Sunday 17 February 2019
Sermon on the Plain
By Michael Hart
Retired Anglican Canon
Context: Parish Eucharist in a lively, diverse small-town parish
Aim: to challenge people to live the Beatitudes
This morning three things: Big Crowd. Big Message. Big Need!
First: The Big Crowd. Imagine the scene of our Gospel reading – Luke’s account of what is commonly called Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. There is a large crowd of Jesus’ followers. They include the newly chosen 12 Apostles. By the way Matthew’s Gospel, has a similar, yet more close-knit scene on a mountain of Jesus seated, like a rabbi, teaching his disciples.
But let us picture Luke’s less intimate scene: a much bigger crowd of those who’d come to hear, be cured, or seeking deliverance from the evil that troubled their lives. It’s a crowd of people eager to reach out and touch Jesus. Jesus is on level ground; he lifts up his eyes to this amphitheatre of people and delivers a sermon. Is he delivering an ordination sermon! He’s just selected 12 Apostles now he preaches to them … or does he?
Jesus’ ministry draws many who want to touch him and those whose hearts and lives he wants to touch. So he enters the broken places in order to do that: by his stable birth, where people are as rich/poor, the sick/healthy, the pious/religious, facing life or death; and even by his resurrection where death meets life eternal with God. In all those people’s lives and brokenness, he comes with healing, with life, with resurrection. He lifts up and does not put down. Perhaps this is why again and again in the Gospels Jesus seeks to re-order people’s lives. A new way: by his ordination of Apostles and changing not just religious practice but practical religion.
Possibly his sermon could have been preached to just the Apostles for their commissioning. It is more likely addressed to that whole crowd seeking the ‘Jesus touch’. It is even more likely addressed to us!
Let’s now consider The Big Message: What is Jesus on about in this sermon? Now this sermon could have been just a basic job-description for apostles. Or teaching the crowd about how to be happy - here expressed by the English word ‘blessed.’ It is part of the whole Big Message of Gospel, Good News. The sermon on the plain is indeed a challenge to a vocation to beatitudes, to happiness.
Jesus’ own way of beatitudes is to disturb the way people manage their time, money and relationships. Jesus wants to open people to God’s values which differ from human values. To move from trust in themselves alone to trust in God. What Jesus shows, influences attitudes now and for the future.
The Big Message is meant to shake attitudes, lives and structures. Hence as well as four beatitudes we have some ‘woes’! The ‘woes’ speak to those who have achieved what they want but points out that is all they’ll get. The Big Message is an agenda of moving to options of care for the forgotten people: the afraid, neglected, bent-double and weighed down of the world. The Big Message is a call to sinners, those in need of forgiveness, mercy and help.
The Big Message calls people to feel with their senses something of the deprivation and marginalisation of broken people. Indeed, elsewhere the Gospel parables speaking of blessing and woe, warn of pleading ignorance or walking by on the other side! So the Big Message is not just for new Apostles, nor the crowd hearing the sermon on the plain: it is for us!
Finally, The Big Need: or what this has to do with ourselves and Church in 2019?
I visited a Christian family who said they’d been ‘greatly blessed’ in their lives. Did they mean ‘we got what we wanted’: that they had gained and achieved greatly in their lives: were now comfortable, rich and content? ‘Good for them’ you might say, but is there evidence of living the beatitudes?
Far too often the Church and Christians have chosen the high moral ground and failed to even seek to understand the needs of people: the poor and others expressed in the Beatitudes sermon. As Lady Grantham (in the T.V. series Downton Abbey) memorably remarked: ‘It must be very cold on the moral high ground.’ Jesus comes to the level ground and to where people, in brokenness and need, cry out for help: and he comes with the warmth of compassion, forgiveness and love.
I believe the Church, as Bishop Philip North has said, needs to put more staff and resources into being alongside the poorly housed and fractured individuals and communities of this country.
What of individual Christians, each of us? Well, we need to ask are we living the Beatitudes? Do we have a sense of vocation to be courageously happy in sacrificial service? The Big Message calls for risky, spontaneous response as well as resourced and well planned action. Our part might look like:
- helping with a Credit Union
- contributing to or staffing a Food Bank
- being a listening ear and support for those who weep, are sad, lonely or broken
- bringing the needy in prayer to our broken Lord in the shared Eucharist
- being faithful to our Lord even when mocked, broken ourselves or persecuted
Christians who have followed a vocation of Beatitudes have got rid of slums, credit exploitation, slavery, degrading treatment of women and children, and trusted God to help them in the task.
The sermon on the plain, as that on the mountain, is very much addressed to us. To live by prayer, word and action Christ-like lives. May God grant us the grace to live the Beatitudes.
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