Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Several years ago, my brother-in-law and I were reminiscing about some of the professors we had in seminary. Mike came through Luther Seminary about eight or ten years after me, and although some of the faculty had turned over in that period of time, we shared some favorites in common. Berge. Harrisville. Simundson. Snook. Martinson. But the name that kept coming up in our conversation was Tostengaard – Sheldon Tostengaard.
Dr. Tostengaard was professor of homiletics; he taught preaching. He would say that “preaching is not taught, it is caught” but that didn’t stop him from trying to teach a whole generation of Lutheran pastors to become preachers. He could be kind when he evaluated his students, but he could also be blunt and sarcastic and rude. He made Simon on American Idol seem friendly. Once, after a student preacher struggled through a sermon, Tostengaard walked over to a window that faced downtown Minneapolis, and he said “Dunwoody…Dunwoody. Maybe you’d be more successful at Dunwoody.”
My first practice sermon was sort of a disaster, too. I was so nervous, I preached a ten minute in about 3-1/2 minutes. When I was finished, Dr. Tostengaard said “Molin, there are two kinds of fast. There’s a goose through flax, and Sherman through Georgia. You were Sherman through Georgia. Slow down young man!”
But in a rare moment, Dr. Tostengaard could offer some incredible advice. One day, he told us, “Don’t get in the way of the gospel. Don’t try to get cute. Just tell the story and let the gospel speak for itself.” It is tempting, sometimes, when Sunday’s scripture texts seem dry and the words won’t come, it is tempting to make the gospel say something that isn’t there. That’s when I remember Tostengaard’s words. And I remembered his words this week as I considered the day Jesus came down from the mountain and addressed those who were gathered.
“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, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, these words are part of “The Sermon on the Mount.” But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t deliver this sermon up on the mountain top. He comes down among the people; the hurting, broken, and rejected people of the day, and tells them that there is hope for them. It’s called “The Sermon on the Plain” and it turns all the injustices of this world upside down. The poor will be rich, the hungry will be fed, the grieving will one day laugh again.
But then Jesus turns his attention to the powerful, the popular, the beautiful people of that day. Just beyond the crowd of hurting people who had come to be healed by Jesus, there were the social and religious powerbrokers who had come to examine Jesus — and Jesus has a message for them, too.
“Woe to you who are rich now, because that’s as good as it’s going to get for you. Woe to you who are full now, because you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you are about to experience pain. Woe to you who are popular, because you are just like the false prophets.”
There was only one sermon that day. There was only one crowd. But there were a myriad of responses, because the poor felt encouraged, but the wealthy felt judged. The hungry went away hopeful, but the well-fed went away worried about the future. And it occurs to me that, every time a preacher steps into a pulpit, there is never just one audience present, or just one sermon preached. You will leave this place today and every one of you will have heard a different sermon. That’s something else that Tostengaard told us; that we are responsible for what we say, but we are not responsible for what people hear. Something will prick your interest today, or something will offend you, or something will make you wonder. I think Jesus knew that, and that is why his teaching was always so provocative.
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But I’m wondering what kind of a sermon you need today. Do you need a blessing, or do you need a woe? Do I need a pat on the back, or do I need a kick in the butt? What would Jesus have us take with us from this Plain Sermon of so long ago? I think he would want us to consider four issues. Whether our lives are fractured or whole; whether we are filled with delight or filled with despair, I believe that Jesus would have us one message with four parts…for all of us.
The first message has to do with wealth. We live in one of the wealthiest counties in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. By the world’s standards, we are rich, yet many of us struggle to pay for our living. There is often a wide gap between our needs and our wants, and it fills us with all sorts of frustration, confuion and anxiety.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: I walked into a spectacular cathedral surrounded by stained glass windows. I watched as the preacher, dressed in silk robes opened a bible with gold edges and read these words: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them sell their possessions, give away their money, and come follow me.” And Kierkegaard said “I looked around, and no one else was laughing!”
Wealth can be either a blessing or a woe. It can bring us joy or it can bring us conflict. The thing it cannot bring us is eternal life. And yet we seek financial security as if it can really make us secure. And Jesus says it can’t, but he can.
The second message of this text has to do with hunger. I find it fascinating how Americans are so fixated on food…including me. You can’t pick up a magazine or a newspaper today and not find the words “Atkins” or “South Beach” or “low carb” or “high protein.” We are obsessed with food. We are supposed to eat to live, but we live to eat, and yet very few of us know what hunger feels like.
Next Sunday, some of us will gather for a pot luck to hear Jim and Marilyn and Maxine tell of their journey to Africa. The food we will share would be a banquet for the people of Mlafu, and yet many of us will grumble because tater tot hot dish has too many calories, or the green Jell-O has too many carrot shavings. Food can be a blessing or a woe. But there are lots of different ways to be hungry.
And then there is the issue of laughing and weeping. I officiated a wedding last month, and the people in the wedding party were so happy, they cried. I officiated at Lloyd Johnson’s funeral last week, and in the midst of his family’s sadness and grief, there was laughter. Sometimes, the most heartbroken people walk around with smiles on their faces because they don’t want people to know of their pain. “How are you today?” “Oh, I’m fine.” But they’re not fine. Others have wonderful lives, happy marriages, healthy children and beautiful homes, but they walk around with glum faces. “Are you sad?” “No. Just Norwegian.” Emotions can be a blessing or a woe, but we are seldom honest about how we are feeling.
Finally, there is this issue of being accepted or persecuted for what we believe. Some people in Third World countries are persecuted for their faith in Christ. Muslims in France will soon be forbidden to wear religious garments in public. Jews in Nazi Germany were marked with patches and systematically executed…because they were Jews. But in this country, where we boast of our religious freedom, we mostly try to keep our religion to ourselves. Wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Wouldn’t want to be rejected because we are Lutheran, or Catholic, or Baptist. “Religion is a private matter” we say. So we shut up. Religious convictions can be a blessing or a woe. It all depends on if our walk resembles our talk.
I don’t know if all of this is what Jesus had in mind when he delivered that Sermon on the Plain 2000 years ago. What I do know is that he has come to this place, to enter the lives of the humble and the proud, to touch the lives of the weeping and the laughing…he has come to bring us a single message, and it is this: you are blessed, because the Savior loves you. And if that’s all you hear in this sermon, it will be enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Steven Molin. Used by permission.