A sermon preached at Christ Church, Pensacola, FL
Consider with me these three scenes from the Gospel of Luke:
Scene One: A small village in the hill country of Judea. Mary, a young girl from the town of Nazareth in Galilee who is expecting a child, enters the home of her elderly relative Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, who is also preparing to give birth, in spite of her advanced age. The young girl is greeted with gladness by the older woman and welcomed with a blessing. In the joy of their meeting, Mary bursts forth with a song of praise to God, in which she exclaims with joy that God has come to help of his servant Israel, that “he has shown strength with his arm” by “scatter(ing) the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” by “bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lift(ing) up the lowly,” by “fill(ing) the hungry with good things and send(ing) the rich away empty.”1 God is breaking into the world, she declares, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
Scene Two: The village of Nazareth, some thirty years later. A man enters the synagogue in the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He is shown to the place reserved for the teacher and handed the scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah. He accepts the scroll and deliberately opens it to the 61st chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, where he reads these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”2
He quietly rolls up the scroll and returns it to the attendant. He looks into the expectant eyes of the congregation and declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” God is breaking into the world, he is saying, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
Scene Three: A level place near the slope of a mountain. This same man stands before a crowd of people who have followed him to this lonely site. He stands before them and in a loud voice proclaims:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
God is breaking into the world, he is saying, with the intention of turning the world upside-down.
And so begins the account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the inauguration of what he calls the “kingdom of God,” a new way of living and of relating to others that he proclaims to all who will listen. This kingdom is unlike any kingdom the world has ever known:
In this kingdom the first are last and the last are first.
In this kingdom the proud and self-sufficient are cast down, and the poor and lowly are lifted up.
In this kingdom, the least become the greatest and the greatest become the servants of all.
In this kingdom the poor are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
What is valued by the world means nothing in this kingdom; and that which is scorned by the world is highly valued.
This kingdom has now arrived, he declares, and the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the poor, the imprisoned, the diseased and the oppressed is no longer a hope but is “an agenda for the followers of Jesus.”3
Sometimes I tremble at passages like these, don’t you? We who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, who enjoy a privileged status in the world by reason of our birth, who have used more than our share of the resources of the world to provide ourselves with a most comfortable living, what shall we make of these words of Jesus? We who claim as our identity the name “Christian” and who profess to love and follow this prophet of the upside-down kingdom, what shall we say about these words? I cannot help but think that we have not taken them seriously enough; that we have not done enough to ensure that the poor have had good news preached to them, that the hungry and the naked have been fed and clothed, that the stranger has been welcomed and the sick and imprisoned ones have been visited (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).
Dorothy Day, a staunch advocate of the poor and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once remarked:
“There are days when I want to stop all those poor people giving their coins to the church, and tell them to march on the offices of the archdiocese – tell all those people inside those offices to move out of their plush rooms and share the lives of the hungry and the hurt. Would Jesus sit in some big, fancy, air-conditioned room near the banks and the department stores where the rich store their millions and spend their millions? Would he let himself be driven in big, black limousines, while thousands and thousands of people who believe in him and his Church are at the edge of starvation? Would he tolerate big mansions and fancy estates and luxurious traveling, while people come to church bare-footed and ragged and hungry and sick, children all over the world? In my mind, there is only one answer to questions like these: No!
“I’m afraid that going to church puts many of us to sleep. We become so pleased with ourselves – our virtue, for attending Mass – that we forget about how others are living, who don’t have the kind of lives we have.”4
If Dorothy Day makes us uncomfortable, I suspect that Jesus would have made us uncomfortable as well.
What are we to do? What must be our agenda? How are we to live?
Here is the first thing: we must heed the cries of the poor; we must attend and respond to their expressed needs. How can we hope to enter this kingdom unless we commit ourselves to listen and to act on behalf of those who are desperately poor in our nation and our world? How can we say we are followers of Jesus if we ignore the cries of those who have stumbled and fallen in life’s race?
A few years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s Syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why? Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in life is more than winning for ourselves. What truly matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course.5
Can there be any doubt that Jesus would tell those of us who are charging ahead in life, pressing forward to win the “prize” of success and recognition and wealth and privilege, to pay attention to those who have fallen, to be willing to turn around in order to help them, to sacrifice our own agendas and goals to assist them in meeting theirs? We can begin by listening to the concerns of the poor, by paying attention to their needs and concerns, by responding to their pleas for help.
Here is a second thing: we can examine the way we live, the things we value, the money and resources we expend on ourselves. We can give serious thought to how we live.
Theodore Roszak’s words, written in 1972, challenge us:
“Any discussion of world poverty that does not come round to demanding a radical change in our habits of consumption and waste, our tastes, our profligate standard of living, our values generally, is hypocrisy. There are no technical answers to ethical questions.”6
William Law, the 18th century cleric and spiritual writer, challenged his hearers to pattern their lives according to the gospel values of Jesus rather than the values of the world. He once wrote these words:
“To abound in wealth, to have fine houses and rich clothes, to be beautiful in our persons, to have titles of dignity, to be above our fellow-creatures, to overcome our enemies with power, to subdue all that oppose us, to set ourselves in as much splendor as we can, to live highly and magnificently, to eat and drink and delight ourselves in the most costly manner, these are the great, the honorable, the desirable things to which the spirit of the world turns the eyes of all people. And many a man is afraid of standing still, and not engaging in the pursuit of these things, lest the same world should take him as a fool.7
As difficult as it is to “stand still” and not engage in the pursuit of those things the world considers valuable, as difficult as it is to change our patterns of consumption and simplify our lifestyles, we must consider it a vital and necessary part of our calling. We cannot hope that the poor of the world will be lifted up and the hungry of the world will be satisfied while we continue to consume vast amounts of the world’s resources to support our often superfluous and extravagant lifestyles.
It is as if we are on a moving walkway. If we do nothing, we will simply be carried along by the materialism and consumerism of our culture. And if we do nothing, nothing will change. We have to be willing to turn around, to walk against the flow of the culture, to push back against the assumptions and values of a nation and culture that refuses to see that its actions are having and will continue to have severe consequences for the entire world.
Finally, we must be wise stewards of our resources. Those of us who are wealthy in the world would do well to heed the words of Andrew Carnegie, when he said:
“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer for his poorer brethren…”8
Jesus did not act in the way others expected him to act. He did not say the things they expected to hear. The kingdom he proclaimed challenged the conventional wisdom of his day and continues to challenge ours.
How can we, then, his followers, live as the world lives, act as the world acts, strive for the things the world tells us to strive for, at the expense of our poorer brothers and sisters here and throughout the world? To faithfully represent his “upside-down kingdom” and to proclaim its “good news,” we must embrace the values and priorities of the kingdom he taught and modeled for us.
May God give us the desire and the strength to do this.
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