Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Upside Down World of the Gospel

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
8 November 2009   

The gospel this morning presents Jesus in two moments of teaching his followers.  The first teaching is a condemnation of religious officials who use their position solely for their own benefit, rather than to reach out to those in need.  The second teachable moment is when Jesus spots a widow, an otherwise unnoticed and forgotten figure giving a mere penny to the offering which supported the Jewish temple.  Jesus condemns the religious scribes, and instead lifts up the example of the widow as the better servant of God.  These are the moments when the audience of the disciples and the followers of Jesus would have had their world turned upside down.  Religious officials are here condemned for their vanity and greed, while a seemingly unimportant person, the widow, is showing us something more about God’s values. 
The gospels are full of these upside down moments—moments when we have to learn, or relearn, how God sees each of us and the world of humankind.  You begin to expect the unexpected from Jesus Christ.  The gospel writer Mark was also writing after the destruction of the second Jewish temple.  His early readers would have certainly wondered at the futility of contributing to the temple treasury at all, instead of something more worthy—like the cause of the widow herself.  We are left to imagine how the world should work--how the widow should be treated and cared for if human society were more just, more like the Kingdom of God.    
The stunning reversal is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Good news is preached to the poor.  The outcast is placed in the center of human community; the sinner is forgiven, and welcomed home.  You can hear that sense of reversal in the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Magnificat: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.  The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”  At the heart of the gospel was a new way of seeing, a fresh way of being in the world.  Jesus is lifting up a person on the margins and placing her in the center of human community.  This morning I would like to share with you my own story of an epic reversal, a story where I was the beneficiary of an extraordinary turnaround; when I got a new and surprising point of view, literally.  It was not a private moment.  20,000 people watched me do it at Madison Square Garden.  It was like I was famous. 
            It was the day after Christmas, not quite five years ago, during my first year at Kent.  Wow, time really does fly.  I had taken my mother to a New York Knicks game at the Garden.  We were sitting up in the mezzanine level, in the cheapest seats you can buy, in the very top row of the arena.  The game between the Knicks and the Charlotte Bobcats was about to begin, but they looked like ants from our view from the roof of the building.  As the players were finishing their pre-game warm-ups, I noticed a man in black was staring at me, a little too intensely.  
The man slowly made his way over and sat down next to me.  In his approach, I noticed the New York Knicks employee identification card.  His official status with the Knicks organization made me relax, but my first reaction was that I must have done something wrong.  This is not an unusual feeling for me.  But, after a swift moral examination, I could find no fault with my behavior—I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I hadn’t even yelled at an official or an opposing player--not yet anyway.  Not that they would hear me from our vantage point in the rafters.
            But the man in black brought good news, just like Johnny Cash used to for the outcasts of society.  The man explained that we had been chosen as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game; if we would follow him, we would be given courtside seats.  Our upgrade of the game would include waitress service at our seats, video monitors (as if we needed them courtside), and statistics for the game by quarter—oh, and also a group photo with myself and the New York Knick cheerleaders.  The cheerleaders were very nice, a most lovely group of Christmas elves.  I only wish I had my clericals on in the picture.  But who was I to complain?  Oh, and we also got a year’s supply of Poland Spring water.
The fun part of the new situation was that my mother could hear none of the conversation; between myself and the mysterious man in black.
I said, seriously, to her.
Follow me.”
“What is it?” she asked, growing concerned.
“I think we’re in trouble,” I told her.  Big trouble.” 
She didn’t ask any more questions of me.  She has known roughly since my birth that she can’t always get a straight answer out of me.  As we made our way down through the levels of the Garden on the employee elevator, I whispered to her.
“I think it’s a new security procedure.  You know, after the Ron Artest brawl with the Pacers and the Pistons.”
Yet the Knick representative was very kind, despite the tightened security in the NBA, so I don’t think she believed me.  As we exited the elevator, we were each given a bag full of New York Knick paraphernalia--hats, shirts, the works.  We entered the Garden at floor level through the players’ entrance.  We were then given Poland Spring hats and shirts that we were told to put on for the first television timeout.  At this point, my mother was coming to the giddy Christmas conclusion that we were not in trouble at all—though maybe I should be.  Another Knick employee told her that we were going to be on the scoreboard, so we should be ready for the TV timeout; when we would be announced as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game.
I prepared myself, contemplating a suave and memorable dance move, or two, to celebrate the big moment: on the big board at Madison Square Garden.  All those games riding the pine on my high school basketball team were about to pay off—big time. 
But then the moment came.  I stared at myself in the ridiculous Poland Spring hat and shirt, all I could manage was a shy little wave.  We looked like complete idiots.  We looked huge with the shirts over our winter sweaters, and I had my first moment of disdain for our great benefactor, Poland Spring Water.  I was their poster boy for a day.  During our painfully long moment on the scoreboard, when not one of my mighty dance moves came out, spontaneously, I was struck with a terrifying thought. 
What if a Kent student is here? 
Hey, isn’t that?  Yes, it is.  The chappy.  Man, he looks a lot bigger on the screen, he looks huge (and not in a good way).  He must really eat during the Christmas holidays.  I still don’t know why it was terrifying, as a thought, that one of you might be there, but there it is.  It must have been the big shirts and silly hats; and the dizzying turn of events when our afternoon was turned upside down in front of 20,000 people in New York City.
As soon as the camera was off, I ditched all the Poland Spring stuff under my seat and settled in for some NBA basketball on the day after Christmas.  My mother was instantly on her cell phone, telling everyone her new story. 
Even when I went to the concession stands, I was spotted: the upgrade guy.
Hey, it’s the upgrade guy.”
I just gave everyone the thumbs up.  There are worse things to be in this world. 
My own story is a story of reversal; of what it means to be surprised; of what it means to be given a gift when you least expect it.  But I couldn’t help but wonder who in the world deserved an upgrade more than me—and more than any of us here today.  I thought of what the world could be like if we dedicated ourselves to giving upgrades to those who deserve it most: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.  The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”  So who deserves an upgrade?  It is important to remember all the families and children without health care—those who will not get the medical care that you will get on a regular basis, and certainly not in a crisis.  It is so easy to forget the people affected by the tsunami and earthquakes in Southeast Asia—those who drift from our attention when the news media moves on to another story, even as whole villages are wiped out.  As I enjoyed my courtside seats in Madison Square Garden, I thought of the poor children in New York City who would like to see a Knicks game from the rafters where I began that magical afternoon.  I thought of a world still in need on the day after Christmas. 
The events of this week are also deeply heartbreaking with another mass shooting, this time at a military base.  The victims of the shooting at Fort Hood and their families should be in the very center of our prayers this morning; they should be lifted up to God.  These soldiers were already giving everything that they could for our nation; that they would be killed in America is beyond heartbreaking.  As Jesus lifted up the example of the widow, I would like to lift up the example of Kim Munley, an ordinary citizen, a policewoman.  She was the police officer who arrived first on the awful scene at Fort Hood.  Despite being shot in both thighs and in the wrist as well, she dropped to the ground and fired four rounds at the gunman who had already killed 13 people and injured 30.  The small woman brought the nightmare to an end for everyone.  Kim Munley is now in stable condition in a Texas hospital.  Her first words upon waking after her surgery: “Did anyone die?”  And among those caring for the wounded was Amanda Bahr, an army nutritionist who is just nineteen years old, just a little older than you.  After tending to the wounded, including applying a tourniquet to a fellow soldier, Amanda discovered that she too had been shot.  It was then that someone finally cared for her.
Our own worries and stress should start to seem pretty small by now.  I know mine do.  But I hope your hearts and your imagination will continue to grow much larger this morning.  We have an opportunity to become a stronger community, a more caring community at home, and a just nation abroad in the examples of these women in our day, and the widow who gave everything she had.  In giving and in loving each other more intentionally, everyone gets an upgrade, a deep change of heart.  In imagining the kind of world that God would want for us, and for which Jesus died, all of us are welcomed home as children of God.      

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