Sunday February 17, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Turner
Coming Down to the Level Place
A couple of weeks ago I watched the film “First Man” which tells the story of, first, the Gemini space program and, then, the subsequent Apollo missions. For someone born in 1960, it was extraordinarily nostalgic. How will I ever forget as a nine-year old the moment that my dad and I looked at our small black and white TV set and watched Neil Armstrong step out of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon? July 20th, this year, marks the 50th anniversary of that amazing adventure. During one of the moon walks before their return, President Nixon had a telephone conversation from the Oval office to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: He said, “because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”
Those were heady days and they were inspirational words, but they came not long after the Cuban missile crisis and a world that would soon see even greater mistrust and division, wars, genocide, and economic inequality between countries in the developing world and those that had the resources to send a man to the moon.
“Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord,” Jeremiah’s warning still holds true today; our trust cannot simply be in our own power and our own strength but in the relationship that we have with God, with one another and, since he has made us stewards of his creation, with this planet also.
In our pilgrims’ class at the moment, we are doing exactly that – exploring and reflecting on the kind of relationship that God desires with us, that he expects in relation to our planet, and that he yearns for in relation to those around us. The late Archbishop Michael Ramsey described the right order of things in creation thus: God – Man – Things. When everything in our lives and those around us is ordered by that hierarchy, he suggested, then there is true harmony and tranquillity. However, as we know only too well, humankind often prefers to be at the top of that hierarchy of relationships; more worrying still is the fact that there is an even more dangerous hierarchy and one which has become far more commonplace where things move to the top and dominate the choices made by humankind.
How do we re-balance the natural order of things? Jesus shows us how in our Gospel reading today when he comes down from the mountain. First, it is helpful to think about the context of this passage from Luke. In Matthew’s equivalent, Jesus goes up a mountain which, in the Hebrew Scriptures, means that he is close to God and, there, he teaches his disciples in what we affectionately call, ‘The sermon on the mount.’ But, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray. That prayer – that closeness to his heavenly Father – is the precursor to the choice of his twelve disciples which are all named just before our gospel passage today. Prayer; calling; teaching - how does he do this? By coming down from the mountain and to a level place. This passage, so similar and yet so contrasting to Matthew’s account is often called ‘The sermon on the plain.’ By coming down to a level place, Jesus meets all kinds of people – Luke says from “Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Luke also tells us that there were sick people and people troubled and possessed. By literarily coming down to earth, Jesus brings the presence of God to the heart of human society – not simply to God’s chosen people – to all people and for a brief moment, heaven and earth are united in hopeful harmony of purpose: Four beatitudes or blessings and four woes or consequences, reminiscent of the Book of Deuteronomy, that great ‘seconding of the law,’ where we read “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Now, it is easy to interpret these blessings and woes as, somehow opposites or simple choices. I would like to suggest that they are far subtler than that. Could it be that the Lord is not talking about a state of life or material things? Could it be that to be poor is less about possessions and more about being aware of one’s place in the created order and to recognize the destructive tendencies of human power? That to be hungry is less about food and much more about yearning for justice and peace? That to weep is less to do with sadness and certainly not to do with self-pity but everything to do with recognizing what sin does to myself, to my friends and, yes, to society and to our world. If that is the case, what about the ‘woes’? Again, we could see them very simplistically as “well, you had it good on earth but in the life to come you will have a bit of a shock!” I prefer to see them as challenges to people who live in the here and now and do not think about the consequences of their actions for themselves, the lives of those around them, and the life of this planet. But Jesus spoke them to his disciples and, therefore, they are also a challenge to us who sometimes think that we are rich, full, and laughing - yes, the Christian Community, the Church, where we can be self-righteous and oblivious to those around us.
There is a consequence to being attuned to the values of the Kingdom of God and Jesus spells it out:
“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."
In two weeks, we shall hear the gospel story when Jesus will go up a mountain to pray again – this time he will take Peter, John, and James, and he will be transfigured in their sight. We will hear how they want to stay there but Jesus will take them down from the mountain and turn his face towards Jerusalem and his impending death. When Jesus came down from the mountain to a level place in our Gospel reading today he knew exactly the cost of that coming down. In a Church that worships with a glimpse of heaven, it is sometimes hard to go out to noisy 5th Avenue – down the steps to that level place - but Jesus requires us to do that. Perhaps when we get there we might just discover that Jesus is waiting for us on our own level place.
When Neil Armstrong set foot on the dusty surface of the moon, he said one of the most memorable lines ever spoken by a human being: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” President Nixon used it as an opportunity to celebrate humankind’s achievement in bringing the cosmos into humanity’s control but he was, of course, mistaken; the heavens had been part of our world for a very long time, ever since the eternal Word leapt down from his Father’s throne and was made flesh in the small space of Mary’s womb. Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon’s surface will remain a dusty relic of human attempts to be great and it is unlikely that, in our generation, we will ever expend the resources to go back there. Meanwhile on earth, we need to place our feet into the footprints of Jesus Christ, who came to our level place and united the human race in an embrace of love and hopeful living.