Psalm 1, Luke 6:17-26 “Living on the Level”
Who here considers themselves level-headed? You know, calm and sensible. Reasonable. Thinking before responding in any situation. Able to appreciate the pros and cons of a situation? Able to take in different points off view? Someone who tries their level-best does the best they can, given the circumstances. To be on the level means we are honest and truthful. Who here wants to be level-headed? On the level with each other?
In the Bible “level” takes on a deeper meaning. It’s used dozens of times, many instances just referring to the physical plain, level ground. But in many other instances, level takes on a spiritual connotation. Level in the Bible often means “being right with the Lord.” In sych with God’s ways. We hear the psalmist declare: Psa 26:12”My foot stands on level ground;” and also pleads Psa 27:11 “because of my adversaries, show me Your way, Lord, and lead me on a level path.” The prophet Jeremiah 31:9 describes it this way: “…..my people have forgotten me and offered sacrifices to worthless idols! They have left them to walk in bypaths, in roads that are not smooth and level”. And of course, we all know of the famous messianic pronouncements of Isaiah: 40:3 “The voice of one who calls out, "Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain.” It is this famous passage which John the Baptizer refers to when he quotes in Luke 3:5, as he refers to the coming of Jesus as: “The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth; and humanity will see God’s salvation.”
Today Luke records for us for the first-time words of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples and the crowds. The text tells us Jesus stood on a level place. Perhaps Jesus stood on actual level ground when he taught. Looking deeper, however, we can see that Jesus stood on a level place because he stood in the ways of God Almighty. Jesus is the one who straightens out the crooked ways of the people, Jesus smooths the rough places in people lives, Jesus is on the level with us. He is forthright. Jesus levels with us. He tells us the real deal. His teachings are the best, the truest, revealing the heart and will of God.
So, Jesus teaches about four blessings and four woes, or warnings. Blessings on the poor, the hungry, those who weep and the persecuted; woes on those who are rich, well fed, those who laugh and those well-spoken. It is a teaching of great reversal. Because of sin or simply the human condition, we often get things backwards. Jesus sets us straight. Jesus puts things on the level for us.
Blessing and woes taken on a different meaning when we are living on the level. It is easy to believe that being rich, having plenty of food, being happy and well thought off as blessings. And you know want, indeed they are. But there’s more going on. Jesus makes clear that biblical message that God is especially close to, and cares for, people who are poor, the orphan and widow, the foreigner, those who struggle, who are hungry, weeping and persecuted for living on the level. The scriptures repeatedly tell us that God hears the cries of the oppressed, sees their misery and cares for them.
God desires for all his people to have good things, material and spiritual. But people who think they had it made, who have all that money can buy, whose bellies are full, those for whom life is a breeze and are well regarded according to world’s standards are brought to task by Jesus: There is more to life than material wellbeing, but all are deserving of material wellbeing. If that is all life is for us to make money, be held in esteem, to have a good time, to have three squares a day – well Jesus levels with us – we have failed because we have allowed our paths to go crooked. Jesus wants us all back on the right path. The level space, where issues of sin, inequality and justice matter.
My Blessings should become a blessing to others. My riches should help alleviate the situation of the destitute. My access to good food and clean water should not permit others to go without. My happiness should not shut out those who are grieving. My good stature in the world does not turn my back on the persecuted. Jesus, out of love for all of us, levels the playing field – where all have fair access to the necessities of life – food, resources, spiritual and mental wellbeing. Christians rich or poor alike are called to living on the level, where the focus is righteousness before God.
At the last meeting of the Presbytery of Long Island, on January 29, we spent a great deal of time discussing an overture to the 225th General Assembly, to be held this June in Louisville, Kentucky. The approved recommendation states: “As a beginning step in the quest for truth, equity, justice, reconciliation and repair, The Presbytery of Long Island overtures the 225th General Assembly (2022) to offer an Apology to African Americans for the sin of Slavery and its legacy.” The purpose of this overture is an act of living on the level. As a presbytery we recognize the first presbytery was organized in 1705 by an enslaver, Rev. Francis Mackie. In 1740 Samuel Davies, an enslaver and educator, believed slavery was ordained by God. The renowned Presbyterian, evangelist Charles Finney, spoke out against slavery despite believing African Americans were inferior and opposing integration. The General Assembly of 1836 accepted the argument that slavery was recognized in the Bible. There were others who opposed slavery like Rev. Jacob Green in 1776. Like Rev. George Bourne who in 1815, presented an overture to the General Assembly raising the question of whether Presbyterians who owned slaves could be Christians. The Assembly refused to act. Upon his return home to Harrisonburg, his presbytery voted to defrock him, to remove him from the ministry. In 1858, on the eve of the Civil War, the United Presbyterian Church of North America was formed with opposition to slavery one of the founding tenants. So our church has historically mirrored the good and the bad. But if we want to live on Jesus’ level, we got to do better: we need to actively seek to transcend and transform culture. Jesus calls us to seek God’s level in all matters, mediated to us through the scriptures, clarified through Jesus’ example of healing and his teachings, and through the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
This overture of the Presbytery is an attempt to live out the level of Jesus Christ. During Black History month, we have the opportunity to deepen our awareness of the sin of slavery and its legacy that lives on in our days, to celebrate the contributions of the African American community. We are called to straighten out the highways, to repair the roads, to level the circumstances we find ourselves through the lens of faith. Let us be levelers in the manner of Jesus. Let us stand on the level plain. God’s level. May God bless our acts of leveling and may we be blessed through the grace of God as we strive to make level the ways of life for all peoples. Amen