We are in the midst
of two secular high holy days.
I’m not talking about
the Super Bowl;
that gets no attention from me
unless the Pittsburgh Steelers are in it,
and they’re not. Again.
Rather, I’m talking about
the high holy day of romantic love,
and it’s made up
but pretty cool sister
which we celebrate today.
Thank you, Leslie Knope
from the sitcom Parks and Rec
for that creation,
which celebrates love among friends.
Both days focus on
the affections of our hearts;
both feature love,
heart-shaped boxes of candy
or heart-shaped waffles at brunch with friends,
declarations of affection.
It is with real regret, then,
that I remind you of the words
of that Debbie Downer of a prophet Jeremiah,
who doubts the allegiances of our hearts;
as he says, “The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—who can understand it?”
So, sorry about that.
Turns out we can’t trust our hearts
to point us in the right direction.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This reminder that our hearts
are devious, perverse,
fooling others, fooling ourselves,
comes right after
words from God
delineating who is cursed, who is blessed.
Put your trust in humans and our own strength?
You’re like a tiny shrub in a parched desert,
shallow roots, all alone, unable to thrive.
Put your trust in God?
You’re like a tall tree planted by water,
deep roots in fertile soil,
green and fruitful
even during bad times
when the land around you is parched.
It seems we’re being given two choices:
Trust in human things, and we’re hosed.
Trust in God, and we’re set.
But then the warning that our hearts are perverse,
so how can we trust ourselves to choose?
Just as we think all we have to do
is choose the right way—trust God—
the rug is pulled out from under us.
This seems awfully unfair of Jeremiah,
but let’s be honest: he’s right.
How often do we choose
the very thing we know is bad for us?
As comedian Jim Gaffigan
says in one of his bits
about trying to lose weight
so he’d be at less risk during the pandemic:
“I started working out.
I started eating healthy.
I was doing good.
Then one day I looked in a mirror
and I was look, ‘Ah, enough of that.’
Turns out, life or death
is not the motivator you think
it would be.”
Here Gaffigan captures
the difficulty of being human,
identified by St. Paul 2000 years ago:
“I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
In today’s Gospel,
Jesus strides right
into the midst of the muddy terrain
of our confused, untrustworthy hearts.
Before this he has been
healing folks left and right,
even on the Sabbath,
for which he’s taken some heat.
Afterwards, he retreated
to a mountain to pray
and choose his disciples.
Then he comes DOWN
from the mountain to a level place
where the crowds surround him,
desperate for forgiveness, for healing.
After he heals all of them,
Jesus pronounces his Sermon on the Plain.
Now, far be it from me
to point this out,
but, frankly, Jesus recycles an earlier sermon,
the Sermon on the Mount.
In that sermon from Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus goes UP a mountain
to preach to the people;
in that sermon,
he begins by describing
who is blessed:
the poor in spirit,
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
It’s a pretty great sermon,
but it’s different from today’s:
people are poor in spirit—
and it only describes who is blessed.
In Luke’s version,
Jesus comes down
from the mountain after praying,
down onto the plain,
a “level place,”
a word used by the prophets
to describe places strewn with dead bodies,
places of disgrace and idolatry,
flat places where there is
misery, hunger, and mourning.
It is to this place
that Jesus descends,
wading into the crowd,
joining them in their joys and celebration,
joining them in their pain and fear and worry,
preaching not about others—
“the poor in spirit,”
“the meek,” etc.—
but speaks TO them
in the real conditions of their lives:
Blessed are YOU who are poor.
Blessed are you who are hungry now.
Blessed are you who weep now.
And not only does he name who is blessed,
but he offers warnings, as well,
using a Greek word
that sounds almost exactly
like the English word “woe”
and means, literally, “Whoa!” or “Watch out!”
Woe to YOU who are rich.
Woe to you who are full now.
Who to you who are laughing now.
Jesus strides into the midst of the crowd,
speaks to them, to us,
of blessing and warning
according to the condition
of their lives.
Our hearts might lift at the blessings,
be dashed at the woes,
and feel utterly confused
by the end of it all.
After all, none of us
WANTS to be poor or hungry or mourning,
even if it means we’re blessed.
Surely God doesn’t want us
to strive for those things?
And most of us here
are among the rich and the full,
at least by the world’s standards;
and at All Saints,
we’re often laughing.
Are we in danger, then?
Must we “watch out”!?!
Once again our perverse hearts
Jesus only seeks our good, our thriving,
but we misunderstand again.
It’s common to hear the Sermon on the Plain
and assume that Jesus
is meting out reward and punishment.
No matter how sophisticated we are,
somehow we often boil down
so much scripture to right and wrong,
“thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”
But Jesus isn’t giving advice,
nor is he pronouncing judgment.
He’s not suggesting
that if we want to be blessed
then we’ve got to be poor;
he’s not telling us
that all hope is lost if we’re rich.
Rather, he is just describing
the situation as it is
to people he loves—
those back then, we sitting here—
on this level plain where
our messy lives are lived.
He knows our perverse hearts
lead us astray from God,
that too often we’re living
dry, parched lives.
When life is harder
than we can handle,
we are tempted to believe
that God has forgotten us.
Our hearts whisper,
“You’re all alone.
No one cares.
Perhaps God doesn’t even exist.”
And when life is fabulous,
all our needs met,
overflowing with abundance,
we are tempted to believe
that we deserve it,
we earned it.
Our hearts whisper,
“Well done. You did it!”
Our hearts often forget
about God entirely.
Either way, we’re shrubs
who have failed to put
our trust in God.
Our roots are shallow.
When bad times come
we’ve got nothing to sustain us,
to ground us,
and we blow about like tumbleweeds.
Jesus joins us,
down on the chaotic plain,
and announces Good News,
the reversal of the Kingdom of God. Nothing is as we would plan or expect!
Those who society values least,
mistreats, who are hanging on by a thread,
those are the VERY ones blessed of God.
You who are hungry or mourning or sick:
God SEES you, loves you.
You are at the very heart of God.
Those who society values most,
celebrates, and lauds,
those who post photos on Instagram
of their fabulous lives—
to those Jesus provides a warning.
Woe! Whoa! Watch out!
You’re in danger of
putting all your trust
in human things, in yourself.
With shallow roots like that,
you’re in danger of being uprooted.
This isn’t how we understand the world to work,
but it is the way of God’s realm,
the realm that is breaking in, even now.
On the level plain,
in this vale of tears,
where all of our lives
are mingled together,
a riot of joy and sorrow,
hopelessly, chaotically unequal.
It’s right here that
Jesus announces Good News.
It’s as if he’s announcing Joy on the cancer ward,
announcing resurrection in a graveyard,
freedom in a maximum security prison,
100% immunity in a time of pandemic.
That’s the kind of good news he’s proclaiming.
In the mess of it all,
Jesus offers comfort to the comfortless;
he offers a warning to the wealthy.
For love of us all,
he does what our own hearts cannot do for themselves:
he points us to God,
announces the kingdom,
covers us in grace.
Our perverse hearts can’t be trusted
to discern this outrageous truth for ourselves.
Left to our own devices,
we are tempted to bitterness and cynicism in hard times,
pride and indifference to others in good times.
We forget to put our trust in God;
we trust too often in ourselves.
We can’t follow God’s law,
we can’t even follow God’s good suggestions,
on our own.
Our confused hearts mislead us,
which is why God finally
gives up on us figuring it all out,
first God promises to write the law on hearts,
then to give us new hearts,
and, finally, when God realizes
that none of that is going to work,
God’s gives God’s heart—Jesus—to us,
we who are simultaneously sinners and saints,
blessed not because of what we do
but because of the goodness of our God.
And that’s a love story for all of us.