This Lent I have begun to work my way through the Gospel of Luke. Since I try to be broadly eccumenical, this year I started my reading on the first Sunday of Lent according to the Eastern Calendar (who do not celebrate Ash Wedesday) and will conclude it on Easter which, this year unlike other years is a date shared by both the Eastern and Western Calendar. Side note: before taking the position with the Council, I had no idea the amount of discord that a date for Easter might engender – but that is the subject for another day.

Recently my reading has been very slow, each section bringing thoughts that require time to develop – making it rather unlikely that I will make it through the Gospel during these fourty days. It may take all year.

My reading began fast enough. I read through the narratives leading up to the birth of Jesus fairly quickly since they get rather broad play around Advent and Christmas. Given the unrest in the Middle East and in our own country I was taken a bit back by Mary’s Magnificat which really does deal with some strong political themes. It’s tough to hear the words “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” without sensing that Luke is taking a side in the current issues confronting us both globally and domestically.

But where I am getting bogged down right now is the “Sermon on the Plain.” I am so used to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” that Luke seems to be speaking a foreign language. For instance Matthew adds “in spirit” to Jesus’ words “Blessed are the poor” which makes me feel better, but Luke won’t let me off the hook. He looks me square in the eyes and says, “Blessed are the Poor” and then he gets nasty and says, “By the way, Woe to the Rich!” Luke won’t have any of that comformist crap that my middle aged life craves, instead he lets me have it right between the eyes.

And then he goes on to say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you what credit is that to you? If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…” It confronts me right where I live and it confronts Americans particularly those of us who are so concerned with safety, security and economics right where we live.

We split hairs about who the deserving and underserving poor are and Luke says, “Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the grateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And then we pick apart entitlement programs and place a lot of it on the chopping block while trying to raise, not lower, military spending.

So it’s not the standard of U.S.A. political landscape of either the categories of the right or the left that is important at this juncture. For Luke the importance is how I am embodying the mercy and care that God shows this world. I should be merciful because that is what I experience in God’s nature.

And I look into Luke’s eyes and I listen. I don’t do it because I expect him to be happy with me or the government that makes these decisions, because from the text it is aparent that he is definitely not happy with the way things are going. I do it because I need to hear him pleading with me: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

It is generosity and grace that matters. And I need to see how well I mirror back to God the generosity and grace that he lavishes on me by how well I treat the poor and the rich, the Liberal and the Tea Partier, those living upstate as well as those downstate, the union worker and the CEO. But it’s more than that – Luke does take sides – and his side is on the side of the poor – firmly and poignantly. He won’t merely let me off the hook by trying to be impartial because there is nothing impartial about where Luke stands. He looks us right in the eye and says, “Take me on, I dare you.”

And as a stumbling, bleeding person, scuffed up and convicted by his words, I have to plead, “God have mercy on me, a sinner…” And work for justice and compassion and embody yet again the grace I experience from the God I profess to know.

Peace and towels,

Joe Sellepack

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