Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
Jesus continues his journey throughout the Galilee, teaching and healing so that great crowds now seek him. Everyone struggles to touch him for “power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.” He goes away to the mountain to pray and then selects twelve men as his apostles, twelve men reflecting the twelve tribes of Israel so as to affirm Jesus’ Jewish heritage. There was also a “great company of disciples in addition to the twelve apostles.”
In our reading from the Gospel according to Luke, we hear that Jesus and all his followers come down the mountain and stand on “a level place.” The Sermon on the Plain is set in a different context than Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain. Jesus comes down and stands in the midst of those who have come to be healed and those who are troubled. He comes to a level place to bring the kingdom of God to those who are gathered “from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon.” He demonstrates that there is no space between those who suffer and those who rejoice. The gift of the one who brings God’s kingdom is available to us all.
Jesus begins to speak to his disciples as the crowd listens in. Like Matthew, the sermon begins with beatitudes. But Luke has given his understanding of Jesus’ mission. “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 mercy (favor).”(Luke 4:18-20)From the start, Luke’s blessings differ from Matthew’s.
Unlike, Matthew’ account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ sermon the issue is not being poor in spirit, but being poor(ptōchoi), dependent entirely on begging; not hungering and thirsting for righteousness, but being achingly hungry; not eschatological mourning, but the raw grief produced by stunning violence and terrible death. While Matthew’s account of Jesus’ sermon has a more spiritual view of blessedness, Luke’s is fleshy, earthy, where life and the dust of the road meet. It is the place where wounded flesh and shattered hearts are real.
In our Gospel reading, for each present reality—poverty, hunger, grieving, hatred—Jesus offers a promise. The poor will reap the kingdom, the hungry will be filled, the ones who grieve will again laugh, and those who are rejected because they follow Jesus, will leap for joy. This is a promise, not a magical removal of a present painful reality, nor a prescription for what we must do to receive these blessings. This is simply Jesus’ statement of God’s dream for all God’s people. No matter how cursed or parched we may feel, God can be trusted.
It is this future that the prophet Jeremiah holds up for us. The green, fruit bearing tree will be our hope and future. That tree will have a source that will nourish it and sustain it when heat and drought comes. And because of this its leaves will stay green. Even in times of darkness and drought, the tree will grow. Even when everything around it tries to take away its life, the tree will not die. In the Lord’s care, the tree will live.
The future is a difficult place to put our trust. We cannot know what the future holds. So is the present. And the past can just be a place that gives us many reasons not to trust the present or the future. These words from Jesus and Jeremiah remind us that it is not the future itself in which we trust; it is God. We must not put all our trust in ourselves. And if we put our trust in people or institutions who claim to lead us to the good life, too often we will find their promises empty. We trust in God who blesses us even in the midst of our troubled present and leads us through to the other side—to a future of hope. In our despair, we place our hope in that phrase “shall be” promised by God who holds the past, present, and the future. God who knows intimately the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated, the excluded, the oppressed. God who keeps promises and has a future in mind for us that is so much more than our current suffering can contain.
Yet the promised future has another side we cannot ignore. At the end of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus continues to speak of a future—but this time, a future of woe for those who are rich, who are full, who are joyful now. Those who feel that their lives are on a trajectory filled with continuous blessing, their future is promised to contain sorrow and emptiness. It is a promise we don’t want to hear. It is a promise we would rather not face.
In the United States, we are fed on the sweet milk of the “American Dream.” From the moment of our birth we ingest this vision of success that is guaranteed if we work hard, stay determined and occasionally are willing to do something with bootstraps. It is a story of unlimited horizon for those who possess the personal characteristics required to walk into the zone of deserving. It is a belief that through our own efforts, we can control our future. It is a myth.
Because even doing everything you know to be right, you can become seriously ill, your job can get downsized, your hard-earned savings can be devoured by greedy individuals and institutions, your beloved can die suddenly, your child can become trapped in the disease of addiction. These are just as much a part of a faithful life as is the sunnier circumstances that preceded them.
Our Books and Bread group read a book by Kate Bowler, called Everything happens for a reason: and other lies I’ve loved. Kate, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School has researched churches and televangelists that follow the Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel, first came to the United States during the Healing Revival of the 1950’s. It is a religious belief among some Christians who hold that if you have faith, pray hard, focus on the positive, and donate to religious causes, God will provide wealth, health, and success beyond your wildest dreams. The Prosperity Gospel believes faith is a contract between God and humans. If humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity.
But the counter side to this is that if wealth eludes your grasp, if you are sick or suffer—then it is all your fault. If prosperity and unbridled success is not your path, then it is you who have failed to believe or pray or contribute enough. When Kate, who had lived a successful life by any measures, was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35 after only recently given birth to her first child, she was forced to wrestle with how her new reality fit with her relationship with God. She wrote a book that helps many struggle with the questions that can flood your heart when bad things happen like, “Why?” “Where are you God?” “What does this suffering mean?” It is a painfully honest book, but also one that is filled with love.
Through her generous public wrestling that exposes all the complex emotions experienced when your life crashes into a new reality, we hear her discovery that even in her darkest moments, God’s love carried her. She finds living in the present beautiful and important. She finds hope in the generosity of others. She says, “At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks, and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.”Through love, she was like a “tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream” so that neither fear nor anguish destroyed her.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, he comes down and speaks “on the level” with you and me. He urges us to hear both the blessings and the woes in this text. He reminds us that there is always another side to what we experience. None of us will live life only in the full sunshine. That is only half a life, it is unrealistic and impossible to live this way. Our reality is that we will live lives that are full at times and empty at times. That the only true fullness that endures is from God. We will live lives of laughing and we will live times of weeping. But God promises that joy will be found. From every time and angle of life, God holds us and promises us that God is ever present and is moving through all creation.
The Sermon on the Plain is not a behavior checklist that will allow us to control life’s blessings or misfortunes. Nor, do I believe, is it the angry scolding of God who hates to see us too comfortable. Rather it is an assurance that in placing ourselves in God’s steadfast love, we will be connected to the source of life abundant, where even when we find ourselves in the wilderness, even when life strips and drains us, we will be held by the One who gives goodness and life. Placing our trust in God, who holds the past, present, and future, who knows intimately poverty, hunger, suffering, grief, and rejection, we connect ourselves to the One who delights in making deserts and wastelands into groves of fruit bearing trees. We connect ourselves to the One who delights in welcoming each one of us into the fullness of the kingdom of God.