The Sermon on the Plain

Sermon at St James, 3 before Lent, 13 February 2022

Psalm 1; Luke 6: 17‒26

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

Despite the fact that colour photography has been around for nearly a hundred years, some of the world’s greatest photographs are in black and white. Portraits, war pictures, landscapes are sometimes much more striking when they are in black and white. The black and white format simplifies the image, so that the forms and shapes are more clear and there is no distraction of bright colours. A colour photograph sometimes seems to have too much in it, so that we don’t know where to look.

When we look at our fellow human beings, do we see them in colour or in black and white, I wonder. It is always easier to like or dislike, to be for or against and to simplify our critical judgement, in other words to think and look in black and white.

Our two readings today both fall into this category and give us a dilemma to puzzle over. Take the Gospel from St Luke which is called The Sermon on the Plain, which Luke tells us was preached by Jesus on a level piece of ground to a large crowd. It is the equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus in a different place. This version is rather shorter and more hard hitting. Perhaps Jesus preached a similar sermon on several occasions as he travelled round Galilee. At any rate he seems to divide human beings into two categories, the righteous on the one side and the wicked on the other. First come the righteous:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh
Blessed are you when people hate you on account of the Son of Man for your reward is great in heaven

Just four Beatitudes describing the good, faithful servants of God’s kingdom but then these Beatitudes are balanced by four Woes describing the wicked:

Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation
Woe to you who are full now for you will be hungry
Woe to you who are laughing now for you will mourn and weep
Woe to you when all speak well of you for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets

Black and white, simple, hard-hitting stuff, which might well make us feel uncomfortable and have to place ourselves in the camp of the wicked. All of us here today are certainly rich compared with the majority of the world, all of us probably had a good breakfast this morning and are full, we all enjoy the funny side of life and there are perhaps a few people who speak well of us—not many, but a few! Does that make us wicked?

Our Old Testament reading from Psalm 1 was almost as harsh and black and white in its contrast between the righteous and the wicked. For the Psalmist the righteous take their delight in the law of the Lord on which they meditate day and night. The wicked are like the chaff, which the wind blows away, and they will perish.

This is all very stark—few of us are on our way to sainthood and surely none of us could be called wicked. Where is the middle ground? We need some colour to relieve the black and white and it’s not far away. It’s in the Sermon on the Mount and it’s another Beatitude. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" which is better translated "how Blessed are those who know their need of God." If you realise your need for God’s grace you can’t be self-satisfied, you can’t be complacent and you have to feel grateful. And Psalm 1 gives us the lovely image of evergreen trees growing near a stream. We must be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, their leaves do not wither and in all that they do they prosper. In other words, we all have our roots spreading out beyond our canopy, touching the love of family and friends and reaching for God’s goodness. In this way we know that we need each other and we know that we need God. Our roots are firmly spread to draw sustenance from friends, family and God himself.

Our Gospel extract from the Sermon on the Plain is too bleak, too black and white. We need some relief, some colour to comfort and encourage us.