Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
On Monday and Tuesday this past week I made a quick trip to Phoenix. I was there because I’m part of a team that’s planning the 2020 ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering, a triennial conference for Lutheran pastors and deacons, which will take place in Phoenix next year in July. This was the planning team’s site visit—an opportunity to tour the convention center and hotel ballrooms where our events will be held.
We’ve signed all the contracts and reserved a block of nearly 1,000 rooms as well as several meeting spaces in one of the large hotels near the convention center, and that’s where all of us stayed Monday night while we were visiting earlier this week. It became clear as soon as I gave the front desk attendant my name that I was in for a treat. “Oh, helloMr. Swanson. I see we’ve comped your room—and we have a verynice king suite for you in our tower, on the 29thfloor. Your room is still being cleaned, but just leave your luggage with the concierge and we’ll deliver it there when it’s ready. In the meantime, you’re welcome to enjoy our 28th-floor club lounge where there are food and drinks for our exclusive guests.” Having signed a contract to host a couple thousand guests and many of our events there next summer, the hotel was clearly aiming to impress us. Later that afternoon, after a team meeting in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, each of us had a lovely plate of chocolates waiting for us in our bedrooms, compliments of the hotel’s events manager. For someone who usually gets the cheapest room I can find on Priceline—or better yet, crashes on a friend’s sofa when I’m in town—the 29th-floor king suite and the free chocolates and all the special treatment felt pretty great.
Tuesday morning I rolled out of my king-sized bed, walked into the other room, bit into another one of those chocolates from the events manager because, why not, and I opened up the curtains to take in the Phoenix sunrise. From the 29thfloor, I could see where the sprawling city reached its limits at the base of the red mountains rising out of the desert off in the distance. From that far up, everything seemed so tiny. The morning rush-hour traffic hardly even registered—just a bunch of tiny boxes moving slowly far below—and I had to squint to recognize people walking the sidewalks on their way to work.
After a hot breakfast in the 28th-floor club lounge for exclusive guests, we made our way back downstairs and out the doors onto the street, walking toward the convention center. If, from our hotel rooms near the top of the hotel’s high tower, we had felt far removed from the cares of the world below, now we were in the midst of it all—thrust into the downtown traffic, the smells of the city, and the crowds gathered for whatever conference was being hosted in Phoenix while we happened to be in town.
It was only a couple blocks from the hotel to the convention center, but along the way we passed several panhandlers begging for change and saw one man creating a scene in the middle of the street, who was apparently either extremely mentally ill or inebriated—most likely, some combination of the two. Seeing so many people who were clearly in need of help, as I walked with this group of about a dozen pastors and deacons, I felt like we were all performing the role of the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember that story? A man is robbed and beaten and left lying half-dead along the side of the road. A priest comes along and sees the man but crosses the road and passes by on the other side. In the end it’s a good Samaritan—an enemy of the Israelites—who offers help. In that moment on the street when none of us had anything to offer the panhandler, and when we all just kept walking and averted our eyes when we saw the man making a commotion in the middle of the street, I felt like we were the priests in the Good Samaritan story who avoided the situation and kept going on our way. And while all of this was going through my head, I remembered how I had woken up in a king suite on one of the top floors of the tall downtown hotel and eaten breakfast in the exclusive club lounge and how decadent all of that felt. Something about all of this felt profoundly wrong.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is familiar to many of us. Actually, most of us are probably more familiar with Matthew’s version of this story, which is slightly different. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sees the crowd gathered, and he goes up a mountain and begins to teach the people. That’s why most Bibles refer to it as the “Sermon on the Mount.” The detail about Jesus going up on a mountain is supposed to call to mind Moses, who, centuries earlier, went up a mountain to talk with God. When Jesus goes up a mountain and begins teaching the people, we are to understand that Jesus’ teaching comes from God. But it’s different in Luke’s Gospel. Rather than going up on a mountain, Luke tells us that it is exactly the other way around, that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place.” Sometimes we call the version of this story that we find in Luke’s Gospel the “Sermon on the Plain.”
The difference between Matthew’s version of this story with Jesus standing up on a mountain and Luke’s version with Jesus down on level place among the people begs the question: Which one of them got it it right? Did Jesus preach this sermon on a mountain or on a level plain? I guess we’ll never know. But it’s a pretty big discrepancy. It doesn’t seem like the kind of detail you’d get wrong just by accident. You have to imagine the Matthew and Luke each had good reasons for telling this story the way they did, that each of them set this story where they did intentionally to suit their own purposes.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that Luke would have Jesus down with the people on a level plain, rather than up on a mountain. More than any of the other Gospels, the Gospel of Luke announces a great reversal, turning human expectations on their head. Right off the bat, in Luke chapter 1, when Mary finds out she will give birth to Jesus, Luke captures her asking, “Who am I, God, that I should give birth to the savior of the world—a young, unwed, peasant girl? From now on people will say I have been blessed. That’s the kind of God you are—who scatters those who are proud, who casts the mighty down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.” That theme of reversal comes up over and over again in Luke’s Gospel. So in today’s reading, it’s not surprising that Luke puts Jesus down on a level place—not up on some mountain in a powerful place of privilege where you might expect to find one who comes in the name of God, not far removed from the people, but down in their midst where he is one of them and can see for himself the challenges they face.
That, I think, is what’s most amazing about this story—that Jesus doesn’t stay far off, looking down at the people from a distance, but is down at street-level in the midst of it all. Not above the fray, not even crossing to the other side of the street and averting his eyes, but up close and personal with the crowds, proclaiming blessing to those who come with all their problems and hardships.
As we were checking out of our rooms Tuesday morning, we all gushed about our posh accommodations and the club access and the tasty chocolates from the events manager. The ELCA churchwide staff who leads our planning team told us we probably shouldn’t get used to it—that next time we’re in Phoenix, our rooms won’t be comped, we won’t be on the top floors, and there definitely won’t be chocolates. That’s probably how it should be for those of us called to follow Jesus, who leads us into the crowds on ground level and proclaims God’s love to those the powerful look down on, who embodies the great reversal of the reign of God by going to those most in need and saying, “This is where I belong. You are the ones blessed by God.”
Karoline Lewis, “A Level Plain Perspective,” on WorkingPreacher.org, February 11, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5287.