The Rev. Peter Faass
The passages we have heard from Luke these past two weeks are his version of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Both have Jesus proclaiming the ways of life that are part and parcel of the Realm of God. They are a list of values by which followers of Jesus are called to live.
Luke makes some significant counterpoints to Matthew’s version that indicate a different focus for his message. I’d like to kick back to the opening of last week’s Gospel for a moment, which states, “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place.” This sermon is not delivered on the lofty mountain, but rather on a level place. It is why Luke’s version is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. The geographical distinction of being on a level place and not a mountain is critical for Luke’s message. Some prophets use of the word “level” provide the background for its use here. The word “level” often referred to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning. In Jeremiah we read, “Human corpses shall fall like dung upon the [level place], like sheaves behind the reaper, and no one shall gather them.” (Jeremiah 9:22) Luke wants to be clear that Jesus is down here now, not up there. And he is down here and not up there so that he can teach the way of the Realm, through the beatitudes, in the midst of the world, which is the level place; in the midst of the nitty, gritty, often harsh reality of life.
His beatitudes are a counterpoint to the values which that world holds: values that say you hate your enemies, that you seek revenge against those who harm you, that you curse those who abuse you, that you physically beat up someone who strikes you, that you offer the bare minimum to those in need . . . if anything at all. While standing in the broken level world, Jesus teaches the ways of the present and coming renewal of the world via the Realm of God. In a nutshell, he is proclaiming the end of the world’s level place values.
And wow, the Realm’s values are bombshells! Each one is a challenge. They are where the rubber hits the road for we who profess to follow Jesus. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These are virtually an impossible set of values to attain to, at least consistently. I mean, maybe, maybe on a really good day we can achieve one of these, but it isn’t easy. We are too human, too broken, too infected by the values of the level place to do so.
Jesus’ disciples expressed great frustration with these values. When at one point he told them that it would easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the realm of God – who because of his wealth was considered particularly blessed –they were aghast! “Then who can be saved?” they exclaimed. “But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
We live in the level place here in the 21st century no less than the people of Jesus’s time. The values of that world – lust for power and wealth, a propensity for violence - create corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning in abundance in our world. The values Jesus proclaims are in total conflict with the assumptions of the market place, Wall Street, corporate board rooms, Capitol Hill, the White House, Hollywood, and much of the media that shapes American culture. Our leaders and heroes are more likely to be neither poor, nor non-violent, nor humble, nor loving. And those churches that preach the heresy of the so-called prosperity gospel are equally culpable. No where in the scripture does it say that God desires you to have an expensive German automobile, or a mansion, or diamonds, or a private jet. Those are the values of the level world in sheep’s clothing, barely. God desires you to have wholeness of body, mind and spirit. God desires you to have authentic life, not loot.
Because of the values of the level place these people and institutions hold, materialism reigns in our lustful, gold- plated culture, and unbridled violence grows in our homes, streets and schools. Greed breeds more greed. Violence breeds more violence. Lust for power breeds more lust for power. Hate breeds more hate.
This is why we must hold the values of the Realm of God as the plumb line in the midst of the level place, which is what Jesus was doing. Whenever we encounter the values of the level place we must love in return, because love is of God and with love all things are possible. We must “do to others as we would have them do to us.” We must love one another, as we have been loved by Jesus. As Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry states, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
The love that Jesus and Curry speak about is agape love; a love that has us feeling benevolent towards another person, regardless of what that person has done to us. Agape love guides us to desire nothing else for another person – even if they hate and revile us – than to be good and kind to them. And that we will deliberately, even if they insult us, treat us badly or injure us, only seek their highest good. Now this is not about letting those who injure us off the hook without their being remorseful and desiring an authentic amendment of life. This is not about cheap grace. But we must initiate the healing and the forgiveness God calls us to when we are maligned, even when the other may not respond in a like manner. We must be the proverbial, “better person.” And we can only achieve this by a force of will that finds its source in grace and love.
Joseph in our Genesis story exhibited agape love toward his brothers. Maligned and sold into slavery by his brothers because they found him to be an insufferable brat and were envious of their father Jacob’s favoritism toward him, Joseph had every reason to hate and despise his brothers and seek revenge on them. And when he became the second most powerful man in Egypt, after the Pharaoh, he wielded enormous power of life and death over people. When a famine in Israel compels Jacob to send his sons to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph and his brothers are reunited, only they do not recognize him. After a series of encounters he finally reveals himself. “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" he says. “But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” Dismayed is an under-statement. I suspect they were terrified as they realized the one they had treated so abysmally now had the power of life and death over them, and they expected the worst.
Yet Joseph does not succumb to the values of the level place. By force of will he allows the ways of agape love to determine how he will treat his brothers, allowing him to feel benevolence toward them despite what they had done. He only sought their highest good and that of his father Jacob and his people. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. Tears of the joy of agape love. Jesus calls us not to go low to the facile ways of spite and vengeance. They are the easy way out. Rather he calls us to go high, engaging in assertive, pro-active action; to muster up the strength of a force of our wills to engage in agape love when we encounter the values of the level place. To counter them with the values of the Realm of God, which will be stronger than hate, hostility, greed and violence.
We are close to Lent. Instead of giving up something, I encourage you to take on the discipline of forcing your will to engage in agape love when you encounter the values of the level place. Let benevolence be your guide instead of hate, as you love those who have harmed you, seeking their higher good. In doing so you will be hanging the plumb line of the Realm of God in your life and the lives of those you encounter. And that Realm will draw ever closer to its full fruition when you do so. And trust me, as it does, Christ will be resurrected in you this Easter in ways you never imagined!