The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This past Tuesday, in the weekly gathering of my beloved Cathedral clergy colleagues, I asked them if they had any personal insights or resources that they would recommend to apply to today’s Gospel lesson because I was preparing to preach. They all smiled and they said, what’s the Gospel lesson? And I told them, and then they went, oh, yeah, that’s a tough one, Jan. Good luck with that! Truthfully, they all reached out because it is a tough lesson, isn’t it? If we’re really honest and listening to what is called and commonly known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, we’re on the “woe to you” side of that sermon. As it’s known by many, this is the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel that, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it, includes the beatitudes and the “woeitudes.” Let’s face it, folks, we’re having to grapple with the woetudes of Jesus’ sermon.
It’s been said that a preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. And that’s precisely what Jesus is doing. But, as with everything, it’s really important in grappling with scripture, and particularly difficult scripture, to have context. So this morning I invite you to wrestle with me on what Jesus was saying in that day and how it’s still urgent and relevant to you and me today.
If you back up a bit in Luke’s Gospel, two weeks ago, Jesus is rolling out his first public sermon, as at least recorded in the Gospel of Luke, in his own hometown of Nazareth. He opens up the scroll from Isaiah and says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. For He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He’s claiming that God has anointed him to bring this good news. Well, that went down pretty well with the local crowd; it says they were favorably disposed.
But it’s when Jesus goes on to explicate what that means, that he starts to get into hot water with the hometown crowd. Because what Jesus says is that God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s concern is inclusive—for everyone, not just the Jews who were gathered in the synagogue that day, not just for us who are gathered in the cathedral this day, but for the gentiles, for all the known world. What Jesus was saying was radical, and that didn’t go down very well. Jesus, from the very beginning was shaking up the status quo. Jesus was lifting up those who were oppressed and on the margins. So as he moves into the Sermon on the Plain, he’s just been up on the mountain praying, calling the disciples, those who would journey with him on what was a revelatory, shaking up of the status quo path. That’s what Jesus invited, not just the disciples and those gathered that day to, but that’s what Jesus calls us to, today.
Now, if you go on in the Sermon on the Plain, there’s hope for those of us who are having to struggle with the woeitudes. In his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Peter Gomes notes that Jesus goes on to say, love your enemy. Practice the golden rule. Love those who are outside of your comfort zone. And then he says this, be merciful as your Father is merciful. It means there’s hope for those of us who have resources, who didn’t come to church hungry today. That what we’re called to face and what we’re called to walk into. Where are we putting our devotion? To whom and to what are we devoting our resources and all that we are and all that we have? Jesus told us very plainly that the most important things are to love God with all that we are and all that we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
That’s the focus, I believe, of the Sermon on the Plain: that there’s always time for us to take a fresh look at how we are living our lives, how we are sharing the resources that God has given us for the building up of the Kingdom of God. Where do we ultimately put our trust? My friends, it’s no accident that the American currency, all of it—the bills and the coins—all say In God We Trust. I think someone knew that we needed some reminders on what matters and how we live our lives as followers of Christ.
About 10 years ago, I had one of the most transformative experiences of my life being with brothers and sisters in Christ who were on the blessed side of that equation, desperately poor. I was on a mission trip to Malawi, which you may know is one of the poorest countries in the world. Depending on which survey you look at, they’re either the third poorest or the sixth poorest in the world. It’s a desperately poor country. And 10 years ago the statistics were that nine out of 10 people were unemployed and due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS and malaria and malnutrition and all the things that go with desperately poor countries, the average life expectancy had dropped from 58 to 37. I mean, can you imagine being considered old at 38 years of age? But that was the reality. That is the reality in so many places around the world.
During our time there, our host Bishop, Bishop James Tengatenga took us around to the villages and the churches in the areas where the church was trying to be faithful to living into the gospel. It was amazing and inspiring what the church was trying to do. Then they took us to the village of Chapananga, which in a desperately poor country had to be the poorest village. We were miles and miles off the main road off on bumpy, hard baked, caked dirt roads. In this village, only one person was employed, one person in an entire village. The Bishop told us that the men of the village, all unemployed except for one, spent their days drinking and making babies. It was up to the women in that village to try and scratch out some way to feed their family and sustain life.
What struck me was how joyful the women were and the children. I mean, I was hopelessly depressed. I’ll be honest with you, with my western lens, looking at this situation, how in the world could they ever get out of this wholly predictable cycle of extreme poverty? Yet the women were joyful. It was when we were leaving that I finally understood. As we were leaving, getting into our air conditioned bus, I might add, the women broke into song and dance and they were joyful and they were exuberant. And the translator told us that what they were singing was, “we are confident, we will meet again in heaven.”
You see my friends, they were clear on the one in whom they put their trust. They didn’t need it on their currency to remind them. Blessed are the poor for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep for you will laugh. They knew Jesus was talking to them. Their hope was in the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
You don’t have to go across the world, we know that, to experience poverty. In Washington. D.C., one in seven families struggles with hunger. 19% of the population are considered poor. Five percentage points above the national average of 14%. We know there are needs here. We know there are needs everywhere. What Jesus calls us to is to not be indifferent. If we seek to follow Christ, service to those in need is at its heart, loving God with all that we are and all that we have and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We’re about to enter into the season of Lent, a time when we reflect on our lives, how we’re living them, how faithfully we’re following Christ, where we’ve become separated from God and one another. It’s a perfect time, friends, to recommit ourselves to following Christ, to following his example, And the joy that comes when we are living faithfully, sharing what God has given us to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry for they will be filled. Blessed are those who weep for they will laugh. My brothers and sisters, that’s the hope. That’s the promise of God, with our help. Let it be so. Amen.