Finding The Level Place”

Jeremiah 17: 5-10

Luke 6:17 – 26

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

February 14, 2016

Sometimes a word or phrase in a text seems to “shimmer” or take on a life of its own. It stands out from the rest of the text and it keeps calling attention to itself. So it is with the phrase “He came down with them and stood on a level place…” over the years, I have learned to pay attention when the text gives the prompt.

On the surface, of course, it makes sense for Jesus to seek out a level space from which to minister to the people around him. He has just been on the mountaintop – has spent a long night in prayer in the Divine Presence. From that experience, he reaches out and draws twelve men closer to him – – individuals with whom he will share the wisdom of his teachings. Both of these experiences are
“heady” to say the least. To spend a night with God is transformative all by itself. To come away from that experience knowing that you are to be the master teacher for a select handful of disciples is even more expansive. Figuratively speaking, it might be enough to throw one off balance. Finding a bit of level ground on which to stand before taking the next step might be a very necessary thing to do if one is to keep a good head on one’s shoulders.

But the scriptures rarely ever leave us on the surface of things. There is always something else going on – – and we are invited to stand on a level place with Jesus and look again at what is happening.

First, it is interesting to note that by the time Jesus finds the spot from which he will speak, there are not only the twelve men who will form his intimate inner circle of students, there is a “great crowd of disciples” – – and along with them there is an even greater multitude from all over the country side. It is clear that Jesus already has a reputation for being a teacher and a healer. Not only are the crowds open to hearing what he has to say, they follow him around in a state of hunger. But rather than giving a teaching first, Jesus attends to their various bodily needs – – power goes out of him – – and all are healed. We might think that the healing alone was enough for one day’s work – but the people have come to HEAR Jesus as well. So we learn from the outset that the power of this teacher works in different ways for different people – each according to their need.

I wondered what the phrase “then he looked up at his disciples and said…” might mean. It seems as though the intensity of focus on the healing drew all his attention and then, when he was finished, he looked up and there were his hand-picked few – – waiting for his attention. It seems the words that follow are particularly for them – – while the rest of the multitude gets to listen in.

So –for a few minutes, maybe we can find our way to that spot of level ground and take our place in the crowd – – – or perhaps we might find ourselves as one of that inner circle of intimacy gathered around Jesus to receive the essence of his teaching for the day.

It is hard to imagine Jesus telling people they are blessed if they are poor and hungry. There is nothing inherently redemptive in poverty – in being so poor that you can’t provide food for your family or a roof over their heads – or adequate medical care if they are sick –or warm clothing when the winds blow cold off the ocean. Indeed, it would really seem callous and out of character for Jesus to speak to a crowd this way about the blessing hidden in poverty and starvation.

So we are called draw in a little closer. The disciples were not poor or physically hungry. At the very least they were from the lower middle class – remember they were professional fishermen and tradesmen. There was even a tax collector among them who did pretty well for himself. We see Jesus reaching inside them with a series of wise sayings that are not meant to be taken literally. Each saying shows a contrast – – a choice perhaps – – to be acknowledged and embraced by his followers: You guys are blessed if you are poor – – in a state of spiritual emptiness – – a state of inward receptivity – – because if you are, then there is plenty of room in you for the seeds of the kingdom to grow. On the other hand, if you feel as though you are already rich – – that you already know what you need to know – – there isn’t much I can give you – you will be satisfied with what you have already. If you are hungry – even starving for what I have to give you, I can promise you that you will be filled up. If you are crying and yearning for what I have to teach you, you will receive so much that you will laugh with joy.

In a simple reading of the story, it seems as though pretty much everyone can receive the benefits of the healing that Jesus offers to those who crowd around him. He gives freely without any demands. Luke tells us that “power came out from him and he healed all of them.” But when it comes to the teaching and the wisdom he imparts, there needs to be an emptiness waiting to be filled, a great hunger and yearning wanting to be satisfied or else the wise holiness that Jesus is able to impart finds no home in his listeners.

In the companion text from Jeremiah, the language is a little different, but the message is the same: Blessed are those who trust in the Lord – -they will be like trees planted by the water – – they will send out their roots into the moist soil – – even when drought and trouble come they will still bear fruit and they won’t be anxious.

Jeremiah preached to a very different crowd – Israelites who had been and continued to be in exile in strange lands with foreign gods in cultures where often the king was regarded as a divine being. The monarch’s divinity was reinforced and his worship was assured with weapons and troops. So Jeremiah begins this part of his preaching not with blessing but with curses and warnings about what happens when Israel puts her trust in fallible human beings, in the attractiveness of foreign gods. Eventually “they shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes…..they will live in an uninhabited salt land.”

We are now in the period of Lent in the Christian liturgical year. Unlike the anticipation of the birth of Jesus at the end of Advent, during Lent we anticipate the renewal of life that follows on the heals of a crucifixion that ends the life that we welcomed into the world on Christmas. In American culture it is so easy to stay on the surface of the deep rhythms signified by the holy days we celebrate at intervals during the calendar year. There are incredible distractions. Secular culture calls us away from the strenuous task of paying attention to our inner lives – – to the call of the Holy that invites and cajoles and even demands our attention. Even the work of just getting through the week’s schedule is enough to keep us so distracted that fleeting moments of quiet and solitude are very hard to come by.

It is no wonder that sometimes we feel parched – – like a shrub in the desert – – living in an uninhabited salt land.

But Lent cycles around every year with renewed opportunities to put our roots down by a living stream of water. God does not leave us floundering around in the dry places. God just keeps calling us to return to where the water is.

I think this is at the center of what Jesus was saying to his followers as he invites them to be empty and hungry and yearning for what he has to offer.

Lent is a gift of time given to us to find our way to a level place again. It is an invitation to allow ourselves to become empty – perhaps even to recognize our spiritual impoverishment that is so often the outcome of our over-full calendars. These next few weeks are given to us to help us stop and reflect on what we count on to fill us so that we can keep on going. We are challenged to examine what it is that we are yearning and hungering for. We are invited to allow the grace and the teachings of Jesus to permeate us – – to re-create us – – to nourish and to heal us. Lent is rigorous time if we use it well. Curiously, it ends with Good Friday – – with a visible, dramatic and painful death quickly followed by a resurrection and the promise of new life.

The older I get, the more I come to understand that when Jesus calls us to recognize that we need to be empty, poverty stricken, utterly poor in order to be able to receive what he will give – – he is saying that some part of us needs to die – – to become that empty in order to be filled. Paul talks about dying to himself so that Christ can live in him.

So that is what Lent is about……finding the level ground where we meet the wisdom of Jesus face to face – – where we learn about how to be poor and empty and hungry and yearning for what he has to offer. How do we do it? – – Maybe by taking five minutes during the day to sit and allow ourselves to be in a state of relaxation – taking time to disconnect ourselves from whatever causes us anxiety. Maybe by choosing to read a brief page of something that nurtures our spirits in the midst of so much that drags us down. Maybe it would be taking the time each day to just acknowledge the Divine Presence in whatever is happening –good or bad – in that moment. It takes time – – it takes a bit of solitude – – it takes a bit of silence – – and it takes a whole lot of intention. If Easter is to have any meaning for us, it will be because we have taken Lent seriously.

We don’t need to do this alone. We have the scriptures. We have times of worship together. We have the companionship of the Spirit and we have each other. For a few moments in silence, let us covenant with ourselves and with one another to find the level place in the presence of Jesus – and begin the journey through Lent together.

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