“Blessings in Flat Places”
You’ve probably heard of the “Sermon on the Mount.” Not many of Jesus’ sermons were given titles, but one great sermon recorded in the Gospel of Matthew is given a name (at least by Christians, later). The Sermon on the Mount… It’s the sermon Jesus preached while standing up on a hill, the teachings he declared from above while the people listened from below, looking up to him for wisdom and guidance and blessing.
Matthew presents Jesus as a kind of new Moses, and so sets his version of the famous sermon “up the mountain” just as Moses received the Torah with the commandments on Mount Sinai. Luke, on the other hand, from whose Gospel we read today, presents Jesus as a figure in the ancient prophetic tradition, less a new Moses and more a new Jeremiah. And while the prophets may pray on mountaintops, as Jesus frequently does in Luke, their prophetic work is done down among the people, in the nit and grit of everyday life.
Today’s Gospel of Luke reading begins: “Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place.” It may not be acoustically the best choice of position for preaching, but Luke’s Jesus is down and dirty: he walks, and heals, and teaches in the valleys and on the plains, meeting us exactly where we are.
Now, I do remember when I drove into the Rocky Mountains of B.C. for the first time. I was absolutely amazed by those mountains! I felt so small as I looked up with them towering above, and I felt a certain amount of anxiety where I saw the cliffs dropping hundreds of metres just at the edge of the roadway. The view from the top of Coquihalla highway was spectacular, and the air was clear and cooler than I expected for a mid-summer day. I won’t forget those mountain-top experiences from the summer of 2002.
I remember the mountain-top experiences in my journey of faith also. I expect that you do as well, if you’ve had a few.
I remember a couple of amazing sermons, a few really inspiring worship experiences, and several awesome choral moments when I was swept away spiritually in the wonder of praising the God of love and light. I remember my baptism and my ordination, and a few amazing times when I felt the Spirit working through my meagre efforts to proclaim God’s love in words and sacraments.
But actually, when I begin to think about times in my faith life when I experienced a sure and certain sign of God’s presence and the assurance of God’s love for me, it was often when I was walking through flat places, and sometimes even through dark valleys. And I wonder if that is true for you also.
I remember lighting a candle during a memorial service, and entrusting a dear one that I loved into the keeping of God.
I remember crying tears of frustration and sorrow, and being surrounded and upheld by the prayers of a friend, giving me strength and courage to go on.
I remember throwing a stone into the Atlantic Ocean, and knowing that God would help me to let go of past pain and disappointment and to embrace the good (but yet unknown) plans that God had for me.
Luke’s description makes sense to me – that Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, because I’ve heard Jesus’ voice in those places too. Not only on the mountain-tops, but when I’ve been tired, or sad, or lonely, or discouraged, or in pain… that’s when I so often notice that I need God, when I look for Jesus’ help and consolation, and when I receive it.
Likewise, the people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon knew that they needed God’s help. They had come to hear Jesus and to be healed of their diseases. All of them were reaching out to touch him and be healed, and we are told that he did heal them all. Perhaps with his hands and his divine power, and perhaps with his words and his promises.
From the flat place on which he stood with them all, Jesus looked up at his followers and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 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.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
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.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Now sometimes, perhaps most of the time, when we hear these words of Jesus, we assume that Jesus is speaking to two different groups of people. There are the poor, hungry, sad, and hated ones over here, and there are the rich, full, laughing, well-regarded ones over here.
In listening, we are encouraged to consider where we should place ourselves. Are we the poor ones for whom Jesus has good news of consolation and hope? Or are we the rich ones who are being challenged not to place our trust in our current privilege and power?
As North American, middle class, Christians today, most of us likely fit better in the position of those who are well-fed and well-regarded, and so the Gospel’s message is one of challenge and even woe.
But as someone who has ministered among you for the last year and a half, I know that most of your lives are not as easy and happy as those whom Jesus warns not to become too full of themselves.
I know that you have struggles – with illness, injury, and grief. I know that you bear heavy responsibilities, and that anxiety and worry are a part of your daily lives. I know that some of you have been wounded by rejection or exclusion, and others have been disappointed by failure or loss. I know that many of you long for healing – healing of your bodies, minds, hearts, or spirits – healing of your loved ones, or of your relationships.
When I think about my own life, I must acknowledge that there have been high moments when I have been happy, successful, and full. These are the times when Jesus’ words have encouraged me not let my head swell too much, trusting in my own skill and competence for success. But there have also been many flat places and valleys in my life – times when I have needed the assurance of God’s healing presence and help.
Today’s Gospel assures us that Jesus comes down with us and stands in the level places of our lives. Jesus pronounces blessing in the midst of our struggles, and then promises even greater blessing in the future. This is the “already, but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced. Even now, in this world, we get glimpses of God’s kingdom, experiences of God’s love enacted… but the fullness of God’s reign is yet to come when the world is made right and everything is redeemed.
The most traumatic thing that’s happened to me in my life was when I fell down some stairs and dislocated my shoulder. I realize that it was minor compared to many people’s struggles, but it was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced, both on the day of the accident and in the following weeks. It interrupted my plans, slowed me down, made me dependent on others to drive me around, help me with physical tasks, and even to dress myself in the morning.
And looking back on the experience four years later, I can see that God blessed me in that flat place. There were immediate blessings that I recognized even at the time – the good and prompt medical care that I received, the ways my husband and others supported and helped me, the patience of people around me, and even the gift of Tylenol 3!
And there were also blessings that I could recognize later as I looked back on the experience. The blessing of learning what it’s like to be a patient so that as a pastor I can understand a little better what others may be going through, the blessing of being slowed down from the rush of my life and forced to do some self-care. And eventually, the blessing of the fullness of healing. Nine months later, I regained my full range of motion, and now there is no evidence of any injury at all.
Someone else may be suffering from a serious and life-threatening illness. In the midst of his struggle, he may be blessed by supportive friends and family, good medical care, moments of relief from pain or nausea, or the sure sense of God’s presence and help through the prayers of his church community. Physical healing may or may not follow in this life. But the fullness of God’s blessing is nonetheless promised, maybe soon, but certainly in the life to come.
Someone else may be struggling with grief and loss. In the midst of her pain, she also may be blessed by happy memories and thankfulness for the loved one now lost. She may be blessed by people who allow space for her to be happy or sad or in between on any given day. Or she may be blessed by the gift of a new relationship, a grand-child born, or a new purpose in life. Nothing will replace the dear one who has died, but blessings do come in the midst of the sorrow. And the promise is there too – the promise of new life, of reunion, of her broken heart fully healed.
Although I was amazed the first time I experienced the mountains of B.C., I’ve come to love the flat land of Saskatchewan, the big sky with rolling clouds, the golden, or green, or purple fields that go on and on, the beautiful big sunsets, and even the bracing winds.
God’s power and creativity is evident in this flat land on which we live, just as God’s blessings are poured out on us in the midst of the level places of our lives. Today, we are invited to open our eyes to see and our hearts to receive the blessings that God has for us now. And we are encouraged to hold on to the hope of the fullness of God’s blessing in the promised Kingdom of God.
May God indeed bless us, and grant us healing and peace.