Good News in Level Places

Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Psalm 1 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 |Luke 6:17-26

Isaiah’s call to lift valleys and lower mountains, to make the rough land level and the rugged plain so that all might see the glory of God (Isa 40:4-5) to me is about making sure everyone has equal opportunity to experience that glory, maybe even bask in it. That kind of terrain provides a level playing field. We want everyone to have equal access to God, and Isaiah gives us a vivid visual.

So when I hear in today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his disciples go down to a level place to be with the multitude of people from all over the region, I’m not surprised. Of course Jesus is going to give everyone a fair chance. He’s here to fulfill scripture, and there’s no time to waste.

But there are a few things to notice.

  1. A level place means more than geography.

The connotations for what a “level” place means, doesn’t necessarily refer to the lay of the land physically. It might well be an even place, but what it could have meant at the time was that it was an unclean place, a place for corpses. A “level place” is for the suffering, the disgraced, the mourning, misery, and hunger. The place where idols were located were often in a plain, a “level place.”

This is where Jesus goes, into the midst of the suffering, according to the Gospel of Luke, unlike that of Matthew where he goes to the mount. It is in this level place that the people come to Jesus, bringing their suffering, seeking his healing power. Jesus goes into a place where one might least expect God to be.

2. The people who were in this level place probably haven’t come from the mountaintop.

Whether the people who were coming to Jesus in this level place were probably already there or felt they had nothing to lose in being there, chances are these weren’t people of privilege who had other options. The people coming to this place likely didn’t have strict codes of conduct telling them not to be seen in certain places, not to risk their reputation, their purity, and/or their honor and dignity–not just theirs but also their family’s.

Yet this is where Jesus chooses to go and take a stand, and there’s a multitude of people who come to him.

3. Jesus looks UP at his disciples and speaks to them, probably with everyone looking on these beatitudes.

Jesus stood on a level place and still looks up at his disciples. Geographically, this isn’t a level place. He went down. He’s looking up. Maybe he’s kneeling in the middle of the crowd. Maybe he’s so far into the crowd, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to go into the thick of it. Still, there Jesus is.

Not that we blame the disciples. Ever since I was pregnant with my first child, my nose has taken on some kind of supernatural maternal sense of smell. My husband makes me smell the milk or food and watches my face for my instant reaction. Imagining first century Israel, given its hygiene practices of the time, given the sickness of all those seeking Jesus, I almost get one of those instant reactions: that place isn’t going to smell like someplace I’d want to go. Don’t we often hear the adage, “follow your nose”?

But I remember one of those powerful moments when I was in the deep water of my discernment, trying to decipher if I would really enter into the process of discerning if I was called to ordination, Suzanne from St. Paul’s was listening and talking with me, the wonderful mentor that she is. I don’t know if she said it and I visualized it, or if something she said prompted me to see it. But in my mind’s eye, I was keenly aware of the putrescence of humanity, a cesspool of manure, so to speak, and there were people in it, going to and from it, though nobody wants to go there because it’s so awful. With tears in my eyes and speaking through my sobs, I managed to say that I feel called to go there, that I have the stomach for it–which makes no sense because I don’t think I have the nose for it! But it was a visual that I believe the Holy Spirit gave me because in that near waking dream, I saw myself being present in a way not many can or will. When I go to stand up for controversial matters or sit with someone in a hard place or hear or experience things that I don’t think anyone should have to bear witness to, I know that I am not alone, that there’s no place I can go that Christ hasn’t already been. Jesus didn’t avoid the level places, and his presence goes with us when we go there, too.

Where are our level places here in our community? Where have you been or seen that was a place of suffering? The ER? The walk-in clinic? The DMV? Walmart or the Dollar General when you meet the gaze of the person or the child with the sad eyes? The street corners not far from the Salvation Army? The cafeterias where kids are surrounded but alone, insecure? The jail, the bus depot, the camps in the woods? The gym with everyone plugged in and trying to sweat away their worries and fears? The nursing home or rehab?

If we start thinking about it too much, we might begin to think that we don’t live in such a well-off community after all, that we’re really surrounded by suffering and disease. We might be tempted to cloister ourselves in our nice little bubbles of blessedness. We might rather stay on our mountain tops.

But Jesus looked up at his disciples and proclaimed blessedness upon the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the defamed. Jesus cautioned woe to those who were already fulfilled and self-sufficient, those more likely to trust in the flesh and material world than trust in God. Jesus not only had the power to heal the sick and the diseased, but he also knew that there was more to this life, more to the story, that the suffering and death that everyone feared and knew was coming was not the end. There was hope. Hope in the kingdom of God. Hope in the fullness of time. Hope in the joy of the Lord our God. Hope in the glory of heaven. The kind of hope of believing that Christ was resurrected on the third day–beyond all our reason or comprehension but that there is Truth in that Resurrection–speaks to the triumph of life over death, of love over fear and hatred. God loved us so much that God gave the only begotten son to walk among us, to live among us, to be present in all the suffering and also the joys . . . and to die only to rise again. This is our Good News: that we are loved. That the love we know gives us life and liberation, and this blessedness is ours to share, even and especially among the suffering.

Evangelism was the focus of our diocesan convention keynote addresses. Jerusalem Greer asked us,

“Who stays up all night waiting to hear the Good News?”

We got the socio-demographic data of our area in a handout at our table, and we began looking at the map and the numbers, but we didn’t have enough time to get at the heart of the question. We didn’t go quickly to seek out the level places in our midst or brainstorm ways we are particularly suited to meet the suffering and share our Good News with them. And that’s okay. A handful of us from All Saints’ aren’t going to figure out exactly how we evangelize to our community in 15-20 minutes.

But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you have an experience of knowing where the story of Jesus intersects with your life at least on one occasion (and hopefully time and time again), then you have something to share with your friend and neighbor, something to share even with a stranger, if they look like they’re hungry for some good news, especially if they look like they’re alone and are hungry for the kind of love that only God gives.

We might not want to follow Jesus into the “level places,” but what does Jesus often remind us? “Do not be afraid.” If we love the Lord with all our being, we are also invited to trust in the Lord. Rather than imagining cesspools of suffering, we start imagining pictures of trees planted by rolling streams. Trees strong in their roots, nourished by the life-giving water. Trees green with leaves, not anxious, not fearful, continually bearing fruit. Trees extending a branch to those in need, offering good news in their level place, showing the way of love.

 

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Homily for All Saints’

(Sermon during bilingual service at All Saints’/Todos los Santos for All Saints’ Sunday)

Padre Guillermo draws our attention toward the importance of living the life the beatitudes prescribe, and I love considering what Jesus thought as he ascended the hillside to give his sermon to the crowd gathered to hear him teach. They gathered en masse because this was someone who was going around curing every disease and sickness, healing the demoniac, epileptic, paralytics–everyone. If there was a physician today who had 100% success rate, he or she would have a large following, too! Jesus had to go to higher ground logistically so people could see and hear him, but isn’t it significant that he is the one elevated during this sermon, that he–the Son of God, the one who speaks with utmost authority–is the one who speaks from on high?

We’ve heard or read how all of us are accountable to living into the beatitudes. We don’t have to be canonized like the Saints to live righteous, holy lives, and our ordinary lives do have extraordinary potential, thanks to the power of Love. Our ultimate sanctification is when we are fully glorified in God through Christ, and for most of us that will be when we die. But we have every reason to believe we share glimpses of glory here and now, and it takes all of us together to make known the presence of God here on earth. I usually say we are working toward beloved community, and we are. Today, however, I think we can consider our work to be manifesting a community of saints.

Again, the beatitudes are a recipe Jesus gives for those who follow him. The community organizer who spoke at Diocesan Convention last year used the beatitudes to illustrate how Jesus shows us a community working together to build up the kingdom. It’s almost a formula, really. 

Verses 3 and 10 are the bookends; notice how the promise is the kingdom of heaven. That’s for all of us. The poor in spirit, as Padre says, means we know we need God in our lives, and to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake is a badge of honor we get for carrying the Cross.

Now look at verse 4 (Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.), and verse 7 (Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.). The merciful comfort those who mourn and in turn receive mercy.

Verse 5 (Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.) and verse 8 (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.); the pure in heart see the meek (the submissive, the marginal, often those who are oppressed) and know that Creation is as much theirs as anyone’s. In the meek, the pure in heart see God.

Verse 6 (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.) and verse 9 (Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.). Those who make peace fill those who hunger for righteousness, for what is just and right and true, and they are children of God who bring such peace. And all who bring this kind of righteousness, who fulfill this yearning that comes from the heart, that bears the image of God, theirs is truly the kingdom of heaven.

As much as it sounds idealistic, these are considered more the internal beatitudes. For more tangible, actionable items, we get the corporal, the physical beatitudes in Chapter 25:31-45, where we are judged by how we treat others being how we treat Jesus (feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting in prison, etc).

These beatitudes are applicable now, but they are also a promise of the kingdom to come. Acknowledging the suffering we face, the persecution, the judgment. Nowhere does Jesus promise that following the way of the Cross will be easy. It might get easier as we grow in our faith, as we strengthen our roots in Christ, knowing deeply in our being whose we are so we know who we are as a child of God. Knowing who we are and who we want to be ignites that light within that shines like a watchtower. Others notice and attracted to it, curious and maybe even seeking. We radiate with a joy that others want to know, too, or maybe they’ve experienced it and want to know where it comes from. This is evangelism, when we get to share our stories and experiences in our life of Christ. Others who notice us might not have such a positive intention. Standing out in a crowd means we are vulnerable both to praise and persecution, and Jesus showed us that to the extreme. Even if the reality of our blessedness isn’t manifest here, it is promised.

And maybe Jesus doesn’t give us the specifics of our life of glory, but he does show us the triumph of life beyond death. Jesus promises us that we have reason to rejoice and be glad–not naively but with certainty of faith. Our blessedness in following the way of Jesus Christ is a promise that we are walking, living, believing that the suffering of this world is not the end of our story and that we are not passive observers as trials and tribulations unfold. We are a community of saints, part of a larger community of saints, bonded to the Communion of Saints through our life in faith. Ours is the kingdom of heaven to manifest now, with God’s help, and the kingdom of heaven is ours in time to come.

Rejoice and be glad! Amen.

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