An Upside-Down Way of Living
Jan 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
One of the most captivating, yet challenging, portions of the Gospels is in Matthew, chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, today’s reading from Matthew, which sets the tone for what is to come. Jesus proclaims: Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. The message being that people who do not seem to be blessed, are, indeed, blessed.
From there, Jesus says many other things that seem, well, even more upside down. Much of his teaching is difficult to grasp and seems impossible to do, like, for example, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In the most recent edition of The Christian Century there is a hard-to-believe true story illustrating the upside down way of Jesus. It’s told by a man named James Banks who writes that, at age 19, he went on a robbery spree. One day in San Antonio he came across a resort hotel that seemed to have only one employee working at the counter. He could see the safe through the glass door of the office next to the cash register. He walked into the place acting as if he was drunk and asked for a room.
Evidently the employee looked away, and when she looked back up James was holding a pistol in her face. “I need all the cash from the drawers, all the money you make change with, then I need you to open the safe,” he said. Her response? Calmly she said, “Why, child?” She then gave him the money he demanded but said she did not have access to the office or the safe, which frustrated him, but he believed her.
As he backed away an amazing thing happened, the woman raised her hand and said, “Young man, may I pray for you?” Let me quote him: “I stopped in my tracks. Had she hit a button and was trying to delay me? But I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She prayed for me while I stood holding a bag of money and a pistol at my side pointed toward her. She was calmer than me through it all. She prayed for my forgiveness and that I might one day forgive myself. She prayed that God would give me all that I may need in life. I left there with the money, but with unease.”
Well, that’s not the end of the story. Just a week later he was caught. In Texas, people could receive 35 years in prison for just one robbery, he wrote, and he had committed seven. One of the state’s witnesses was the woman from the hotel. After she described what had happened that night, another amazing thing happened. She asked the judge for leniency, saying I was troubled and needed help.
James served 20 years for his crimes. This is how he ends the story: “What did that woman see when she looked at me? What prompted her to pray for me and to speak up for me when she could have condemned me? I believe she saw the praying child my mother raised me to be; she saw hurts and pains that I could not explain. Who gave her eyes to see through disguises like mine?” (1) We know the answer to that question, I think; the one who said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We’ll be focusing more on the Sermon on the Mount in the weeks to come and will confront some even more difficult teachings of Jesus. Today, though, let’s further consider this upside down nature of Jesus’ ministry by looking at the reading from 1 Corinthians, which describes the Christian proclamation and believers as foolish.
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth addresses a number of issues, one of which is rivalries among groups and leaders. As was true of the culture in Corinth, preference was being given in the church to the wealthy and powerful and the expense of the poor and weak. In other words, they are not following the way of Jesus, which Paul is quick to address. Jesus upended it all.
I like the way commentator Scott Hoezee describes this paradox: “When the Coming One (Jesus) arrived, it was a goat’s feed trough that was his cradle, poverty-stricken people would be his earthly parents. A carpenter’s son from Nowheresville Nazareth would be the one who would spout parables no one could understand and who would say again and again that the greatest treasure, the eternal kingdom, the stuff that really last, will look like the tiniest seed, the invisible yeast, the widow’s mite. He’d suggest that the meek will inherit the earth, the weeping ones who would find laughter in the end, the last, least, lost and lonely would be God’s favorite kind of people.” (2)
Given that, the people of Corinth should stop fawning over the movers and shakers, especially since they are not, for the most part, among them. “…not many of you were wise by human standards,” Paul writes, “not many of you were powerful, no many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is week in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world , things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….”
Or, as The Message paraphrase of the Bible offers for vs. 26, “Take a good look friends, at what you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of the brightest and the best among you, not many influential, not many from high society families.”
BUT GOD … that’s a vital phrase in scripture … BUT GOD chose those whom others viewed as “weak” people to shame people who they assumed were strong. BUT GOD chose those people whom others considered “lowly” or despised” or not even as existing to “nullify” those who thought highly of themselves. (3)
Paul’s message is that people like the Corinthians are God’s kind of people. Not power brokers, not celebrities, not scholars, not the beautiful ones, but simple, ordinary, looked-down-on-by-some kind of folks. They are the ones who boast in (and trust) the Lord.
Unlikely people are a good fit for God’s unlikely Gospel, the most unlikely (or foolish) thing being that an instrument of execution – the cross – became a conveyor of grace and the gateway to eternal life. God is forever confounding conventional wisdom.
That’s why the concept of grace is so difficult for us to grasp. Perhaps it even could be called foolish. Grace means that we do not have to do anything to earn or keep God’s love and forgiveness that comes to us through the death of Jesus on the cross. This may be foolishness to some, but to us it is the power of God. Grace is what James experienced through the hotel employee’s “foolish” actions, and by grace – the power of God – his life was turned upside down. AMEN
“Essays by Readers: Disguise” by James Enoch Banks, The Christian Century, February 2023
“Sermon Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31” by Scott Hoezee, January 29, 2017, www.cepreaching.org
“Sermon Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31” by Doug Bratt, January 29, 2023, www.cepreaching.org