Luke 6:17-26 (New Revised Standard Version)
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. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, 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. 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. 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.”
“Four score and seven years ago…” I imagine that these words have become so ingrained into our minds that just hearing them evokes a sense of grandeur and awe. It was over 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, which would become a speech that would live on in infamy. Yet before he rose to power, not much was known Lincoln and when asked about his youth he replied, “It can all be condensed to a single sentence and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’” I think it would be fair to say that Lincoln lived a life that was just as complex and shaded in hues of gray as our lives are today. As we reflect on Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, it might be useful to look back on Lincoln’s life as we consider how these teachings of Jesus lay claim on our lives today.
Lincoln was not a Presbyterian. Neither was he a member of any denomination that we know of and his Lincoln’s faith is mostly surrounded by a shroud of mysticism. Some aspects of Lincoln’s life and faith are still contested and controversial even though it has been over 150 years after his death. Some have argued that Lincoln used religion as a means to gain power, and never personally held onto the “Christian” teachings that he professed to uphold. Yet setting those arguments aside we can see how many of these classic Christian elements were embodied in the life of Lincoln, and by “Christian elements” I mean both the good and the bad, parts that are reflective of Christ’s teachings and segments that remind us that we are ourselves not above reproach.
It is the absolutes and greyness of Lincoln’s life and legacy that truly bring us into today’s passage… Because just as there was diversity in the crowd who came to hear Jesus so too is there a diversity among us who hear the words of Christ in our lives today. For some, we may see the absolutes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. For others, we may hear that there is room for nuance and interpretation of Jesus’ words. There is a sense of comfort and discomfort to both of these ways of listening to Jesus. Perhaps that is the point of the Sermon on the Plain… Maybe the point is that the blessings and woes are means to challenge us… Challenge us not only in how we actively live out our faith in our communities, but how we live out our faith in relationship to God as well. Because at the heart of all these blessings and all these woes is the emphasis on the relationship with God.
For some reason or another in our modern Christianity, we have equated success to be mean that a person has a strong faith… Just watch some of the Sunday morning shows, and you will find televangelist preaching that if you pray hard enough, if you only give a little more, God will bless you. It’s unfortunate that we have created a culture that assumes that if you live a happy and full life, your faith must be strong. Earthly success does not mean that we have divine approval from God. That means we need to cast away false beliefs that assume that if someone is suffering, they are being punished by God, deserve their suffering, or that they created the current situation for themselves. All of these things run counter to what is at the heart of the Word of God. And if we were to take a close look, we would find that the text this morning tells we need to be wary of embracing a full life and that experience of humility is what brings us closer into a relationship with God.
Humility is one of those things we talk about, but never seem to master in terms of applying it to our everyday lives. We aspire to be humble, we strive to be modest in our successes, and graceful when we fall short. Yet it feels like no matter how hard we try, we aren’t able to get to the place where we want to be when it comes to living lives that reflect a spirit of humility. Lincoln might have been a good example… Edwin Stanton, who was a former colleague of Lincoln, during his time as a lawyer, would often call Lincoln names… After being appointed to Lincoln’s cabinet as the Secretary of War, he was famous for having once called Lincoln a fool. When asked about how he felt Lincoln said, “If Stanton said I was a [darn] fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.”
So how might humility play into some of the blessings and woes that we find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain? I would suggest that we take a look at a few of them and then consider how they might impact us as we use Lincoln as an example… “Blessed, are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Lincoln’s humble upbringing is one of the most important factors when it comes to his impact as a statesman and president. The loss of his mother and sister, while he was young, would help shape the kind of leader Lincoln would become. While not perfect, Lincoln would seek to pursue the common good during the time of his presidency. What are the things in our life that make us who we are today? If we are rich in material goods, what might we be “poor” in? If we find that we are without any material goods in what ways have we inherited the Kingdom of God?
“Blessed, are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” While I think that many would say that Lincoln embodied many of the teachings from the Sermon on the Plain, I think it would also be fair to say that he fell short in some ways as well. Without dwelling on his shortcomings, it would be prudent to name a couple of them for the sake of realizing how we have not upheld this blessing from the Sermon on the Plain:
As much as Lincoln abhorred slavery, he was not an abolitionist. Though he worked alongside abolitionist Lincoln never considered himself to be one. In 1854, 7 years before the Civil War, Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, IL where stated that as much as he hated slavery he wasn’t sure what could be done about it within the current political system.
And while we would agree that Lincoln lived a life that embodied the core of the Sermon on the Plain, or the Beatitudes as found in the Gospel According to Matthew, Lincoln wasn’t 100% in favor of giving people the rights, the “hungry” as Luke would say, what they are entitled to. In his debated against Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
It may be uncomfortable to think that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, could end up on a side that we know to be wrong, a side that violates, that defiles, what is at the very heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. But that’s the redeeming part of the Sermon on the Plain. While Lincoln was not perfect, I think there is room for us to see the power of what it means to have a heart that is humble and a heart that is willing to be open to new possibilities when it trusts in the promises of God. For Lincoln, that meant having a relationship with Frederick Douglas [ad lib], who was a freed slave who led abolitionist movements in both Massachusetts and New York. This relationship is what could spur Lincoln on to give the Emancipation Proclamation, which in itself was flawed, but a step that would lead to others carrying on in the work of healing and reconciliation.
“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.” We know the cost of what it means to live in a free society… Lincoln who oversaw the end of one of America’s bloodiest wars would pay for that peace in his own blood. Throughout his presidency, he was mocked and caricatured in ways that would seem mild by even today’s standards. Yet Lincoln never gave into responding in a like manner. Perhaps we can think about how we have treated one another… The ways that we have hurt others, the ways that we have excluded others, how we try to physically and metaphorically exclude others… Because it’s them, not us, who are blessed.
The either/or nature of the blessings and woes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain are meant to make you stop and consider the impact they are intended to have on our everyday lives. There are days where it is easier to trust God. There are times wherein our weakness, we can turn things around and bless others, but all of these things require a spirit of humility. The Sermon on the Plain raises many more questions… Questions about God’s providence, questions about suffering and pain, but for today, let us focus on who the happy ones are. They are the poor, they are the hungry, they are those who are mourning, and those who are hated, and they are you and me… As we go out into the world around us with the hope of blessing others, we will discover that we will be blessed. Not because of anything we have done, but because of God’s grace and compassion.
As we near the Season of Lent you might be considering something you might want to try this year. Perhaps you’ve tried changing your lifestyle, and maybe you’ve attempted to seek a spiritual practice as well. This year for the Season of Lent why don’t we try doing something different… Why don’t we try living into a life of humility that trusts in God, set aside fears about whether or not we are successful, and allow ourselves to fall back into the arms of God being comforted by the knowledge that God knows our hearts, regardless of how others may judge us. Because then all of us who are called to blessed may keep passing those blessing on to others. Amen.