Blessed Are the Upside Down

Scott L. Barton
February 2, 2014
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

It’s a bit of a surprise for me to be up here this morning.  Maybe it’s a bit of a surprise for you, too!  I mean, you could be saying, “Hey, didn’t that guy used to sit back there?” And you would be right except that once or twice my wife and I had to sit over there on that side, when we got here late and somebody else had taken our pew.  Yeah, our pew.  I mean, we have been coming here a year, isn’t that enough?



But now I’m up here, and my world of carefree weekends, after having left a congregation as their pastor and moved up here so Gayle could work at Amherst College, has been turned upside down. Again. But I’ll tell you something else.



The real turning-upside-down came when Sarah told me that she was going to be leaving. Honestly, all of a sudden I felt a big hole in the bottom of my stomach as we sat in Esselon (as you know, her second office) over a cup of soup and coffee.  Now, I knew that she had been thinking through a lot of things. But darn it, I had found someone I ranked right up there among the best preachers in the country, as I told you here last April.  

And for someone who had essentially been doing all the preaching, at least as far as I was concerned, for 35 years, it was a blessing beyond words to have been on the receiving end of such honest, smart, engaging, and incredibly faithful preaching, that some of us were blessed with for a short but glorious time, and some of you for nine years.  My wife will tell you that I was a mess. Now, I tell you that so you know we are all in the same boat today, with the world here turned upside down, because it’ll never be the same again. We will never feel quite the same way again. You may never again have a pastor who, when it gets a little warm up here, just takes off her preaching robe without missing a beat and hangs it right here; who says, “Damn it all,” from the pulpit.  Did she actually say that two weeks ago? Because I got to read the sermon a couple of days earlier because we weren’t going to be here (I had a sermon subscription for those times) and I sat up when I read that!  But it was honest. And who knew pop culture like that, in a way that you’re glad the pastor knows, even if it sometimes goes right over your head? And if you expect me to know over the next month or two or whatever it is, what’s going on with all kinds of people in the congregation and articulate it in such honest, helpful and faithful ways during the pastoral prayer, to mother you, or father you, as she did, you’re in for a disappointment. Your world, like mine, has been turned upside down, too.



As Sarah would say, “Am I right?”   “Can I get an ‘Amen?’”



And yet. And yet, we have this odd text.  Maybe you haven’t ever thought of it as odd.  Maybe it’s always been for you a calmly reassuring sermon out of the mouth of someone who wouldn’t hurt a flea.  The Beatitudes.  Just the name someone put on this sermon long ago suggests a thing of, well, beauty.  Beautiful words.  And that may be just fine.  There is nothing wrong with having such sayings deep in your heart, words you can call on from time to time, maybe in the middle of the night when you can’t get back to sleep, or maybe in the doctor’s waiting room when you’re getting ready to hear the diagnosis, or maybe when you’re so poor in spirit that you can’t imagine anymore what it might feel like to be a good parent, or what it would be like to have some idea of what the world is all about rather than feeling utterly clueless when everyone else seems to have it all together. Or maybe just when you’re in grief over a pastor’s leaving. It’s not a bad thing to have beautiful words to hang on to when you need them.  Bill Coffin used to say something like, “I have a friend who says religion is just a crutch.  Who says you don’t limp?”



And yet.  There’s even more beauty here than meets the eye.  That’s what makes this tome, this, “The Word of the Lord,” well, the word of the Lord!  It always has something new for us.  And the Beatitudes are no exception.



Before we get to them, though, I want to look at our other text that’s paired with this one in the common lectionary.  I’m so glad that Hari is the Deacon today because if Hari and Alexis named their son Micah, this text must mean something to them.  So thank you, Hari, for that reading.  Do you remember it?  It’s a courtroom drama. Don’t you just love those?  But aren’t you glad when you’re not on the jury?  In this case, it’s worse.  You’re the one in the box.  And the plaintiff, the accuser, is none other than God.  All the people of God, in fact, are there, because, in the imagination of Micah, the God-Israel relation which began so generously just hasn’t worked out. So the court has to decide who has failed, God, or Israel.

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The Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.” The mountains and hills are the jury; but the Lord, Yahweh, is a jilted lover who can’t wait to launch into his case.  “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”  And then Yahweh recalls a long history of generosity and liberation from the exodus to entering the promised land, and a story where God had turned a curse that was uttered by the prophet of an opposing king into a blessing.  And the bottom line of faith is stated again: God has always been turning around disaster and saving Israel!

Did you read about the Pelham woman who choked on a piece of caramel candy while driving a couple of weeks ago?  She stopped the car, leaned on the horn, and stumbled out, about to pass out.  A young woman who’s a student at UMass saw her point to her throat; the student yelled to a friend to call 911, but then the student also thought back to what she’d been taught, and she saved the woman’s life with the Heimlich maneuver.  The woman is forever indebted to that girl. 

Israel had forgotten Yahweh’s numerous Heimlich maneuvers.  But then, Israel sort of gets it. The prophet imagines Israel saying:



“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”



Have you ever been in such a fix where you would do anything to make everything all right, to make everything the way it was?  Except, you can't go back, can you?  Not when it comes to love, anyway.  Not when it comes to the church, then, either, because wasn't the church formed to be the embodiment of God's love?  You can't undo the past. But you can recommit yourself to the future.

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He has told you, O mortal, what is good;" answers the prophet, for Israel, and for us, "and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"



The love of God turns the world upside down, turns how you see it upside down, turns how you see everybody else upside down.  Catch a glimpse of it, and you no longer guard yourself.  You no longer have to prove yourself. You no longer worry that someone’s pulling the wool over your eyes, or shoving something down your throat. You are no longer defined by what has happened to you.



I thought about asking all of you to stand on your heads for this sermon, so it wouldn’t be just my words but your actions that would get across the idea that God turns things upside down, and so you might see things from a different perspective. But discretion pointed to maybe a better way which was just to ask Delores to flip the picture of the church on the bulletin cover.  So it’s not her fault!  But I thought it might help to remind us that the kind of God Jesus knows and is and talks about all the time is the one who flips things on end because God is never satisfied with things just the way they are, for you, for me, for the church of God, and for everyone in God’s care.

The beatitudes of Jesus are all about the world turned upside down.  Beatitudes were a common way to impart wisdom in Jesus’ day. You might have expected a smart teacher like Jesus to have said, Blessed are the wise, for they shall not be fooled.  Blessed are the strong, for their enemies shall fear them.  Blessed are the wealthy, for they shall never go hungry.  That sort of thing.  That’s how you get to be happy, right?

Except it’s not.  And Jesus knew that; except what he said wasn’t a prescription for happiness, either.  It wasn’t a new set of commandments that were subtly designed to make us wonder if we were meek enough, or pure enough, or even persecuted enough.  There aren’t any “shoulds” or “oughts” or “shalls” or “shall nots” in the text.  Rather, he’s describing something.  He’s describing people who are already blessed by God, even if the world might not ever think of them in that way.  He’s talking about the people God seems to have a preference for, even -- the down and out, the oppressed, the hopeless, the people sitting in second class. God has a preference for those who have been put down.  And for those who have lost.  And for those who haven’t ever felt as if they really fit in. Yes, and what the future holds for them is that someday they will know it.  Someday they will know the God who is on their side, the God who will not let them down, or let them go, or let even them off the hook of being part of God’s project of making the world into something even more beautiful and loving and peaceful and redeemed than any of us can imagine.

The simplest thing to do with the Beatitude of Jesus, says Barbara Brown Taylor [in Gospel Medicine], is to let them stand you on your head so that you cannot see the world in the same way again, so that you cannot be sure anymore who are the winners and who are the losers.

“Upside down, you begin to see God's blessed ones in places it would never have occurred to you to look.  You begin to see that the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn are not just people you can help but people who can help you, if you will let them, and that their hunger and thirst for God are not voids to be filled but appetites to be envied.”

Why would you not want to affirm all such people, in order that everyone might see the timeless truth of Jesus? Everyone!

This can be a wonderful time for a congregation, I think.  I know, it may feel as if the world, or at least the church world, has been turned upside down.  But there’s another way of looking at it.  I know this would never have been Sarah’s intention, but sometimes, when you have a full-time pastor, it’s easier to let the pastor be the one who makes all the connections between what’s happening in the church, its hopes and failures, its dreams and hiccups, its every-year activities, and the Lord of it all.  It’s easier to let the pastor, who was supposed to have studied that sort of thing, after all, be the theologian-in-residence. But maybe now you can do that kind of thinking without assuming that someone else can do it better.  And you can do it without resisting.  Now you can be, truly, the priesthood of all believers, making the connections between the walk of the church, the things the church does, on Sunday morning and other times, and WHY the church does the things it does; why are we here?  And that will carry over to why in your own individual lives you do the things you do. Because, after all, you are the church, the people whom God has called together to hear comforting and yet also disconcerting words, so in your own life, as representatives of that people, you, too, can be comforting where it’s  needed, and disconcerting where that’s needed, too.  You can provide an upside-down vision for the world, so that, because of you, the world will finally see how blessed it is.  

Remember, Jesus came not just for you, but the world.  And he still comes. He still comes, no matter what side up you think you might be.



I read a quote last week from Edith Wharton.  You remember her, maybe: The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence.  Edith Wharton said, “There are two ways of spreading the light: to be the candle, or the mirror that receives it.”  Now, you and I are not the candle.  Thank God, right?  But by God, by God, we are the mirror that has received the light, the love that will not let us go, that makes us blessed, that calls us, each and every one of us, each and every one of us, into the kingdom of God. 

Why do you think he needed disciples, if not so they, and we, might be true beatitudes to the world?

Thanks be to God!