In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Jesus came down from the mountain where he had called and chosen his disciples and stood on a level place with a crowd of his disciples and a multitude of people who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Jesus cures the sick and then begins a collection of sayings which, as one Commentary on Luke states, is called by some ‘the Sermon on the Plain’. The first part of this sermon, with its blessings and woes, is known as ‘the Beatitudes’ and falls within today’s reading. There follows a call to love our enemies, avoid judging others, a discourse on the nature of good and evil and the need for actions not just words.
In my sermon today, I am going to focus on the word ‘level’ in today’s Gospel and see how it stands in relation to today’s quest to ‘level up’. That is to say, to address the inequalities in society that exist amongst us all; for example poor health and poor prospects. Particular reference here to the need to regenerate certain areas to ensure a good environment for both the north of England and the south.
I believe that Luke would have been much in favor of this plan to ‘level up’. His Gospel makes clear that Jesus loves the unfortunate. The Beatitudes and woes are on the side of the poor, the hungry and the bereaved. The blessings are for them and the woes are for the rich and the well fed and those who laugh when others weep. In Luke’s earlier chapter 4, Jesus reads in the synagogue from the Book of Isaiah that the good news is for the poor. They are to be released from captivity, their sight is to be recovered and the oppressed will go free. This is the expression given to ‘levelling up’ in the New Testament.
So far so good, but, as in today’s world, barriers to achieving this ‘levelling up’ were there at the time of Jesus preaching as they are today. Not always, but sometimes, wealth can be a barrier. In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns that there are those who are ‘choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature’. As such, they have heard his message but gone their own way. It is unlikely in their preoccupations that they would be attentive to the need to ‘level up’. Today, as I learnt from a webinar I listened to recently on ‘levelling up’ we were reminded that capitalism has existed for a thousand years and will not be given up so easily. I would say though that I cannot see why capitalism should not work if it is rooted in faith and puts people first.
Then there is the barrier of lack of trust. A barrier certainly in the life of Jesus. When Herod the ruler learnt of the healing ministry of Jesus he was perplexed; he asked who was Jesus? John the Baptist raised from the dead? In chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that they will be ‘hated by all because of my name’. It is a hate that put Jesus on the Cross. This hatred is often expressed in Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew takes it further: brother will betray brother, a father his child, and children will rise against parents and put them to death’. Not much trust in evidence here. Turning again to the webinar on ‘levelling up’ I heard that if it is to take effect it will require trust between government and people. We must not, though, lose faith in democracy. As history has revealed, the chance of ‘levelling up’ in an alternative state of affairs would, I believe, be remote.
So far, I have considered two barriers to ‘levelling up’ that are shared between us today and the age of the New Testament. There is, though, a barrier that exists in our time but did not in New Testament times and that is the barrier imposed by the culmination over many years of data, statistics, a multiplicity of organisations and the bureaucracy that goes with them. The question was raised during the ‘levelling up’ webinar – who, amongst all these factors, has the power to effect change? If it is the government only, would that mean too much command and control? Also, as the Chair of St Mungo’s said during this session, health and well being need to be at the heart of ‘levelling up’ but she said that local government did, on occasion, prevent the innovations to assist people that were proposed by volunteers.
All this in contrast to Jesus coming as an individual face to face with the multitude to give them his sayings and heal them, then and there. Jesus blesses his hearers directly and says that they will be rewarded for theirs is the Kingdom of God. You may say that this is a promise for the future in heaven rather than an immediate ‘levelling up’ but Jesus heals on the moment.
For our desire to ‘level up’ is there anything that we can take from Luke’s Gospel that will help achieve this goal? Certainly, as I have learnt from meetings with church leaders of the London Boroughs, the church is very active in helping the needs that arise when there is no ‘levelling up’ in place. Such as its enormous contribution to helping the homeless, feeding the needy via food banks, counselling the bereaved and being the welcoming presence for the lonely and the confused, the lost and the abandoned. Churches are in the process of networking with other churches to maximise the impact of their work. Covid has not made this easy, with the restriction on face to face contact and the weariness felt by all after many months of sickness and bereavement. Yet in spite of these problems, the church leaders have been able to communicate effectively with Councils and the police. I have made clear at these meetings that we do all we can at St Mark’s to be the comforting pastoral presence and extend welcome to all. Could it be, then, that when methods are being considered to achieve ‘levelling up’ the church will play a major part in this process, particularly as they seem able to serve the needy directly without undue bureaucratic processes. For example, the work of the London City Mission who work with the homeless and make provision for them. I would not want anyone to think that in saying this I wish to undermine any proposals made by any government or secular institutions who work for the benefit of others but I would be very surprised if the church, with its mobilization on behalf of the needy, spurred on by the ill effects of the pandemic, did not play a major part in the mobilization of ‘levelling up’.
From the Christian point of view this would accord with today’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah that tells us that if we really want ‘levelling up’ to work then we must trust in God and then, he says, we will be ‘like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream’.