Upside Down

February 17, 2019

Series: February 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Luke 6:17-26 - Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 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, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 Upside Down

 William Willimon, who served for many years as the Dean of the chapel at Duke University, tells a story about receiving a telephone call one day. His secretary buzzed him and said that there was a man calling who was terribly upset. Willimon said, “Is he upset about what I said in my last sermon?” “No,” his secretary said, “He is mad over something you have done to his daughter.” Willimon was puzzled and told his secretary to put him through. The father began by saying, “I hold you personally responsible for this.” “For what?” Willimon asked. The father replied, “My daughter. We sent her to Duke to get a good education. She is supposed to go to medical school and become a third-generation doctor. Now she’s got some foolish idea in her head about doing mission work Haiti, and I hold you responsible.”

 Turns out, his daughter was involved in the chapel, and had been one of the organizers of a previous spring Mission trip to Haiti. The father said, “She has a bachelor of science degree from Duke University. But instead of going to medical school, she now wants to go to Haiti for three years to teach kids there.  This would not have happened if it hadn’t been for you. She has listened to your sermons and you’ve taken advantage of her at an impressionable age.” At this point, Willimon was getting a bit energized himself. He responded, “Now just a minute. Didn’t you have her baptized?” The father replied, “Well, yes, but...” “– And,” Willimon continued, “didn’t you take her to Sunday School?” The father stammered in reply, “Well, sure we did.”  “There you have it,” Willimon said. “She was messed up before she came to us. You introduced her to Jesus. Don’t blame this on me. You’re the one who started it.” “But,” the father pleaded, “all we wanted was a Presbyterian.” Willimon replied, “Well, sorry sir, you messed up. You’ve gone and made a disciple.”[i]

 I am a parent, and I can absolutely understand the bewilderment of this father.  I’m guessing his daughter had been on the path to medical school since middle school.  At least, that kind of pressure to succeed by society’s standards has already begun for my 6th grade son.  Just the other day, we were at a dinner party and multiple people asked us if we had started thinking about where he would go to high school.  Well … no, not yet.  He’s 11.  But he has to get into the right high school, so he can get into the right college, so he can get into the right graduate school, so he can get the right job.

 But what is that “right” track?  Something that will make a lot of money?  Something that will impress others with its prestige?  Much of the time, that is what our culture and society seem to think.  But that certainly does not seem to be what Jesus thinks.  In this passage from Luke’s Gospel, we Jesus sharing some surprising notions about who is blessed.  “Blessed are the poor … Blessed are you who are hungry now … Blessed are you who weep … Blessed are you who are hated and excluded.”  He then follows the blessings with woes, which we don’t hear in Matthew’s version.  “Woe to you who are rich ... Woe to you who are full now ... Woe to you who are spoken well of.” 

 I can just imagine the look of surprise and confusion on the disciples’ face as Jesus is saying all of this.  Jesus, you are turning everything we know about status and power and prestige and wealth upside down.  You are challenging every convention and assumption of our society.  His was a counter-cultural message then, and it remains a counter-cultural message today.

 I am very slowly working on a Doctor of Ministry degree and have been doing a lot of reading about vocation and calling, especially in young people.  With the daily onslaught of messages that young people get from society about what they “should” be and do in life, and what “success” looks like, how do they listen for God’s call?  How do they figure out how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?  David White is a seminary professor in Texas, and one of the leading researchers in the area of faith and young people.  He says, “Every young person in American culture is formed by the myth that happiness can be found at the cash register, and each young person must decide how he or she will embrace or resist this vision.”[ii]  And even when they are able to resist that dominant cultural vision – to dare to be counter-cultural and instead live into God’s vision, are the adults in their lives able to do the same? The story about the young woman from Duke wanting to serve in Haiti is, unfortunately, all too common.  There seems to always be pressure from somewhere to ignore that message of Jesus.

 To whom do we listen?  The prophet Jeremiah tells us, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals … Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”  It is so tempting to listen to the people around us.  To just go along with our cultural and societal norms.  But only when we trust in God, says Jeremiah, do our roots grow deep and our branches bear fruit.

 This is not an issue only for young people.  Just last year, a family member of mine who is in her late 40’s (still quite young!) decided to quit her lucrative job in radio advertising and become the manager of a local donut store.  She loves it.  Even though she has to get up at 3:00 in the morning to start baking … even though she is not making nearly as much money as she did before, she loves it.  She is absolutely beaming in every picture I have seen of her in the donut store.  She loves interacting with her customers.  She loves providing tasty treats and putting smiles on peoples’ faces.  She loves it.

 And, most of the people who are close to her have done nothing but say rude and hurtful things about this decision.  She has gone crazy!  What is she thinking?  Is she insane?  Why in the world has she done this?  You get the point.  She has turned her life upside down, she has defied society’s definitions of success and achievement, and the people closest to her just don’t understand.

Now, I don’t know if she would say that managing a donut store is fulfilling her call to be a disciple of Jesus.  But, I do know that because she works early in the morning, she now has more time to be with her children when they get home from school.  She now has more time to be present with her friends and family members when they need her support.  She is able to serve and support her customers in a variety of ways.  And, the joy that she gets from her job certainly spills over to other parts of her life.  It certainly seems like it is her calling.


I often think in songs, and as I have followed her journey over the last several months, I keep thinking of the song “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson.  He wrote it for the Curious George movie that came out a few years ago.  Monkeys spend so much of their time upside down as they swing through the branches, they have an entirely different view of the world than we humans do.  What if we, like Curious George, like my family member, like Jesus, spend a little more time in this upside-down space?  A space where anything is possible, like the hungry being fed and the poor inheriting the kingdom of God.  A space filled with a love that we share with everyone.  A space where things are not necessarily what they seem, where we are open to the movement of the Spirit.  I’ve asked Scott to help me share this song with you today. (See lyrics below.)

 I am especially a fan of that last line – “Is this how it’s supposed to be?”  For that is the question that Jesus wants us to ask.  When we see most of the world’s wealth in the hands of just a few – Is this how it’s supposed to be?  When we see people going hungry – Is this how it’s supposed to be?  When we see people weeping due to an injustice they have suffered – Is this how it’s supposed to be?  No, this is not how it’s supposed to be.  Jesus is calling us to turn things upside down.  To challenge the status quo.  To make radical changes to our lives.  To examine the ways that we are complicit in keeping people poor and hungry and excluded and to make a change.  To be counter-cultural.

Don’t let the light-hearted song we sang fool you.  This is hard work.  David White puts it this way, “God’s truth may in fact be an unpopular, minority opinion, scandalous to common sensibilities.”  Putting off medical school to serve in Haiti?  Unpopular.  Living in such a way that the poor, the hungry, the excluded are blessed?  A minority opinion.  Following God’s call to see that the poor are offered resources and education to break the cycle of poverty, that the hungry are given opportunities to be filled in both the short-term and the long-term, that the excluded are gathered in and lovingly cared for?  Scandalous.  But this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We are called to turn not just the world, but our own lives, upside down in order to do justice and love kindness.  May it be so.

 Upside Down, By Jack Johnson

 Who's to say what’s impossible

Well they forgot, this world keeps spinning

And with each new day, I can feel a change in everything

And as the surface breaks reflections fade

But in some ways they remain the same

And as my mind begins to spread its wings, there's no stopping curiosity

 I want to turn the whole thing upside down

I’ll find things they say just can't be found

I'll share this love I find with everyone

We'll sing and dance to Mother Nature's songs

I don't want this feeling to go away

 Who's to say I can’t do everything

Well I can try, and as I roll along I begin to find

Things aren't always just what they seem

 This world keeps spinning and there's no time to waste

Well it all keeps spinning, spinning, round and round and upside down

Who's to say what's impossible and can't be found

I don't want this feeling to go away, please don’t go away.

Is this how it’s supposed to be?



[ii] For more information, see Dreamcare and Practicing Discernment with Youth by David White