Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12
I think it’s a bit cruel of the makers of the lectionary to have put these three scriptures all on the same day. They are three passages that are incredibly powerful and all three have deeply influenced my own faith. It’s one of those weeks where I thought about standing up here, reading through all of them again, and then sitting down. All of them certainly speak to the moment for us trying to live and proclaim the Gospel in America right now and they all trace one of the most central themes of all of scripture- that God consistently points us toward the poor, the marginalized, the alienated and tells us that if we are searching for God, that it where God will be found. They are all texts written for people like us, trying to come to grips with what the Gospel tells us about how we live day to day in a world that is often unjust, unmerciful, unkind and feels more filled with fear than anything else. And they tell us that God’s mission in a world like that is to turn it upside down.
I used to love to hang upside down. When I was a kid, most everything in the world was taller than me…that hasn’t changed a whole lot- I dread who will sit in front of me at the theater, I have never really seen a whole parade and I hate standing room only concerts.I think this might be why I loved to hang upside down from stuff as a kid- because I never felt like I had a fair view of the world. My swingset at home, the bike racks at school, the ramp rails at church, and of course playgrounds everywhere offered endless views of the world that were far more interesting than I could get with my feet planted on ground. Hanging upside down, suddenly trees grew upside down, the sand in the sandbox miraculously stayed in place though at any moment it could scatter all over an endless expanse of bright blue lawn, that was full of clouds that were just begging to be jumped on. Seeing things upside down made things that were old seem new, made life a little more exciting and unpredictable.
When Jesus gave the Beatitudes, he was turning the world upside down, flipping conventional wisdom over on its head. Beatitudes were not an uncommon thing at the time…the formula was used a lot to express everyday sayings about what made up a good life….things like blessed are the strong, for they will not be beaten by their enemies…or, Blessed are the rich for they will never be hungry. They usually started off with a quality that anyone would want to have, and then say why that would make for a good life. It wasn’t the formula Jesus used that was shocking, but the content of it. Blessed are the meek? Those who mourn? The poor in Spirit? Really?
The good life is suddenly completely redefined and the people who used to be called the foolish, the pushovers, the dreamers, the outcast, suddenly they are the blessed ones, the ones that will see God. It’s a list of losers, no two ways about it. The peacemakers are the ones naive enough to step into the middle of a fight just to get clobbered from both sides. The ones who mourn are so overcome by their circumstances that they can barely see the light of day. The ones who are merciful keep forgiving the enemies, giving the enemies no real disincentive for continuing to trounce them over and over again. These people, these are the chosen ones, says Jesus. Not the powerful, high functioning, successful people in the world but the ones who can barely compete, who struggle to keep up if they even try at all…the ones who wouldn’t know what success was if it walked up and handed them a trophy.
Some of us might make the mistake of reading the Beatitudes as commandments….and start wondering if we are poor enough, pure enough, persecuted enough to be called blessed. But read the phrases again….they aren’t transactions. They do not say, “you do this and then you’ll get this.” It’s descriptive…it says this is who these people are, and this is what is going to happen. It is a language not of law but of hope and promises that the people who have spent their whole lives at the bottom of the heap will suddenly find themselves closest to heaven.
All of our texts today have been about a reversal. In Micah, the people try to offer animal sacrifices, the means by which they usually got through to God. But God, through Micah, reminds Israel that all God wants is for them to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with their God. Makes it sound so simple. It was completely different from what they knew and certainly from what they’d been doing- it turned the world upside down and made the wisdom of the day flip over. And then Paul lays it out even more strongly… that God uses the weak and the foolish to shame the strong and the wise.
Like the Beatitudes, the power of these texts depends on where you are when you hear them. They sound different from the op than they do from underneath. If you’re on top, they sound pretty confrontational…where is your hunger and thirst, well-fed Christian? When do you mourn the brokenness of your world? But to those on the bottom of the heap, the tone changes. Instead of asking questions, the voice says “dry your tears, little one. Soon the whole earth will belong to you. Heaven’s gates will open wide and the first face you see will be the face of God.”
Now of course, the words don’t really ever change, but the ears are different. We all have our filters and so I suppose you can do whatever you want with the beatitudes when you leave here today…that’s what people have always done and really all we can do any week after worship. A lot of people ignore the beatitudes all together, or maybe admire them briefly, or maybe held them up as a yardstick to measure blessedness. But the best thing they have ever done for me, is to flip me upside down for a minute…let all the blood rush to my head and leave me spinning…Give it a try : seeing the world in a new way, a new way where the lines of winners and losers, strength and weakness, success and failure are blurrier than they used to be. This is a crucial moment for that.
What is our conventional wisdom right now, friends? What are the beatitudes of our culture? Perhaps…Blessed are those who were born in the United States, for they have earned security. Blessed are the successful for they deserve their reward. But Jesus turns those upside down and invites us to do the same. Our upside down eyes, instead we hear blessed are the refugees, blessed are the parents who put their children on boats to cross a dark sea, blessed are those who meet locked gates, blessed are the persecuted. Maybe also blessed are the attorneys sitting on airport floors with laptops trying to help people overcome unjust laws. The very things we fear- being poor, mourning, being weak, all of these are the things Jesus tells us actually make us blessed.
So if we begin to look more closely at the world with our upside down eyes, we might start to see the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek not as people who need your help but as people who can help you if you’ll let them. We might begin to see that hunger and thirst for God is not a void to be filled but an appetite to be envied and to seek with everything we have. We might just learn that solidarity with the vulnerable is not a partisan project but a consistent mandate of the Gospel of Jesus.I am going to repeat that because I think the story has gotten out that how we treat vulnerable people is something that is decided on a party line and that is the wrong story friends. Solidarity with the vulnerable is not a partisan project but a consistent mandate of the Gospel of Jesus And we might just learn that the very people we fear, even the ones we are actively trying to ban from our country, might be the ones who invite us to meet God in a new way. Is it safe? Does it mean the standards of what we demand for our own security and comfort? Probably not. But that’s what it’s like to meet Jesus. As I’ve watched this weekend, the consequences of our fear of the other play out, while reading these scriptures about how God sees the world and asks us to see the other, I keep thinking of my favorite part of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, part of the Chronicles of Narnia series by CS Lewis, in which the children in the story have been evacuated from London during the second world war and discover at the country house where they now live, a wardrobe that leads them into the land of Narnia. The book is an allegory of Christ’s crucifixion and the Christ figure is a lion named Aslan. This is a conversation between Mr. Beaver and Susan, one of the children.
“You’ll understand when you see him.”
“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.
“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.
“Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
If perspective, and where we are when we hear them matters, to me this morning the Beatitudes sound like a rallying cry to shake us awake to the ways we have made an idol of safety and security and made difference a scapegoat when Jesus said it was a blessing. To turn the world as we see it upside down and know that it’s better to be good than to be safe. WE see the world in new ways turned upside down. Upside down, we see that those who mourn do it because they’ve loved enough to know the sting of loss, and know that it was worth it; that those who are merciful are just giving back what they have received in abundance; that the peacemakers, the ones who forgo their own security, are not naive about the ways of the world but are offering the world God’s own vision. The world looks funny upside down. But maybe that’s just how the world looks when your feet are planted in heaven.