“On the Level.” Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26. Donald W. Dotterer, 2/17/19.
Well, tomorrow is Presidents’ Day. It’s a day off from school and work for some people. It’s a big day for furniture sales. The banks and post office are closed. I always seem to forget that. But most of all it’s a day for us to remember those persons who have led our nation in good times and bad.
The United States has had 45 presidents. And it seems that a lot of people these days want the job. The next presidential election is still 22 months away, but the candidates are lining up in droves.
As of last Monday there are 175 Democrats, 70 Republicans, 20 Libertarians and 13 Green Party candidates registered with the Federal Election Commission for the 2020 presidential election. And the list will grow even longer the closer we get to Election Day. Heaven help us!
Only one of those 268 will make it of course. Or it could be somebody who is not even registered yet. As they say, time will tell.
One question that will inevitably be put to the serious candidates will be this--“What is your understanding of The American Dream, and how are we doing as a nation in achieving that dream?”
The term “The American Dream” was coined by historian James Truslow Adams in his best-selling 1931 book Epic of America. He described it as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
Will Kenton further defines The American Dream as “the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking and hard work, not by chance.”
Sam Abrams recently wrote an article on how Americans are doing when it comes to The American Dream. And there is good news. It seems that the American people are more spiritually grounded than we may think.
Dr. Abrams and his colleagues report that contrary to what some politicians tell us, “The American dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans. That is because most Americans have something else in mind than material success and social mobility in their understanding of The American Dream.
A survey revealed that when Americans were asked what makes the American Dream a reality, they did not list as essential factors owning a home, being rich or having a successful career. Consistently, over 80% said that what was more important was “freedom of choice in how to live” and “a good family life.”[i]
You know, God has a dream for us as well. It is called the Kingdom of God. It is not a dream of personal wealth and social success, although that is what some prosperity gospel preachers
will tell you. The prosperity gospel preachers tell us that God wants their followers to be rich, and that faith in God and following Jesus brings us prosperity and constant blessings of health and wealth. And of course they say that donations to their ministries will increase our personal wealth.
I wish that were true. I really do. I wish that coming to church and making big contributions would make every one of us rich. We could use that right now with our leaky tower problem.
But alas, that is not what the Bible and real life teach us. You and I both know that from experience. Yes, you should make a generous contribution to the Tower Repair Fund. We need that to keep giving that witness to Christ so that we can keep doing the great mission work we’re doing in this place and time. But I can’t tell you that making a big donation is going to make you rich. Sorry about that.
But what does the Bible say about blessings? What does Jesus say about blessings? What are those blessings, and who gets them? That is the subject of today’s gospel lesson.
In Luke’s gospel this teaching is known as “The Sermon on the Plain.” You have no doubt heard of “The Sermon on the Mount.” But we read in Luke’s gospel that this sermon is delivered on a plain, not a mountain. This happens immediately after Jesus calls the twelve disciples to be his helpers in ministry and mission.
So this is the first teaching that the disciples hear from Jesus. Jesus and the disciples are joined by a great crowd.
We read that Jesus speaks to them all not on a mountain, but on a “level place.” Several commentators have said that this is an important detail of the story. It matters on a couple of levels, no pun intended.
When Jesus speaks to the people on level ground, he is talking with them on their level. He’s not high up in a pulpit.
He’s not speaking down to them from a high place. He’s not using words or ideas they cannot understand.
You see, Jesus is on their level. He is one of them, and he is with them. That is the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus is one of us, while at the same time he is the Son of God.
And there is yet another meaning to this reference
to a level place. It means that Jesus is “leveling” with the people. That is, he’s telling them like it really is, not the way they’d like it to be. He’s not telling them what they’d like to hear. Here Jesus levels with the people; he tells them the truth about God. He’s leveling with them and us about what the kingdom of God really is. And it is very different from what people imagine it to be. Because this is a message about how God turns the world upside down.
The first truth is this—“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Sorry folks, no prosperity gospel here. The message instead is that God has a special concern
and care for those who are poor. And so should we.
That is, we who have been blessed with much are expected
by God to give much to those who are less fortunate. The whole Bible gives witness to that truth.
This church does that. That is one reason why it is so important to our lives and the life of this community. This church enables us to live out our lives in faith.
Jesus continues. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
We may not see much it in the circles in which we live and move, but there are hungry people out there. Every time I drive here on Route 65 I see a sign sponsored by “Feeding America” that reads, “End the story of hunger.” Jesus tells us that this will happen. That’s a promise.
Things will change, and change for the better. Maybe not right away. But in time. The question is whether or not we will help God fulfill that promise.
The other side of the teaching is this--those who are full now may be empty in the future. So what’s the message?
Things can change. We could all experience the other side of prosperity. It has been said that most people are two or three bad decisions away from being homeless. I believe that’s true. I’ve seen it.
That’s why we need to be people of faith. We need the strength and guidance of God to make good decisions. God’s power and God’s love to be infused into everything we say and do. If we can do that then we will indeed be blessed
Jesus goes on. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I don’t know anyone who goes through life without experiencing some pain and sorrow, do you? Everybody cries at one time or another. Some people’s lives may look to be perfect from the outside—that’s until you learn their story, until you get to know them.
The good news here is that even though we may weep at times, and we all do, the good news is that we can laugh again. There is always hope. Spring always follows winter.
That’s one of the great things about living in Western Pennsylvania. We see that every year. Spring follows winter. It is a reminder to us that there is always hope and new life.
We can indeed begin again. Well, put all this all together and what do you have?
Simply this, I think. That to be blessed is to stand in the presence of God in the good times and in the bad.
Two images from our reading from Jeremiah today can help us here. The prophet compares a dying shrub in the desert
to a tree that is growing by a stream of water. Jeremiah says that those who put their faith and trust in human beings are like that shrub in the desert.
Why? Because we all know people can let us down. They disappoint us. Not always. But frequently. We learn as we go through life that we can’t depend on everyone all the time. Men and women can be weak and untrustworthy, dishonest and disloyal, even those we think we know well.
Why? The Bible teaches that human beings are sinful creatures and need to be redeemed by God.
So we need to put our faith and trust in something else, in someone else. That someone is God in Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah says that those who cannot put their faith in God are like shrubs that wither and die when things get hot. In contrast, those who have faith and trust in the Lord are like strong trees that are planted by a stream of water. Those trees will not shrivel up and die when things get hot. Its leaves will stay green even in a drought.
Make no mistake about it, the heat comes into all our lives. Things can get very hot and difficult at times. There will be times of drought, times when we feel dry and empty, times when we thirst for love and for meaning.
So what is the difference between the dying shrub in the desert and the lush, green tree growing by the stream? What is the difference between the person who has no faith and the one who puts his or her trust in God?
The difference is this—it’s all about what’s beneath the surface. People of faith sink down roots to the stream of life, the living water that is God in Jesus Christ. When we live in God’s love we are rooted in life eternal. And nothing in heaven or earth can take that away from us.
On President's Day, the first president we think of is George Washington. His birthday is tomorrow, February 18.
George Washington is of course known as the father of our country. It is a title that is well deserved. What do they say about him? “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
An interesting question to ask in church I think is this: "What did George Washington believe?" George Washington was what we call a deist. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and most of the other founding fathers were deists as well.
Deism was a faith that was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deism professes that God created the world, but that after creation God stepped back and removed himself from the day-to-day workings of the world. To the deist, God is like a watchmaker. God made the world, wound it up, got it started, then let it go by itself.
That is not of course what Jesus taught about God. And it is not what we Methodist Christians believe. We believe that God is actively involved in the lives of human beings and in human history.
So George Washington was a deist. And that’s not what we are. But, as Boyd Wright explains, George Washington was a different kind of deist.
The word that Washington used over and over again was "Providence." He used that word to speak both about the birth of the new nation and about his own work in helping to bring that new nation into being.
Theologically speaking, the word providence means that God provides all things. George Washington believed that Providence is what guided those thirteen separate, quarreling, independent colonies to unite into one nation. Washington believed that this same Providence would lead the United States of America to become a model government for freedom and democracy everywhere.[ii]
So let me ask you friends, how has God provided for you in your life? Be honest now. Level with yourself and with God. Have you not been richly blessed in many ways?
It’s true, there are tough times. Everybody has them. But the good news is that things can change. Spring always follows winter. Blessings follow curses and woes. That is God’s promise. It is our hope and our salvation.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
[i] Samuel Abrams, “We’re Still Living the American Dream,” New York Times, 2/6/19, A27.
[ii] Boyd Wright, The Living Church, date unknown.