It was an anxious time. I was in high school and we had just had tryouts for the school musical, Grease. I was hoping for a part, but not just any part—I had spent countless hours fantasizing that I would be cast as one of the main characters, Sandy—the part that the actress, Olivia Newton John, has in the movie, Grease. Never mind that I had not been in a major acting role before, never mind that I had only mediocre singing ability, never mind that I was an underclassman… I was sincere and I sincerely wanted that part! So imagine my disappointment when, after a week of waiting, the list was posted with the newly cast members and someone else’s name was printed in bold next to the part of Sandy. I was heartsick and started to walk away; that is, until my friend pointed to the list and congratulated me as one of three student directors for the show. I had been given a part nonetheless and in the next few months, I would learn just how important that role was.
In the same way, I imagine some of the disciples standing in the crowd that day, craning their necks to see who is accompanying this miracle-worker from Nazareth who has upset the authorities by picking grain and healing on the Sabbath. I imagine Jesus coming down from the mountain with his newly- chosen twelve apostles, those with whom he would preach, teach, and heal, those who would be at his side for much of his ministry, those who would deny and betray, witness his death and his resurrection. Jesus had spent the night before in prayer, as was his custom, and when the sun rose after that long night, he made the best decision he could with the information he had, and he descended that high place with his newly-appointed Twelve. Who do you see? “Hey, I know that guy! That’s Simon Peter! And that’s Andrew! I wonder what old Zebedee is going to do now without their help in the family fishing business?”
I imagine all of them arriving on the plain as a group—a little like the way the entire cast arrives at the beginning of the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. Their tour bus arrives in a blaze of desert dust just outside of Jerusalem and they disembark hopefully, joyfully, even as they unload the cross from the roof of the bus.
When they come to that level place, as Luke describes, were there any in the crowd who were initially disappointed that their name did not appear on the Messiah’s list? Were any of them disappointed that they had not been given a larger role to play? Were they wondering if Jesus’ Kingdom-talk included them? We are told that some in the gathered multitude came to hear him speak and some came to be healed of disease and unclean spirits, but all tried to touch him in some way. For what exactly were they reaching? For what exactly are we reaching? What do we hope Jesus will say to us when we wake up in the morning? Would we be surprised if it is different from what we anticipate?
Then Jesus begins to preach. By Luke’s account this is Jesus’ second major address. We last heard him preaching from Isaiah in the synagogue. Now he says, “Blessed are you. Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping. Blessed are you when people hate and exclude you, revile and defame you on account of me. Blessed are you. Yours is the Kingdom of God. Your reward is great. You will be filled, you will laugh, and you will leap for joy!”
Maybe you recognize some of these lines from Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says something similar in a portion of scripture that we know as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. Beatitude means “supreme blessedness or happy.” The actual translation, according to some scholars is not rendered easily in English. It is something like a combined mixture of congrats (!), happy, lucky, and supreme bliss. But none of them really suffice. So whenever I think about the Beatitudes, I think “Beautiful. Beautifully blessed.”
Now, in Matthew, Jesus’s words are like a sermon that has been revised and polished to a high gloss; it’s a sermon carefully edited and ready for publication. But here on the plain, Jesus’ words are shorter and more direct. Here on the plain, Jesus addresses the disciples directly. Here on the plain, we hear “you” and we know that Jesus is speaking directly to us.
I’d like to have been in the crowd that day. I’d like to have counted myself among those that Jesus called “Blessed.” I like to imagine that Jesus’s words would have wrapped around me like a warm, fuzzy blanket. Had I been there, I might have thought I could rest easy knowing that my favorite candidate and his party would finally take care of the whole lot of those Romans and that justice would finally be served. I’d like to think this, but the second part of Jesus’ speech doesn’t let me delude myself so easily.
Sometimes our expectations and our needs are not always of one accord. Sometimes it can be really hard to listen. William Carter tells the following story: In a certain town, a man walked into a bookstore to return a purchase. “It’s a Bible,” he said, handing it to the clerk at the cash register. “Was it a gift?” asked the clerk. “No, I bought it for myself,” he said, “and I made a mistake.” “Didn’t you like the translation? Or the format?” “Oh no,” the man said, “The format was clear and the translation was fine. I made a mistake.” The clerk said, “Well, I need to write down a reason for the return.” “In that case,” said the man, “write down that there is a lot in that book which is tough to swallow.”
“Woe to you,” Jesus says, “who are so rich that you disregard the poor. Woe to you who are so full and self-satisfied that you do not remember what it is like to be hungry, to do without, to yearn. Woe to you who laugh at the misery of others, who make careless remarks at the expense of those you deem inferior. Woe to you who bow down before the vagaries of public and private opinion, who inflate yourselves with pride so that you can no longer clearly examine your heart and mind or make decisions for the welfare of all.”
Woe, woe, woe. Maybe like me, you struggle with these verses. Maybe like me, you also find these verses like a overcooked piece of meat: tough to swallow. I want to press “pause” after the “Blessed are you” part and hit rewind. I don’t want to hear a word that promises calamity, grief, and distress. Maybe like you, if I am a little uncomfortable with these verses, it is because I realize just how comfortable I am. I had a little reminder of this about a month ago when our household came down with the flu. Stuffy head, coughing, fever, vomiting took their turn at our house—We haven’t been collectively that sick for a long while, and for the entire week, we struggled to get out of bed and simply deal with life. It was a good reminder—in a small way—of how precious the gift of health is. It was a good reminder of how fortunate we, as a family, have been. “Woe,” Jesus says, “to those who have forgotten what it is like to be vulnerable.”
Each Sunday we pray these words, “Our Mother/Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom Come…” Yet, I wonder if we really want God’s Kingdom to come. Because if you believe that justice reigns in God’s Kingdom and if you really hear these words of Jesus, then it follows that some leveling and some evening-out needs to happen in order for us to glimpse the Kin-dom together.
Leveling: That would mean a sharing of resources all the way around. It means a sharing of time, a sharing of wealth, a sharing of hope, and a sharing of the necessities of life. It means that we need to come to down from our private mountains of individual privilege to the level of communal responsibility and communal need. And that isn’t an easy journey to make, particularly for those of us who are lucky enough to reside in one of the wealthiest cities, in one of the wealthiest counties, in one of the wealthiest nations of the world. “Nevermind, Jesus,” we say, “I don’t really want to play the role of disciple in your Kingdom-play, it’s too hard and I like my life just like it is.”
Our Gospel comforts, but it also confronts. I don’t know about you, but I like to avoid confrontation. Yet, sometimes confrontation is necessary. It clears the air. It lets people know where you stand and what you stand for. I suppose the question for today is not, “Am I blessed or am I cursed?” but rather, “How serious am I about taking part in God’s transformation of this world?” That is, “How committed am I to praying for God’s Kingdom on earth?” Do we simply say the words or are we doing the words?
God gives us each a role to play in transforming the word. I meant to say, “transforming the world.” But we are also to transform the Word. We speak of the Word becoming flesh in Jesus; has it become flesh in us? We are blessed when we are able to see and do our part. Not simply to analyze the problem, but to address it. Not to find excuses. Not point to the one who has more and say, “Well, they can afford to do what I cannot.” We do not need to stand here and wait for a major part in God’s play. We already have one. We are to look for the opportunity to do God’s Will, to bring about God’s peace beginning with where we are at, with those people who cross our path daily. There are no auditions, just discipleship. Maybe it means making that difficult phone call. Maybe it means giving up our seat on the bus. Maybe it means holding a local office or holding our tongue when we want to let fly a few choice words to someone who has annoyed us or cut us off in traffic. Maybe it means giving up our time or a comfortable piece of our routine to help another out.
When I was little, we had a toy called, “Lincoln Logs.” You could build a cabin out of Lincoln Logs and make a green roof for it out of sticks. Everything was pre-measured, pre-cut and and pre-notched; it was, in short, pre-fabricated home-building at its best! But Kingdom-building is not like that! We have to figure out where the pieces intersect, where the notches need to be, and how to move ourselves so that God can move us towards God’s vision for a transformed world. In Lincoln Logs, if we found a piece that was broken, didn’t fit, or was chewed up by the dog, we would throw it away or leave it in the cardboard canister. But Kingdom-building is not like that!
In Jesus’ sermon, if you keep reading after the “Woes,” Jesus lists some of the roles that we are to play. They are simply stated: “Love your enemies. Give to those who beg from you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Be merciful. ” Make a little notch where no notch has been.
Lorton Heusel and Lois Rensberger write:
Love Your Neighbor
And the Lord said,
Love your neighbor.
And I said who me
And he said yes you
And I said I’m really very busy.
And besides I have my hands full.
Just taking care of my own.
And the Lord said
And again the Lord said
Love your neighbor.
Not only the good one
But the bad one too
And I said
Are you kidding?
I don’t want to
And he said
I didn’t ask you
If you wanted to
And I said Lord
I don’t like him
And I can’t trust him
And he’ll make a fool of me
And other people don’t like him either
And the Lord said baloney
And yet a third time
The Lord said to me
Love your neighbor.
And I said
Do I have to
And He said
Do you Love me
And I said it’s risky
And I might get hurt
And I can’t take it by myself
And the Lord said
And where do you think I’ll be
and the Lord said once more
Love your neighbor
And I said you never give up do you
And he said no I never give up
And I said why not
Don’t you get tired
And He said yes
I get very weary
and I said then why Lord why
And He said because you’re worth it
And your neighbor is too
And I said wow
You care that much
And He said yes
I really care
Love one another
As I have loved you.
So may it be. And so may we be.
 William G. Carter, Praying for a Whole New World, CSS Publishing Company, 2000.