From a Level Place
It was a Friday night, around 11pm. I was settled into my bed with a book and a cup of tea. The air was stale and the lighting was harsh, and the sound of a helicopter landing 100 feet away filled my ears and made my whole body vibrate. On the bedside table a pager began its shrill, electronic beeping. I was the on-call chaplain in my sleep room at the hospital, and someone was calling for me. I dialed the number on the pager screen and a nurse answered somewhat frantically that a man in ICU was dying and could I please come help with the family. I hurried into my loafers and headed out.
As I passed through the empty, quiet hallways of the hospital, I imagined that the family I was about to meet must be devastated and perhaps in need of prayer. The sight of the dying man might be difficult to behold. As I neared my destination I was shaken from these thoughts by a loud, screeching voice, and I turned a corner just in time for a large object to zoom right past me, barely missing my head. It was a box of Kleenex. It had been thrown by a young woman at the other end of the corridor. Her target had been the older woman I was now standing next to. As it turns out, the “help” that the nurses needed with this family was in subduing their physical altercation.
The man, indeed on his death bed, had no intention of forgiving his daughter for not accepting his wife of 20 years. His daughter, at her own father’s death bed, had no intention of showing any sympathy for her step-mother. The wife, at her husband’s death bed, had no intention of reconciling with her stubborn step-daughter. It was a long night. The following week, I expressed my dismay to my supervisor. I couldn’t believe that after 20 years, and with death knocking at the door, this family couldn’t find any room for forgiveness. Perhaps I had been envisioning something like the joyful scene when Joseph reconciles with his brothers in Egypt, and they become a family again. My supervisor, in her infinite wisdom, burst my bubble. She said, “Hannah, this isn’t the movies, this is the real world.”
The phenomenon of having one’s bubble burst is pretty earth-shattering. The gruesome truth that the real world is not like our imagination can rear its ugly head at the worst times. This is particularly true for those of us who put our trust in Christ. We see signs of the slow in-breaking of the Kingdom all around us and they bring us joy and hope. But just as often, we find reminders that the Kingdom has not yet fully come, that God’s work is yet unfulfilled, and that our world is broken and full of pain.
This is something that Luke, the gospeller, seems especially tuned in to. Our passages this week and last week come from Jesus’ largest sermon. In Matthew, it’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus stands elevated, nearer to God, from whence his authority and teachings come. Maybe Luke, like me, had some lingering concern about the people down below, who listened to the glorious depiction of the Kingdom and ate their fill of bread and fish, and then had to go home to their regular old lives of Roman oppression. As my hospital supervisor might have said, “the Kingdom sounds great and all, but this is the real world.”
But Luke reorients the implication and accessibility of this sermon simply by relocating it. In Luke, it’s not called the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon from a Level Place. You’ll have to pardon my obsession with this phrase. I love the way it rolls off the tongue: “from a level place.” And I love how beautifully it describes something so vulgar, namely, the less-than-ideal state of our real world. I have started to describe my experience that fateful Friday at the hospital as one that brought my pastoral ministry from atop a mountain down to a level place. And in this passage, Luke doesn’t just bring Jesus down to a Level Place, he brings the Kingdom there as well.
If we were to make a list of the things we hope will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven, I bet we would all include things like, children won’t die from gun violence; people won’t be scared of those with a different color skin; democrat and republican family members will share peaceful, loving, Thanksgiving meals together. Now, on Sunday mornings, when we hear a sermon that moves us, or when we reach the peak of a hike and take in the view, the Kingdom might feel close at hand. But most of the time, a world where that list of things is true feels far away and unattainable. In Luke’s Sermon from a Level Place, Jesus doesn’t let us wallow in that defeat, he gives us a charge.
This short passage gives us some of the most well-known Christian maxims. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you”
Jesus doesn’t call down these instructions from the top of a mountain, like a list of tasks to perform in order to earn our place up there beside him. Jesus stands right in front of us, on a Level Place, and tells us that yes, the world is full of pain and suffering, full of people who beg and curse and strike cheeks, but if we live the way he’s teaching, we won’t need to escape the world, because the Kingdom will come right here, for everyone. And we don’t have to solve gun violence, racism, or unpleasant holidays. We don’t have eradicate pain and suffering all on our own. If we’re just a little more generous with our spare change, if we give up on a grudge a little sooner, if we resist the urge to hit back – these small things will change the whole world.
The memories of breaking up that family feud definitely bring a smile to my face today, but it was a tough pill for me to swallow at the time. And as a hospital chaplain I saw plenty of other examples of the bleak reality of the Level Place we live in. We’ve all seen these examples. And sometimes, imagining the coming Kingdom of God in its full glory is a source of hope and comfort in the face of that reality. But sometimes, it helps when Jesus comes to us from a Level Place, brings us face to face with a harsh truth, and tells us what we can do about it. That’s its own kind of Good News. I invite you to examine the Level Places in your own life, and explore how God is calling you to bring the Kingdom into them. If we all leaned a little more into Jesus’ sermon from Luke, imagine how glorious our Level Place could be. Amen.