A Level Place

+ A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)/Lectionary +6C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 13, 2022 +

Text: Luke 6:17-26


Later today, the eyes of the country will turn to Los Angeles.
Millions of TVs will tune in to watch the biggest sporting event of the year.
To watch the headliner concert that happens at halftime.
To watch the obscenely expensive commercials trying to sell us things we don’t need.
Whatever the reason, whether they’re rooting for one of the teams, whether they’re only paying attention to the advertisements, or whether they’ve just shown up to eat the food at the party, all eyes will be on LA.

And in the lead-up to today’s big event, Los Angeles has been trying to clean-up their look to prepare for the attention.
But unfortunately, these preparations have been on the back of some of their most vulnerable citizens.
Reports show that LA has systematically swept the encampments of unhoused persons that were deemed to be too close to the stadium everyone will have their eyes on this afternoon.[1]
They have been forcing some of the poorest Angelenos out of sight and out of mind, sometimes destroying what little possessions they own in order to make everything look better for the national stage.
Advocates say that this is far from the first time this has happened in Los Angeles.[2]
That city officials regularly sweep Hollywood’s encampments each year like clockwork just before the Academy Awards, apparently thinking that when we’re focused on the glitz and glamor of the red carpet or the big game, we don’t want to be reminded of our neighbors who are just trying to survive.

Now, while Los Angeles may be in the spotlight today, we know they are not the only place that tries to sweep their poor under the rug.
Encampment sweeps are all too common across the lake where I live in Seattle, where equitable access to housing is a major issue.
We know it also happens on an individual level all the time.
I am sure that I am not the only one who catches myself averting my eyes or crossing the street rather than actually encountering my siblings living on the street.
And just last month, a small parish in Oregon sued their city government after the city tried to limit the church’s meal service to their hungry neighbors.[3]

When the pandemic hit in 2020, most of the churches in little Brookings, Oregon suspended the community meal services they had been offering the unhoused residents of the town.
So in response, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church felt they had no choice but to expand their own twice a week program, offering not only free meals but COVID testing and vaccinations available six days a week.
But soon, residents complained—they didn’t want to see those people in their neighborhood.
So, the city passed an ordinance that restricted how often “benevolent meal services” could be provided, allowing only two meals per week.[4]
Now St. Timothy’s and the Dioceses are suing the city for infringement of their religious rights and practices.
The Episcopal Bishop of Oregon, Diana Akiyama, said in a statement, “The parishioners of St. Timothy’s are obeying the teachings of Jesus when they provide food and medical care to their community…As Christians, we are called by faith to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.”[5]

Because no matter how we may view our poor, hungry neighbors—or choose not to view them, as the case may be—we know exactly how Jesus views them.
And if we didn’t, today’s gospel makes it crystal clear.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “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.”

Now, to many of us, these words probably sound familiar.
Though, if I were to guess, I’d say we’re probably more familiar with the version we find in Matthew’s gospel, sometimes called the Beatitudes, which Jesus preaches during his Sermon on the Mount.
But as we know, each gospel has a slightly different perspective and memory of Jesus’ ministry, so there are some differences between Matthew’s version and Luke’s version, which we heard today.

First, this sermon—which will continue next week—doesn’t take place on a mountainside, but in “a level place.”
So rather than the Sermon on the Mount, this is often called the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke tells us that people are gathered from all over the place—coming from the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem to the very gentile region of Tyre and Sidon—encompassing rich and poor, ailing and able bodied, committed disciples and intrigued seekers.
And it’s important for Luke that the whole crowd is on the same level.
More than any other gospel, Luke is insistent that the new reality Jesus proclaims will turn our world on its head.
That any sense of order that we expect or structure that society clings to is completely dismantled.
Which is why a poor young girl in a backwater town is chosen to be the Mother of God, called blessed by the whole world.
Which is why Mary sings of God casting the mighty down from their thrones and uplifting the humble, of filling the hungry with good food and sending the rich away empty.
Which is why Jesus’ first sermon is filled with good news for the poor, to the captives, to the oppressed.
And that’s why it’s so important for Luke that the one who comes in the name of the Lord does not stay up on a mountainside, looking down on the crowd.
Rather Jesus, God in the flesh, comes among the crowd.
Looks them in the eye.
Experiences their challenges.
Sees them in their fullness.
And even when the world would look away or try to ignore them, Jesus proclaims them blessed.
It’s as if Jesus is teaching us that unless we actually see each other as equals, unless we realize that we are in this together, unless we all stand on the same level, we will never experience the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Which perhaps leads us to another difference in Luke’s version—the woes.
“Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says, “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, while we may try to pass off Jesus’ words to “you who are rich” as directed to those millionaires and the billionaires, but it’s not so easy for us to get out from these woes, is it?
I know that I have a fridge full of food at home.
I know that I am in generally in good spirits.
I at least hope that others speak well of me.
And when I compare myself to the rest of the world, I know that must acknowledge that I am indeed rich.
It certainly seems like I fall much more into this second category than the first.
I’m guessing I’m not alone.

But before we despair, I really don’t think Jesus is pairing his declarations of blessings with declarations of condemnation here; these woes aren’t intended to be curses.
Rather Jesus is trying to get his disciples attention; he’s trying to get our attention.
He’s using these strong words as warning to us that even though we may think we have it all, we are missing something.
He’s imploring us to stop averting our eyes and to look around us and see the realities of our neighbors.
He’s reminding us that even if we think we can do it all on our own, we are fooling ourselves because we standing together with our siblings—all on a level place, equal in the sight of God.
And these woes aren’t just for those who would rather blast themselves into space than provide shelter for the residents of their city who live on the street.
These woes aren’t just for those who would rather maintain some sense of order than feed their hungry neighbors.
These woes aren’t just a warning for those who would sweep encampments under a rug to avoid the eyes of the country seeing our siblings face to face.
Jesus is reminding each one of us that, even when we think we’ve made it, if our richness, our abundance, our joy, and our good reputations don’t include all of humanity, they are woefully incomplete.
That until we look around to find our God and see our beloved siblings all around us, we can never experience the fullness of God’s Reign which is turning our world upside down.

Last week we heard Jesus call his first disciples who left everything behind to follow him.
Just before this passage we heard today, Jesus names his twelve apostles who will carry his gospel to the ends of the world.
And today, we hear Jesus teach his disciples, teach his apostles, teach us what it looks like when we follow him.
Jesus isn’t saying that God wants us to become impoverished or hungry or mourning or hated in some vain attempt to find God’s blessing, but he invites us to see our siblings as God sees them—as blessed and beloved children of God—and to change our outlook, change our attitude, change our society until all God’s children are actually valued for who they are and treated as they deserve to be.
Each and every one of us is valued, beloved, and blessed by God, even if we don’t act like it.
So, Jesus invites his disciples, ancient and modern, to refocus our eyes from how we have structured the world to how God has designed the world and to do all we can to make that vision a reality.

Because in God’s Commonwealth there are no teams, no unequal statuses, no hoarding for ourselves what is meant to provide for all.
We are all brought together by our God to a level place, to be one community, so we can let go of anything that would separate us and finally experience together the blessedness God has in store for us all.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/26/homeless-los-angeles-super-bowl

[2] https://sojo.net/articles/woe-you-los-angeles-super-bowl-homeless-unhoused

[3] https://www.npr.org/2022/02/02/1077700303/oregon-church-suing-limit-free-meals-homeless

[4] https://www.opb.org/article/2021/10/28/oregon-coastal-city-limits-free-meals-for-homeless/

[5] https://ec37ikp975z.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/FINAL-PRESS-RELEASE-St-Timothys-Church-v-Brookings-Complaint-.pdf

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