Perhaps some of y’all are thinking to yourselves, “Hmmm… the words of today’s Gospel story sound familiar… it’s the Sermon on the Mount, right? The one that has “the Beatitudes” in it: all of the “Blessed are those-es,” if that’s a word, which I’m pretty sure it’s not. Right? But maybe there’s a little something jangling in your head, something that doesn’t quite sound like what you remember from your previous encounters with the story. Jesus preached a sermon, sure enough… and it was a humdinger. But it wasn’t delivered from the top of a mountain. Today’s passage begins with, “And he came down with them and stood on a level place…” (v. 17). That’s the first thing, and the second is that the words of the Beatitudes are a little different. Blessed are the poor… those who hunger now… who weep now. What happened to poor in spirit? And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? And the bit about the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers… did we skip something? And what about all of the “Woe to-es?” I don’t remember them being part of the Sermon on the Mount. Where’d they come from? Good questions, all.
And here’s the reason for the differences: This isn’t the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is a Matthew thing (5:1-12), and the reason that’s what springs to mind when we hear the Beatitudes is because we hear Matthew’s version of events far more often than we do Luke’s. Luke’s version is known as the Sermon on the Plain, because Jesus came down from the mountain where he’d gone to pray, to be with the people who needed to hear God’s message of hope and salvation the most.
I’m going to “geek out” on the Revised Common Lectionary, from which we draw our Sunday readings, for a moment. If you understand a little bit about how the Lectionary works, then it might add context to your worship experience. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. As most of y’all are aware, there are three lectionary years: A, B and C, each of which emphasizes a particular gospel account, Matthew, Mark and Luke, respectively. We’re in Year C, the year of Luke. Good so far? Good. Now, within each year there are six seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide and the Season after Pentecost also known as “ordinary time.” Still good? Good.
Now, Christmas always happens on December 25th, and there are precisely four Sundays in Advent, so the first Sunday in Advent always happens at the tippy end of November … or the tippy beginning of December. But things work a little differently for Easter, don’t they? Easter doesn’t happen on a set day. In Western tradition, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday… after the first full-moon… after the Spring equinox. Stick with me here, I’m just about to explain why we hear Matthew’s version of the Sermon and the Beatitudes more often than we do Luke’s. All of this full-moon/equinox stuff means that Easter can happen anytime from March 22nd to April 25th in any given year, depending upon how the lunar cycle lines up with the Gregorian calendar. So, this year, we’ll celebrate Easter on April 21st. There actually will be a test on that one. Be here.
But here’s the thing: given that, like Advent, the season of Lent also consists a set number of Sundays (six, if you include Palm Sunday), but that these six Sundays are counted backward from the date of Easter, the season after the Epiphany and the season after Pentecost (ordinary time) can vary in length from year to year: if Easter is late, Epiphany is longer with a corresponding reduction in the number of Sundays of “ordinary time.” Think of a big, long green bar on the calendar… from the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the first Sunday in Advent… encompassing about forty-five weeks of Sundays… with a sliding bar consisting of fourteen purple and white Sundays (six in Lent and seven in Eastertide) that slides to the left and right depending on when Easter is. Everybody got it? No? You never studied. See me after class.
In any case, this year, Easter is a little late, so we have a few extra Sundays in Epiphany. And that’s why we’re getting Luke’s Sermon and Beatitudes. It’s only read in Year C, on the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (and also for Proper 1, which almost never gets read because Easter rarely happens that early in the year). The last time we read Luke’s version of events, was in 2001… eighteen years ago! We’ll actually see it again for the next three lectionary cycles—in 2022, 2025 and 2028—but after that, it will be at least another twenty years—two decades—before this piece of Scripture comes up again. How about that? We hear Matthew’s version, however, like clockwork, twice every three years: on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany and on All Saints in Year A. So, we know it better. Thanks for letting me geek out. I hope you got a little something out of it.
But a couple of larger questions remain: first why the difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives? And second, why should we care? Without getting too deep into the weeds about the history of the gospels, let me just remind you that Matthew and Luke were written around the same time (80-90 AD), but in two different parts of the Roman world and there does not appear to have been any collaboration between the writers. Each had a constituency to which he was writing, and a lens through which he viewed the world which, in turn, influenced the content and style of their writing. In a nutshell, Matthew seems to have been writing to an audience of Jewish converts to whom he wanted to introduce Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah who had come to save God’s Chosen People, in opposition to the greed and hypocrisy of the Jewish religious establishment and fulfilling a multitude of prophesies written about him in Hebrew Scripture along the way. Y’all have waited. The time has come. We, the Jewish faithful, were right all along.
Luke, on the other hand, was writing to a congregation of gentile converts outside Judea, who were struggling to cope with severe economic hardship, a culture of increasing secularization, and the political turmoil of the times. Sound familiar? Certainly, there is plenty of overlap between Matthew and Luke, but Luke’s is an “activist” gospel. It’s messianic, sure, but Jesus’ followers are called to turn the world upside down, right now! In fact, it’s often referred to as the original “social gospel.” Do remember a couple of weeks back, when Luke recounted the story of Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown synagogue? About the one anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? And Jesus telling them that he was the One? And do you remember how that worked out for him?
But, happily, Jesus lived to preach another day, and today as our Gospel story unfolds, we see that the multitude gathered around him are exactly the kind of people Jesus came to proclaim favored by God: the poor, the hungry and the outcasts. And Jesus is not high on some mountain talking down to them, but right there among them. And how about this: the text notes that as Jesus taught them and healed them in body, mind and spirit, he looked upat his disciples to address them. Looked up. Was Jesus stooping to help the least of these? Or had the disciples felt the need to retreat to higher ground, away from the seething mass of suffering? Or maybe a little bit of both?
Some of y’all probably know that the Greek word we read in this passage as “blessed” (μακάριος) might be better translated as “happy.” Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. A clergy colleague of mine is fond of saying that, “To be blessed is knowing that you have God’s attention. To know that whenever you go, you’ll not be alone. To be blessed is to know that you are valued and important simply because God has made you priceless.” That would make me happy. How about you? And so, I wonder if Jesus, in looking up at his disciples to pronounce Luke’s Beatitudes, is reminding them that they too must stoop and take notice of these poor, sad, discarded folk. “Never forget that these are the blessed of God,” he seems to be saying. “These people have God’s attention. God sees them even when no one else does. And we are connected to them and to each other because the only possession anyone really has is the blessing of God. Come and join me on the plain.” Maybe Jesus said that.
The promise of Jesus, which is the Good News of God’s kingdom, is a world turned upside down: from the poor being lifted up, and the mighty cast down in Luke’s Magnificat, to the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor to the least of these in Isaiah’s prophecy, to the blessing of the poor and the hungry, the weeping and the reviled in Luke’s Beatitudes. These are the people God notices… and blesses. These are the people Jesus said would be rewarded.
But following these words of hope is a warning to the disciples: the “woe-itudes,” which I’m also pretty sure isn’t a word. “Woe to the rich, the full and those who laugh at others’ expense. What goes around comes around. You’ll get yours.” Luke’s Jesus is clear that wealth and power and privilege are seductions that will surely separate us from God… and from each other. The kingdom of God belongs to those who have nothing… except God. How does that make you feel? It makes me feel “skeert,” which isn’t a Greek word at all. It’s kind of a human word. Skeert. Scared. Afraid that my pride of place and position, and gender and intellect might one day separate me from God’s kingdom. Because stooping to come face-to-face with the poor and the hungry, the weeping and reviled, is the only way to come face-to-face with Jesus. I’m going to say that again, because it’s important: the only way we will ever come face-to-face with Jesus is by stooping to come face-to-face with the poor and the hungry, the weeping and reviled. Maybe if we spent a little less time celebrating ourselves and a little more time trying to bring about the year of God’s favor to the broken and the least of these… maybe we’d be happier, and more aware of the blessings God has bestowed upon us.
We’re all broken, you know. The world is broken. Whether it’s broken health, broken finances, broken relationships, broken faith, or broken something else, we’ve all got our cracks and missing pieces. Our brokenness is very personal, and yet it connects us with one another because we’re all so in need of God’s healing presence in our lives, and in our world. We look around, we see, and in some cases experience, injustice, exploitation and violence. And we cannot help but mourn. And that goes for all of us, no matter our skin color, or gender, socio-economic status or political leanings, we are all mourning. We hear of wars and rumors of wars, endemic disease and poverty around the world and around the corner, religious persecution, graft and corruption in business and government, rampant street crime and increasing levels of substance abuse and addiction, cutting across age and ethnicity. We hear about all of this, and more, and know that this is not God’s will! We listen to words of hate—unspeakable vitriol—being trumpeted from both sides of the political aisle and know that this is not how God works! How long, then? From where is our help to come?
This stuff is real. We can’t escape it… we can’t sugarcoat it… and most importantly, we can’t fix it.
Woah, woah, woah, Father Kemper! What’s that you say? Here you’ve been talking about Luke’s activist gospel, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor to the least of these and turning the world upside down, and now you’re saying that the problems of the world can’t be fixed? What the heck? Why are we here, then?
So, here’s the thing, we can’t fix things. But God can. There’s no amount of social advocacy, or education, or temporal justice-seeking that will cure the world’s ills. It’s all just “tilting at windmills,” as the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, might call it. Our help is in the Lord, and the only way we’re ever going to turn the world upside down is to turn the world back to its Creator. Jesus knew that, and you’ll notice that he never took it upon himself to petition the Roman authorities for reduced taxes or increased political autonomy for the occupied Jewish state. He never went head-to-head with Herod over his religious apostasy or his poor treatment of political prisoners. And he never asked any of his disciples to do that either. But here’s is what Jesus did do: he stooped… to be face-to-face with the poor, the hungry and those who mourned. And his presence reminded those suffering that they had God’s attention. They were blessed. They were known. They were heard. God was just beside them in their misery, and would never leave them to face their trials alone.
And that’s what we’re called to do: to come and join Jesus on the plain, each of us… broken and blessed, “skeert” but resolute, mournful and yet trusting in God’s almighty Providence. Luke wants us to know that our God was not content to look down upon us from some celestial mountain top. God loved us so much he became Immanuel, God with us, down on the plain, walking beside us on the road marked with suffering… through all of our struggles and failures and tragedies. And in inviting us to join him down on the plain, Jesus reminds us that this is where God is looking. And somewhere along the way, we’re reminded we’re not so different from all of the poor and hungry, the weeping and reviled gathered round. We are broken, too. We’re all broken in one way or another and yearning for a world turned upside down.
And so, a final word of wisdom… one I think Jesus would endorse: Someone, somewhere once said: “You can’t heal the poor and the hungry or those who mourn. You can’t make choices for them. You can’t rescue them. But you can promise them they won’t journey alone. You can lend them your map… but the trip is theirs. So be gentle with yourself… it’s hard work to be present to the freedom of the Other.”
…and a benediction: May you be blessed in your work to bring God’s kingdom to a world in need of healing, and may you be happy in knowing that even on your worst day—especially on your worst day—you have God’s full and complete attention. May you rest assured that there’s nowhere you can go, nothing you can do, that will ever separate you from God’s love. And may you take comfort in the knowledge that no matter how dark the night, no matter how deep the valley, Jesus will be just beside you, closer than you think, and you’ll never be left to face your trials alone. And it’s in his name I pray.