Worship | February 13


The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

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Sermon Manuscript | Blessings and woes on the plain

Text: Luke 6:17-26

Speaker: Joel Miller

Being married to a Kansan means that about once a year our family packs up the minivan and heads west to be with our Kansas people.  Being married to a Western Kansan means that after we cross the state line in Kansas City, we’ve still got a solid four a half hours of Kansas ahead of us before we arrive.

When I tell this to people, a regular response is that Kansas is that place they have gone through to get to the mountains.  And while I can’t disagree that the Rocky Mountains are indeed glorious, I usually try to slip in a good word about the beauty of the Great Plains. 

I couldn’t help thinking about plains and mountains and the relationship between them while reading this passage from Luke. 

Mennonites and other folks point to the Sermon on the Mount as a core teaching of our faith.  And rightly so.  Matthew dedicates three consecutive chapters to this block of teaching, beginning with the beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” followed by eight other declarations of blessedness.  Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, and so, like Moses on Mt Sinai, Jesus’ teaching takes place on a mountainside.    

Luke’s version of this sermon appears in chapter six and begins this way: “(Jesus) went down with them and stood on a level place.  A large crowd of his disciples was there and a number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon….Looking at his disciples, he said…” and so begins the sermon. 

The sermons contain so much similar material, they have been given similar names.  Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke – where Jesus speaks on a level place – the Sermon on the Plain. 

Both begin with beatitudes, with noticeable differences between them.  The way Luke’s beatitudes differ from Matthew’s has a lot to do with why most of us would prefer to cruise right by them, kind of like those cars on Interstate 70 zooming through the flatlands for their preferred destination of the mountains.  Today the lectionary is asking us to slow down, get out of the vehicle, and stay a while to consider the stark splendor of the sermon on the plain. 

Matthew says: Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Luke says: Blessed are you who are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.

Matthew says: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Luke says: Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

There is an immediacy to Luke’s words.  They are addressed in the second person.  As if Jesus is scanning the audience, stopping to look someone directly in the eyes.  Blessed are you.  These blessings deal with the immediacy of physical, bodily, needs.  Poverty.  Hunger.  And tears.  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  And they repeat the most immediate word of all: Now. 

You, in your body, in your need, now.  You are blessed.

It must have been quite a shock to those who first heard these words. 

It’s still shocking.  It’s a hard argument to make, that the poor and hungry and tearful are blessed.  Digging around in the Greek for signs of a bad translation doesn’t give us any help.  The word for blessed also means fortunate or even happy.  

We simply have no frame of reference for claims like this.  I’m not aware of any parent who wants their child to grow up poorer than they are so their child can be #Blessed.  

There are plenty of instances of voluntary poverty throughout church history.  The monastic movement in fourth century Egypt.  St. Francis and Saint Clare in 13th century Italy.   One of my favorite living saints, Jane Goodall – the self-titled ‘chimp lady, – owns almost nothing, dedicating her life to spreading the gospel of conservation and kinship with creation.         

Last weekend Abbie and I were able to go see the Van Gogh installation at the Columbus Museum of Art.  I would recommend it, but that was the last weekend for it, so it would be kind of mean to say you should go check it out.  I’m sure some of you did. 

One of the things I learned was that Vincent didn’t start painting until his late 20s, and before that he had a stint of pursuing theological education.  He failed his entrance exam to seminary but was given a position as a missionary pastor in Belgium.  He was given a comfortable lodging over a bakery.  His congregation was composed of coal miners and their families, all of them poor.  Feeling uncomfortable with this disparity, Vincent gave his room to a homeless person and moved into a hut and slept on straw.  It put him in solidarity with his congregation, but the church authorities were not impressed.  He was accused of “undermining the dignity of the priesthood,” and dismissed.

2000 years of church history and we’re still not quite sure what to do with the idea of the poor and hungry being blessed except to reserve a special category of saint and let them run with it.

Even more confounding is something else Luke does that Matthew doesn’t.  After his economic take on blessedness, Jesus goes on to proclaim a series of woes.  Warnings we could call them.  “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, and woe to you when all speak well of you.” 

Including woes right alongside blessings was nothing new.  Deuteronomy, the Psalmist, and the prophet Jeremiah each speak of blessings and curses, the way of righteousness and the way of the wicked.

Wisdom traditions around the world speak of path that leads to life and the path that leads to destruction.  Even American rock and roll gets in on the ancient pattern.  There’s the stairway to heaven and there’s the highway to hell.  I guess I could have suggested those for the sermon response song but it’s probably a little too late, even for a family as musically gifted as the Martins.     

It may have been a common motif, but in Luke that “Woe to you” can feel directly pointed at our wealthy first world lives. 

It’s yet another reason to hit the accelerator through the sermon on the plain and arrive at the blessed mount which at least gives us a chance to be poor in spirit or to have hunger for justice. 

I resolve not to resolve the tension of Luke’s beatitudes.  That would be doing us all a disservice.

But I do want to apply some insights I recently learned from Trabian Shorters.  He consults with businesses, journalists, nonprofits and philanthropists and was recently interviewed by Krista Tippet in her OnBeing podcast.   The conversation had nothing to do with the Sermon on the Plain or the Beatitudes, but everything to do with how we think about and relate with those deemed poor.

Shorters’ big idea that he applies to all these areas of culture is called asset framing.  He was a tech nerd as a kid back before that was cool and one of the things he learned in relationship to cultural change is, and these are his words: “A really good technologist understands that in order to hack something well, you have to understand a system well enough to get it to do something it wasn’t designed to do.”

So let’s imagine Jesus hacking the system of blessings and woes to get it to do something it wasn’t designed to do. 

Blessings are powerful things.  They’re like spiritual capital not only for the person doing the blessing, but for the one deemed blessed.  Blessings are so frequently associated with wealth probably because they act like wealth.  The more one is considered blessed, the more blessings one has access to.  Like you can use your blessing as collateral and get more blessing.  The rich get richer, the blessed get blessed-er.

Jesus hacks the system of blessings and woes and confers blessing on those considered least blessed.  Grants them a status through which they might become blessed and more blessed.

For Trabian Shorters, asset framing is the opposite mentality of our usual cultural approach to problems and people deemed problems, which we’re used to running on deficit framing.  We use language like at-risk kids, the school-to-prison pipeline that young people are almost destined to be part of, and so on.  As a Black man who grew up in the hood, as he calls it, this is deeply personal to him.

Again, his words, and this is an extended quote: “I’m taught to believe that I must deficit-frame my people. I must dramatize the disparity, right? So that’s the belief. And then the behavior is to then stigmatize my people so that I can attract resources, right? If I can define them by their worst threat, greatest inequity, whatever, then I can attract resources. Well, this culture of denigration for dollars means that, yes, you’ll attract the resources, but you do so by writing your population into the public consciousness as inferior, as ineffective, as pathological. All these things are the only ways that people know to know us, because the way that we have been taught to survive is by dramatizing our injustices, which — I think it’s important to point out, the injustices are real. So we’re not saying ignore any of them. We’re saying that is not what defines us. That’s not what defines anyone.”

He suggests not just changes of language – like substituting at-risk youth with students.  But also in how we think about people.  For example – to think about other by their aspirations.     

Back to Luke’s Beatitudes, the language Jesus uses is doesn’t glorify poverty.  He doesn’t say blessed is poverty.  He says blessed are you who are poor.  He blesses the people, separating their personhood from their condition.  No matter their need, they are first and foremost blessed, and will be treated as such in the kin-dom God.  And blessing will beget blessing.  This is the gospel Jesus proclaimed.  The wealthy are put on notice to not overly identify with their wealth.  If they do, it means that’s the “blessing” they’re stuck with, which they’ve already received.

We usually end the sermon time with a period of reflective silence, and I want to actually have two of those periods now.  During the first one, we’ll do an exercise Trabian Shorters does with groups.  We can adapt this for Zoom.  This is a terrible, unworshipful exercise for a church service, but humor me.  So I want you to look at the computer and choose someone you see, whether video is on or just a name. 

And for one minute of silence we’re going to deficit frame.  Each of us will think of all the things we can that are wrong with that person.  I assure you, you will never be asked to speak any of these out loud and we won’t even know who is thinking about who, so please don’t worry about getting found out.  I guess it would be nice if you switched to gallery view so everybody isn’t doing this about me.  Just choose a person, and for a minute, dwell on all the things you can think of that you think are wrong with them, and then if you run out of things you could think a bit about how maybe you could help fix those things. Ready, go.

……..One minute of silence….

OK.  Good job nice Mennonite people.  I know, I’m a terrible pastor for having you do this.  That’s what people were thinking about me.  You can feel how that felt to think about someone this way.   And in the likely situation you were someone that someone else selected to think about, you can feel how that feels.

Now, second and final reflective silence.  I want you to look at the same person, same box, whether image or name, and all our screens are in a little different order, so we can’t tell who is looking at who.  But for the next minute, you are looking at the same person, this time in your mind declaring the opening of a beatitude: “Blessed are you.”  Blessed are you.  That’s all.  Just repeating that line in your mind.  “Blessed are you.”  Ready, go.