I want to dive into our Gospel reading today staring with three vignettes — three different scenes that will set up our reading in Luke today. We’re talking about Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Plain, and why this location that he chooses is critical to the lesson.
1. The air Have you ever flown out over the Midwest or have stood amid miles and miles of flat farmland as far as the eye can see? Flying into South Dakota this time last year, I remember seeing the Great Plains of the Dakotas come into view below the clouds as our airplane began its final approach. The patchwork of farms and crops of the fields is really incredible to see. But what was amazing was that the land stretched endlessly to the horizon. And that horizon ended at the Black Mountains in the west. Everything contained within that horizon was the same. Even the occasional tree, the buildings around the airport, the network of power lines, the cars, trucks, cattle and people… ..they all seemed to be about the same dimensions from up high. All like ants — no real difference in their size… Everything is level. 2. The Street On any given Thursday morning, I sit in the local coffee shop holding my “office hours.” And on any given Thursday, I notice some of my friends out walking on the streets. I’m warm, sipping coffee, and writing my sermon on my MacBook. I move deliberately and with purpose. But I see some of the friends I’ve met during my frequent downtown walks. I’ll save their names… But one lives near the coffee shop. I watch him wander out his door and look around from his front step. Maybe shuffle slowly down to the corner to have a look. No one’s around. He’s in no hurry. No real purpose of plan for his day. After a minute or two, he turns slowly, and walks back to his apartment. He stops on the front step, looks around for anything, anyone. Nothing. He retreats back inside. Another friend walks by moments later, sees my green truck out front, but she passes by. Where to? Nowhere, really. A half hour later, she passes back by and sees the other guy on the steps. They talk. No hurry. And all around them and me, a swarm of attorneys, prosecutors, staff, other professionals, police, downtown workers, students all from around the area… They — just like me — come into the coffee shop. They visit with each other or with me. All with a purpose — a place to be. And again I think of the plains spread out before me on the airplane. Down here, we all look different. From up high, we’d all look the same. Everything is level.
3. Cemetery I remember the children playing and squealing and laughing during the morning recess at the school yard adjacent to the cemetery on the very morning my family was burying my father. I was a young man — 25 or so. The happy children had no idea of the sadness just through the chain-link fence and across the cemetery lawn. And the cars that passed in the opposite direction of the large hearse my family rode in was profound — people speeding about their day-to-day lives as our lives seemed to come to a grinding and sudden halt. And again, from the height of an airplane, would anyone have noticed any difference among us at all? Everything is level. Our terrain Today, none of us here is flying on an airplane, thousands of feet above the world, but at the same time, do we notice the differences among us? Or do we — consciously or unconsciously even — see things more level? Do we “flatten-out” what we see so that we don’t have to notice the differences? Because we all know what Jesus calls us to do — to notice the differences among our brothers and sisters: those who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping. Those who are hated, rejected, insulted and condemned. (Verses 20-22) And we’re called to put them first and us second. To give preferential treatment to those struggling on the margins. To not level out our world, but to notice the peaks and valleys, the differences in the strata and the variance of the terrain in the communities and world in which we all live. The Sermon on the Plain Luke’s Gospel records Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Plain. Luke tells us that Jesus came down from the mountains and stood upon a large area of level ground. We hear this in Verse 17 of Chapter 8. Why is it important for Luke to tell us readers where Jesus is standing, and where he had just come from? Why would Luke find it important to present this contrast to us? Because it sets the tone for what Jesus is about to tell us. Jesus comes down to speak to those who do not have access to higher ground — both physically and spiritually. He comes to a level place to bring the kingdom of God to those who are gathered. He comes to the lowest level, where we all can experience him. There is no space between those who suffer and those who live in joy; we all receive the gift of the one who brings God’s kingdom, and we are receiving it in the same place — a level place. Yet it’s right there in that level place where Jesus begins to call out the differences. How much more pronounced is that one juniper tree stretching high above a sea of soybeans? How much more pronounced is one man, dressed in rags and moving so slow against all those in the hustle and bustle of the busyness and purpose of their day? How much more pronounced are the grieving, dressed in black and faces full of tears and pain amid a schoolyard of laughing and joyful children? Jesus shows us the differences — he comes to the place where all differences can be seen — and he points out the stark contrasts. And it’s here where we are forced to notice one another. Forced to consider one another. Forced to make the choice of whether to help one another. Those gathered In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Plain, who is present? Well, Luke tells us: * There are the original 12 apostles — still new at this game; * Also present are Jesus’s followers — a larger group of disciples who also are new; * And finally, there are throngs of people seeking Jesus’s help and healing. This group has only heard of Jesus and what he is able to do. But they don’t really know him yet; they are not yet followers. Together are gathered happy people and doomed people. And Jesus heals them. Who is happy and who is doomed? As is typical of Jesus’s ministry and our subsequent calling in our lives, the doomed will be made happy; and the happy will be doomed. It’s a rough warning for them; and it should be for us, too. See, the doomed are the ones who are now happy, comfortable, successful, rich, taken care of, selfish… The happy are those who in that culture — and ours today — who are doomed: The marginalized, the downtrodden, the suffering, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, the abused…. The first group, Jesus tells us, get to live a happy life now. But when they come to the end of their time here on earth, they will be doomed — separated from God eternally. However, those who suffer now, they will be given the kingdom of God when their time here on earth has passed. Luke shows us what Jesus is doing by coming down to equal the playing field and to make each person there stand exactly on the same level as the next person. To look around them and see the true reality. To be able to ask themselves, “Which one am I?” Again, the contrast becomes stark when we can see the whole level playing field…. Spiritual vs. Physical Clearly, Jesus is telling us about our physical states — where our standing in our community is. Where on the ladder of society we stand and where we compare with others on other rungs of that same ladder… These are our physical states, and they matter. But Jesus is also showing us about our spiritual states or positions, too. Some of us here today may say that we’re economically poor and insecure in our community while others are very well off and secure. This is true. We have troubles making ends meet, finding food, getting the right medical attention, having to send or kids to the worse schools because of where we live, having to spend out our days in a public facility rather than a more comfortable one… That’s all physical. But there’s another element, and — even more critical — is our spiritual security. We here all know Jesus. We are spiritually rich in that knowledge. We live the kingdom life now, and we celebrate God and worship Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit here this morning. We are living a blessed life. We are spiritually rich. And if you haven’t picked up on it yet, then I will tell you flat out: This is a good thing. But it’s also a bad thing if we’re only hoarding our spiritual resources all to ourselves or our families or our churches… Out there is where we grow in faith; in here we just learn how to do it. Jesus is telling us that, fine, live that life of spiritual happiness; but if we’re not able to see those suffering around us in spiritual poverty, guess when our enjoyment of this life ends? Right, at our deaths. Right now, today, we might have more than we need and we might just live in that happy way; but if we’re not sharing it with the spiritually needy — those who don’t know Christ, those who need healing, those who need access to the knowledge of the love and mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, then we are the selfish rich. And Jesus says that needs to change, my brothers and sisters. This is why Jesus comes down to level ground, and he puts us all on level ground — those who are devout, those who are seeking, and those who are just looking for a better way, a hope, a light in all their darkness. We can sit here and say, “Well, our light is on, and they are welcome here anytime.” But you see, they still have to climb that mountain. That’s not what Jesus did. He came down to the level ground, where we all could — and still can — receive the invitation. The level ground Listen: Jesus is the level ground. When we follow Christ, we have no excuse to turn away from people whom we choose to avoid. They are all God’s children, and they all have the opportunity to live within the kingdom. Jesus heals all of them. His power goes out to all of them — Verse 19. How many examples do we need in the Gospels, and from Paul’s letters, and from the book of Acts of not only what Jesus’s character is, but what Jesus calls us to do! Here on the Sermon on the Plain, he tells us that those who know him — who truly know him — can live now in the richness of the kingdom and can live in all of eternity in the richness of the kingdom as long as in both, we share the richness of the kingdom. Physically and spiritually! We live in a broken world that is defined by its finitude. All of the resources here are finite. Nothing will last here. Everything will corrode; all things will die, and this world will pass away. It is finite. But what about God’s kingdom? Is it finite? NO! It’s infinite! It is everlasting, like the Creator who made it and us. DO NOT try to commodify that which is eternal and infinite. It can’t be done. Do not live in such a way that we make God in our own image. That is spiritual impoverishment. And it’s a great lie of the enemy. Instead, we live in the endless and infinite abundance of he who provides for us all, who cares for us all, who loves us all, and who calls us to provide, care for and love one another just as the Human One — Jesus, as a human being — showed us there on the Plain. On that level ground. For all to receive. And as how Jesus — the Risen One — shows us in his resurrection. Eternal. Abundant. Everlasting. Always.