Next Sunday, Maia Olukemi Coker, the daughter of Dami and Flor, members of Holy Trinity, will be baptised. Her parents hope we will join them in the hall afterwards for celebratory refreshments.
The presbytery has a new name plate to replace the broken one, thanks to Michael Killbourn.
Jill Pirdas has returned from India, where she was visiting her brother’s charity, which we have supported for many years.
3rd before Lent, February 17
I remember being persuaded by a Jewish friend at Oxford to go to an open air meeting to hear the American evangelist, Arthur Blessit, preach. I don’t remember much about it except that it was a cool, grey evening in summer time and I didn’t get much out of it.
Reading up about Arthur Blessitt, I realise now that he’s an extraordinary person. Fifty years ago he set himself the target of carrying a large wooden cross to all the nations of the Earth. To date, he has walked over 42, 000 miles (68,000 km), visited 324 countries (of which 54 were war zones). He has crossed every ocean and walked on all seven continents, including Antarctica. He is known internationally as the ‘Pilgrim with the Cross’. The Guinness World Records Book rates his travels as the Longest Around the World Ongoing Pilgrimage/Walk.
His achievements may astonish us not just for the distance travelled but for the fact that Arthur Blessitt largely preaches out of doors. For most of us religion is something you do indoors, with the exception of papal masses which are often open air since the numbers attending are so large.
In fact, the papal masses reflect Jesus’ usual practice. Occasionally, he taught in the synagogue but usually he spoke to large crowds in the open air. Sometimes, he even had to go offshore in a boat because the crowds were so great. In Sunday’s reading from Luke’s gospel, in what is called The Sermon on the Plain (to distinguish it from the similar Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel), Jesus addresses a large, diverse crowd in a wide-open space.
Luke places this event after a series of stories which involve Jesus in conflict with the authorities. Jesus has been rejected in his hometown synagogue. He has been criticised for healing, especially on the sabbath. He has called outcast people, like Levi, the tax collector, to follow him. He has been challenged with questions about rules to do with food, fasting and sabbath observance.
The authorities have attempted to defend a traditional view of the Jewish people as godly as opposed to the ungodly Gentiles (non-Jews). They have insisted on a strict understanding of what was acceptable to do on the sabbath. Jesus points to a different way.
In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus turns the traditional approach upside-down. While the authorities are attempting to defend the bedrock of their culture – the Law – they are neglecting the prophetic part of their tradition (Jesus refers to the way that their ancestors had even killed their prophets).
In his sermon in the synagogue, preached just before the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, whose concern was for the oppressed, broken-hearted, captives and prisoners. Such themes are not confined to Isaiah but are found also in the Psalms and the writing of other prophets, such as Micah and Ezekiel. Also, the Law (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah) obliges the Jewish people to provide for the poor (to eat grapes from a neighbour’s field) and to leave food for gleaners. The Law also forbade charging interest and required slave-owners to set slaves free every seven years (Sabbath Year) and to return ancestral lands to their original owners every fifty years (Jubilee Year). However, the evidence about how much these laws were obeyed is sketchy.
The prophets who preceded Jesus were trying to move Israel from a simple adherence to the Law to one moderated by compassion – what we might also describe as equity.
Jesus continues and develops this tradition in the Sermon on the Plain. Even its location may be significant: perhaps ‘coming down’ signifies Jesus’ desire to be at the level of ordinary people and their needs.
Jesus’ style here is different from the Sermon on the Mount. Although he pronounces blessings on the poor, hungry, weeping and hated (as in the Sermon on the Mount), he diverges to pronounce corresponding woes.
He pronounces woe on the rich, full, laughing, and those who enjoy a good reputation. He warns each of them.
The rich include the prosperous but also the powerful and ‘entitled’ who don’t feel they need God. He says ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry’ – which emphasises the transience of privilege. The over-fed won’t appreciate half rations.
He warns those who laugh that they will eventually mourn and weep. Their good fortune is transient.
He warns those who enjoy a good reputation that their ‘fathers did the same thing to false prophets’. People speak well of those who flatter them. God values those who speak the truth rather than those seek simply to please their audience.
In a sense the Sermon on the Plain and The Sermon on the Mount are very similar but in the Sermon on the Plain Jesus more directly warns the privileged of the transience of their fortunes. He knows this message will be unpopular with some, but only temporarily (‘Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets’). He points to a day where the prophetic values of the kingdom of God will reign.