A second career pastor had been at his suburban church for about a year. He had left his stable career in the insurance industry, feeling called to pastor a suburban church and to remind people of their responsibility to care for the poor. He immediately began volunteering at the local soup kitchen once a week and encouraged his congregation to join him. Often, the responsibility of Christians to take care of the poor came up in his sermons. One Sunday as the pastor was shaking hands after his sermon, an older gentleman came up to him and said, “Pastor, what’s all this talk about the poor? I’ve been in church my whole life, and I’ve never heard a minister talk so much about the poor.” The pastor responded, “If you don’t want to hear about the poor anymore, you are going to have to take that up with Jesus! I’m not making up a bunch of talk about the poor; it’s the gospel!" Within the year, the church ran the pastor out of town and into an early retirement.
We really should have seen it coming. His first sermon in the synagogue had said it all. “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’ mission was about reversals. People didn’t like it from the beginning. That first sermon filled all in the synagogue with rage. They were so angry that they drove Jesus out of town and tried to hurl him off a cliff! Since that day, Jesus had gone about the work of the kingdom, healing and preaching and teaching, and calling disciples to help him fulfill his mission. Right before our text for today, Jesus had just chosen twelve of his disciples to be his apostles, the ones who would spend the most time with him and walk with him closely in his ministry. As he was walking down the mountain with these special and chosen twelve, he stood with them on a level place. There were many disciples and Jews and Gentiles from all over surrounding them. Some had come because they were curious. Some had come because they wanted to be healed of their diseases. Some had come because they wanted to be cured from unclean spirits. All were trying to touch Jesus.
Right at that moment when it felt like the whole world was watching and waiting to see what Jesus was all about, Jesus looks up at his disciples and speaks an important word to them, just as they have begun their ministry together. It’s a critical turning point, and these words, that have become known as the Sermon on the Plain, are of upmost importance for their mission. “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.” Remember these are words spoken to the disciples; they are not random words with no context and no audience. As they come down off this mountain to begin ministry, Jesus is reminding them what they’ve gotten themselves into. Following Jesus will mean loving the poor and hungry. It will mean weeping because things aren’t as they should be. And it will mean being hated by the world because the world will not always see the good news of Jesus as good news. This ministry of Jesus is about great reversals, and people do not like to see their lives turned upside down, particularly if their lives are going quite well, particularly if they are the ones in power. Like Jesus, the disciples will be chased out of towns and put out on the edges of cliffs.
To follow Jesus will mean being denounced by the world. Jesus tells the disciples that they are to leap for joy when the world hates them because when they are reviled and defamed, they will find themselves in good company, the company of Jesus and the prophets. They will be hated because they love the poor. They will be hated because they will question the values the world holds sacred, the systems that keep people poor and hungry and weeping. Luke does not spiritualize these sayings, like Matthew does, clarifying the poor to mean the poor in spirit and the hungry to mean those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Luke holds up those people whose bodies hunger for nourishment and who are not surrounded by riches, as those who are blessed.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, though we sure wish he had! He moves from blessings to woes, woes that make us want to push him off the edge of a cliff. “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.” Following Jesus will mean not valuing riches and not consuming more than our fill while others go hungry. Following Jesus will mean not being able to be blissfully happy while others suffer. Following Jesus will mean that everyone won’t like you. Woe to those who love the things of the world and are themselves loved by the world. Woe to them because they have their priorities in the wrong order. Woe to them because their priorities are surely going to keep them from loving who Jesus loves. Jesus warns the disciples, and the crowd that’s listening in, that a great reversal is coming, a reversal that will bring about the kingdom of God, a kingdom that looks very different from the world.
The end of our text today gets real specific about how to live out this world where everything is being reversed. It tells the disciples how to embody the values of the kingdom. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. Do not respond to violence with violence. Do not retaliate. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt! When people beg, give them something, even if you think they are lying, even if they don’t deserve it! If someone takes something that belongs to you, don’t try to get it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. In the few verses after our text for today, Jesus makes this statement even stronger. Perhaps, he realizes it’s not enough to command the disciples to treat others like they want to be treated. He tells them that their mercy is to reflect God’s mercy. So even when their mercy runs out, they are to be as merciful as God would be! They are to do what God would do!
Luke’s Sermon on the Plain teaches Jesus’ disciples – both past and present – how to the faithful, how to be saints. Today, on All Saints Sunday, we honor all who have died as witnesses of the Christian faith. We celebrate all those saints who’ve gone before us and those who are still in our midst, who’ve taught us what it means to be faithful, who’ve embodied the values of the kingdom. One saint who embodied the values of the kingdom, that we don’t often hear much about is St. Clare. Clare was the third of five children born to a wealthy family in Assisi. From a very early age, she demonstrated generosity and compassion for the poor. Clare heard the preaching of St. Francis of Assisi, and his preaching compelled her to become a Benedictine nun and live her life in service to Christ. She was arranged to be married to a wealthy man, but she snuck out of her house and met St. Francis. She exchanged her fine clothes for sackcloth. She left her wealth behind, taking a vow of poverty. Clare lived with the Benedictine sisters for a while before forming her own order of nuns, called the Poor Clares, becoming the first woman to write a monastic rule of life. Francis inspired her, but she also inspired him in his faith and ministry; he often leaned on her during times of doubt and struggle. In a letter to a sister named Agnes from Prague, Clare urges Agnes to leave the pleasures of the world behind and to live life in the monastery. She writes: “O blessed poverty who bestows eternal riches on those who love and embrace her! O holy poverty to those who possess and desire you God promises the kingdom of heaven and offers indeed eternal glory and blessed life! Contempt of the world has pleased You more than [its] honors, poverty more than earthly riches, and You have stored up greater treasures in heaven rather than on earth, where rust does not consume nor moth destroy nor thieves break in and steal. You know, I am sure that the Kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor.”[i] St. Clare so strongly advocated for the vow of poverty because she knew what riches could do to people and how wealth could distort their priorities. She believed that by living in poverty, she and her sisters chose to walk the narrow way that leads to the kingdom of heaven. St. Clare’s life shows us that living a faithful life, committed to the radical values of the kingdom, is possible.
Jesus held up the poor and blessed the poor not because they are good, but because in order to live out God’s values the poor need to be filled and loved. As Gustavo Guiterrez says, “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.”[ii] Jesus is not necessarily saying we are to become poor, though that is a faithful way to follow him. Jesus is saying the poor are blessed. God loves the poor. In God’s kingdom the poor are loved, the hungry are filled, and the mourning are joyful. And if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we are to love the poor like God loves the poor. If we are rich, we are often so preoccupied with our possessions, so stuffed with the goodness of this life, that we don’t respond to God’s invitation to walk in the way of Jesus. When everything is going well for us, we think that we can depend on ourselves, and we have no need for God. But what good is it for us to gain the things of this world and yet to forfeit our very souls? If we are going to be saints, we must repent of our love for our selves, our money, our things, and the world’s praise. We must reorder our priorities. We must reverse our values. We must learn to be okay with God turning our world upside down.
When we talk about saints, we often feel like we will never be good enough or faithful enough to be called saints. But as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says in her book Accidental Saints, “What we celebrate in the saints is not their piety or perfection but the fact that we believe in a God who gets redemptive and holy things done in this world through, of all things, human beings, all of whom are flawed.”[iii] So perhaps we will never take a vow of poverty, though that would surely help us not to be enslaved to the world, but we can find a way to learn to embody the values of a kingdom, where the poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, and those who weep laugh. We can find a way to live that does not lift up being rich or full. We can find a way to live that does not value what the world values. As Bolz-Weber admits, learning to be more faithful or “getting closer to God” is not always something we desire. She says, “Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away.”[iv]
We cannot embody this upside down kingdom unless we rely on the strength of Christ, who taught us that embodying the values of the kingdom will certainly lead to suffering. When Christ embodied the kingdom, he rubbed up against the values of the empire. He was hated and reviled by those in power. They did not speak well of him. They defamed him and nailed him to a cross because his list of woes frightened them, because they did not value the people he called blessed. This morning as we come to the table together and eat of his broken body and drink of his spilled blood, God will make us, the body of Christ into the blessed saints. Christ will sustain us and show us how to be faithful, how to embody the values of God’s kingdom, until Christ comes again and resurrects us with all the saints, and brings God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
[i] Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, Translation and Introduction by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatious C. Brady, 180-181.
[ii] As quoted by Culpepper in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Originally in “Song and Deliverance” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.
[iii] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People, 7.
[iv] Ibid, 8.