Upside Down and Inside Out
Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay
February 11, 2007
Jeremiah 17:5-10 Luke 6:17-26
Anna Nicole Smith. Along with an awful lot of other people in this country, apparently, I’ve been fascinated this week with the news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith. What is it about this woman that has us so captivated? Former exotic dancer, former Playboy pin-up, former wife of a very wealthy man 63 years her senior, former Guess jeans and TrimSpa spokesperson. As I scanned the news reports, “Reality Star” kept showing up, which was probably the most ironic title of all, given the “unreality” of much of her life.
At the most surface level, Anna Nicole Smith exemplified “success” in our culture—she had beauty, money and fame. She should have been happy, but it doesn’t look like she was.
We know better than to think that beauty, money and fame are going to make us happy, don’t we. (Though some of us are thinking, yeah, but … try me.)
The question of what makes people happy has been a subject for a lot of psychological studies in the last few years, with results ranging from a study published in 2001 by the American Psychological Association that found that “autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem” are our primary psychological needs—to one that USA Today reported on in December of 2002 that said that “The happiest people surround themselves with family and friends, don't care about keeping up with the Joneses next door, lose themselves in daily activities and, most important, forgive easily.” Well, and then there was the British study that found young women to be quite happy when watching t.v. … and another one that indicated that listening to the radio made people happy.
Happiness. If we were to read this passage in Luke in the original Greek, we’d find the word makarios. “Makarios are you …” Now, makarios can be translated as happy or fortunate, but the translation we’ve got is blessed. There’s a different connotation to blessed, isn’t there. A piece of dark chocolate can make me feel happy; an already-paid-for parking space in a crowded parking lot can make me feel fortunate, but feeling blessed needs to involve God. Being blessed is happiness that comes from God.
Being blessed also shows up in our Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Thus: if you trust in the Lord, you will be as strong and sturdy as a tree, as long-lived and productive and free-from-anxiety as a tree planted not in the desert but by water. And if you trust in the Lord and are thus productive (bearing fruit), the Lord will bless you, or as Jeremiah says, “give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”
I want to point out that this goes along with the common Old Testament understanding of blessing, which we see in the Wisdom Literature, like Proverbs. In that understanding, if you were a righteous person—right with God—your life would show it. You’d be financially well-off, your family would be healthy, and people would respect you. Which meant that the wealthy people who were at the top of society’s pyramid must have been right with God—blessed. And conversely, people who were poor and hungry and depressed and not on the “inside” in the community, well, they must have been sinners.
We still have some of this thinking. People who work hard (a positive value in our culture) make lots of money. Ergo, people who have lots of money must have worked hard … and poor people must be lazy. People who do important things in the world become famous. Ergo, people who are famous must have done important things in the world … and “nobodies” haven’t done anything worthwhile.
Maybe that’s why we’re so fascinated with Anna Nicole Smith—she so clearly didn’t fit this model! She turns our cultural ideas of what is right upside down.
Of course, Jesus did the same thing here on the Sermon on the Plain. (Whoever thought we’d be likening Anna Nicole Smith to Jesus, eh?)
Let’s look more closely at this passage. Who were these folks? This was a large group of disciples and apostles, plus “a great multitude of people from all Judea,
And they’d come to hear him and be healed. And I’m guessing that they didn’t come trudging all the way out there primarily to hear a nice sermon; the healing part would have been more important to them. So this is a crowd of mostly poor folks, many of whom are sick or crippled or “troubled with unclean spirits.” Friends, this was not a well-scrubbed, decently dressed, vitamin-enhanced crowd. But for that time, it was an entirely “normal” crowd—not the cream of the crop but representative of everyone.
He talked a lot about blessing to these folks, and these good synagogue-going Jews would have heard echoes of this same passage in Jeremiah. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by the water.” And they would have had that “wisdom thinking” in their heads, telling them that poor folks and sick folks and nobodies weren’t the favored ones of God.
And what did Jesus say to them? “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the
This was radical stuff! This turned upside down the understanding of the day!
This meant that all those folks—those dusty, dirty, sick and smelly folks—those folks whose stomachs were beyond grumbling, those folks whose lives were hard and sad—those folks had a future in the Kingdom. They were God’s favored.
Instead of the thinking that said that the people whose lives looked the best were the ones who’d been the most righteous—and the ones whose lives were a mess wee the ones who hadn’t done what they should have—Jesus said, “No, that’s not it at all.” You downtrodden people, you victims of an oppressive society, you regular nobodies—God blesses you—you’re going to get the final reward.
Did they have to do anything special to get this blessing? Did they get it because they’d managed to trek out to the middle of nowhere to listen to Jesus? No. The blessing was free—God’s free grace.
But Jesus went on. “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.”
Is that … us? We’re rich, at least compared to most of the world. We have all the food we need. We’re happy, we’re well-respected. Is the message for us, “Woe to you”?
There are some theologians—and a good many Christians, especially amongst those who are poor and oppressed—who would say, “Yup, that’s the message for you, you rich, powerful people. Woe to you—your reward is going to be hunger and weeping. You’ve had everything in this life, but just you wait!”
Are we condemned because we’re rich, or can we claim the blessing Jesus proclaimed to the poor?
I think we can be among those rich, powerful people to whom Jesus says, “Woe to you.” We can when we look to our wealth and our power and our position in the community and say to ourselves, “Look at how good I am. I must be something special indeed, and I’ve done it all on my own.” We can be those to whom Jesus says, “Woe to you” if we rely on that older way of looking at the world and figure that we must be the righteous, the ones on God’s good side, because look at how God has blessed us. We can be those to whom Jesus says, “Woe to you” if we approach the world as if we’re the ones with a monopoly on right thinking. We can be those to whom Jesus says, “Woe to you” if we give charity to the poor with an attitude that says we’re the blessed and they’re the cursed. We can be those to whom Jesus says, “Woe to you” if we try to spread the good news as if everyone else will need our interpretation of God’s word if they’re going to have a chance to know their Lord and Savior.
But we don’t have to be those folks. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” he was talking about the overwhelming majority of the people there, if not all of them. That blessing was for virtually everyone there in that crowd. And when we understand that we are no better than anyone else and that there’s nothing about who we are that’s intrinsically better, that there’s nothing we have done or could do to earn God’s blessing, then indeed we are blessed.
Blessed are you, ordinary people, for yours is the
Blessed are you, people at Summit Presbyterian Church.
Blessed is she, Anna Nicole Smith … and all sorts of other surprising people.
Blessed are you.