Jesus speaks of a great overturning in the Gospel lesson for today. Overturning is a major theme of the Gospel of Luke. Mary sings of the great overturning while Jesus is growing in her womb. Just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus say “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Now today, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Then he turns around and says “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will weep.”
An overturning. Because even though, amidst many warnings of the dangers of wealth, Luke in particular and the New Testament in general describe several rich followers of Jesus, nevertheless, whether we are rich or poor, we understand that there are forces in the midst of wealth and poverty that grind people into the dust, that need to be overturned.
Whether we are full or hungry, weeping or laughing, spoken well of or despised, there are forces that grind people and God’s creatures into the dust, that need to be overturned.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, the prophet Daniel wakes up from a nightmare and tells about the four winds stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts climbing up out of the sea. In the Ancient near East, the sea was a symbol for chaos. So these four beasts are climbing out of the sea of chaos. It would be as if we had a vision of four monsters climbing out of the lava at the bottom of a volcano, or from a pit of radioactive waste.
The four beasts represent four empires that have taken over ancient Israel, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks. They have destroyed everything.
What beasts do you see climbing up out of the chaos of your life, threatening to destroy everything? What monstrous beasts do you see climbing up out of the chaos of this world?
Cause this is a hard time. However you might feel about the election, for many of us, these days are difficult, just to live through.
The book of Daniel is about the great overturning. All apocalyptic literature is that way. Whenever you see descriptions of great beasts climbing out of the sea or the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding across the sky and so on, you know this is written for people who are desperate, for people who are being ground down into the dust. And it has a clear message.
“I saw one like a human being, or a son of man,” says Daniel, “coming on the clouds of heaven.” This is the one who will bring the great overturning. This is the one who will face down the great beasts.
In other words, there is something bigger in this world than the forces that would grind you into dust. Bigger even than death.
Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels. At one place he says to his disciples, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it shall not be so among you, the one who would be your leader must be your servant, and the one who wishes to be first must be your slave, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
This is how the overturning comes. Not by yet another, bigger beast. But rather the power of God, disorientingly, insanely, even offensively hopeful.
Jesus calls us into that power. In the Gospel lesson for today, he says, “Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.” Elsewhere he says, “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Calls us to the power of the cross.
Here is a little bit of what I mean.
Some years ago I served as chaplain at Hospice Care Plus in Madison County, Kentucky. Sometimes I would work at the Compassionate Care Center, a kind of hospital for people who are dying. One day I walked into a room, there was James, the person who was dying, lying on the bed to my left. James’s wife and two daughters were sitting at the foot of the bed, not saying anything. The room felt stuck, numb, as if everyone were wondering, “How can this be happening. How could this possibly be real?”
I sat down, made some little chitchat with the daughters. Wasn’t’ getting much of anywhere when I noticed a fly buzzing around the room. This was not just any fly. It was one of those flies that comes from the nether pit of hell. You know the sort—about as big as a dog, dive bombing your head with this when that felt like a dentist’s drill on one of your back molars, drilling down the core of your soul.
The wife had a flyswatter in her hand which she was kind of waving around in a desultory fashion, in a vague, non-committal sort of way. I said, “Could I borrow that flyswatter?”
I stood up. Now I was a hunter. The kindly Hospice chaplain, who is supposed to bring stability, groundedness and meaning so that people can grieve without being overwhelmed, became the predator.
I was going to kill that fly. It was imperative. There was no question. I had to kill that fly immediately. I swatted at it in midair. Sometimes you can hit a fly in midair if you swing your flyswatter right. It flew by. There! I saw it on the wall. I was going to kill it now. But it flew off, behind me. I turned around.
And there, behind me was James. You remember? The guy who was dying.
They tell you this in training. They tell you that you are going to forget what they tell you. Then you will remember it, and forget it and remember it again.
You will find anything in the room. The family will recruit you into helping them find anything, anything at all in the room, to distract them from the pain.
James was dying. He was letting go of this bright world, these people so beloved to him.
I knelt down by the bed, put my hand on his forehead. Now I could feel the pain, like a crucifixion. Now if filled the room.
I prayed, very simple, “Dear God please be with James, hold him in your arms at this hard time, carry him through. I said the Twenty Third Psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.”
I looked up, and the room had changed. People could cry now. They weren’t numb any more, weren’t holding their breath. And because they could cry, they could laugh too. An overturning.
There is something bigger than the beasts in the room. Something bigger than any monstrous beast that climbs up out of chaos, bigger even than death. That something calls to be a part of it facing down those beasts. That something loves us.
This is Jesus, the one who carries us to heaven, the one who holds the ones we love. The one who conquers death. The one who brings the great overturning.