Sermon: “Upside Down” (Matthew 5:1-12) January 29, 2023

Date: January 29, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12

Scripture Reader: Dan Ward

Sermon Title: “Upside Down”

You can also listen on Podcast from iTunes and Spotify. Search for “Podcasting from Rev. Bob Jon.”

The Pursuit of Happyness is a 2006 film about a San Francisco salesman named Chris Gardner. He invests his entire life savings in portable bone-density scanners. However, the time lag between the sales of the machine and his life demands leads to financial hardship One day, he meets a manager for a brokerage company and gets a chance to work as an intern stockbroker without any pay for 6 months and compete with 20 other interns. Meanwhile, his wife leaves him not being able to endure further financial difficulty. Gardner is evicted from his house, living as a homeless with his five-year-old son, often staying in a shelter or even in the public bathroom while pursuing his dream to become a stockbroker. 

Here is a line that Gardner tells his son. “Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something. You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves. They want to tell you that you can’t do it. You want something? Go get it.” This movie is inspirational in showing us how anyone can accomplish the American dream. After all, we live in the US, where the Declaration of Independence says that we are all created equal, and we are endowed by our Creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am not going to tell you how the movie ends in case you have not watched it. But it shows that if you have a dream, you have to work hard at it and make it come true.

And I am sure that most of us here know what that means. It is said that social mobility is getting more difficult these days: If people are born rich, they are likely to stay rich. If people are born poor, there is a good chance they will stay poor, not being able to climb up the social strata. However, I know that many of you have worked very hard to be where you are. For some families, both spouses work to raise their children and prepare for their retirement. If you are a single parent, you are likely to work twice hard to raise your children and work extra hours. Some of you moved to Chelmsford a long time ago with nothing more than a wagon and have worked so hard to live more comfortably today. 

American Dream is also what I pursued. I came to Boston as an international student in 2004. If my friends could read a book within 3 or 4 hours, it would take me twice longer to read the same book. While my roommate went to bed at 11 pm, I stayed until 2 am reading the book, drinking coffee. If there was a paper to submit, I often worked all night long till 5 am to finish the paper. While studying at school, I also worked at the school library and admissions office so that I could pay the rent and buy food. And I saw other international students who basically lived on fast food for every lunch or simple bowl of rice with some spicy sauce. Some of them are working as pastors in this conference. Some of them became professors at school. And some of them are working in their jobs. 

So, as we come together to listen to the words of Jesus as found in Matthew 5, they could sound bittersweet to many of us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are the poor? What about me, Jesus? I have worked so hard for my family, served on many committees for my church, and volunteered for my community. Don’t you recognize the sacrifice of many people who work from the morning till afternoon? Blesse are those who mourn? Jesus, did you see the news that a young mother in Duxbury, MA, who murdered her three children this past week? Don’t you think you could have prevented all this tragedy in the first place instead of making us mourn? 

The list goes on. Blessed are the meek and humble. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. And they may sound every inch contrary to what we were taught as children or experienced as adult. Be meek and humble? Yes, they sound good, Jesus but we don’t want others to think that we are weak and poor. Be hungry and thirst for righteousness? Jesus, those who protest on the street and shout justice can be a mob being violent and looting. Besides, their motives are not all that pure sometimes either. Be merciful? This is the real world, Jesus. We need to hold people accountable for their transgressions and pay for their mistakes. 

But that is exactly what Jesus says here. His message pierces through our ears and inaugurate the kingdom of God that radically challenges our values, our beliefs, and our system. Of course, we work diligently. We serve others. We volunteer for others. We share our generosity. But if we believe that we can earn the favor of God because of all our works, if we believe that we can enter the kingdom of God before others, the good news Jesus proclaims today may sound bad news to us. Just like a child who hangs on the metal pole upside down, the life and teaching of Jesus turn this world upside down saying that happy are those who are poor, merciful, humble, and who love justice and righteousness. 

Back in 2006, I joined a group of people from New England Conference to go down to Nicaragua. We went to Managua for a week. Each of us stayed with a host family at night. My host family consisted of 9 people under one roof. The father, mother, their four daughters, uncle, grandfather, and grandmother. The parents were working as schoolteachers making less than $500 per month. There were no walls in the house so they blocked with furniture to create space and blanket as a door. I happened to pass the kitchen while the grandmother was cooking dinner for the whole family. I took a glimpse at the small refrigerator and saw that it was pretty empty. 

In our perspectives to define what is happiness and who is blessed, their living condition is not what most Americans would aspire. We would not say that they are blessed. But I witnessed that they were so generous with me. Even when it was not their time to feed me, they came to find me and called me to the house so they could serve me a dish of rice and beans. The father got cash from his wife and walked all the way to the small grocery store just to buy a bottle of Coca Cola just for me. When no one had a piece of chicken on their plates, they put one on my plate, gladly asking me to eat it. And I felt shameful realizing that when I thought that these people had nothing to offer, they were the ones who graciously shared their generosity with me.   

The late Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, comments, “Most people do not go to church to be confronted with the gap between what they believe and practice and what their faith teaches and requires.”[1] In other words, we often go to the church hoping to hear a message that confirms our own values, ideology, and political position. As Christians, we are likely to find comfort in religion that confirms our status quo. So, he says that he has long been skeptical when someone stops him after the worship service and says, “That was a first-rate sermon.” He came to learn what people call a good sermon often smooths all the rough edges of the gospel and is agreeable with their values. 

And here is the good news that may come across as bad news for us. That salvation does not belong to us; it belongs to God. And the kingdom of God first belongs to those who are despised, silenced, persecuted, and ridiculed. It belongs to those who are brokenhearted, who mourn, and who are gentle-spirited. Although many of us here are decent and good people who have worked so hard for our career and our families, got our degree and education, pay our tax and support our community, it is not necessarily us who enter the kingdom of God first. Instead, as Jesus says in Matthew 22, it will be the children, tax collectors and the prostitutes who enter the kingdom of God before we good people do. The kingdom of God turns our world upside down. 

Let me ask you. In our world today, who are those we consider as cursed, pitiful, and unloving? Who would Jesus call “the Blessed” today? Emily McGowin is a professor of theology at Wheaton College. When she taught in high school, one of her favorite assignments was to have the ninth grader write their own Beatitudes. She asked these students to speak to people the world might consider “unblessable.” Here are what they wrote. 

“Blessed are drug addicts and felons, people who try everything but still buckle under the pressure of their past lives and can never get back on their feet, for even they belong in the Kingdom of God.”

“Blessed are the orphans and foster children of the world because they are exactly who God wants in his Kingdom.”

“Blessed are the homeless because the Kingdom of God belongs to them too.”

Finally, this last one was written by a particular student who was abused by a parent and removed from the home because of it. And he wrote, “Blessed are the abusers who take out their anger on the weak, for even they can repent and receive the Kingdom of God.”[2]


[1] Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 31. 

[2] Emily H. McGowin, “High School Freshmen ‘Translate’ the Beatitudes,” Facebook (Accessed in December, 2020) 

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