A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Gospel lesson is from the Sermon on the Plain.
All is not what it seems.
Jeremiah asks, “Who can understand the heart of a person, of a people?” It has a tendency to deceive itself; all is not what it seems. But God will not be deceived, nor is God influenced by the outward appearances of success, strength, social acceptability.
Jesus’ words to his disciples in the level place take aim at the false assumptions of us all about what represents God’s favour, God’s love for God’s people.
In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus preaches from the mountainside; in Luke, he come down to stand in a level place. He is in the levelling place, and he levels with the crowd, and with us.
“Do you think that you are secure in your status, your riches, your good reputation, your sound body and skilled mind?” he asks. “Think again. For the poor, the wretched, the hungry, the despised: those are the ones overdue for God’s blessing. These are they upon whom healing has been proclaimed.”
The people in the crowd, you may notice, were not the powerful or the self-possessed. They came with their unclean spirits and their palsied hands, with their hurts and their heartbreaks, with their hidden and public diseases, united in their unacceptable brokenness. These were the people reaching for Jesus and touching him, upon whom his power poured out, upon whom his pity rested. Those who were in need of him were healed, and those who thought that they had no need of him – they were the ones who would weep when they realized what they had tried to turn their backs upon; from whom its was they had tried to turn away.
“Those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength … They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes,” warns Jeremiah. Those who are self-possessed, self-assured, whose roots go only as deep as their own bootstraps – they are rooted in a desert. They do not see the erosion around them, the encroaching sand. There is no one near, they have not kept company with those who gather at the watering hole, who share the springs that bubble up at God’s command.
But we are dependent not upon ourselves but upon God, and if Jesus has taught us anything by his incarnation, by becoming one of us, it is that we need one another, too. Each of us. All of us.
It is only when all are fed that there will be none left to go hungry; only when each has a voice that no one has to shout; only when there is nothing left to be lost that there will be nothing left to weep over.
The problem of the shrub that tries to stand on its own dignity and its own shallow root system is not only that it will one day, inevitably, shrivel, but that in the meantime it will spend all of its energy sustaining only itself. It will miss out on the joy of collaborating within God’s creation, the ecosystem of grace.
You know that we have a problem going in around us and within us right now. The book bannings and even book burnings, the frightening new bomb threats to HBCUs, violent acts of antisemitism and re-legalization of discrimination by gender, rumours of war and of insurrection; all of these are greater or lesser symptoms of the disease that has taken hold of us, the virus of self-satisfaction and self-reliance, which are the respectable faces of selfishness.
But there is no blessing in privilege. Inequality is not a blessing even upon those who benefit materially from it. Freedom from love is no freedom at all. There is no blessing in superiority, let alone supremacy; these things are deceptions of the heart and perversions of God’s mercy. But God’s justice will not be mocked.
Our aspiration, if we follow Jesus, is not for ourselves, but for each other; for strangers, even for enemies, as well as for family and friends. As long as selfishness continues, Jesus and Jeremiah each warn, then the crooked and deceitful heart is just begging to be broken.
The problems writ large may seem far from the everyday experience of many of us. But the symptoms of the virus start in the cells. Each one of us is susceptible to selfishness. There is not one among us who has not looked upon another with contempt, who has not justified herself by comparison, nor considered her own needs good reason to go before another. It seems to be human nature – except that Jesus took our human nature upon himself, became our human nature, without selfishness, without pride, without exceptionalism.
The root of hatred is the fear that allowing that someone else is as beloved, esteemed, filled by the Spirit of God as I am takes something away from me; that somehow if everyone is as beloved as I am, as blessed as I am, as good as I am, that diminishes my blessing, my belovedness. What nonsense! As though God’s grace were rationed! Yet time and again we fall prey to something less than love.
What then, are we to do, when the human heart is crooked and will keep deceiving us with its petty pride and its little victories?
Here’s where we are in luck. The people came in a great crowd, from the cities and the coastlands and the interior, from the wilderness. “They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”
They came to Jesus, and he healed them of their unclean spirits and their diseases of heart and soul, and of body. They came because they knew that they could not manage it on their own, and they came because they knew that he loved them, each of them, all of them, enough to share his anointing with them. He was their bright hope, and he is ours: not hope for riches or status or even acceptability; see what he says about the reputation of those who do what is right.
But he is our hope for wholeness, for a heart that knows what it is to be truly human, healed by grace of its unclean spirit; a heart to love and to know its belovedness.
We stand on ground that is spinning at astronomical speed, hurtling through the immensity of space, at an enormous distance from the sun. No wonder we feel unstable! But Jesus is our level ground. He is here with us still, in the level place, steady and steadfast in a world full of trouble, rising above it all.