Now that I've retired, I hope to have more time to write but in the meantime, here is the message I offered at Mission Bend UMC in Houston, Texas on February 13, 2022.
Not long after Rosa Espinoza and her husband, Eleazar, moved into their first home, they started wondering if they’d made a huge mistake. “Boys with baseball bats hung out on the corners, and they weren’t looking for a pick-up game,” recalls Eleazar. “After a drive-by shooting on our street, we started to really worry about the safety of our eight-year-old son. I thought, ‘What have we gotten our family into? What are we going to do now?’”
Rosa and Eleazar Espinosa initiated a neighborhood watch group, but the morning after the first meeting a clear message was spray-painted on their truck, ‘keep your mouth shut!” Rosa paused. She listened and she looked around her neighborhood. It’s like she took a shell, like this … it’s outer shell is brown and rough and tough and she turned it upside down and looked at the other side: delicate and beautiful and different.
Then, Rosa decided to take a different approach to the bullies in her neighborhood. She transformed her two-car garage into a free after-school K-12 tutoring program. Rosa’s Garage, complete with computers, books, and banners for kids who made the honor roll, that was her way of looking beyond just her own problems to address some of the issues in her neighborhood. Rosa said, “We started by offering homework help and free lemonade. Sixteen kids showed up the very first day,” she remembers, and she started recruiting high school students with solid grades as tutors. “This was the first tutoring program in the neighborhood, and it was clear that these kids really did want to learn.”
Rosa’s Garage literally transformed the Espinoza’s neighborhood; within two years, academic scores went up and the crime rate went down. Rosa and Eleazar invested in their community and their community was transformed by their efforts. All because they were “upside down spirituality” kind of people.
How would you “feel” if your car was spray painted, vandalized, for no good reason? Angry? Confused? Fearful? Hurt?
When their car was spray painted, Rose and Eleazar could have gotten angry and demanded the kids who did it be caught and put in juvenile detention, or worse. But they turned their situation upside down to see it from a different perspective.
Jesus shows us upside-down spirituality with every encounter he has and with every story he tells. Just like Rosa and Eleazar, Jesus calls us to be upside-down spirituality kind of people, too!
As we look at our scripture reading this morning, let’s see what we can learn from Jesus and the Prophets about being upside-down spirituality kind of people.
This passage may have seemed a little familiar. And that’s because it’s Luke’s version of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” where Jesus offers us the “beatitudes.” Luke’s version is called “the Sermon on the Plain.” Wait! Is that a think? How many of you have ever heard of the Sermon on the Plain? Well, it is a thing!
It’s called the Sermon on the Plain because Jesus has just come down from the mountain where he had been praying. He has chosen his disciples. He has engaged in healing Jewish people from Judea and Jerusalem and Gentile people from Tyre and Sidon. This was a large healing event.
In the midst of all of this healing, Jesus turns to the disciples and to us. He gives us 4 blessings (or beatitudes) and 4 woes (warnings).
The word "blessed" is translated from the Greek word, Makarios. It expresses the kind of happiness rich people would experience because they are free from care, they have nothing to worry about. It can also refer to a spiritual state of well-being that comes from prosperity.
The word translated "woe" is from the Greek word ouai (oo y) which is "an interjection denoting pain or displeasure. It is also an expression of pity for those who stand under divine judgment.
This literary mixing of blessings and woes in this way was quite common at the time. What sets these blessings and woes apart is that Jesus turned them upside down. They are 180 degrees contrary to human reason. You'd expect someone to say, "The rich are fortunate ... but the poor deserve what they get." Instead, Jesus says just the opposite. Take this couplet for example:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation
The other couplets are no more reasonable:
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
When we hear something like this, something that is so contrary to our human reason, we might spiritualize it to the point that it really has no meaning at all. I think that is a mistake, Jesus doesn’t just say things for no reason.
We do tend to add to the poor, “in spirit” because Matthew does. But when we read them in these couplets, like Luke wrote them, it doesn’t really feel like Jesus intends us to spiritualize them, or he would have said so.
The other thing we do is dismiss people who are poor or hungry because hey, they are going to get reward in heaven. That’s true, right? It says so right there. So why worry about them? At the same time, if we take these couplets literally like that’s a major WOE for rich people. We might even condemn people for having possessions. Or expect them to give everything away? Should I seek to be poor and hungry and full of grief? After all, Jesus met a rich young ruler seeking eternal life and told him to give everything away to the poor.
Let’s not forget that it is not money itself that is the root of all evil, but the love of money/possessions/power that is the root of all evil.
Woe to all of us who do not have the desire and the ability to share what we have with those who don’t have anything. The reality is that we have enough food in this world to feed every person, but we don’t. because why?
This is hard isn’t it. If we can’t spiritualize these couplets and we can’t literalize them … Is there a balance here, is there anything in between? Could the balance be found in upside-down spirituality?
What IS this upside-down spirituality that Jesus is calling us to anyway?
More than anything, I think that Jesus calls us to think, to take situations, turn them upside-down which is just maybe a catchy way to say, I think Jesus wants us to see things from a different perspective. I think Jesus wants us to see people the way he sees people, as valuable human beings who deserve to be cared for simply because they exist, valuable even though they are different, valuable even if we don't think so, valuable even if they can't do anything for us. People are valuable.
And I think he wants us to understand the things we have here on earth are fleeting, and they aren’t worth watching people suffer when we could help them. Whenever Jesus turns things upside down as he does in this passage and so many others, it is an invitation to seek the kingdom of God.
Jesus told some of his best upside-down stories, we call them parables, to help us try to understand the Kingdom of God. Do you remember the parable about an employer who hires workers to harvest grapes in his vineyard? He hires members of the crew at various times of the day, so that at the end of the day, some have only worked an hour or a few hours while others have worked all day long. Oh my goodness, the anger when everyone is paid the same standard day’s wage, regardless of how long they worked. To add insult to injury, those who started last got paid first. You know I have heard more people complain about this parable than any other.
“It’s not fair!”
Maybe it isn't fair, that's true. But Jesus says this is what the Kingdom of God is like if you want an invitation.
Here is the key for me to this passage: the Kingdom of God/Upside down spirituality of Jesus, as seen through the lens of Luke’s theology, is firmly rooted in the prophets. And that is where we have to go to truly understand how this passage is relevant for us today. It’s no wonder that Jesus mentions the prophets in this passage in such a provocative way, mentioning the way they were treated by the ancestors.
True prophets were hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because they preached an authentic truth that was hard to hear. Whereas false prophets were spoken well of because they told the people what they wanted to hear … It was really the prophets who started all of this upside-down spirituality.
The 3-fold message of the prophetic books (followed in the New Testament by John the Baptist) is
1) a call to repentance.
2) Without repentance there will be consequences, judgment.
3) Promise of a Messiah who would bring forth the Glorious Kingdom of God for the people of God!
Our responsibility in this 3-fold message is repentance. The 2nd and 3rd part of their message, that’s God response. And they are not mutually exclusive.
The prophets call for us to repent. Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia. It means to “turn” from those things that damage our relationship with God. There are specifically three areas of sin that the prophets were concerned with.
1) A Call to Repentance from:
• Idolatry: "An idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, and anything that you seek to give you what only God can give." Jesus repeatedly tells us that it is hard for rich people (and by this he means anyone who has money and possessions) to put their whole and complete trust in God. Money can easily be an idol. At the very least, I think we might not understand how much our trust in God relies on our circumstances. A couple of years ago I had a friend who was going through a terrible divorce. Her husband was rich and powerful, and he knew a lot of people. She wound up with nothing and lost her children to this man. She said to me, you know it is a lot easier to have faith when you have money. I look at people differently now that my life has been turned upside down.
• Social Injustice: God demands that we care for the vulnerable and marginalized. I honestly don’t think that we have any idea just how seriously God takes social injustice, structures and institutions that thrive on systemic evil. God has always cared about widows and orphans. God has always cared about poor people, so much that in the ancient new east at harvest times, farmers were instructed to leave behind pods for the poor. When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees because he and his disciples were taking grain from the fields on the Sabbath, his response was, “we were hungry.” The only time it was recorded that Jesus was angry. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers who were taking advantage of poor people. In the Jewish social system, although there is no evidence it ever happened, there was to be a Sabbath, or Jubilee, year. During this Year of Jubilee, the land was to rest (no sowing or reaping). Slaves, servants, and even captives were to be released. Property was to be returned to original owners. Outstanding debts were to be canceled. It was a year to re-set the communal imbalance between the rich & poor. When we look at Luke's couplets in our passage today, we can see jubilee.
• Empty Spiritual Practices/Rituals: God desires a intimate relationship with people and with communities, supported by spiritual practices and rituals, such as (in early time) sacrifice, prayers, worship. But these rituals (spiritual practices) are only a means to a relationship with God, they reveal your relationship with God. They are not an end in and of themselves. Rituals and spiritual practices are not THE relationship. Worship is NOT a relationship with God, it is a means to nurture the relationship. If you come to worship, and sing and lift your hands (or not) and pray fervently so that everyone talks about how faithful you are and then you go out that door and step over the homeless person lying on the ground in front of you, call your neighbor to gossip about how much weight the lady in Sunday school gained, make everyone in your orbit miserable with your negativity and never give another thought about God until the next Sunday you walk in the door, well the prophets have something to say to you and I say, may God be merciful to you. You need to check yourself and turn your life upside down for Jesus!
There are the three main responsibilities we have in our relationship with God according to the prophets and Jesus:
• to put God first in our lives,
• to care about marginalized persons,
• to nurture our relationship with God thru spiritual practices.
The other 2 main concerns of the prophets are judgment and the promise of the Messiah, which are God’s responsibility, or God's response to sin.
2) Divine Judgment
When it comes to judgment, I think we should be very careful. For the most part I believe that there is an unfolding of natural consequences in life. Truly, what goes around comes around. I think it is never a good idea to pronounce that something bad that happens to someone or to a community is God’s punishment, for how would we know that?
3) The Promise of a Messiah
Finally, the prophets gave the people hope through the promise of a Messiah. When we really think about it, Jesus himself is an upside-down Messiah! The Messiah was supposed to be a military and political leader who would rule as a king; a king who would bring everlasting peace to Israel. Even the disciples never understood what Jesus was about. Up until the very end, they just didn’t get it. There are commentators that believe Judas Iscariot's sole purpose in betraying Jesus was to force him to overthrow the Roman government and place himself on the throne as the true and rightful King of Israel, to rule the world I suppose.
But that was not then, nor is it now the kind of Messiah that Jesus was. For God so loved the world, that God gave us Jesus, the Beloved with whom God was well pleased … as promised, so that we might not perish but have everlasting, eternal life. Why? Because we are valuable, every single one of us is valuable to God! We should be valuable to one another, too!
While we cannot be sure about judgment, we have whole-heartedly embraced the promise of the Messiah because that is our story and our witness. As you live out your story and your witness, how is Jesus calling you to be an upside-down spirituality kind of person?
Since it is Black History month, we close with a Prayer of Maya Angelou, an African-American poet, memoirist, civil rights activist, and (I dare say) an upside-down spirituality kind of person.
Father, Mother, God
Thank you for your presence during the hard and mean days.
For then we have you to lean upon.
Thank you for your presence during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.
And thank you for your presence during the Holy Days,
for then we are able to celebrate you and our families and friends.
For those who have no voice, we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy, we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely, we ask you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them the light of hope.
Dear Creator, You, the borderless sea of substance,
we ask you to give to all the world that which we need most--Peace.