Upside Down

All Saints Sunday
November 5, 2017

Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:1-12

What would this passage sound like if we all listened to it standing on our head?

That’s what Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, as she remembers what it was like as a child to do handstands and view the world upside down: “Grass hung in front of my eyes like green fringe. Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever.” The A-shaped frame of her swingset becoming a V-shape instead. Gravity worked in reverse holding things up rather than pulling them down. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, p. 159) Nothing was quite as it should be.

And maybe Jesus should have asked his disciples, maybe even the whole crowd gathering for the sermon on the mount, to listen to his description of blessedness while standing on their heads. Because he takes what they know and turns it upside down. Beatitudes are nothing new to them. “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.” (Gospel Medicine p. 160) Blessed are the joyful, for they have found good things in their lives. Blessed are the well-liked, for they get invited to many parties. Blessed are the powerful, for they often get their way. The Biblical book of Proverbs actually includes quite a bit that leans in that direction.

And though we don’t say it, we hold such truths in our hearts. We believe that those who do well, who live happy lives with enough money and lots of confidence and good standing in the world are blessed, and that those who don’t, well…aren’t blessed. And sometimes we look at the lives of others with envy and assume some blessedness that they have and we don’t, whether their lives are as good as we think or not. But Jesus turns all this upside down.

Blessed are the meek? Those who mourn? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? The poor in spirit? The merciful who let people walk all over them? The pure in heart who are so naïve they get scammed by anyone out to make a buck? Those crazy people who still toil hour after hour for a peace they think is possible? Their blessedness is as questionable as gravity working in the wrong direction. Sure we might ascribe some spiritual depth to their lives, but blessedness, let’s be honest, ought to have something to show for it in the real world. Shouldn’t there be some sign from God that their experience is worth something?

It’s not that Jesus is or isn’t interested in material well-being or the signs the world looks for when it comes to being blessed. Jesus shows over and over again his value for bodies that need healing and food and comfort in the world. And Jesus shows over and over again that there is a spiritual dimension that works in and through that material world in both rich and poor, feast and famine, hope and despair. What Jesus is doing here is turning our expectations upside down. And not just flipping things once so that that those on top are now on the bottom and those who were last are now first. I think it’s about disorienting our whole way of looking at blessedness in the world. It’s about calling into question the assumptions we make about ourselves and other people until we aren’t quite sure who is blessed and who isn’t, what’s up and what’s down.

And then we’re left free to do what Jesus does, to pronounce blessedness indiscriminately, to go out and name one another blessed. Blessed are the ones whose lives are falling apart. Blessed are those who feel empty, dry, or down. Blessed are those who are overworked and those who cannot find any work to do. Blessed are the ones who have striven for something really important and failed. Blessed are the people who have been marginalized by society and by the church. Blessed are the ones who make stupid mistakes and ill-advised choices. For they are surely people in need of blessing.

Blessed are the saints represented by these burning candles. Blessed are the saints whose names we will read in our prayers. Blessed, too, are the saints whose names have been forgotten. For they are people who embodied God in their strengths and weaknesses, who bore the image of God in their joys and challenges, who carried in them the life and death of Jesus. They were not perfect. They were not in the typical sense famous. But they were deeply important to us, to this community, to our lives. They blessed us. Blessed are they, for they live now in God’s eternal blessedness.

And you, friends, as much as this day is often about those who have died it is also about you living saints: you whose blessings are abundant and you who long for greater blessing. And when you can’t see it, and there will be many, many days when you question Jesus’ proclamation from the mountainside, years even where you question what possible blessing there can be at all, and especially in the most difficult and challenging moments – in meekness and mourning, in poverty and hunger of spirit, in peacemaking and holding fast to righteousness in the face of persecution.

I cannot give you a list of 10 ways that blessing comes out of those experiences. I can only say that Jesus has had a way of turning things upside down in my own life in such a way that I have a hard time being certain of much in the world except God’s love and grace, God’s claiming us in baptism and inviting us to the table. Turned upside down until we start to see in all kinds of surprising places, God’s blessing in abundance.

-Pastor Steven Wilco