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The Sermon on the Plain: Modern Lessons in NOT Following the Herd
 
 
Most people with a Christian background have heard of the Beatitudes, but how many know of the Sermon on the Plain?  The former appear in the Gospel of Matthew, while the later appears in the Gospel of Luke.  There’s a lot of debate over whether they are simply two different recountings of the same sermon, or whether they are two separate “sermons”, with the same theme, but I won’t bore you with that here.  What matters is what the Sermon on the Plain can teach us right now, as Christians or even while walking other Paths, about not following the herd mentality of most modern humans:
You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.
Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.
 
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
    What you have is all you’ll ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
    Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
    There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.”
–Luke 6:21-26, The Message
We’re going to start at the bottom, and work our way up, instead of the usual way of doing things, when it comes to Bible Study:
“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.”
–Luke 6:26, The Message
Going with the herd is so much easier than standing alone in a crowd and speaking the Truth.  When you speak out against the “popular opinion”, you’re bound to find yourself the target of firestorms, and worse.  You may even lose friends or family members as you seek to speak the Truth instead of giving in to “popular opinion”.  So where does Christ get off saying there’s trouble ahead when you do go with the herd, and “live only for the approval of others”?  Based on personal experience, doesn’t it seem that the complete opposite of this is true: that there’s more hell to pay when you do speak up, and go against the flow, than when you don’t?
There comes a point where you have to decide whether you want to serve the herd, or you want to serve something Bigger than that.  Essentially, there are two kinds of “hell to pay”: there’s the “hell you pay” at the hands of other people, and then there’s the “hell you pay” on a cosmic level.  Most Pagans understand this in the context of the Wiccan Rede and the Rule of Three:
An ye harm none, do what ye will.
Mind the Threefold Laws ye must: three times bad and three times good.
The general idea here is that if you do something bad to another  physical human being, then it will come back to you as bad three times: first, from the physical person who you harmed, then from the rest of your surroundings, and finally from the Universe itself.  That’s “hell to pay” on a cosmic level in a nutshell, folks!  A person whom you’ve wronged can potentially dish out some rather nasty stuff in response; so can their family and friends, but when you’re talking the Universe is after you for what you’ve done, that’s a whole new ballgame, and it can lead to a World Series of pain!
 
So, the question becomes, would you rather have “hell to pay” at the hands of other people, or would you have “hell to pay” on a cosmic level?  Some things are just Ultimately Right or Ultimately Wrong–that’s why we say Truth with a capital-T.  Truth with a capital-T is Ultimate Right, as expressed in the Welsh Bardic saying Y Gwyr Erbyn Y Byd: “The Truth against the World”.  Even if you don’t have a personal Spiritual Path, we were all ultimately put here to accomplish Ultimate Right, instead of Ultimate Wrong. If we had, in fact, been put here to accomplish Ultimate Wrong, we all would’ve died out ages ago!  There is no need to toddle down the slippery slope of morality here:  we can judge what is Ultimately Right, versus what is Ultimately Wrong through what I like to call the “trickle-down effect”.

A simple flow chart illustrating the "Trickle-Down Effect" as it relates to Ultimate Right and Ultimate Wrong. A simple flow chart illustrating the “Trickle-Down Effect” as it relates to Ultimate Right and Ultimate Wrong.

 
To fully understand the “trickle-down effect” and how it relates to this simple flow chart, one must first understand that humanity is a herd not only in bad ways, but also in good ones.  All of us are connected–we are a tribe of humanity.  What happens to one person ripples outwards and eventually affects all peoples. You can call this the collective unconscious; you can call this whatever you want, but the fact remains, if you look around, you will see that it is Truth.  Try this experiment: smile at someone while you’re walking down a crowded street. Chances are, they will not only smile at you, they will also smile at the next person they meet, and so on and so on, until you’ve literally created a chain of smiles.  Another classic example of this, as gross as it may be, is the pie-eating contest scene in the Stephen King film, Stand By Me.  Whether you’re talking smiles or vomit, put enough people together, and chain reactions happen!  This is how things like “the wave” in a sports arena or concert stadium actually work.
 
Above that level of human connection, there is the connection between humanity and the rest of the world around them: the rocks, the trees, the plants, the animals.  If you doubt that connection, take a good, long, hard look at the effect humanity has had on the ecosystem. There is a reason why we should not drop something as simple as a paper cup or a plastic straw while walking in the woods: those teeny, tiny contributions by humans to the environment can have devastating effects, no matter how small.
 
Above that connection there lies another: the connection of all things to The All.  If you feel comfortable with the notion, The All is Deity; if you don’t, feel free to think of it more like The Force, in Star Wars.  However you choose to identify it, know that it is there. You don’t have to have a theistic concept of the Universe to see it in action: no matter how non-theistic you are, you must admit that the oceans are bigger than you; that the cosmos is bigger than you; that the sun is bigger than you.  All those things that are so much bigger than humanity: those are proof of the existence of The All.
 
You’ll notice that the arrows on the flow chart are double-ended.  This thing goes both ways!  We reverberate what we do back out and up to The All, and it reverberates what it does back out and down to us.  There is no real top-down or bottom-up “Right-Bringing” in the Universe; it’s not a hierarchy, it’s a web, and when things flow through and across that web, the ramifications are either Ultimately Right or Ultimately Wrong. Since there is a natural human need for self-preservation, shouldn’t our natural tendency be to strive for Ultimate Right?
 
That’s where Christ gets off saying that it’s going to be more trouble for you if you don’t go against the “popular opinion”, and speak up for the Truth.  That leads to “hell to pay” on a cosmic level, whether you believe in Christ, or you don’t; whether you believe in God, or you don’t.  Consider the Holocaust for a moment: Ultimate Wrong was done to eleven million people–six million of them Jews–who were systematically tortured and killed because they were different from the herd, and what happened? World War II.  There is your non-Christ-centered, non-theistic proof of “hell to pay” on a cosmic level!
 
Working from the bottom up, the next verse says:
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
    There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
We live in a world where most of the herd says “life is supposed to be a party”; that we should turn a “blind eye” to suffering in favor of living the best lives we can, and yet, suffering is out there, and we are meant to pay attention to it.  If we don’t, who is going to stop that suffering?  Now, you can look me in the eye and say “the suffering of others is not my problem” if you’d like, but given the web I’ve just explained, clearly, that isn’t the Truth of how things work.  You don’t have to have a degree in Chaos Theory to understand that when a country falls into poverty (like Ethiopia did in the 1980s), that the devastation of that  poverty impacts the rest of the world: economically, as well as physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Droughts and famine, like the one that affected Ethiopia in the 1980s and is presently on the rise once again, have been proven to not only be caused by weather patterns such as El Nino, but also be part of the ongoing cycle of such weather patterns worsening.  They have also been proven to be the cause of such things as paramilitary rebel activity and terrorism, which reverberate outwards to affect the rest of the world (Source: WorldBank.org).
 
The Truth is, life is only a party when everyone attends.  As with any other party, if half the people invited don’t show up, it isn’t much of a party, is it?  There is tremendous suffering in our world, and it is our Purpose in life to make it stop, so that everyone can attend the party.  When we don’t work to do that, or when we single out certain groups who “deserve” help, versus certain groups that the herd says don’t “deserve” help, the party can’t happen. Then we all suffer; then there’s “trouble ahead”.
“And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
    Your self will not satisfy you for long.”
There is a big difference between being out for yourself, and being out for your True Self.  Your mundane self is that part of you that Freud would define as the Ego: the part of the mind that senses and adapts to the world around it. In other words, that’s the part that wants to always follow the herd, and not speak up when it needs to. It is shaped by the society around it, going with the flow, and never recognizing the web in which it is actually talking part. Then there is the True Self:  the real you; spiritual you.  See, Jedi Master Yoda was right: we are not this crude matter; we are luminous beings.  Think about it: which part is you? The shell you’re walking around in (your body), or the you that’s walking around in that shell? Are you the pimple on your forehead, the psoriasis on your skin, those fat rolls you hate (let’s face it, we all have them), or are you the identity within and behind all of that which gives those things actual meaning?
 
When we operate from the place of our Ego, we are doomed to do the previous two things we talked about: not speak up against the herd when we need to in favor for the Truth (Ultimate Right), instead of Ultimate Wrong, and turn a blind eye to suffering.  When we operate from that place, ultimately, we wind up not only passively harming the entire world, but we wind up harming ourselves.  That’s what Christ means when he says there will be trouble ahead if we live this way.  If you live your life that way, not only are you going to suffer, you’re never going to be satisfied, either. There is always going to be one more thing you need, want, or crave.  There is always going to be something you don’t have.  You’ll always walk around feeling like something is missing, and that something is the True Self.
 
Which leads us to:
“But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
    What you have is all you’ll ever get.
When we live from that place of Ego, that’s all we’ll ever have.  We’ll have what the herd wants us to have; what the herd thinks we “deserve”.  Do you really want to live your life based on what the powers-that-be-politically think you deserve?  Or do you want to live connected, knowing that you The All and the Universe are always going to provide what you need?  If you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted–the house in the hills, the fancy car, the expensive clothes, fame, and fortune, and all the rest–but you don’t have your soul, what do you really have?
“Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.”
If you are a Christian, attempting to speak the Truth against the herd–The Truth against the World–every time someone works to discredit you, they are also discrediting Christ, but what does that mean for the Pagans and the Muslims and the Hindus and all those on other non-Christian paths?  It means that every time that happens, those people are giving The All (however you choose to identify it) the finger!  Now, why would that make Christ, God, or however you choose to identify The All happy?  Because if you never make the Ego-driven members of the herd uncomfortable, those people will never have the opportunity for potential change!  Unless they change, the web will never be healthy, happy, or whole; there will always be suffering, and there will always be “hell to pay” on a cosmic level.
 
Which brings us to the portion of the Sermon on the Plain which mirrors the Beatitudes:
“You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.”
While the Beatitudes focus primarily on the spiritual blessings imparted by the experience of these same things, the Sermon on the Plain begins with the spiritual blessings, and ends with their “real-world” ramifications, if we don’t choose to live our lives that way.  In order to avoid those ramifications, we have the process for finding the True Self outlined simply in this first verse: let go of mundane cravings and ignore the Ego; empty yourself of Ego, so you can be filled with the True Self and with the knowledge of your connection to all things, people, and The All, and finally, have feelings and express them freely.
 
“Losing it all” in our modern world doesn’t mean you have to run right out and give all of your possessions to charity (although, if you feel so inclined, bless you); instead, it means to stop caring more about what you have materially than what you have spiritually.  Think about it: if every person on the planet stopped for one moment to count one thing that was truly important (like family, friends, loved ones, the fact that the sun came up this morning) as a blessing, and express their gratitude for that one thing, that is seven billion blessings, instead of seven billion complaints!  How much less fighting would there be, if we actually lived like that?  And we would notice suffering, and we would want to replace it with more blessings.  We could potentially end world hunger that way! Things like terrorism could no longer hold sway, because instead of focusing on the material damage, or even the political damage, people would be focusing on maintaining the blessings!
 
Being “ravenously hungry” means far more in this passage than just being impoverished or having random hunger pangs: it means having room inside for something other than just your Ego.  St. John of the Cross talked about this in his Dark Night of the Soul: in order to truly accept the way things really are, and the way things really work (that is, that we’re all connected, and that there is something Bigger than us in the Universe), eventually, we must all be brought down to the “lowest common denominator”; we humans tend not to “look up” until we’re so far down on our knees that there is literally no other direction in which to look!  Reaching “rock bottom” effectively kills the Ego. If it can’t get what it wants, eventually it will throw itself on the floor, kicking and screaming like an angry two-year-old, until it exhausts itself, and then there is room for our spiritual selves to come to the fore and shine.
 
Finally, once we have arrived at our True Self, we must actually express it, and the primary way of expressing it is through compassion.  Once we realize our connection to all things and all people, when we see suffering in the world, we weep for it, because we finally understand that in the end, we are not weeping for that beggar on the street or that starving child millions of miles away from us, but that we are actually weeping for ourselves.  What happens to the macrocosm is happening to the microcosm; the needs of the many really are the needs of the one.
In the end, we can choose to be a herd of humanity, or we can choose to be a flock of people.  In a herd, there is always a leader; there are “haves” and “have nots”, but in a flock, all members move and live as one.  The lesson of the Sermon on the Plain is the same, whether you are a believing Christian, walking another Path, or pathless:  if we continue to blindly follow the herd, never speaking up and never acting out to voice the Truth against the World, there will be trouble ahead; there will be great suffering; there will be no satisfaction in our lives.  Following the herd leads off of a steep and dangerous cliff, but those who flock will fly!
 
[END SERMON]
 
Michelle Iacona is an ordained Ollamh, who considers herself a Christian Druid; she is also a writer, artist, and Professional Tarot Counselor who helps people get inspired and take charge of their lives through that inspiration. Ultimately, she helps people to attract better things into their lives by helping them embrace a brighter view of life and get rid of the negative "crap". More of her writing is available at http://www.michelleiacona.com/Iaconagraphy .
 
 
Bright Blessings,
Michelle Iacona
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