This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel text was Luke 6:17-26.
One day, some years back, a preacher named Rev. Johnson stood in the pulpit. It was the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, and she read the same gospel that we heard today.
She said, “The gospel of the Lord,” and all the people said, “Praise to you, O Christ.” And then Rev. Johnson began to preach. She said, “This story is called the Sermon on the Plain, because Jesus came down off the mountain to be with the people on a wide plain, and he said to them, “Blessed are the poor.”
She paused for effect, and in that pause, another voice called out, “in spirit.”
Rev. Johnson was surprised. The whole congregation was surprised. This was a Lutheran church, after all. People didn’t usually respond during a sermon. Some people thought this was something the pastor had planned. But it wasn’t. Rev. Johnson cleared her throat, and said again, “Blessed are the poor.”
Again, the voice cried out, more loudly, “In spirit!”
People turned their heads to see where the voice was coming from. There was a tall, middle-aged man standing up in a pew on the left side, about a third of the way from the back. He was shabbily dressed, and looked like he’d missed a few meals. A few people began to murmur. No one recognized him. Now, having someone unfamiliar wasn’t out of the ordinary. The church was located downtown, and sometimes visitors would come in. And some of those visitors didn’t know good church decorum.
Allan, one of the ushers, an older bald man, walked over to the man, and gently tried to get him to sit down. The man looked at Allan and said, “But she said it wrong!” He didn’t seem angry, more perplexed. He pointed to Rev. Johnson. “She said it wrong!” Then he sat down, and Allan returned to his pew. He nodded to the pastor.
Rev. Johnson continued. “Jesus said, Blessed are the poor…for yours is the kingdom of God. And he said, Blessed are you who are hungry…”
And in the pause, the man stood up again and shouted, “for righteousness!”
Allan stood up again, and walked over to the man. He gently took the man’s arm and said, “Sir, let’s go out in the narthex.”
Rev. Johnsons said, “No, hold on a second. Let him stay.” She looked at the man and asked him, “What’s your name?”
“Reggie,” he said.
She said, “Reggie, help me understand. Why are you saying these things?”
“Because you’re saying it wrong!” he said. “I’ve read the Bible. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ And he said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’ Why are you saying it wrong?”
Rev. Johnson nodded. She said, “I hear what you’re saying. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sat on the side of a mountain and said those things. But here in Luke’s gospel, he came down on a plain and said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor.’ And ‘blessed are you who are hungry.’”
Reggie shook his head, and said, “No, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would he say that?”
“What do you mean?” the pastor asked him.
“The poor aren’t blessed. The hungry aren’t blessed. You’re the ones who are blessed. You church people. Not me.”
A little old lady in the pew across from Reggie stood up. It was Esther. She turned to look at Reggie, and said. “Why would you say that? Why do you think we’re blessed and you’re not?”
Reggie was surprised by the kind way she spoke. He said to her, “I came to this church today because I wanted to try to learn how to be like all of you. You have it all together. You have your cars and your nice coats and your food and your marriages. And God has given all of it to you because you’re nice people. Because you do the right thing, because of your spirit and your righteousness. I don’t have any of that. I want to get those things. I want to do the right thing, and be like you, and be blessed.”
A man near the front got up, and walked into the center aisle. He was dressed in a suit. Most of the congregation knew that this was Jonas, a successful businessman in the area. Pastor Johnson flinched. She had lost control of the congregation, and she feared what Jonas might say now.
Jonas leaned on the pew next to him and said, “I don’t have it all together. Yes, I do have a very nice car and a very nice coat and some very good food. And a wife who is so wonderful. But it’s not because I’ve been a nice person.” He hesitated, and then said, “In fact, I’ve been downright awful in a lot of ways.” Tears came to his eyes as he said, “I’ve cheated people at my business.” He looked up, and said, “I’ve cheated some people right here in this room, and I’m sorry. And God knows I’ve cheated the government out of a lot of taxes. God hasn’t blessed me because I’m good. I don’t know…I don’t know why God has blessed me.” He sat down and started to cry. All eyes were on Jonas, especially Reggie’s. His jaw was open as he tried to understand what just happened.
Pastor Johnson took a deep breath. She had to try to salvage this. She had to say something. She had to do something.
But as she opened her mouth to speak, suddenly Grace stood up. Grace was a retired English teacher, very prim and proper. Very opinionated. Very intimidating. She walked over to Jonas, put her hand on his shoulder and said, “We’ve all made mistakes. You messed up. Now make it right. We will help you.” Jonas’ head was down, and she said, “Look at me. I don’t know the details of what you’ve done, but I know this. You’re going to make it right. God forgives you, and we’re going to help you make amends.” She looked up at the congregation and said, “Right?”
Heads nodded. “Good,” she said. Then she walked over to Reggie, and said, “And as for you. What do you need? Do you need food? A place to stay? Money?”
Again, Reggie’s jaw fell. “Umm, all of the above, ma’am,” he said.
“We’ll help you,” Grace said.
Somebody shouted out, “I’ve got that apartment I just finished renovating. I don’t have a tenant yet. Reggie, you can live there, rent free, at least for a while.”
Another person said, “Doug, you know you can’t afford to rent out your apartment for free. If you let him stay there, I’ll pay half his rent.”
Another voice called out, “I’ll pay the other half!”
Somebody said, “You’re coming to lunch with us after worship today, Reggie. My treat.”
Another said, “Stop by my store tomorrow if you need clothes. 4th and Main St. Just ask for Melissa, and I’ll take care of you.”
Grace looked around at the congregation, smiling with pride. She turned to Rev. Johnson, who stood in the pulpit dumbfounded. “So sorry for interrupting your sermon, Pastor,” she said. “Please continue.” Then she sat down as though nothing had happened.
There was complete silence throughout the room. Pastor Johnson said, “Luke tells us that Jesus went down on the plain to be with the people. He healed them, and he said to them, ‘Blessed are you who are poor. And blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep now. For you will laugh. And you will be filled. And yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke tells us that he said, “Blessed are you. Not blessed are they, but blessed are you.”
She took a deep breath, and continued, “And I feel as though he is speaking to me, because I feel so blessed right now to be here, among you all. Among a congregation that takes this so seriously, that understands that Jesus has called us to be the blessing in the world, to be his hands and feet in the world, to seek and serve him in everyone we meet. To say to them, you are blessed. And to show them. I am so blessed to be your pastor.”
Reggie stood up, tears streaming down a face that had a smile that positively glowed. He walked forward down the aisle. As he walked, he said, “With all due respect, Pastor, I disagree. I’m the one who’s blessed. It’s me.” He sat down next to Jonas, and put his arm around the well-dressed man. Jonas looked at him with a tearful smile and said, “Me too. Me too.”