A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., on February 13, 2022
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Growing up in north Georgia gave me ample opportunity to go ambling through the woods and mountains. Over the years I began to have a close affinity with the rugged Appalachians of Georgia, Tennessee, and western North Carolina. I particularly loved them when it was overcast or in the winter months when the tourists were gone, and all the leaves were stripped off the trees revealing the rugged landscape of the Blue Ridge. The Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains were the places I would go to find myself and ponder life. In my early years, I left the Mother Church and wandered into Mother Nature. God felt so much larger than the walls of a sanctuary, and the dear Reverend who was pastor of the church I belonged to was a nice enough guy and all but he looked and acted as though he was cut straight from casting at Disney. He was too polished, too perfect, and too strait-laced; my life at the time was a mess and I needed something more than a spit-and-polish pastor and a congregation who tried to outdo themselves in wearing their Sunday best. My heart was yearning for something more, something larger, something wilder.
The southern Appalachian Mountains and woods became to me a vast, great cathedral where an untamed and whimsical Spirit lived, taught, and played. The older I became, the more I discovered the Cherokee had a name for the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge. It was there amid the upper elevations that the Cherokee believed the Great Spirit lived and they referred to the area as the Thundering Mountains. If you wanted to be stripped of yourself and come face to face with God, you wandered and spent time in the Thundering Mountains. It was the Great Cathedral of the Thundering Mountains that I encountered God who brought me back to the church and a larger vision of who and what a pastor should be.
In retrospect, I imagine that’s why I connected so well with Jesus. He took off and headed into the wilderness and the mountains to get away from the people and to encounter a wild and whimsical God who had not been domesticated by all the religious leaders of the day. It was there his faith was forged through prayer and temptation as well as with solitude and discipline. Jesus knew, however, that as fulfilling the wilderness and the mountains could be, he would have to come back down “into the real world” and be about his work. This is where we pick up in the Story today. Jesus and the disciples have gone up a mountain and it’s during this respite he chose twelve of the men to be his apostles. Listen to what happens next beginning with Luke 6:17.
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 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.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “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.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
He came down with them and looked up. Very unassuming words but are powerful in their explanation of who Jesus was and what he taught. Today’s scripture from Luke is often referred to as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In Matthew 5 through 7, it’s called The Sermon on the Mount. If you have not had a chance to compare these two sermons with their beatitudes, I strongly encourage you to do so. They are similar but they are way so different. Matthew has Jesus going up the mountain and sitting down and the people came to him. The image is of a Rabbi looking down over the multitudes and teaching as his voice flowed down the mountainside. In Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain and wades into the midst of the people waiting for him.
In Matthew, the beatitudes are phrased in spiritual overtones like, “blessed are the poor in spirit” or “blessed are the gentle in spirit for they shall inherit the earth.” Luke’s version is more down-to-earth and raw. Luke doesn’t spiritualize the beatitudes like Matthew; no, Luke keeps it real and in the present tense. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, you shall laugh.” Gone are the generalities of Matthew where Jesus speaks non-specifically and says, “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, the peacemakers, the merciful.” Luke contextualizes it and adds the second person plural “you” that causes it to become personal, real, and quite immediate.
In Matthew, the crowd is made up of his disciples. In Luke, the crowd is composed of both his disciples as well as the looky-loos from around a sixty-mile radius who simply wanted to check Jesus out or be healed by him. Whereas in Matthew, we would say, “Jesus has just been a preaching!”, in Luke’s version, Jesus is moving in and out of the people healing them, ministering to them personally, and grounds his beatitudes to what he is doing right then. For Luke, the healing and compassion lavished on the people preclude any sermon that Jesus gives. The image we have is Jesus kneeling down in the midst of this sea of broken humanity healing someone and then the scripture says, “he looked up at his disciples and said.” Jesus is not talking generally about the poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the persecuted of the future; Jesus is telling his disciples, “Blessed are all these poor people, blessed be all these hungry people, blessed be all these emotionally torn up people, and blessed are these folks who are reviled by others.”
In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be comparing and contrasting Jewish law and tradition with how God really intended the Law and tradition to be interpreted and lived out. Luke, however, does something totally different. Luke goes on to add a list of woes to contrast his list of blessings. This is where Jesus goes from preaching to meddling. “Woe to you who are rich now…woe to you who are fat, full, and happy now…woe to you laughing now…woe to you when people speak well of you now.”
Now, let’s get this straight, Jesus’ rhetorical use of naming opposites with his blessings and woes is not celebrating poverty and neither is he saying to be rich is a bad thing in and of itself. What Jesus is saying is that the family of God includes the poor and the rich, the hungry and the sated, the grieving and the mirthful, and those of ill repute as well as though of high social standing. He is reminding you and me that those of us on the positive side of the equation have a responsibility to model Jesus’ habits and wade into the midst of the poor, the hungry, the broken, and the reviled and minister to them right outside our doors. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is to jolt you and me out of complacency and our own sense of self-satisfaction with our life. Jesus is challenging the ancient Jewish notion that those who experience ease and prosperity are that way because God approves of their life and blesses them; the Sermon on the Plain turns that notion on its head and demands that we followers of Jesus understand that God is a God of the underdog. God will always side, stand with, and care for the poor, the hungry, the broken, and the reviled. The whole point of the Sermon on the Plain is that we, sisters and brothers of the Church, are to do the exact same thing.
Jesus looks up at his disciple and provides them with blessings and woes. Another way to hear that is Jesus provides his disciples with blessings and ‘wake-ups’. Wake-up those of you who are rich. Wake-up those who are full and stuffed with food. Wake-up all of you who frolic in all the pleasures your good life provides you. Wake-up all of you who are self-satisfied in your fine reputations. Wake-up. Wake-up. Wake-up. Come on down from your Thundering Mountains and wake-up. All who have ears, let them hear. Amen.
© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.