Not a Mountain Top Religion

by Michael Usey

Luke 6: 17-26, NRSV

So much of what Jesus says is wonderful. God loves us. God forgives us. The kingdom of God is a party. But then Jesus has this shadow side that wants to make everything so hard. Krister Stendahl said, “Theology is worrying about what God worries about when God gets up in the morning.” Jesus said, “God worries about those who’ve fallen through the cracks—the poor, hungry, hurting, left out. God also worries about the wealthy, well-fed, self-satisfied, popular, because trusting in your own good fortune leads to death.” Jesus is annoying.

Luke chapter 6 is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, which we heard read this morning.  Most of us prefer Matthew’s kinder, gentler account. Anthems are from Matthew; never from Luke. Matthew offers only blessings. He skips the woes. Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes. Luke makes them harder to swallow. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke has none of that “in spirit” stuff—he just says, “Blessed are the poor.” Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger after righteousness.” Luke’s version is harder, “Blessed are the hungry.” 

The only problem is that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is not the one that we are familiar with. The much more popular version of the Beatitudes is to be found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, the Beatitudes serve as the preface to the Sermon on the Mount. There are nine Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke, the Beatitudes are the preface to what is called the Sermon on the Plain. There are only four Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke it is called the Sermon on the Plain because in the older translations it says “he came down from the mountain and stood on the plain.” The newer translations says “he came down from the mountain and stood at a level place.” Why they chose to translate the Greek as “a level place” rather than as a plain is beyond me. The Sermon on the Level Place just seems to lack some panache, especially when you contrast it with the Sermon on the Mount. “Level place” is a terrible translation.

Not only does Luke have less than half the Beatitudes that Matthew has, Luke’s Beatitudes are much more demanding. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke says, “Blessed are the poor.” Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke says, “Blessed are those who are hungry now.” There is a big difference. But there is more. Matthew lists the Beatitudes, then he stops, goes on to something else. Luke lists the four Beatitudes, then he continues with four “Woes,” or curses. “Woe to you who are rich.” “Woe to you who are full now.” “Woe to you who laugh now.”  Emotional damage!

Jesus’ teaching on poverty is difficult for Christians. The early church believed that holding on to wealth is a sin against those who are starving. But they soon discovered that preaching that wealth is a sin tended to keep wealthy people from joining the church. We are not surprised that wealth is not considered a sin any more. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes reminds us of Mark Twain’s line: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that get me, but those I do.”

Here in Luke’s sixth chapter Jesus begins to teach. He outlines what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live as a Christian in this kind of a world. Up to this point, through the first five chapters, he really hasn’t taught anything. In fact, up to now, he has hardly said anything. It has all been action, very little dialogue. He has healed the sick and he has sparred verbally with the Pharisees. He has called the disciples, and he has attracted crowds that are getting larger every time he performs a miracle. They are now following him around from place to place. Crowds will always gravitate toward the sensational.

Now we are at Luke chapter 6. He goes up onto a mountain with his newly recruited disciples. Then he comes down from the mountain. That’s the difference between Matthew and Luke. In Matthew he goes up to the mountain and he takes the disciples with him. He instructs them on the mountain. In Luke he brings them down to the plain, to the crowds, to where the people are.

The text says “there were people there who had diseases,” and “he healed them all.” Jesus has been doing that from the very beginning of his ministry. That is why the crowds are there. That is why they follow him around. He comes down to where the people are and he heals the crowd.

In the NT there are two kinds of people. There is the crowd, and there are the disciples. The crowd he heals. He doesn’t ask anything of them. Out of compassion he sees their sicknesses and he heals them. Then they go away. We never hear of those people again. They have no names. They are the suffering in this world. He touches them, and heals them.

But disciples he doesn’t heal. Nor does he particularly express any compassion toward them. Nor are the comfortable words uttered to them. There is nothing in the gospels about the disciples becoming a support group. Jesus heals the crowds, and he challenges the disciples into service.

The text says when he finished healing the crowds, he turned to his disciples, and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” He is talking to his disciples. “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 exclude you, and defame you, on account of the Son of man [on account of me].” He is addressing his disciples. He is not talking to the crowd now, although they probably overheard him.

Do you see what he is doing? He comes down to the plain, where the people are, and demonstrates what God’s purposes are for the whole world. What he is doing is giving us a foretaste of the God’s beloved community, where there will be no more disease, no more pain, no more sorrow. Life will be whole. Life will be the way God created it to be. Later he will raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and the Centurion’s slave from the dead, to show that it is even God’s shalom that we should not experience death, that we will overcome death. 

You know what the most significant part of this text is? It says he came down from the mountain to be with the people, and took his disciples with him. He is instructing his disciples now. He says, this is where Christianity is to work. This is where you are supposed to be, where people are. Not on a mountain top.

We are not a mountain top religion. It is always tempting to make Christianity that way, to picture Jesus as a guru, a sage, a swami, and his teachings as inspirational thoughts, and Christianity as just another one of the philosophies about life, giving us inspiring ideals. Jesus did not say that. Jesus would go off by himself to pray, but according to Luke, when he instructed the disciples, he came down from the mountain to be in the real world. That is where he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, and who are hungry, and whose lives are filled with pain and with sorrow.”

It’s often called “reversal.” The Bible talks about it over and over again. The situations of injustice in this life will be reversed in the next life, which is exactly what we are seeing in Luke’s Beatitudes. That is why he adds the Woes, so there will be a dramatic contrast between those who are blessed now, and those who will be blessed later. Someday it will come. In God’s time. This isn’t heaven and hell final judgment talk, but an acknowledgement that there will be mercy and accountability in God’s eternity.

In the meantime, Christians are to identify with the poor. You can’t be a Christian and store up wealth for the future, and ignore those people who have nothing in the present. You can’t dine sumptuously everyday, and not be concerned about those who are hungry. You can’t laugh and have a good time, and not care that there are people in this world, especially children, who have never smiled. Someday that is going to be different.

A Man for All Seasons was my favorite play growing up. (I think for Lexi, too!) The main character, Sir Thomas More, is a person who tells the truth in a world that lies. He is Lord Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII. Thomas More is arrested, tried, and ultimately executed, because he disapproves the king’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine, his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the king’s declaration that he himself is the head of the Church. During the trial, the king bribes a disingenuous opportunist named Richard Rich to tell lies against More. There in the courtroom Thomas More figures out what has happened when he sees that Rich is wearing the medallion of the Attorney General of Wales. More says with pain and amusement: “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”  Good thing our Brian Carden isn’t listening.

The foolishness for which people trade their souls would be amusing were it not so tragic. We become preoccupied with things that do not matter and miss things that do. We confuse our life’s circumstances with our actual life. We forget that the real life is the underlying flow beneath the everyday events. 

When Mother Teresa visited the US she was asked, “What do you think of the American way of life?” Mother Teresa cared for the poorest of the poor in India, but when asked her opinion of Americans, she replied without hesitation, “I have never seen such poor people.” She understood that real joy is not as superficial as we have been led to believe. We like living in a wealthy country, but in many ways we are not wealthy. Americans are stressed out, psyched out, burned out, and bummed out.

What we think of as personal frustrations are actually small parts of the big picture. We have to back up enough to see that our society’s materialistic values do not make sense. When we read Jesus’ words to the wealthy we usually hear them as angry condemnations, but it is more likely that Jesus speaks with disappointment and despair. 

God is concerned for those who are rich and self-satisfied, because they miss God’s love. Appearances are deceiving. Things are not what they seem. God has different standards. The world’s values are upside down. Those who are satisfied to live on Easy Street miss so much. And the ones who know they are not self-sufficient, who weep with those who are hurting, and those who live with deeper joy are blessed. We need to turn the normal frames of reference 180 degrees, so that we can see what is worth keeping and what to let go. 

A young Buddhist asks a spiritual master to teach him everything so that he can become a master himself. The teacher orders tea for the student. When it arrives, he begins to pour the tea into the disciple’s cup. The tea overflows the cup, over the saucer, and on to the floor. The young man cries, “The cup’s full! It won’t hold any more.” The teacher says, “Yes. Just like you. You’re so full of yourself that there’s no room for real wisdom.” When we are self-centered, we are so full of ourselves that there is no room for real love. We get so caught up in our tiny goals that we are not open to God’s gifts. The crucial matters of spirit and soul get lost. At the end of the day, if our guiding principle is self-interest, then our lives will be shallow. Every once in a while we have a moment of depth and truth when we realize that Jesus is right. 

In the meantime, we as Christians are somehow tied to the poor. We can’t escape that. And I have wrestled with what that means. In Christian history, it has been interpreted three ways. There is no doubt what it meant for the twelve disciples. They left everything and followed him. And Jesus, when he instructed them before they went out on their first missionary journey, said to them, “Take nothing with you on your journey. No staff, no bag, no bread, no money, nor two tunics.”

So the first response to Jesus’ teaching is to adopt poverty as a way of life–as he instructed his disciples to do. Which is fine, but its application leads to controversy. The disciples took nothing with them on their journey. It meant they had to stay with people who had those things.

In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, he says that the earliest church, which was in Luke’s opinion the church in its purest form, had no possessions. They sold all their possessions. But that model, too, is compromised. Luke wrote that they sold their houses and put all the money in a common treasury so there would be nobody without. But he also says that they met in each other’s houses. Now you can’t do both of those things. You can’t sell your house and meet in it, too.

Later Luke will record that there were many wealthy people, people of substance and status in this life, especially women, who were among the faithful. He always mentions them and he always mentions them by name. First of all in the gospel, he says they were part of those who followed Jesus around and provided the support for the band of disciples. In the Acts of the Apostles, he said, they were the ones who supplied the houses to meet in and provided the financing for the movement.

Paul, in his letters, announces proudly that he is financially independent. He is not dependent on anyone. He earns his own way. Later Paul will take up an offering among the Gentiles for the poor in Jerusalem. Now you can’t take up an offering among the poor. You have to take it from people with substance. So some lived according to the literal teaching of Jesus to have no possessions; this is the first historic response.  

The second response came later: poverty was adopted as a spiritual discipline. That is the model of the monastic movement. There is a certain attractiveness to that. George Bernard Shaw carried on a long correspondence with a cloistered nun. She had no contact with the outside world. He wrote to her over a long period of time. In one letter he wrote, “Next time I am in your neighborhood I will look longingly through the bars to the freedom on the other side.” There is a spiritual wealth that comes through voluntary poverty.

Protestants found the same thing. They formed certain religious communities. We know about them because they immigrated to this country 350 years ago: the Shakers, Amish, and some Quakers, fleeing persecution in Europe. I have known their descendants; so have most of you. The Amish stand out from the rest of us in this secular society because of their dress. The women wear simple cotton dresses that cover them from the neck to down over the ankles. They wear bonnets to cover their hair. They dress modestly. The men wear simple coveralls, and beards, and wear black hats. The children are dressed the same way as the adults. They look like little adults, and seem happy and well behaved. 

You can see the love that binds these families together. It is quite lovely. It is wistfully attractive. “Tis a gift to be simple, Tis a gift to be free, Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.” The same song could be easily sung, “Tis a blessing to be poor,” and mean the same thing. So Christians, some of them, have always taken on voluntary poverty in order to achieve a spiritual blessing.

But there is a third way Christians have responded to this Beatitude. They have become advocates for the poor. They use the wealth and power and influence that God has given them in this life to make sure that the poor are not forgotten. They see to it that the poor who are motivated to improve their lives, who want to be independent, not dependent, who want to become a part of the community, and not ostracized from it, can do so. As Jim Wallis said, the most onerous thing about being poor is the ostracism; being branded as a failure, as worthless, and treated that way.

This church has been engaged in ministries to our poorer neighbors over a long period of time. We have done it for years through various programs: Habitat, GUM, Out of the Garden, Church World Services,  Backpack Beginnings, Women’s Clinic Escorts, GCSTOP needle exchange, African Services Coalition, Special Blend, Interactive Resource Center, just to highlight a few. You can participate in these; they are up and running ministries that we don’t have to recreate.  There is always a need for people to do the number of tasks that are involved in carrying out these ministries. Send James or the church office an email, and we’ll get you hooked up with them or someone from our mission committee.

The good news of Jesus is good news in so far as we have turned away from empty materialism values in order to become a blessing to those who are hurting. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” because materialism is poison. “Blessed are those who mourn,” who do not keep their distance from suffering people. “Blessed are those who are outcasts,” because they are courageous enough to speak the truth no matter what the cost. We become the blessing of God when we reject inferior values, when we live in opposition to foolish materialism. 

Imagine a woman in our church who helps with Out of the Garden and GUM. She has been helping with these two food organizations long enough to know that many of the clients work hard and have more difficult lives than most of us imagine. Then one Friday, she is having dinner with friends from work. The conversation turns to the number of unemployed and underemployed people in Greensboro, the ones with signs that say, “Veteran who needs food.” Someone asks, “Can’t something be done about those people?” And another quickly answers: “Well, as long as do-gooders keep putting out the red carpet for them, we’ll never get rid of them. If we could get rid of all the bleeding heart programs then those people would have to go somewhere else.” 

How does a Christian explain what makes no sense to many? How do we say that the world’s values are upside down? Picture a lawyer who lives with Jesus’ values. She keeps taking cases that do not make money. She helps poor people who have been evicted. She works to get deposits back from dishonest landlords. She helps sick people in disputes with Social Security and Medicare. She represents those who have been unjustly fired from their jobs and immigrants threatened with deportation. The other lawyers think she is a bad lawyer, because she does not choose profitable cases. How can she explain? 

Imagine a father and daughter attending career day at the daughter’s high school. Several speakers tell the students that if they study hard and go to the right college, then they can get good jobs and make lots of money. On the way home the daughter asks, “Do you think I could be rich?” How does a good father explain that he has different dreams? His hopes for his daughter do not center on what she can buy, but on what she can give. His hope is not that she will have a fancy home far away from the poor, but that she will work for justice for those who are hungry. His hope is not that she will be seen as a success, but that she will live in the Spirit of God. Those who have felt God’s blessing do not live like other people. They do not worry about what they own, what they look like, or who they have impressed. Those who are blessed simply live in God’s goodness and share God’s love.

I love that story of Marian Preminger. Born in a castle in Hungary in 1913. The castle had eighteen bedrooms. It had a dining hall with a table that could serve 84 people. She was raised in wealth among tutors, governesses, maids, chauffeurs, cooks, the whole retinue of people who serve the rich.

Her grandmother, who lived with the family, insisted that whenever they traveled on the train, or stayed in a hotel, that they take their own linen, because, she said, it was beneath the dignity of her family ever to sleep on linens that had been slept on by somebody else.

At 18 she went to school in Vienna. She met a young, wealthy man, married him. They were divorced within a year. She stayed on in Vienna and became an actress. There she met a young German director named Otto Preminger. They fell in love, and were married. He was invited to come to America and make movies in Hollywood. While living there Marian began to live the rather sordid life that was typical of Hollywood, especially in those days. When Preminger found out about it, he divorced her.

She went back to Europe, to live in Paris as a wealthy socialite. One day she picked up the newspaper and saw that Albert Schweitzer was visiting Europe. He was on leave from his hospital in Africa, in Europe to play concerts, to raise money for his hospital. He was staying at a village called Gunsbach. She phoned and asked if she could see him. They said to come, that she could see him the next day.

She found him playing the organ in a little church. She sat down and listened to him play. He noticed her presence. She introduced herself. He asked, “Can you read music?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Will you turn the pages for me?” He invited her to dinner that evening. She participated in one of those famous Schweitzer meals. The old man at the head of the table, surrounded by admirers. He would end the meal with a scripture reading and the Lord’s Prayer. Marian knew by the end of the meal that she had found what she had always been looking for.

Schweitzer invited her to come back to Africa to work in the hospital at Lambarene, in French Equatorial Africa. She accepted. She began to work among the poor. This woman, who was raised in a castle, and was raised as a princess, to be served, now became a servant. She changed bandages, she washed bodies, she fed lepers who had no hands left with which to feed themselves. And she felt blessed. When she died, the obituary in the New York Times quoted her. She said, “Albert Schweitzer used to say that there were two kinds of people in this world. There are the helpers and there are the non-helpers. I am a helper.” “Blessed are those who care, for they will know the joy about being God’s children.”

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