It’s as Plain as the Sermon on the Plain

A sermon based on Luke 6:20-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 6, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Today we kick off our pledge campaign, it’s our Stewardship Sunday. Stewardship Sundays generally sort of have a bad rap and often make people uncomfortable in church. That should not be the case here. We take our pledges seriously at First Congregational, but we think that what is offered is between the individual, their partner and God–and we hope (to paraphrase Paul) that our pledges to give, give us joy. We do not want anyone to financially give in a painful way. No one in the church judges pledge decisions. So there is nothing to be uncomfortable about. Really!

Besides our no-pressure-please-just-pray-about-and-discuss-it-with-your-partner-and-be-a-joyful-giver approach, Stewardship Sunday just so happens to land each year close to the anniversary of my first day as a pastor here . .. which was November 1, 2013. So there is usually a celebration of our ministry together. And as a part of that I tend to summarize all the awesome things we have done. Which is uplifting and ought to also bring us joy.

As I mentioned in the recent newsletter we have accomplished a lot our first thousand days together– it is actually exactly eleven hundred days. So let me point out some of the things we have accomplished in our ministry together–some of this was also in the newsletter– if I left off something you like forgive me, we do so much I could probably stand here all day listing things.

The Sunday Services this great church has been conducting for one- hundred-and-eighty-two years continue to be uplifting, love-centered and well attended, and of course the already good music ministry is now stronger than ever. Plus most ministries and committees that were going when we started our journey together have continued on, and now both our Adult Forum and Sunday School classes are flourishing (I particularly love that the number of children has increased significantly since 2013–and we have a children’s choir again).

Beyond our weekly uplifting God-soaked services and already existing and continuing missions and ministries we have completed a great many additional things in our time together. I love that the church bell is ringing again and the tower that houses it has been fully repaired, as has the roof over the educational wing and our organ. Our parking lot, sidewalks and a good portion of the first level floors have been refurbished and we finally have a wheelchair ramp at the entrance– an entrance that on the inside now has attractive coat pegs, nice flooring and wonderful welcoming artwork and a plethora of brochures nicely displayed for visitors. All of this goes along well with Larry’s wonderful art displays in the niche downstairs. Larry has also done a wonderful job painting the office, the nursery, the children’s choir room and the older children’s Sunday school room. We have even moved the wonderful old baptismal out of the weather and into the church as another reminder that our history of God’s work in the community goes back generations–plus we finally have a beautiful new baptismal which I am delighted to report we will very likely be using for another baptism this month.

Of course it is not just the physical space that we have enhanced over the past three years, we have a wonderful new music director and a wonderful new office manager (no small feat given the combined 75 plus years of service by their wonderful predecessors). We have great new members and families and lots of visitors. We have added a delightful annual pet blessing service and this year held two very important and powerful prayer vigils for the community at large. We have also had three powerful Reign of Christ services lighting candles for the saints of our church and those in our lives. We have long been hosts to outside meetings and this year hosted two Narcotics Anonymous meetings, in addition to our already going Alan-non and grief support groups. Plus every week Steve leads Chi Gong and Janine leads yoga in the chapel.

Since 2013 we have also made amazing inroads on ecumenical connections and teamwork, from a multi-church clergy support group to efforts to start a multi-church youth group to a multi-church community racial justice class– with an ecumenical theatre group (The Chancel Players) in the works.

At least as remarkable IS all the work we have also accomplished on interfaith ministries including dialog with Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish members in the county as well as hosting a Buddhist Community in the church to creating and sponsoring our much beloved interfaith friendly Peace Village.

And very impressive to me is that through many of the efforts I just mentioned along with an outstanding new website Carter created, and on-line videos Charlotte posts, as well as a strong Facebook presence, ads and letters in the paper, and our banners – particularly about justice efforts– we are known as a church that is actively doing Christ’s work in the world. We are. And it matters. We are fast losing our status as the best kept secret in Knox County (which is how a number of members described the church when I first arrived).

Our offerings of time, talent and treasure are transforming lives, and are being well used under the awesome leadership of this church. Let us be grateful to God and to our leaders for their efforts, and let us be grateful to one another for all the offerings we have given so far which have made all of this possible. And may our fourth year together be at least as productive as the past three.

I did not have to look far for scripture to tie all of this stuff together with Bible verses . . . at least in my mind’s eye. One of the alternative Lectionary readings this week is a part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” from Luke that we heard Kasie read. If I had to pick one section from the Bible to represent what this church does, why we do what we do, and what we aim to achieve personally and corporately it would be Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” It is also my favorite set of verses, and – I think– the greatest sermon ever recorded.

I thought about parsing the text and focusing on a part of it for this sermon, but I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do instead, to read that sermon of Jesus’ as the sermon –or a goodly part of it. See, what we do with our offerings is try to give traction and living action to what Jesus teaches . . . in what he preaches. God’s call to us in that sermon sums it up well, it is the primary basis for what we do and much of what we aim to achieve.
I have chosen Eugene Patterson’s modern paraphrase of the Sermon on the Plain from The Message. Here it is.

Luke first puts it the sermon into context and tells us that Jesus stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear [Jesus] and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch [Jesus]—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! (17-20)
In that setting imagine Jesus preaching this (Luke 6:20-49):

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. “You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.

Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.

There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.
When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!

If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.

I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier.

Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity . . . Can a blind man guide a blind man? Wouldn’t they both end up in the ditch? An apprentice doesn’t lecture the master. The point is to be careful who you follow as your teacher.

It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

You don’t get wormy apples off a healthy tree, nor good apples off a diseased tree. The health of the apple tells the health of the tree. You must begin with your own life-giving lives. It’s who you are, not what you say and do, that counts. Your true being brims over into true words and deeds.

Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘That’s right, sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you? These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.

If you work the words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who dug deep and laid the foundation of his house on bedrock. When the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, nothing could shake it; it was built to last. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a dumb carpenter who built a house but skipped the foundation. When the swollen river came crashing in, it collapsed like a house of cards. It was a total loss.”

That’s how The Message phrases Jesus the Christ’s Sermon on the Plain. Pretty awesome words to live by in this pretty awesome church with all of you, an awesome people of God.

May the words of Jesus, may the Word of our still speaking God continue to be worked into our lives on the foundation first laid by Jesus and later by the founders of this love-soaked church. Let nothing shake it! And may our offering of time, talent and treasure keep it built to last.


ENDNOTES: 1. Patterson, Eugene, The Message, Navpress, 2003