Finding Our Way to the Level Place

Sermon Preached on February 17, 2019– Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

Finding Our Way to the Level Place

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to spend time with the confirmation class at First Parish Congregational Church. I get to do that nearly every year, and it’s always interesting to try and explain our tradition to a group of 8th graders, most of whom are not from our church. The best part is hearing their questions, seeing things through their eyes. We did a whirlwind tour of Christian history through the Reformation – so I could show them our common history, and then how our traditions branched off. We walked quickly through our Anglican Church history- mostly what it means to follow in both the Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions, and how you can see those two traditions in tension, creating a wide middle way: in our theology and our day-to-day practice. By the end of class, we were comparing the differences between the sanctuary in First Parish and St. Bart’s, and what each sanctuary says about that congregation’s values.

At First Parish they have a raised pulpit, set several levels high actually. The organ is behind it, and there is a gallery around the second story – for additional seating, all pews, both up and down. Not as easy to get in and out of, but without weekly communion, not as necessary. Up front, beneath the pulpit, the table is down near the floor, raised only one level, and often off to one side. The kids were quick to sum up that preaching and the word were the most important elements of the worship, and communion was definitely secondary. Much more on the Reformed Protestant side of the family tree.

The two young men from St. Bart’s and I described our sanctuary – the pulpit slides over to the middle of the space when we need it. It’s central when we are speaking from it, and it’s on the same level as the chairs. The table is front and center, and a focal point – certainly feels most important when you first walk in. Someone asked if it was elevated up high – one of the boys described it as being on “the low lip up front.” An area just up a few inches to set it apart a bit – but not looming above the group. The organ is lofted and easily the largest element in the space (and it is beautiful). Our space tells our story well – we are Anglicans. The space articulates our congregation’s version of what that means:   it is simple, straight-forward, and balanced between word and table. With everything and everyone gathered together on the same level – that’s our understanding of beloved community and our vision of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings us to Luke’s Gospel this morning – and Jesus’ sermon on the Plain. We recognize Matthew’s version of this sermon, the Beatitudes, but Luke’s version is very St. Bart’s when you think of it. Luke has moved it to the Plain – to “a level place.” Luke and Matthew are having some of the same ‘conversation’ we were having in the confirmation class about space and theology. Matthew places Jesus on the Mount for this sermon because Matthew’s community identifies closely with Jewish elements in the early church. Just as Moses brought the Torah from Mount Sinai, so Jesus brings the new authoritative teaching from a mount.¹ For Luke, the mountain is the place Jesus retreats to pray² and the place where God is encountered.³ Jesus prays on the mountain, and then moves out to his mission on the plain. Jesus’ work is out in the midst of the people, in the “level place” with ordinary, everyday humanity;⁴ the core of his mission is serving, healing, teaching, and lifting up ordinary people.

The primary work for any of us who would follow Jesus is to live lovingly in this level place with everyone, all of God’s children. The way to the Kingdom of God starts by finding our way to the level place. The place where everyone is beloved, included, and equal.

Finding our way to the level place will take a lot of work; really difficult and uncomfortable work. Because it means facing our implicit biases and judgments; and all that stratifies and separates us from each other, some of which we are only vaguely aware. It means being willing to stand on the same level with those we have deemed less than ourselves (and thus beneath us). And getting over our almost equal reluctance to draw even with those we have elevated as more-than us. Our culture has privileged us with advantages which allow us to stand in elevated places – and look down on some. And has placed value on others – and told us to look up to them.⁵

Finding our way to the level place requires that we ask ourselves hard questions: Who do we look up to and why? Who have we determined are ‘less than’ for some reason? What gives us the right to make that judgment? What do we really know about that person? (What would give anyone the right to make that judgment about us?)

Which factors matter? Race? Work ethic? Weight? Or Fitness level? Addiction history? Current able-ness? (Able-ness changes, don’t forget!) What about: marital status, gender, sexual orientation… do they matter? Other stats: Heritage? Blood type? Don’t laugh, it’s arguably the only valuable characteristic on this list. (I’m O+, value me more!)

We carry around a host of biases – and it’s important to the well-being of our souls and our community to examine them carefully. If we’re ever going to find our way to the level place, we need a better perspective, one that is more life-giving.

In our Gospel, Jesus invites us to a level plain way of seeing one another – a Kingdom of God perspective. That’s the invitation of the blessings and woes: through them, Jesus is offering a new way of understanding God, ourselves, and the world.

When we hear the blessings and the woes, we’re meant to stop short for a moment and consider our lives. Here goes: Compared with most of the world, I’m rich. (I’m first world after all.) Most days I eat pretty well; I rarely miss a meal unless I’m just too busy to eat. I’m married to Ken and he’s hilarious, so we laugh a lot. I often hear from my colleagues that I have a pretty good reputation, whether or not that’s well deserved. Which means I’m in trouble – I inhabit all four of the categories Jesus warns about with words of woe!⁶ How about you? Are you living in all four categories, too?

I am grateful for these good things in my life, don’t misunderstand me. It’s just that amid my thanksgiving I hear Jesus’ words reminding me where my true treasure lies. Wealth, a full stomach, laughter, and a good reputation are not meant to be life’s end-goal. And woe to us if we hoard our wealth, food, and laughter. These blessings aren’t meant to be kept to ourselves – but shared with others. We are invited to wonder what new possibilities our wealth, our filled tables, and our shared laughter might bring others in need of them.⁷

Jesus’ words are meant to shape our values and our imaginations. Where there is poverty, illness or loneliness, Jesus pronounces God’s blessing and presence, encouraging us to bring that into being. Where we might make judgments about who deserves assistance, Jesus urges us to do for others what we desire done for us. Jesus invites us to see a world in which God is present everywhere, building communities of care and support.⁸ It’s living lovingly on the level with everyone. Creative and life-giving, full of possibility, in mutual, trusting relationship; with one another and God. A level place: God’s kingdom on earth.

Which brings me at last to last Sunday’s bishop’s election. I promised I would try to show Bishop-elect Thomas James Brown as he answered the call from our Standing Committee. The sound in the recording is off a bit, but it’s a good video, and what is not as easy to see, is that the convention hall in Bangor is full, with 165 people, and we are all on our feet applauding when he begins the call. He can see us – though.

My friends, The Rev. Thomas James Brown, Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine; we are richly blessed. Thanks be to God.


[1] Dennis Bratcher, Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, CRI/Voice Institute,
[2] Luke 6:12
[3] Luke 9:28
[4] Dennis Bratcher, Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, CRI/Voice Institute,
[5] Karoline Lewis, A Level Plain Perspective, Monday, February 11, 2019 10:50 PM,
[6] Rev. Dan Hanson, St. Paul, St. John’s, and Nazareth Lutheran Churches, Franklin County, Iowa for Luther Seminary’s God Pause, February 15, 2019.
[7] Rev. Dan Hanson, St. Paul, St. John’s, and Nazareth Lutheran Churches, Franklin County, Iowa for Luther Seminary’s God Pause, February 15, 2019.
[8] Greg Carey, Contributor, Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary, posted in, 10/28/2013 09:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017.