The Logic of Leveling vs. Scarcity and Scapegoating [OR Jesus, Pops, and Pithy Sayings] Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10

**sermon art: Jesus Christ Preaching by Jose Trujillo (oil on canvas)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:17-26  He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 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. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it? 10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

[sermon begins]

Growing up in my house meant growing up with a step-dad who would spout pithy sayings often in the form of warnings.  I’ve shared a few of Pops’ sayings with you in the past.  It’s surprising how the sayings come to mind as preachable given the amount of eye-rolling and foot-stomping that greeted them at the time.  One such saying bubbled up when I’d want to go do something with friends. Pops would then give me grief, I’d respond by telling him that my friends were allowed to go, and he’d say, “Would you rob a bank if you friends were doing it too?”  Classic.  I never saw much use in that particular logic as my friends never invited me to rob a bank. Nor did I ever think I would tag along on such a quest even if they did.  Regardless, Pops felt it necessary to regularly warn me of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  Warnings are often wasted on the wayward.  We don’t like the flaws in our logic challenged so we roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit the messenger. Pops likely didn’t deserve my disdain.  Similarly, Jesus’ likely didn’t deserve the contempt he received in response to his warnings either.

Warning is one way to think about what we hear today in the “woes” recorded in Luke’s gospel.[1]  There are connections between the language of woe that Jesus uses and the language of woe used by Old Testament prophets.  Prophets didn’t pull any rhetorical punches either.  They wanted people to hear the bad news about their current behavior and call people to repentance, to new ways of being in the world as God’s people.  The woes that Jesus lays down are for those of us who are rich, full, laughing, or admired.  Sure, we have options.  We could roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit Jesus or the Bible or the preacher in the pulpit, wasting Jesus’ warning for the wayward.  Or, we could let the warning of the woes settle over us.  Let the warning of the woes challenge our wayward living much like the prophets used to do.  The prophet Jeremiah challenges his listeners not to trust in mere mortals.  By extension, this means we can treat our inherently wayward opinions and circumstances with a bit of mistrust; with a healthy, well-deserved dose of skepticism.

Let me give one small example of what I mean by a healthy dose of skepticism.  Periodically, those of us preachers who show up for preachers’ text study will debate the pros and cons of sharing personal stories.  In this small example of an ongoing debate, it makes sense to wonder why we preachers tell stories about ourselves.  After all, the goal is to point to Jesus in the act of preaching.  It goes without saying that it’s not about spotlighting the preacher.  A healthy dose of skepticism can help challenge the privilege of the pulpit while also trying not to end up the hero of our own stories and sending sermons off the rails – an important, mostly behind-the-scenes task.  Similarly, Jesus’ woes to the rich, full, laughing, and admired can instigate a need to self-justify.  We can find ourselves saying things like, well, I’m not that rich. Or I used to be poor.  Or even more problematic, we can find ourselves trying to justify why other people are NOT rich or full or laughing or admired.  It’s like we read the four blessings and the four woes listed by Jesus as a particular challenge for us to see where we end up in his list. In the meantime, while we’re justifying things all over the place for ourselves and other people, the opening verse of the reading says that “[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed all the leveling language in Luke’s Gospel in quite the same way before.  Maybe it’s because we only get Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, during Year C of the Lectionary Readings when Easter is almost as late in the Spring as it can be.[2]  The last time that it came up in Sunday’s worship readings was in 2004, fifteen years ago.  While preparing and thinking about Jesus coming down to the level place, John the Baptist’s quotes from Isaiah came to mind about smoothing rough ways, filling valleys, and lowering mountains and hills.[3]  Mary’s Magnificat also came to mind about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly.[4]  The leveling is NOT a reversal of bringing the low high and the high low only to change places and repeat the same bad news. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in Luke’s Gospel enacted what was proclaimed and sung by John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother Mary.

Jesus came down and stood on a level place with the twelve, and also with “a great crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Naming those locations means that the crowds were full of Jews as well as non-Jews otherwise known as the Gentiles.  Crowds of people showed up from all over, some were Jesus followers, some were Jews, and some were Gentiles.  It’s chaos. People reaching out and touching Jesus, people unbound from the social norms of their day milling around a level place.

Leveling works against our primitive urge for scapegoats. Rene Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity late in life after studying scapegoating and the Bible.[5]  Girard expected to find consistencies in scapegoating between other ancient manuscripts and the Bible.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.

The Gospel of Luke in general, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in particular is a prime example of how the Bible levels the highs and lows of social norms that we tend to describe as “just the way things are.”  This is especially true in societies like ours where “the blessed” are often considered to be the rich or full or laughing or admired while “the woed” are the poor or hungry or weeping or reviled.  Somehow, we misinterpret blessings and woes as deserved and bestowed by God – subconsciously justifying each person’s social location.  The problem is that we end up treating our neighbors based on what we think they deserve rather than on the greatest commandment, so named in all four Gospels.  The greatest commandment goes like this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’[6]  In Luke, the 10th chapter, we’ll hear this greatest commandment coming up in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus, preaching on the level place, is able to name the blessings of the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled not because of a far off someday but because he calls and invites us all to be a part of the leveling here on earth – seeing each other as siblings in Christ over and above our primitive urges toward scarcity and scapegoating. The primitive urges that increase the risk of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  The good news is that Jesus meets us in the chaos of the level place.  Rather than recycle the same bad news with a new set of faces, he invites us into the good news of our shared humanity, beloved as children of God, and freed into loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Alleluia! And Amen.

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[1] Rolf Jacobson. Sermon Brainwave podcast #648 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany for February 17, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1106

[2] Easter is scheduled annually on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html

[3] Luke 3:1-6

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[6] Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34–40; Matthew 22:46; Luke 10:25–28

Personal and Prophetic Grace. Yes, it’s both. – Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; see end of sermon for last week’s reading from Luke that is the first part of Jesus’ sermon here]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

{sermon begins]

Oh, Jesus! Really?!! Upsetting your listeners again? How quickly things go downhill too.  Just before he’s nearly hurled off the cliff, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  If only Jesus had stopped with his gracious remarks before he launches with prophetic grace.  “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” Jesus. Timing is everything and Jesus’ timing with the people hearing his sermon was way off.  We hear the end of the story today begun in the Luke reading last Sunday.  Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”[1]  Of course it was his custom, being a first century Jew and all.  Jesus was Jewish through and through.  He stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah and sat to teach.  His named great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, alongside the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman and the widow were outsiders.  By telling those stories from Jewish history, Jesus pushes his home-town people hard on the outsider message.  A message long embraced by Jews about Elijah and Elisha who also summoned prophetic grace for outsiders.[2]  This was not a new message, although it was apparently an infuriating filled one.

Prophetic grace is not neutral.  There’s usually some kind of reaction.  People love it or people hate it.  Either way, prophetic grace often pushes people which means that people will often push back.  A couple weeks ago, I marched in the Marade celebrating the work and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders prayed about loving our neighbors by taking action; as politicians spoke with different perspectives on equality and freedom; and as I looked around at people of all ages and skin colors, I wondered if I would have had the courage to march with Dr. King over 60 years ago.[3]  Many white people thought he wanted too much, too fast, for black people and that his rhetoric was too risky for everyone.  Many moderate whites who were on his side in theory, couldn’t bring themselves to show up with him in actuality, although some did.[4] The same could be said of Harriet Tubman. She was a former slave, political activist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad that rescued slaves before the Civil War.[5]  It’s ironic that her image will grace the $20 dollar bill given that Ms. Tubman lived at a time when the economy depended on black slave labor who received none of the financial reward.  Both Ms. Tubman and the good Reverend King acted from deep faith.

If Harriet Tubman and Dr. King are too much prophetic grace to contemplate, let’s try Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Pastor Bonhoeffer is often lifted up by Lutherans as an exemplar of prophetic grace.  He lived and died in Nazi Germany working to overthrow Hitler first by speaking out against him and then by trying to assassinate him.  He was executed days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp.  The good Reverend Bonhoeffer is obviously inspiring for what he was willing to risk and the faith that was his strength.  Similarly to my thoughts about Dr. King and Harriet Tubman though, I wonder how I would have responded to Pastor Bonhoeffer had I been a German Lutheran of his day.[6]

I wonder because of their inspiring lives that they risked daily.  I also wonder because of Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in the verses 18 and 19 from last Sunday.  When Jesus unrolled that scroll in the synagogue, and stood to read, here’s what is quoted from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ reading from Isaiah, echoes the Spirit filled words of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon earlier in Luke.  People will argue about whether Jesus’ words are meant personally or prophetically.  Aren’t we all on some level poor in spirit, blind to truth, captive to sin, and oppressed by shame?  We talk about those experiences regularly and I often preach Jesus’ promises for all people as a direct word of grace.  For God’s sake (literally), I experience comfort in Jesus’ personal grace myself for all those reasons.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus only meant these words on a personal, spiritual level. If he did, what do we make of the likes of King, Tubman, and Bonhoeffer whose deep faith shapes actions on behalf of people who are actually poor, captive, and oppressed? One of the things I find fascinating about reviewing history is how it can help with perspective today.  Which leads to the other question I’ve been noodling. Who are the voices of prophetic grace are right now? Your homework this week is in the form of a question.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message?  Perhaps it’s a message that rankles and gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable and antsy for some cliff hurling.  Let me know who you come up with and why.  Here’s the question again.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message. Before we get too far on that homework, I’d like us to add to the mix of prophetic grace the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking with love. To paraphrase Paul, speaking without love ends up being a whole lot of noise for a whole lot of nothing.

Some of us have tasted this love that Paul is talking about.  We’ve experienced the grace of the gospel in the unconditional love of Jesus that means there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  It’s deeply personal and it’s transformed our lives.  I first heard this gospel when I was 28 years old. As it fell into my ears week after week, I would sit in that sanctuary and wonder what the people around me were hearing. The gospel, my husband, and my congregation at the time, started nudging me to seminary.  Six years ago yesterday, I was ordained and installed here, with you, as a pastor.  You just never know what the gospel is going to do with you once it’s had its way transforming hearts with love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  This is true whatever your vocation. Gospel love is a personal grace.

Gospel love is also prophetic grace. There are moments when other people say hard things but we’ve still experienced this gospel love.  It’s harder to hear the love through a tough message but it’s in there.  We question motives and meaning before we even realize we’re doing it.  Consistently, Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because all people are included in the love of God – even that person you wouldn’t mind hurling off a cliff – prophetic or not.  Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because Jesus loves the world, everything and everyone in it.  This means that grace in the form of unconditional, gospel love is personal for you and prophetic for everyone else.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say hallelujah…and amen.

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[1] Luke 4:16

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology. Commentary on Luke 4:21-30 for February 3, 2019 on Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955

[3] Saja Hindi. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade Sends Thousands Through Denver.” The Denver Post, January 21, 2019. https://www.denverpost.com/2019/01/21/martin-luther-king-day-marade-denver/

[4] Audio and Document to Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King. Have a listen: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[5] Harriet Tubman. History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman

[6] Victoria Barnett. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

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Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”