The Reversal that Brings Wholeness, in memory of Jhevan Malone by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
Proper 17C 2019
In the name of God, Amen.
Jhevan Khochiese Alexander Malone was 25 years old. He had moved to Baltimore after growing up in the foster care system in Illinois- he came out here when he aged out to live with a relative. But a few months into his stay, his relative couldn’t afford rent, and lost their housing. That put Jhevan in the position of having to fend for himself. He went between couch-surfing and staying at a youth emergency shetler.
During that whole time, while not being housed, he was going to Baltimore City Community College and working part-time.
Just let that sink in.
In remembering Jhevan, his family and people who knew him mentioned his talent for songwriting and love for Alfredo pasta. They said he was always smiling and wearing headphones.
But Jhevan also struggled with mental health issues, and could not regularly access services for mental health. Care providers in Baltimore say that there is a huge gap in mental health services for youth under 25. Though the services exist, they are not easy to access, and for youth struggling just to stay alive, finding counseling can’t be their number one priority. So they go untreated. From prohibitive wait times, to the simple problem of finding transportation, the system is not set up to cater to homeless youth needing access to mental health care.
Earlier this year one day in July, Jhevan dropped off his belongings--a few items of clothing, his birth certificate, and the notebook he always carried around--at the JOY Baltimore youth drop-in center, as he often did. And later that day, he was found drowned in the Inner Harbor.
Jhevan Khochiese Alexander Malone.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Today, we’re continuing with the theme of Jesus proving the Pharisees wrong. Here, we see him go in for yet another transgression, he’s healing someone else on the Sabbath, and he knows he’s going to get flack for it. So before anyone can protest, he beats them to it: Would you rescue a child or ox that fell into a well on the Sabbath? Jesus asks the important people he’s eating dinner with. Of course, they were left speechless.
What he’s saying is that people are more important than policies. People are more important than beliefs. People are more important than traditions. Jesus is always putting the welfare of specific, individual human people above larger policies and systems that are supposed to govern society.
If you're like me, then somewhere between Little League and college, you might have started to lose the perspective you had when you were a child: when we all knew exactly that the way that the world is today is wrong. Somewhere along the way, we stop asking questions about the way the world works, and mostly just accept that some people are just always on the losing side. In this society, it is a fight to stay connected to the truths we so effortlessly apprehended as children.
Pastor Emily Scott calls attention to the layers of complex dynamics at play in the culture of Jesus’ day. When he goes to the house of a Pharisee, it’s not like he’s going to the White House. He’s not going to the home of someone born into privilege and prestige in the way we might imagine, but into the home of someone who belongs to a people and territory that is under occupation. It would be a person part of an oppressed group who is lording it over people lower on the food chain. We’ve all seen that.
Folks who’ve made the choice to assimilate to our modern culture-- shaped by amoral and capitalistic influences like Hollywood and the media and corporate America--and leave their cultures, practices, languages, ethnic identities, maybe even values, behind. In order to fit in with the social group that’s on top.
Sometimes these people make a point of distinguishing themselves from the other people of their tribe basically by claiming to be better--they’ll accuse them of failling to assimilate, of being stubborn, of being self-destructive.
Something similar might have been going on with the community leaders at this dinner with Jesus. Perhaps, they were doing their best to survive under Roman occupation. In a society that told them that their culture and their ways and their people, weren’t real enough, weren’t valued enough, to be citizens. It makes sense that they are jockying for the places of honor. After all, what really separated them from the fate of the impoverished, disheartened, and disempowered masses? They better reserve for a seat of honor for themselves. And when I think of them in that way, I think I can have some compassion for them.
But Jesus is saying that none of this posturing is going to satisfy you, because even though you might feel powerful and important, you will not feel whole.
We are not whole without community, and our community is not whole when we cast out the people most in need of care. In Jesus’ day that meant the poor, the blind, the lame, orphans, and widows. In our day, I believe it also means our elders, and drug addicts, people experiencing homelessness and the mentally ill, who have such a hard and often life-threatening time trying to survive in this world. I believe it means Jhevan Malone.
Our community is not whole when we find only certain ways of living out our humanity acceptable, or when the only people we listen to or honor are the ones with fancy clothes and degrees behind their name.
The Gospel of Luke demonstrates in story after story what interpreters have called The Great Reversal. We hear it introduced in the Song of Mary, the brown, unwed, pregnant, and in some versions, homeless teenager who sees through the circumstances of an unjust world the truth that God is in their midst, and that the reign of Heaven will look very different from earthly kingdoms: She sings of a God who “scatters the proud, puts down the mighty, and fills the hungry with all good things.”
This Great Reversal occurs throughout the Gospel of Luke. The reign of heaven will turn things upside down- but not, if you’ve seen Stranger Things, like that Upside Down, even though it’s really fun to watch. In this Upside Down Kindom, everyone that the world forgets about is brought into the light of day and showered with honor. They get to sit at the feast table instead of searching for scraps.
Jesus is always bringing the outcasts into the center. He brings the oppressed peoples of the world to the center and says, “You are God’s people.” Notice that Jesus does not say to the poor, the blind, and the lame, that they will be acceptable if and only if they do certain things. For instance, if they can prove they’re looking for a job, if they take a shower and clean themselves up, if they agree to spend the money that comes to them responsibly.
In the words of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement: “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
No. Jesus wants the banquet to be thrown for them, exactly as they are.
The world has been paying lots of attention to people with power and prestige. It has forgotten about the wounded ones, the different ones, the unclean ones. Jesus is trying to rebalance our relationships and our values.
When I read about Jhevan’s story, I am ashamed to say it, but I really had to ask myself: Would I have paid just as much attention to Jhevan, who might have been exhibiting symptoms of emotional and mental distress--many of which, if we are being real, develop out of the situation of growing up in a country where people despise you for the color of your skin--would I have listened to him just as intently, as I did to the official telling me he was aged out of the system and that his responsibilities were his own, maybe telling me a story about a lack of demonstrated accountability?
To bring our world into harmony and justice, says Jesus, we need to listen to the people we have been ignoring, and treat them with the honor they’ve never gotten.
Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary Birgitte Kahl has a beautiful way of imagining the ethics of the Apostle Paul, documented for us in his letters, and inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Her symbol for it is the symbol of infinity. You know how it looks like the number 8 turned on its side, or lying down? So: When you’re up, go down, when you’re down, let yourself be lifted up, by the movement of another person’s humbling themselves. That means that with whatever privilege you have, in whatever way you find yourself at the center and honored to have a place, you make way for someone who’s not there. That can be by listening to them, by advocating for them, by paying attention to their story. There are many ways to set the feast table so that the people who never get invited become the guests of honor.
I think that the Great Reversal is made up of thousands and thousands of mini-reversals. That’s how we’ll get there, or that’s how we’ll get closer to a world in which Jhevan Malone gets the same treatment in a hospital that a President would get. Which reversals can you usher in this week, I wonder?