wealth and status are seen as signs of God’s favor. We even buy into that thinking with churches—that the ones with bigger buildings or more staff or newer carpet are somehow doing better ministry than the ones who are just getting by.
The opposite is also true: too often, we see situations like poverty, illness, struggle, and even addiction as a condemnation of a person’s character. We cease to see the person and instead see statistics.
The key to this passage is in where Jesus is standing. Just before this, he had been alone with the Twelve disciples on a mountain. And then, as our passage says, “he came down with them and stood on a level place.”
Our discomfort with this passage begins there.
Dr. Karoline Lewis explains: “because, at the end of the day, analysis of our society and observation of the human condition suggest that no one really wants to be on the same level. If that were the case, the rich would not be as rich as they are and the poor would not be as poor as they are. Having to stand on the same level as those whom you have deemed less-than, even more-than, is almost too much to imagine, too much to bear, and, at the end of the day, not how the world works.”
The level plain challenges those who would rather stand on the mountain, looking down at everyone else, and it equally challenges those who stand in the valleys, looking up at those society has verified and glorified as though they are somehow more worthy.
To stand on the level plain is to give up our need to elevate some and lower others.
How many of you have heard of Father Gregory Boyle? He’s a Jesuit Priest, and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California. This is a quote from their website:
“In 1986, … when Gregory Boyle became pastor of Dolores Mission Church, it was the poorest Catholic parish in Los Angeles. The parish included Aliso Village and Pico Gardens, then the largest public housing projects west of the Mississippi. They also had the highest concentration of gang activity. That was saying something, given Los Angeles’ reputation as the gang capital of the world.
But where others only saw criminals, Father Greg saw people in need of help. Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, welcoming thousands through our doors each year.”
It gives me chills just to think about how one church, in one poor part of Los Angeles, started a project with a level-plain purpose—and it snowballed into something so much bigger and so much better than they could have imagined.
But this is not actually the story I want to tell you, because if I only tell you that story, we’re still separating out the helpers and the helped. One gives, one receives. There is no mutuality in that relationship.
Instead, I want to read for you what Father Greg wrote in 2014 in America Magazine—it’s a little long, but it’s worth it. The title of the article is “I Thought I Could ‘Save’ Gang Members. I Was Wrong.”
“I don’t believe in mistakes. Everything belongs, and, as the homies say, “It’s all good.” I do believe in lessons learned. I have learned that you work with gang members and not with gangs, otherwise you enforce the cohesion of gangs and supply them oxygen. I know now that gang warfare is not the Middle East or Northern Ireland. There is violence in gang violence but there is no conflict. It is not “about something.” It is the language of the despondent and traumatized.
In my 30 years of ministry to gang members in Los Angeles, the most significant reversal of course for me happened somewhere during my sixth year. I had mistakenly tried to “save” young men and women trapped in gang life. But then, in an instant, I learned that saving lives is for the Coast Guard. Me wanting a gang member to have a different life would never be the same as that gang member wanting to have one. I discovered that you do not go to the margins to rescue anyone. But if we go there, everyone finds rescue.
Louie was 19 years old, a gang member making money hand over fist by running up to cars and selling crack cocaine. He quickly became his own best customer. After my many attempts to get him into rehab, he finally agreed to check himself in. He was there one month when his younger brother Erick did something gang members never do. He…killed himself. Gang members are much more inclined to walk into enemy turf and hope to die than to pull the trigger themselves.
I called Louie and told him what happened. He was crestfallen. “I will pick you up for the funeral,” I said, “but I’m driving you right back.” “I want to come back,” he said through his tears. “I like how recovery feels.”
When I arrive at the rehab center, Louie greets me with un abrazo, and once in the car, he launches in. “I had a dream last night—and you were in it.” In the dream, he tells me, the two of us are in a darkened room. No lights whatsoever. No illuminated exit signs. No light creeping from under the door. Total darkness.
We are not speaking, but he knows I am in the room with him. Then, silently, I pull a flashlight from my pocket and aim steadily on the light switch across the room. Louie tells me that he knows that only he can turn the light switch on. He expresses his gratitude that I happen to have a flashlight. Then with great trepidation, Louie moves slowly toward the light switch, following closely the guiding beam of light. He takes a deep breath, flips the switch on, and the room is flooded with light. As he tells me this, he begins sobbing.
‘And the light,’ he says, ‘is better than the darkness.’ As though he had not known this was the case.
We cannot turn the light switch on for anyone. But we all own flashlights. With any luck, on any given day, we know where to aim them for each other. We do not rescue anyone at the margins. But go figure, if we stand at the margins, we are all rescued. No mistake about it.”
So where are you standing? Just how attached are we to making comparisons and elevating some while lowering others?
Even if we could find a level place to stand, how uncomfortable are we going to be with looking around us, looking our neighbors in the eye, shaking their hands, rather than looking up or looking down?
Jesus is our level place: as Paul says, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. All of those labels and categories and boxes that we put ourselves in, all of those measuring sticks we use to determine who’s worthy of love and belonging, and whether we’re ‘in’ or ‘out’—Jesus has broken them all.
They say if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself. So I’ll leave you today with a proverb that I learned when I was about 6, as a Girl Scout:
“Don’t walk in behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”