January 29, 2017 sermon
The Upside Down Gospel
Today is one of those days when all the readings coalesce around a single message. And it fits right in with Paul says to this divided little church in Corinth.
The single message from these readings can be simply stated this way:
• the stuff we believe seems like nonsense;
• the stuff that we trust to give us life in all its abundance seems like absolute folly.
Let’s listen to each of these three in turn.
Micah presents God and Israel locked in a court case. In this part of the book, God stands in the dock and asks, “What have I done to you that you should ignore me? How have I offended you that you should turn away from me. Why do you think I need your offerings?”
Then Micah preaches that God requires only this: do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God.
The trouble with living like that is that it gets in our way. That’s no way to get rich, or to be popular, or to be successful. That’s not how to build up your retirement portfolio.
Do justice. The kind of justice which eliminates the increasing gap between rich and poor so that everyone shares equally in the wealth of the universe. The kind of justice where everyone has access to quality education, affordable housing, good childcare. The kind of justice where some of us must cap our income and our leisure and our self–indulgence so that every single person may live well.
Love kindness, be steadfastly loving. The kind of love in which we stick with each other, where there are no more haves and have–nots because we are bound to each other as people of God.
Walk humbly with God. The kind of humility in which we work together diligently and faithfully with God for the healing of our divisions in the world, for the healing of our creation which is dying because of pollution, for the healing of our relationship with our aboriginal brothers and sisters.
Justice. Kindness or steadfast love. Humility. If we live God’s way, it will lead us to serve. It leads to loving others first. It leads to reaching out with compassion and hope and joy so that all people are included. All of it for the healing of creation.
Then along comes Jesus with his crazy talk: blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers.
Say what? Poor people in our world aren’t blessed; the rich are the ones who think they’ve been blessed. And the meek—well they tend to get knocked to the ground so that everyone can walk all over them. The merciful just get taken advantage of. And the pure in heart? Come on, you’ve got to get a little dirty so that you can make it in this world.
But Jesus tells us it ain’t so. God’s kingdom is a reversal of the way things work here in our world. God blesses those who above all else seek God—for they will be filled, they will see God, they will be called children of God, and to them God gives the kingdom of heaven.
It sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Who wants that kind of life of service? Who wants to always be giving ourselves away?
Yet above all else, this is what we are called to do. This is who we are called to be. God calls us to live faithfully, to reach out to the world with the good news that God’s power is shown in love; with the good news of God’s compassion, not God’s judgment; with the good news of God’s grace, not God’s might.
Paul tells the people in Corinth that this is how God works in the world—so stop thinking you do this on your own. It’s not about you. It’s about God’s grace being made real in the world. It’s about what God is doing through you. God chooses the foolish, not the wise—that’s why we have been chosen. God chooses the weak, not the strong. God chooses the lowly and the despised in the world so that the whole world may know once again that God’s love envelops us all.
This is how God works. And yeah, it sounds absolutely nuts to us. Paul agrees: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
That’s what the cross is all about. These days, we have lost any sense of what crucifixion meant in the Roman world. We wear crosses these days as jewelry. We display crosses proudly in our churches. We make the sign of the cross with great ease.
Back then, the cross was offensive; it was simply not mentioned in polite society. It was brutal, disgusting, abhorrent. The cross was a tool to punish the very worst of criminals. To worship a crucified Christ—it just didn’t make any sense at all.
This is the one thing that makes Christianity different from any other religion. Other religions have gods who were raised from death; other religions have founders who taught and healed people; other religions have gods who promise blessings.
Christianity is the only faith that has a crucified God at the centre of it all—and as Paul reminds us, it just sounds crazy. What kind of religion is this?
It is folly. It is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us, who trust God, it is the power of God.
At the heart of what we trust is that God reaches out to and works with the weak, the little ones, the ones easily overlooked. The thing is that those who think they are great also think they don’t need God. They can do it all on their own.
Our faith asserts again and again that God always comes where we least expect God to show up. God comes in our brokenness to make the world whole. God comes in our weakness to bless what the world refuses to bless. God comes in our struggles to love what the world calls unlovable. God comes into the dirt of human existence to redeem what the world doesn’t think is worth saving.
This is the theology of the cross. It starts with our brokenness and our weakness and trusts deeply that God reverses all our natural human values. What the world counts as folly is in fact God’s power at work. Mary sings the same thing in the Magnificat: God raises up the lowly from the dust and reduces the powerful to nothing.
That’s tough. It seems nuts at times. It’s upside–down thinking.
If you’re like me, we’d rather boast in our home, our children, our achievements, our prosperity, our wisdom, our success.
The cross calls us to boast in this crazy God who overturns everything we think is right. We boast in this crazy God who fills our paltry vision of life with the reality of a life lived in service which becomes a life of abundance and grace and hope and joy.
And this—this is what Jesus calls blessed. We live in the shadow of the cross and we come closer to God.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
1 Corinthians 1: 18–31
Matthew 5: 1–12
Micah 6: 1–8
4th Sunday after Epiphany