Lessons of the Day (6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C): Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
Martin de Porres
Martin was twenty-four when he professed his religious vows as a Dominican lay brother. It was 1603 and Martin was mulatto, his father a Spaniard and his mother an African slave. Martin’s character of compassion won him respect, so at thirty-four Martin was made a full brother in the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and was given the habit. He was immediately placed in charge of the friary infirmary, where he remained in service until his death at the age of fifty-nine. But Martin wouldn’t restrict his care to only those who could find their way to the friary infirmary. Instead, Martin would venture out into the streets of Lima to care for the sick outside of his walls, using his own meager income to feed the poor and house the many orphans in the growing city. He ministered without distinction to nobles, beggars, immigrants, and slaves alike. One day an aged beggar, covered with ulcers and almost naked, stretched out his hand, and Martin took him to his own bed. One of his brethren reproved him. Martin replied,
“Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.”
The remarkable Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu died in the closing days of 2021. He helped galvanize South Africa’s improbably peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. Yet his was not soft advocacy for avoiding conflict.
“Of course, it was not the slave owners who led the struggle to abolish slavery. Nor was it the Afrikaners who tore down the system of apartheid in South Africa. The oppressed fought for, and ultimately secured, their own freedom. Through collective action, we built the foundations for transformative change, to the benefit of all.”
He was a leader in the religious drama that transfigured South African Christianity and the global Anglican communion. Tutu preached a gospel of peace and reconciliation.
“When will we learn, when will the people of the world get up and say, Enough is enough. God created us for fellowship. God created us so that we should form the human family, existing together because we were made for one another. We are not made for an exclusive self-sufficiency but for interdependence, and we break the law of our being at our peril.”
Paul returned from Darfur, Sudan, where he had gone with some other doctors to care for refugees in the wake of the war and genocide in the early 2000s. He went for several months, describing what he did as “primitive medicine” – facing injuries, broken bones, infections, cholera, and a host of other medical needs with limited supplies and virtually no modern equipment. He tells of a woman who died while giving birth, “I really wasn’t that difficult of a delivery. If she had been in even the poorest of American hospitals, the staff wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong. But in Darfur, at that time, everything was turned upside down.” Paul would relate his experience,
“What I saw in Darfur changed my life because when you see people whose lives have been turned upside down, you start to ask questions about what’s really important.”
In Luke’s first chapters, Jesus stays busy doing very important things to begin and initiate his public ministry: his baptism; the retreat and temptation in the wilderness; preaching in Nazareth; calling his disciples, and naming the twelve; and, curing the sick. As part of all that, Jesus had gone up a mountain to pray. He has now come down and, on a level stretch of land, Jesus begins to preach. And Jesus preaches a message which turns the world upside down.
Part of that world-changing sermon was proclaimed today. Many call this section of the sermon, “The Beatitudes.” Beatitude is from the Latin word beata, a translation of the Greek markarios, which means something like “blessed” or “happy” – “truly happy” or, maybe, “deeply fulfilled.” We have all heard the Beatitudes before, probably often. Both Matthew and Luke recount this teaching of Jesus, though differently. Even those not of our faith are aware that Jesus taught something like, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We are familiar with the words of Jesus. And let me tell you, they have power! Despite our best efforts to sugar-coat them or tame them, this teaching of Jesus – these Beatitudes has the power to turn our world upside down. That is if we dare to listen and if we dare to live what they demonstrate.
Think about this: How would your life change today if you really believed Jesus when he says,
“Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
“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….on account of the Son of Man – for being who you are, for doing righteousness, for loving mercy, and for acting justly.”
Even more challenging: “How would your world be turned upside down right now if you dared to listen to Jesus when he says,
“Woe to you who are rich….”
“Woe to you who are filled now….”
“Woe to you who laugh now…”
“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you…”
When Jesus first preached these words, the Beatitudes overturned a thousand years of popular Jewish piety. There was a strain within Judaism that believed and taught that wealth, health, and power were signs of divine favor and love. There were people at the time of Jesus who were convinced also that sickness, suffering, and poverty were all signs that somehow you had disappointed God. Come to think of it, that ancient false piety might be alive and well in some modern Christian preaching. But as Jesus preaches the beatitudes, Jesus is overturning some assumptions that his contemporaries had regarding who God is and how God works. You can just picture the folks in that vast crowd, kind of scratching their heads, and wondering what kind of teaching this was,
- “Did I hear him right? Did he say the the poor are blessed? Isn’t poverty a punishment for laziness.”
- “Did I hear him right? Did he say, ‘Woe to the rich.’ I thought that prosperity was a sign of God’s favor.”
- “Did i hear him right? Did he say, ‘Woe to those who have their fill.’ I thought God’s abundance was a sign that i was blessed by a God that I had pleased.”
- Yet, Jesus knew what he was proclaiming. He knew, also, that his words would turn the world upside down – if anyone would listen.
And if anyone is listening today, Jesus’ words can still have the same effect today.
Yet I fear that many of us worship at other altars – the altar of money, the altar of power, the altar of control, the altar of instant gratification. We want it all, we want it now, and we want it the way we want it. Then along comes Jesus, happy to turn our world upside down, insisting that it is the poor, not the prosperous that inherit the kingdom. It is the weeping who hold a special place in God’s heart. It’s the hungry, not the wealthy, who find authentic satisfaction. It is the sick, the sinner, and the outcast who find a home in God and it is the self-righteous, the self-satisfied, and the self-indulgent who must wander in a desert of disconnection.
Why would Jesus come down that mountain, stand on flat ground, and preach this message that will turn our world upside down? I think that he just really wants to get our attention.
Martin looked around Lima and saw suffering and poverty and he directed his life to their service. Desmond Tutu witnessed the injustice and violence, rethought everything, and redirected his witness to peace and reconciliation. Paul went to Darfur, experienced the suffering of a people, and rethought his priorities. The Beatitudes of Jesus invite us to think hard about priorities, about what’s really worth doing in life. The Beatitudes reveal God’s dearest priorities. Could Jesus be any more forthright in telling us what is really important?
“Woe to you!” Woe to you if you spend your life chasing wealth. Woe to you if a full belly and full bank account have your highest priority. Woe to you if you tirelessly work to avoid the pain, the need, and the injustice afflicting your neighbor. A life focused on consuming, having, and hoarding isn’t a life worth living.
“Blessed are you!” Blessed are you who embrace the poverty of Jesus, a poverty which allowed him to pour out everything for those he loved. Blessed are you poor who immigrate to find a better life and blessed are you who embrace their poverty in welcoming and friendship. Blessed are you when you hunger for righteousness, justice, and peace. Blessed are you who hunger for equality and just systems, and blessed are you whose hunger leads you to act to end racism, misogyny, and prejudice. Blessed are you when you weep over the suffering of a friend. Blessed are you when you weep over violence between nations. Blessed are you when you weep over the lack of welcome for the stranger or the refugee, when you weep for the injustice that masquerades as “life in the real world.” Blessed are you when people hate you because of who you stand for and what you stand for. Blessed are you when people hate you because you stand with the Prince of Peace and the Just Judge. Blessed are you when people know that you follow Jesus not just because of your words but through your deeds.
So, blessed are you, Martin and Desmond. Blessed are you, Paul, you went to Darfur and you wept. You experienced the poverty of those people. You went to bed hungry after a long day of hard medicine and you came back hungry to help. Blessed are you because you let Christ turn your world upside down.