Interventions: Poetry on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49)

We opened with this video from Peter Rollins.

[The part from this video that stood out to me and I drew on in the sermon and the poem was towards the end when he talks about laying down the paintbrush and living into the new world.]

first a Confession.
If I am upfront, I have to that that I would like to now is go line by line and explain what every thing means. This is a temptation I face as this morning’s preacher.  But I cannot give into this temptation.

For one, the temptation would be out of a desire to try and make this safe, explain it all in a way that you can understand it in every situation. Here is how you apply it here and there. But this would take the poetry out of it. We have to have imaginations to really get this.

Secondly, to give into that temptation would give an air of accomplishment, if I can explain all of it, then that must mean I’m living all of this. And that is just not true.

I don’t not love without measure.
I condemn.
I do not always forgive. Withholding forgiveness makes me feel powerful.
And while I profess pacifism, I can be rather forceful and coercive about many things.

All in all, I still hear the call. I am seeking to act on this and allow this to be the measure of which I know I must live and be judged.

So I will continue to read this poetry along side this community as we learn how to act it out.

the Plain.
Today we’re calling this intervention “poetry on the plain.” And I think it’s worth an explanation why that’s the name of what otherwise is known as the Sermon on the Mount.

For one thing, Luke’s version of Jesus’ main sermon does not take place on a the side of a mountain the way it does in Matthew’s version. This is significant to Luke’s plot. Luke is not a paperback novel writer, he writes for a reason.

Remember we said in the first week, this is a history being put in the service of persuasive theology. It is history being used to preach, it is narration as proclamation, or as I spun it, narration as intervention. Luke is showing that God of the impossible, is making things possible, in bringing about a new world, and it’s going to be like a great banquet where everyone is invited, even the Tyrants and Tax collectors.

“The good news is for the nations” as Jesus said at his inaugural address.

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (in Chapter 5) takes place on a mountain side,  high above everyone else, with his diciples being the ones privy to his words. However Luke’s version stresses the universality of Jesus’ message. It says, “He came down and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people…” from all these places that would have included both Jews and Gentiles in the mix.

Thus Jesus comes down, gets on level ground and speaks to all the people. The world he speaks into reality through this sermon is not for a select for, the  chosen ones, it is for the great multitudes.

This is not the sermon on the mount, it is the sermon on the plain.

the Poetry.
Painting a new worldDo you remember a few weeks back when we talked about the difference between the logic of the world and the poetry of the kingdom? When we said like the kingdom of God is more like poetry than it is like mathematics (with apologies to the mathematicians), and I gave you that classic logical formula on the screen about Socrates being a mortal man?

Well here it is, here is Jesus’ longest poem in the book of Luke.

I think our perspective when reading this should be that Jesus’ words are more like poetry than they are a typical sermon.

It is about painting a picture of what is possible, these are statements about actions and has nothing to do with doctrine.

It is about reorienting life, his sermon does not end with an altar call. That would let us get off far too easy. We can’t dismiss an entirely reoriented life, we can dismiss a trip to the front.

This sermon is a call, but without the opportunity to resolve it. The resolution comes in the living it out. The tension isn’t resolved, people leave hungry for this new world.  They are called beyond themselves and into the world that awaits.

Here is poetry that takes a plain white canvas and paints an image of a new world on it.

I’m calling it poetry because quite honestly it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The same  way poetry is often unclear. (And this is why we often stop at arguing over whether or not we should really take it seriously).

I think this sermon, this poetry, reveals God’s divine madness, to borrow a phrase. (God doesn’t do things our way). But this madness is tantalizing, it re-imagines our world in a way that makes so little sense, but is exactly what we hunger for, we know it is absolutely the way things should be.

Here is Jesus the painter, the poet, the master craftsman, drawing on words, and images to speak into reality a community that loves their enemies, and operates out of an excess of love, mercy, and forgiveness. This community is called to reject the old ways, the old wine, the things that often make the most logical sense, and act out of an imagination that is fueled by God’s divine madness.

It doesn’t make sense if you’re doing the math. If you’re a philosopher this will not follow patterns of logic. Those are exercises in exactness and even in a kind of power. But this is poetry. Poetry can be inexact, even powerless because it cannot force the proper reading. (Why would Jesus leave it this way?)

This poetry on the plain is God short-circuiting expectations and reversing things, here we see the power of powerlessness:

“[W]henever one would expect an exercise of power form a classical hero, Jesus displays the stunning power of powerlessness—of nonviolence, nonresistance, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, generosity” (Caputo WWJD? 84).

We cannot forget Christ the divine man is defeated. This is a display of what Paul calls the “weakness of God” (1 Cor. 1:25) and the foolishness of the cross.

And so we must approach this not head on, but see it as something cockeyed. Look at it as poetry rather than logic. Looking at it straight on, reading it as something powerful, something logical, doctrines to be disputed, it won’t come into focus.

The poetry on the plain is the imagination of the kingdom of God being painted on the canvas of our psyches. This imagination wants to rewire the way we live.

This is the impossible being spoken into reality, we are being told in effect that is not impossible at all, this is how things are to work from here on out.

the Turning points.

Jesus’ poetry on the plain is about acting out of a conviction that things are turning, a new world is at hand, and like a delicious smell that wafts through the air that you can taste because it is so thick, we can taste this new world now. (Lk 6:20-49)

The new world is turning, and Jesus was the one who put it to spin.
With these words he speaks it into existence.

This is Jesus’ longest sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke and within it there is not a lick of doctrine. It is about living the truth, not signing up for particular truths. We can continue to debate it as doctrine, which will relieve the pressure of ever getting down to the business of living it.

We can see that this has little to do with doctrine and much more to do with actual practice by noticing where it turns on particular phrases that cannot be ignored:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

He repeats this only a few words later because it is the throbbing heart of Jesus’ poetical ethics.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Here is the call to be, in the words of Paul, imitators of God. Don’t simply believe in God, imitate God.

“The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

“And finally, I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.”

These are phrases that give motion, action, and repetition to what Jesus says. These are the words the kingdom imagination turns on.

These are not things to simply skim over and dismiss, as in the video we saw at the beginning, believing something is right is not enough to get you convicted of being a Christian, it is the acting it out that is so troublesome to the world.

And this is what Quakers have done as well. They have sought to remind the church that it cannot dismiss these words, the are the practices of the church.  Our tradition is one that holds feet to the fire, and the fire is the poetry on the plain. They were the ones willing to lay the paintbrushes down and live into this new reality Jesus inaugurated.

Open Worship

Queries for open worship:

  • How/why might these be considered the poetry/poetics of the kingdom?
  • Who are our/your enemies today?
  • What would it look like, or what does it look like, to live these ethics out in the life of the church today?

The Cockeyed Poem on the Plain

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.