[Image description: A brown, sandy pathway is centered with green grass, trees, and a fence on either side. The pathway leads toward a large, yellow-orange full moon on the horizon. The sky behind the moon is black.]
This sermon was preached at Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, MI and was focused upon Luke 6:17-26. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God…
Mother Teresa used to say, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
We long for peace… Peace of every kind…
And we do belong to one another… but have we forgotten?
How easy it is to forget… And yet God is always beckoning us back into this belonging, this Sacred Belonging rooted in connection with God, with our neighbors, and with the earth. God calls us to this again and again. And we find blessedness there — Blessedness in this larger form of Belonging.
As Jesus traveled around Galilee and Judea, he was surrounded by crowds. Large crowds. Sometimes, the crowds were so big and so pressing in their needs, that they began to press in upon him. There were times that he would find creative ways to step aside just a bit and work with nature so that he could address them collectively — getting into Simon Peter’s boat and pushing it out into the water, climbing up the Mount of Olives and letting it serve as a natural amphitheater, or here, coming down from a mountain where he and his disciples had been praying and standing on a level place to address the people.
In all of these moments, Jesus spoke to them all at once, and I wonder… As the members of these crowd stood or sat side by side, listening in the same direction, breathing in the same direction, and dreaming in the same direction… I wonder… did they remember once more that they belong to one another? Did they experience an invitation into that larger, Sacred Belonging? With God? With neighbors? With the earth? Did Jesus step away just a bit and turn them toward one another? Did he turn them toward a larger vision? A vision that could invigorate their own lives?
Biblical scholars call this section of the Gospel of Luke, The Sermon on the Plain. It’s very similar to the Sermon on the Mount, which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, but in Luke, it has its own unique telling. It’s possible that Jesus gave the same address, a very memorable one in his life and teaching, and Matthew and Luke recorded it differently, at the Mount of Olives and here, on a plain, and with different nuances.
But it’s also possible that these teachings of Jesus were a frequent address as he traveled. These teachings might have been one of his primary stump speeches, so to speak. He may have spoken them many times to different crowds, and as the disciples traveled along with him, they may have come to internalize these words. They may have come to a recognition that they belonged to the vision within them.
The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain both begin with words of blessedness. We might remember the opening words in Matthew which we called the Beatitudes —
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,
and many more words of blessings.
But here, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is much more direct:
not blessed are the poor, but blessed are you who are poor; not blessed are the poor in spirit, but blessed are you who are poor, poor right now —
for yours is the kingdom of God —
not for theirs is the kingdom of God, but for yours is the kingdom of God — yours, yes, right now.
These blessings are direct and for the people who seek belonging into this vision. They are present for those who find themselves suddenly held within the belonging of this vision.
And here, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is much more direct with something Matthew does not include. He has a list of woes:
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 the ancestors did to the false prophets.
These might be… harder to hear. And yet, do they cast some people —perhaps some of us — out of this larger Sacred Belonging? With God? With neighbors? And with the earth? Or…. do these words also call us right back in?
What is Jesus doing here? Of course, we can’t fully know, but I wonder if we might consider a few things. Jesus grew up as a recipient of scriptures from the Hebrew Bible which today are often called apocalyptic literature. These include scriptures from the prophets that speak about final things… about a sacred, final future when God will cosmically and dramatically liberate the poor and disenfranchised, destroying their enemies and every single force that seeks to oppress them. These scriptures are written from the perspective of those who are abused and humiliated, who need to proclaim the strength of a truly Liberating God toward a liberation that is truly longed for and deserved.
It is a Great Reversal of fortunes. Is that what Jesus is lifting up here?
But I also notice that these woes don’t really have cosmic, dramatic judgment attached. They don’t say, “Woe to you who are rich, for the moon will turn to blood and you will have fear and trembling on the great, final Day of the Lord.” They don’t say that.
No, they say things like, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
You sought riches, and you gained them on the backs of others, and you have them. And they make you impoverished in a totally different way.
They’ve separated you — or they give the illusion of separation to you, perhaps also giving the illusion of superiority to you, and from there, perhaps turning you against your neighbors so that you oppress them, and they do not have what they need.
You sought riches, and you’ve received your consolation.
You’re not living in alignment with this better vision, this transformative vision of the Kingdom of God.
The sun, moon, and stars are not falling out of the heavens here, but we shouldn’t underestimate these words of woe.
As Mother Teresa used to say, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.”
The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke have their different nuances here in these words of blessing. But there’s one thing in common, one thing we could easily miss. I missed it for many years when I read these passages: In the midst of this great crowd — in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain — Jesus doesn’t begin by addressing the crowd as a whole. Instead, he addresses his disciples directly while the rest of the crowd watches.
He seems to make a division, and he puts an emphasis of the disciples. It isn’t the kind of separation that turns the gathered body against one another, Instead, it is a separation that invites. It is a separation that calls. It is a separation that beckons to us, saying,
“Come over here. Come to this blessedness. Come this Sacred Belonging. Come to your neighbors. Be gathered into this fullness. Follow me into this way of life. This is the way… not your riches, or your full bellies, or your too often shallow laughter, or your great reputations. Leave your trust in these. Come over here where there is life… where God is transformative, where neighbors matter and belong and have what they need — including from your riches. Come over here into a vision where the earth is filled with flourishing people and all of creation is transformed. Come over here.”
This is Sacred Belonging. This is our invitation.
The Great Reversal is likely much more than a flip-flop of fortunes. It is an invitation to remember again that we belong to one another — yes, right this moment –and we’re invited into very blessing of that vision.