Sermon: Upside Down Blessings


Did you ever stand on your head, when you were a child? We used to play the game of seeing who could stand on their head the longest without passing out. It was such fun! What was a familiar world a few seconds ago gets turned topsy-turvy and everything looks totally different. Of course the world itself hasn’t changed, but suddenly it looks like a whole new place, mysterious and wonderful, with the grass clouding your vision and the clouds at your feet.

Being the champion head-stander that I was, I would revel in that strange new perception and wonder what it might be like to walk through such a magical place where caterpillars danced on your head and bird-wings would tickle your toes. Of course, sooner or later I would have to `come back down to reality’, let my feet slip back into their earth stained shoes, and adjust to the weight of gravity once more.

 

Jesus had just come down from the mountaintop, His feet leading Him out of the heavenly place of prayer and solitude, back down to the flat plains of reality. And before long “the host of the miserable”, as Helmut Thielicke put it, began to throng around Him; people whose perceptions of the world was viewed myopically through the bondage of their particular malady.

What an incredible and horrible sight that must have been!

Thousands of them, painfully making their way to Jesus.

“Just suppose that suddenly all the hospitals and asylums were emptied. Could we bear the sight of the crippled and mutilated, the pallor of death, the hopelessness?” Thielicke wonders. Could we stand to hear “the shrill cacophony of mumbling, babbling, lunatic voices?”

These were people who came, not to test Jesus or just out of curiosity, but rather who hobbled, shuffled, limped, and even crawled to get to Jesus because they absolutely needed to hear what He had to say to them. Surely the appalling sight of such suffering masses would be overwhelming to most of us. Perhaps, at times, it overwhelmed even Jesus. But Jesus drew sinners and sufferers from their hiding places like a human magnet.

In forlorn multitudes they came to him clinging to the barest of hopes. You see, the beliefs they had been raised on, ridiculed for and marginalized by taught them that their malady was God’s curse upon their life: the ghastly results of divine retribution for some personal offense or inherited transgression; or simply for being born who they were.

God’s blessings were reserved for the righteous, the chosen; evident in those who enjoyed good health, prosperity, the proliferation of many sons and cattle. Most likely, this `host of the miserable’ could only expect to be, once again, chastised and blamed for their own suffering.

Yet, no one has ever been healed by judgment and condemnation; it serves only to increase the pain and perpetuate the misery.

 

What must have been in the hearts and minds of this self-deploring mass of humanity, as they made their way, hope against hope, to Jesus?

That he might be different from all the others; the one who would finally show them the path to redemption and righteousness? That their endless search for a miracle might end, at long last, at his feet?

Jesus looked out serenely upon that mass of suffering, and His very presence was like a silent sermon, like a balm that hovered and then descended upon the wounds of humanity (ibid. Thielicke).

Then Jesus began to speaking to them in a way they would have familiar with. The ancient scriptural formula of `blessings and woes’ (beatitudes) were two-part sayings that basically summed up common knowledge about the good life. They were equivalent of: “Blessed are they who have good 401(k) plans, for their old age shall be comfortable.” Or, “Blessed are they who floss, for they shall keep their teeth.” (B. B. Taylor)

But while his form of speech might have seemed at first familiar, the content of what Jesus was about to say would be astonishing.

Maybe we’ve all heard these Beatitudes so many times, that they have probably lost their shock value for us as well.

But just imagine, being in that crowd of people, and hearing something like, “Blessed are you who suffer from cancer, for you shall be made whole.” Or “Blessed are you who have lost a child, for you shall know comfort.” Or “Blessed are you who are ostracized by your community, by your own family, for you will be embraced in love.”

For those going through that kind of trauma, such a topsy-turvy perception of reality seems impossible.

 

Did you know that the image which the human eye perceives gets reflected upside down at the back of the eye? In other words, the image that of the world that the eye brings in is originally upside down. It is the brain that must then re-interpret that image to present it right-side up to the individual. Without that essential adjustment, we wouldn’t be able to walk through this world with any sense of balance at all.

 

At first glance, we might think that it is Jesus who turns our understanding of the world upside down. But maybe it is, in truth, we human beings who have turned the world on its head. And Jesus came to set things right again. We’ve just gotten so used to seeing the world in one way, that the blessed reality of it seems so inverted that it sends a shock through the entire system.

 

My brother-in-law has one of those `inversion tables’. You strap your feet into one end, and then the table tilts your head downwards. It’s supposed to be good for you, moves the blood back to an oxygen-hungry brain, stretches out and realigns your spine, and so forth. “Give it a try,” my brother-in-law says to me. So I let him strap me in and tilt away. I lasted about one minute, before I started getting really dizzy and a bit sick to my stomach. “It takes some readjustment to get used to it,” he consoled.

When God, in Jesus Christ, seems to turn this world `topsy-turvy’ by putting heaven at our feet and our thinking caps pointed towards solid ground, I believe it’s their way of helping us re-adjust our vision to the reality of God’s Kingdom here on earth. A divine reality which human beings have, over time, twisted about and turned on its head.

We’ve been indoctrinated to see the world in certain ways: to look after our own needs and interests first; to insulate ourselves from the world’s impoverishment; to hold at arm’s length, or even reject, those who look, think or believe differently than we do; to ostracize those whom we do not understand and thus fear; to isolate ourselves from the suffering of others.

On November 1, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly put forth a resolution which designated that January 27, this past Friday, (the same day on which, in 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp) would be International Holocaust Remembrance day, commemorating the victims of the Holocaust; the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jews, 200,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and over 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

Resolution 60/7, as it was called, was established, not only to honor the memory of the Holocaust victims, but also to develop educational programs about the Holocaust to help prevent future acts of genocide. To quote one part of the resolution, “It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief…”

About that resolution, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared, “The International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust is thus a day on which we must reassert our commitment to human rights . . .

“We must also go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history. We must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world. And we must do our utmost so that all peoples may enjoy protection and rights for which the United Nations stands.” (International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Wikipedia)

 

Resolution 60/7 was written with the haunting memories of both intentional and unwitting complicity in that genocide.

In May of 1939, the German transatlantic liner, the St. Louis, carried 937 passengers, nearly all of whom were Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe fleeing from the Third Reich.

The majority of those passengers had applied for US visas, and planned to stay in Cuba until they could enter the United States. Cuba was only willing to admit 28 passengers, the remaining were turned away. Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis out of Cuban waters. The St. Louis sailed slowly on to the shores of America. When the St. Louis was close enough to see the lights of Miami, several of the passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded.

The White House and State Department decided not to take any extraordinary measures to permit the refugees entry into the United States.  The 1939 annual quotas for German-Austrian immigration had already been (quickly) filled. Thus, the passengers of the St. Louis were put on a waiting list and turned away. Having no other choice, the refugees were ultimately returned to Germany. Some went into hiding. Others managed somehow to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Many more, however, were captured and murdered by the Nazi regime in their killing centers and concentration camps. (“How America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany haunts our refugee policy today,” by Dara Lind, Vox, January 27, 2017)

 

That same year, 1939, a bi-partisan bill was proposed [by Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA)] that would allow 20,000 German Jewish children sanctuary in the United States. But a Gallup Poll reported the American public to be 2:1 against the bill.

The bill never made it to the floor. (History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust, ref. https://newspapers.ushmm.org)

 

Yesterday, 78 years later, Syrian refugees were being detained in airports around this country. Students who had been attending American universities were being blocked from returning the United States after visits abroad. The Department of Homeland Security is now barring green-card holders from the seven affected countries who were outside the U.S., now requiring a – case-by-case – waiver in order to return (The New York Times, January 28, 2017).

Meanwhile, the death count in Syria has risen to 450,000 – 50,000 of which were children. (ref. www.iamsyria.org)

And today I am wondering how many times history must repeat itself before humanity learns its hardest lessons.

 

Closer to home, Interfaith Works of Syracuse has resettled 300 – 500 refugees each year since 1981 – many of them from countries such as Syria – finding them homes and employment in the Syracuse area; working through what is already a very strict vetting process through the Federal Government. Over those 36 years, there have been absolutely no incidents to report.

These refugees have subsequently become hard-working, good-hearted, patriotic Americans who bring unique gifts, valuable contributions and a richness of diversity to this nation of ours – a nation which has been made great by the very diversity fostered by a robust immigration program. (ref. www.intefaithworks.org and www.unhcr.org, the UN Refugee Agency)

Today, however, Interfaith Works is confronted with the very real prospect of having to discontinue their vital efforts to address what has become a global humanitarian crisis.

 

What would Jesus – the One who stood before that suffering mass of human refuge on that desperate plain – think about this recent reversal in our nations’ policy? (see Exodus 22:21ff, Matthew 25:35 – 46, Hebrews 13:2)

Much less our founding fathers.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty, it pledges this welcome: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore; send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (from The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus)

Apparently, it seems, today that lamp has been replaced with a sword.

 

I believe that how we respond to this contemporary ‘host of the miserable,’ how we either receive or reject these thousands of refugees seeking sanctuary, could well be a defining moment in the collective soul of our nation.

How will we view the blessings bestowed – in truth entrusted – to us in light of the suffering of the world?

How will we ultimately choose to see the world, and our place within it?

 

At some point, I believe, we must be willing to come down off the mountain of our own prosperity and down to the plain of suffering reality which the rest of the world confronts on a daily basis. Just as Jesus did. Just as, I believe, he calls us to do.

My dear friend and colleague, Rev. Ooman Thomas, once said to me, “America thinks it is blessed by its great wealth. But, as one who comes from a country (India) in which millions starve every day, that wealth looks more and more like a curse to me.”

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about my friend Ooman’s astute observation. As a proud immigrant to this country, he has a perspective that so many of us born here lack. Perhaps those of us born into such prosperity have come to perceive the world myopically through the bondage of that particular malady.

 

The truth is that Jesus, himself alone, is the Blessing. Jesus is the Living Beatitude. And when we tune ourselves to his heart and his will, then all those woeful illusions and false consolations will be finally stripped away.

And when we then come to Christ with nothing but necessity left in our hands, and only hope against hope dwelling in our hearts, then God in Jesus Christ, becomes everything to us. And we begin to see the world as it truly is; see it as it is meant to be.

We begin to perceive the Blessed Reality of things: The right-side-up truth of God’s all-embracing, saving love in Jesus Christ.