2/24/2019: What Grace, Genesis 45:3-11;15, Luke 6:17-38
First Lesson: Genesis 45:3-11; 15
Second Lesson: Luke 6:17-38
Rev. Scott Dickison
We noted this in bible study Wednesday night, but we think of Luke as the cute and cuddly gospel—with the birth stories and the infants dancing in their mothers’ wombs, and the shepherds and the angels, and even later in the gospel, all the parables—the lost sheep! Who doesn’t love the lost sheep? And it’s true: Luke provides many of the most beloved and heartwarming images we have from the gospels. But Jesus, in Luke, has an edge to him. He’s like that dear, sweet church lady who plays piano and brings deviled eggs to funerals and just loves on your baby, and then you get her behind the wheel of a car and look out!
Now, it’s a different kind of edge from Mark’s portrait of Jesus, who is always in a hurry and has a nasty habit of shaming his disciples and getting frustrated with all the sick people coming to him. Jesus, in Luke, is a model of compassion and patience…if you are sick in need of healing or poor or oppressed or incarcerated or otherwise out there on the margins. If this describes you, he truly is the good shepherd. But if it doesn’t, then prepare for the business end of the shepherds crook.
This is the beginning of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, but there are a few very important differences, the most noticeable of which is that where in Matthew Jesus only offers blessings:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
In Luke he offers these blessings but then follows them with “woes:”
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
And not only that, but the conditions Jesus addresses in the blessings are slightly different. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew becomes “Blessed are you who are the poor” in Luke.
Those who “hunger for righteousness” in Matthew becomes “you who are hungry.” Not spiritually hungry but “hungry hungry.” And You who are hungry he says, almost looking at the hungry faces in the crowd staring at him. There’s an urgency here, a groundedness. Jesus is speaking in direct, even economic terms here, and he’s not letting anyone off the hook and we’re right to feel uncomfortable with what he’s up to.
And it even starts with where exactly this sermon takes place. In Matthew, of course, Jesus climbs a mountain and looks down over his disciples and begins to teach them from this elevated state, remembering back to Moses when he climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the law of the covenant and brought it back down to the people. But the way Luke remembers it, Jesus wasn’t on a mountain looking down to his disciples, but instead in verse 17 we’re told, “He came down with them and stood on a level place.” And when he begins to preach it says, “He looked up at his disciples and said, ‘Blessed are the poor…’”
He went to a level place.
He looked up to them.
Do you see what’s happening here?
On the one hand Jesus is preforming physically, in his location, his posture, what he’s saying. In this “Sermon on the Plain,” as it’s often called, Jesus is imagining a level world, a just world—a world where we see each other eye to eye, or maybe face to face, as the apostle Paul would later put it. And for this to happen, Jesus says there must be a dramatic reversal of the way things presently are.
But beyond this “leveling” of the world—of “lifting up the lowly and drawing down the powerful,” as his mother Mary would sing before he was born—Jesus invites us to go even a step further. Just as he gets to a position where he’s somehow looking up at these people who have come to listen to him, he invites them—he invites us—to embody the same kind of almost excessive deference.
“But I say to you that listen, 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; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
This last line we know, don’t we? “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” “The Golden Rule,” as it’s often called, may be Jesus’ most famous teaching, the kind of benchmark for how we can play nice in the sandbox: be fair, treat everyone with the same respect you would ask from them. Except when we read it in context, this isn’t what Jesus was saying at all, is it? (And I’m indebted here to a beautiful commentary on this passage by the SALT Project) That may be the benchmark—the level ground we seek—but Jesus is really inviting us to something more. He’s inviting us to love not just those who we might expect to love us back, but to love our enemies, to help those who would wish us harm, to pray for those who would abuse us—a word that in light of recent revelations inside the Catholic church and the Southern Baptist Convention, gives these words from Jesus a added depth. We would never expect these things from those who would wrong us in these ways.
These aren’t images of fairness or justice Jesus offers us here. There is no “tit for tat,” no quid pro quo, no ROI, “Return on Investment.” These are images of something less in material terms, which in the Kingdom of God is revealed as something more in spiritual terms.
Mercy we don’t deserve, which is the very definition of mercy.
Compassion that seems beyond reason.
Forgiveness that’s just given away.
Things that in the church we call “grace.”
And it turns out that grace is all over this passage.
The Greek word for “grace,” charis, is the word translated “credit” here in our reading. Which means instead of saying, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you,” Jesus is really saying, “If you love those who love you, what grace have you?”
“If you do good to those who do good to you, what grace have you?”
“If you lend to those from whom you receive, what grace have you?”
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”—isn’t that grace?—Not expecting anything in return?
Greg Boyle, one of my favorite theologians, who works with gang members in East Los Angeles, rehabilitating them, reconnecting them with their families, with work, and all of it, talks about being interviewed by Anderson Cooper. Cooper said to him in the interview, What do you say to your critics who say that these gang members us just taking advantage of you?
Boyle responded, “How can they be taking my advantage when I’m giving it to them?”
Be willing to lose something, Jesus seems to be saying—in case we might be tempted to think that love only a feeling or emotion. Do good, he says. Lend, he says. Love others in real ways, and ways that don’t attach any strings. Be merciful, just as God is merciful. And here, Jesus reveals what he’s been after all along, which is not for us to be fair with one another—though that would be a great first step. The rule, as others have said, is not “do as you would want done,” but “do as God would do.” And to follow our image of posture and vantage point, in order to do as God does, we have to learn to see as God sees.
It was a delight to have Stephanie Paulsell with us last Sunday and I know many of you were able to make it over to Mercer this past week to take in her lectures on “Getting Lost in the Mystery of God.” They were beautiful and artful like her sermon for us last Sunday. And throughout the lectures she kept returning to an image from the Catholic poet, Fannie Howe, when she writes about us all being under the same “undiscriminating sky.” That under the sky, whatever divisions or boundaries of “in” or “out” that would separate us are lifted, or at least revealed not to be final. And it’s true, when we look up at the sky, into the pale blue, dotted or landscaped with clouds, or perhaps especially at night, when we see the expansive darkness, the stars, the moon—how it covers everything, everyone—the boundary lines do disappear.
But in her final lecture Stephanie flipped this view on its head, drawing on the french philosopher Pierre Hadot, who writes that the goal of philosophy, in spacial terms, is to gain “a view from above.” A view, as the ancient Greek philosophers would say, like that of the gods, sitting on high, looking down on the earth, supposedly with greater perspective. Now, Hadot interprets this “view from above” as providing us with a more dispassionate, and therefor reasoned view of things and people, reminding us of how small we are in the scheme of things—our problems, but also our commitments, our loves, our dreams, all of it. There’s an undeniable coldness to this view from above, but it’s probably necessary and is certainly found at different places in scripture: You are dust and to dust you shall return, we’ll be reminded in just a few days on Ash Wednesday.
But Stephanie took this “view from above” to mean something different. She said in this view from above, yes, we’re able to see how small we are, but we’re able to see how close we are to each other, how connected we are. You’ve seen this from the window of an airplane: how those cars appear but how they’re all moving in a kind of chaotic harmony. How neighborhoods give way to neighborhoods that give way to fields and pastures and water and mountains—and it’s all connected. We’re all connected.
In this view from above, parts of town that seem time zones away from each other are revealed to be separated by a clump of trees. It’s funny, we live on Buford Pl., in the Vineville neighborhood just down the road from here. But on my phone, with its satellite view, it tells me we live in Pleasant Hill, Macon’s oldest historic African-American neighborhood that was torn in two about a half century ago when they put the interstate down through the middle of it. We’re much closet than we feel.Which means that the people of these neighborhoods are much closer than they feel from the ground, too.
Jesus seems to be inviting us to take this view from above, and to see the way we’re connected with others even if they can’t or won’t But Stephanie also pointed out that this “view from above” makes it clear where we’re standing. Who we’re standing with and who we’re not. Are we standing only with those who love us, who are able to help us, to benefit us, or are we standing with who don’t and those who can’t?
In fact—and I’ve shared this before but I just love it—Greg Boyle also says this is actually a better translation of the beatitudes. Not “blessed are they,” but “You’re in the right place if.”
You’re in the right place if you’re poor.
You’re in the right place if you’re hungry.
You’re in the right place if you’re grieving.
You’re in the right place. God sees you, God is right there with you where you are. And for those of us who may be looking for God or wondering just where we’re supposed to be, the invitation is to try being over there with those people.
What if salvation is really a question of location and all this time Jesus has just been trying to show us where we need to be? Who we need to be with? And what if the places and the people we should be looking for are the one we’re taught to avoid?
And what it’s those parts of ourselves we’ve been avoiding all these years—the tenderness, the mercy, the compassion—what if these are the parts where God has been all along, waiting for us, longing to tell us the truth about ourselves and the world. Longing to show us what grace really is.
 I’m grateful to the folks at SALT Project for their wonderful weekly lectionary blog on this passage: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/2/19/grace-in-action-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-7
 Luke Timothy Johnson in The Gospel of Luke, from Sacra Pagina, found in Justo L. González, Luke, from the Belief series, 94
 Krista Tippett interview with Fr. Greg Boyle, On Being podcast.http://www.onbeing.org/program/father-greg-boyle-on-the-calling-of-delight/transcript/5059#main_content