“Blessed are the Upside Down”
Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
Ardleigh Methodist Church (10:45 am)
Manningtree Methodist Church (6:30 pm)
January 30, 2005
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
[I am indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor for most of this sermon. If you would like a better sermon than the one here, please see her book Gospel Medicine, pages 145-149.]
When I was a little boy, I used to love to try to stand on my head. I would almost always fall over onto the floor, but I would always get back up off the floor and try again. One day I discovered that if I propped myself against the wall that I could do it much more easily than out in the open room. But, I could always do it with a little bit of help from my father.
The inside of the house was so different when I was standing on my head. The ceiling looked a lot like the floor except for the places where the doors were and the light fixtures protruding. The couch looked like it was going to fall down at any moment and the curtains stretched upwards as though they were made of something much more rigid than cloth. It was the same room, but it looked entirely different when I was standing on my head.
The outdoors was even better when I was standing on my head. The trees grew down and the houses looked that they were getting ready to fall off the lawn. In a world where trees grow down and curtains stretch upwards anything was possible.
When Jesus sat down on that mountain and gave the Beatitudes to the people, maybe he should’ve asked the crowds to stand on their heads. Because that’s what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down. Those fighting for breath at the bottom of the human heap suddenly found themselves closest to heaven, while those who thought they were on top of things found themselves flat on their backs looking up.
The content of Jesus teaching was downright shocking. In the Beatitudes Jesus sums up the Good Life in 9 short sentences that don’t make a whole lot of sense upon frrst hearing them. In the Beatitudes we get 9 portraits of Kingdom people, previously known as victims, dreamers, push-overs, and fools. These are the chosen ones, he said, the blessed ones who shall see God. These are the happy ones, the lucky ones, who shall be satisfied.
Most of us don’t really know what to do with the Beatitudes. We’ve been hearing them so long they’ve lost their shock value. They sound sort of sweet and familiar. They’re something nice to needlepoint and hang over the piano. Or we may hear them as new commandments, wondering if we’re being meek enough, or persecuted enough, or pure enough. But there are no shalts or shalt nots in the Beatitudes. These 9 sentences describe what already is. They describe what people are now and what their future holds.
The beatitudes are a description of those who are citizens of God’s kingdom, those whose lives are defined by love and devotion to God. I’ve heard the Beatitudes explained as describing the path kingdom people take.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first step on the path to the Kingdom of God is recognition that one is spiritually poor. The poor in spirit know there are few spiritual resources in themselves. They know they need help from above. The poor in spirit KNOW they need the Kingdom of God. Others don’t understand that need or don’t want to acknowledge the need because they think they can save themselves on their own and don’t want the Kingdom. God doesn’t force His kingdom, but he does gladly give it to all who know they’re losers without Him and humbly seek His help.
With pride gone, trust in self, intellect, and possessions gone, one is ready to mourn. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” When Jesus says those who mourn, he isn’t talking about a bunch of people who are just sitting around crying. One who mourns is one who is moved to express deep concern. One who mourns is one who is really grieved that things are way they are. The mournful take no joy in idly contemplating their miserable failures. The mournful aren’t content to say “that’s the way things are, there’s nothing I can really do about it.” Those who mourn are sick and they know it, and they want to get well. One who mourns is concerned to the point of action, which explains why they shall be comforted. There is hope in action, that things that are wrong can be changed, and as kingdom people those who mourn live with the promise that things will not always be as they are.
Jesus moves then from the mournful to the meek saying “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” When Jesus says “meek” he’s not talking about a bunch of pushovers. Meekness is that mysterious ingredient which baffles the high and mighty of this world. The meek surrender their will so completely that their will becomes God’s will, that whoever fights them is fighting against God. Surrendered human will is the agency through which God’s power is released upon the earth. This is why the meek inherit the earth. Only the totally committed are considered worthy of inheritance of God’s kingdom on earth.
Then Jesus told the crowd that “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled.” Religious life in Jesus’ day emphasized the external. Many people obeyed the Jewish Law because they were expected to, not necessarily because they really believed in it. Many were motivated by a sense of reward or were motivated by earning the praise of others. Jesus was aware of the prevailing hunger and thirst for what everyone called righteousness, but was really praise.
Kingdom citizens who had really submitted themselves to God would have a deep desire for righteousness of the Kingdom instead of a mock hunger for what had been called righteousness. Such imitation righteousness, humanity’s empty praise, never did and never would satisfy the inner craving of the soul. This is not the case with inward, vital, and joyous righteousness rooted in the true love of God and neighbor, not worldly praise. This righteousness yields fullness and fulfillment that are beyond anything humans can offer.
Next Jesus says “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Mercy is warm, compassionate, tender, and never seeks to barter. Mercy isn’t offered expecting something in return. The merciful want to gladly share all that they have with others and with the world. To the merciful, people aren’t beggars to whom one gives a part, but are brothers and sisters with whom one shares all. A secret has been revealed to those who are merciful. True joy and fulfillment can be found in sharing generously of what one has, but that secret will be lost if the merciful become miserly with their resources. In his first letter John captures the spirit of this Beatitude when he asks: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
Jesus then speaks of the pure of heart. He says they will see God. Kingdom people exhibit an honest desire for real righteousness. A pure heart is a new nature formed in us, not something we create ourselves. A pure heart is a gift from the father to those who want it. A pure heart fosters the desire in us to break away from sin in all its many forms. A pure heart will help us break away from our former masters. Kingdom people can’t have one god for inside and one god for outside.
Having more than one master makes life confused and tense. Having to keep our eyes focused on more than one master makes us cross-eyed, and causes our vision to be so blurred that we can’t see anything clearly. The eyes of the pure in heart are singly focused. Their sight isn’t impaired. This is why Jesus said they would see God.
Finally Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peacemaking is what God does. God is bent on the salvation of the world. That’s why he sent His only Son to save us. Peacemakers are those with God in this plan of redeeming the world. God’s plan of peacemaking isn’t merely to bring about an outward settlement between evil people, God wants instead to create a people of goodwill. Peacemakers are agents of the Kingdom of God, which alone is capable of bringing true peace. It’s hard to ignore and to be indifferent to a body of Christians living as peacemakers. The peacemakers confront the world with an entirely different way of life, a new way of thinking, a changed set of values, and a higher standard of righteousness. And in this new way of living, the peacemakers may seem subversive to those loyal to the world.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus says that Kingdom people very well may get persecuted by those who still uphold the world’s standards. Jesus is often accused of being a visionary. He was, in fact, the world’s greatest realist. Jesus wasn’t blind to the explosive nature of the things he was preaching and teaching. He knew it would lead to his own persecution and death. He knew that the Kingdom of the Spirit and Truth was the mortal enemy to systems built on power, greed, oppression, and falsehood. Jesus knew that conflict was inevitable, but offers solace to those who keep the faith in the face of difficult times. Persecution is terrible, but the emptiness of faithlessness is far worse.
Yes, Jesus takes our view of the world and turns it upside down by giving us the Beatitudes. The poor are rich, the meek are strong, and the mournful are the truly consoled. I guess we can do anything we want with them; people always have. Some have ignored them, some have admired them but ignored them as idealistic fantasy, some still have used them as a yardstick to measure their own blessedness, and some have used them to declare revolution.
The simplest thing to do with them, perhaps, is to let them stand you on your head so that you cannot see the world in the same way again. Upside down we begin to see that the peacemakers aren’t flower children but physicians, prescribing God’s own tranquility. Upside down, we begin to see that whose who have been bruised for their faith are not the sad ones but are the happy ones because they have found something worth being bruised for, and that those who are merciful are just handing out what they have already received in abundance.
The world looks different and perhaps funny upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you’ve got your feet planted in heaven. This was the perspective from which Jesus saw the world, and he seemed to think we could see things this way too. So blessed are the upside down, for they shall see the world as God sees it. They shall also find themselves in good company, turned upside down by the only on who really knows which way is up. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.