Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Up Another High Mountain -- Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9
February 23, 2020

            Last weekend Brent played a gig with Les Kerr and the Bayou Band in Clarksville. Being a groupie of my husband, I went along to watch, listen, have fun and help out the band in whatever way I could. By help I mean that I took pictures during the show, carried instruments and other band accoutrement to and from the car, etc. I didn’t sing backup or anything.
            Because the show was in Clarksville, and because Brent and I both graduated from Austin Peay, although at different times, we decided once the show was done, we would drive over to the university and look around.
            Neither one of us had really visited the campus in years. I don’t think I’ve made a proper visit since I graduated. While Clarksville has not had quite the boom that Nashville has, it has still grown and developed and changed; so has Austin Peay.
            It was dark by the time we left the gig, so that added to the challenge of finding our bearings while we drove around the campus. But did I say the campus has changed?! It has. Streets through the main campus were in places where they weren’t before. There were new buildings and a new stadium. We found the Trahern theater building, which is where Brent spent a majority of his time while in school. I was there some too. We got out of the car, and even though we couldn’t go in the building, Brent looked at the outside of the building and could figure out where the secretary’s office was, and where the professors’ offices were as well. We located the Green Room, and the set shop.
            We also tried to find the campus radio station, where I spent a large part of my time when I was there. If Austin Peay still has a radio station, it’s not in the same place. But even as we were beginning to remember the location of some of our college haunts, we were still so disoriented and turned around. At least I was.
            I kept telling Brent, “Where is the quad?”
            He didn’t know what I was talking about.
            And I was like, “You know that large area of grass in the middle of the main campus?”
            He still didn’t know what I was talking about. We went looking for the library, and to our relief, it looked exactly the same.
            When we found the library, I remembered that the quad I was looking for was not called the quad at Austin Peay. The large grassy space between buildings in the center of the main campus was called “the bowl.” Because at Austin Peay, it slopes downward like a bowl. And once we remembered that, other memories came back. We remembered our dorms. I had vivid memories of sitting in the bowl with friends on sunny days.
            But as fun as it was to go back, it was so strange and disorienting to be in place that we both once knew like the back of our hands, and yet still feel as though we were standing on unfamiliar ground.
            I realized that whatever disorientation I was feeling was nothing compared to the bewilderment and confusion that Peter, James and John must have felt when they followed Jesus up that high mountain and saw him transfigured before them.
            That is what we observe today: the transfiguration. Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is the Sunday that we read, no matter what year and gospel we’re in, the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain. And there, in front of their very eyes, Jesus is transfigured. His clothes are changed. His face is changed. He literally shines. Matthew says that his face “shines like the sun.” And while he is in this state of metamorphosis, of being changed, Elijah and Moses appear with him. I have often wondered how it was possible that the disciples knew who these men were. It wasn’t like they had photographs of these two great leaders of their people. Yet, somehow, they recognized them as Moses and Elijah, standing there talking to Jesus, who has changed in a way that cannot fully be described in words.
Clearly, Peter, James and John were utterly confused and bewildered by what they were seeing. And it is that confusion that most likely made Peter decide to make his strange offer.
“Hey Jesus, since we’re all here already, why don’t I make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
            However, Peter had barely finished speaking when a great and bright cloud overshadows them. And from this cloud, a voice speaks to them.
            “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
            If Peter, James and John were bewildered before, they are absolutely terrified now. The sight of Jesus being transfigured and the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah with him did not send them cowering to the ground. But the voice of God does. 
Why do these disciples need to be told to listen to Jesus? Preacher and biblical scholar, Anna Carter Florence, once said that perhaps these three disciples were not so much the special ones in Jesus’ posse – as some of us might believe. No, perhaps they were the remedial group. Maybe they needed special help. They needed to be reminded to listen to Jesus.
Let’s think about the context in which the transfiguration is happening. This isn’t just an isolated incident, provided by each of the synoptic gospels so we could have a definitive Sunday of transition just before Lent begins; a proverbial bridge from one season to the next. And although there is speculation by some biblical commentators that this is actually an account of a post resurrection encounter with Jesus but placed beforehand for the purposes of the gospel writers themselves, we don’t have any way of knowing that. What we do know is that this story begins with the words, “Six days later.”
            Six days after what? What happened six days earlier?
            Six days earlier, Jesus turned to the disciples and asked them the most important question of their lives,
“Who do you say that I am?” 
Peter responded to this with his great confession of faith. 
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
Jesus blesses Peter for his bold response. He will be the rock on which Jesus’ church will be built. But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation end here. He goes on to tell them that he will suffer, and he must suffer. He will suffer unto death. But even death will not be able to hold him.  After three days he will rise again to new life.
This is not good news to the disciples. It makes them afraid and unsure. This is the Messiah, the Son of God. But the Messiah is telling them that he will suffer! He will die! This is not what they were expecting to hear, and certainly it’s not what they hope to hear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that not only were they worried about Jesus suffering, but they might have also questioned if they would suffer. None of us, if we’re honest, want to suffer. Why would the disciples have been any different?
            Peter is so worried about this that he rebukes Jesus, tells him to stop talking about this.  You’re making everybody nervous, Jesus. I just told you that I know who you are; now stop all this suffering and death talk and let’s get on with healing people and leading the revolt against our oppressors.
            But Jesus must literally and figuratively set his face toward Jerusalem. That is the direction he must go. That is the narrow path he must take. And no one, not even Peter, is going to stop him or stand in the way of his ultimate purpose. So how well has Peter been listening?
            And now we come back into our specific text today. The transfiguration. My purpose in this sermon is not about how to try and describe what happened on that mountain. I don’t have the words; I don’t think anyone does. No, the purpose is not to describe what happened, but instead we have to figure out, as best we can, why it matters.
            Why does it matter that Jesus took the disciples up another high mountain and was transfigured before them? Why does it matter that he stood there, talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the great fathers of their faith? Why does it matter that we continue to not only read this story, year after year, but that we make it a special day in the ecclesiastical calendar? Why does it matter that Jesus stood there on that high mountain and revealed his true self, his glory?
            Does it matter because this is the moment when the disciples really knew and truly understood who Jesus was and who he was to them and to the world? Does it matter that this is the ultimate revealing of God, the divine Jesus as well as the human Jesus? Does it matter  this is a mountaintop experience, and just like the disciples we are called to hold onto our mountaintop experiences, take what we learn from them, and go back down into the valleys of our lives with that learning front and center?
            This is how this passage is often interpreted, but here’s the thing, the disciples were right there, witnesses to this moment. They experienced this liminal space between human and divine. They saw Jesus is in his glory and they heard the voice of God, but they still marched down off that mountain and messed up, time and time again. It should have been a definitive moment for them, in their relationship with Jesus, in understanding Jesus, in recognizing their own calling. But back in the valley they still didn’t get it. Not just Peter, none of them.
            Are we any different? How many mountaintop experiences have I had, and I still don’t get it? I still mess up. Maybe I didn’t hear the voice of God as the disciples did, but I know to listen, yet I don’t. I know who Jesus is, but I fail in my following. I falter and I fumble. All the time.
            And as far as this is a moment of divine revelation, hasn’t Jesus been revealing God all along? Hasn’t Jesus revealed the divine in every encounter, in every healing, in every moment of teaching and preaching? We have just left another mountain where Jesus preached a sermon that was all about the revelation of God and how God loves and who God loves. Every time that Jesus reached out to an outcast or ate with a sinner, God was revealed.
            I think the transfiguration matters because this moment of glory does not stand isolated and alone. This moment of glory is intimately connected to suffering. Jesus told the disciples who he was and what must happen to him. His glory ultimately comes with his suffering.
            One commentator said that the transfigured Jesus is the Jesus that we want. Shining, luminous, standing on a mountain talking with Moses and Elijah. But the Jesus that we get, the Jesus that we struggle with is the one lifted high on the cross. We don’t have one without the other. We can’t.
            Next week begins the season of Lent. It is a season when we give up things, when we seek to deny ourselves something. It is a season when we focus on repentance, on how far short we have fallen, and what we must do to turn around and seek God once more. But it seems to me that this is also a season when we are called most particularly to pick up our own cross. We all bear crosses, every single one of us. Every person in these pews, the people in the choir, the person in the pulpit, we all are called to carry our own cross. And maybe that is our hope – that not only our savior carried his, but that we are not alone in carrying ours. We are not alone.
            On this Sunday when we remember Jesus in his glory, look around you and also remember that we are all carrying our own crosses. We are not alone. We are in this together. If only we could see. If only we would listen. We are not alone on the high mountain or in the valley. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.

Choosing Relationship

Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2020

I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by
But I got to the river so lonesome I wanted to die, oh Lord
And then I jumped in the river, but the doggone river was dry
She's long gone, and now I'm lonesome blue
            Watching the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, last fall really, really, really got me into Hank Williams. So for Christmas this year, my dear husband gave me the Hank Williams Gold double cd set. My family can always tell when I’ve been listening to Hank on the ride from church to home, because I come in the house singing Cold, Cold Heart, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, You’re Gonna Change, or Long Gone Lonesome Blues.
            Nobody quite sings a heartbreak song like Hank Williams. I have an eclectic musical taste, and there are so many great artists who made and make amazing music every genre imaginable, but Hank Williams knew how to write and sing heartbreak like nobody I’ve ever heard before. He was a man with a deep brokenness in him, and that came through in his music and in the plaintive way he sang some of his songs.
            Hank Williams seemed to long to be in relationship, but solid relationships eluded him, and that came through in his music. But isn’t love and relationships the stuff of most popular music? They tell of joy and giddy happiness when you are in love and it is working, and heartbreak when it isn’t. You find it in music of any genre and any style: from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen to Beyonce. Artists make music about relationships, because in one way or another, they are at the foundation of the human condition, the human struggle, the … human … human.
            Relationships are at the core of our passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning, a passage that is still in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. He has told those listening that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the verses before us this morning, it would seem that Jesus is not only fulfilling the law, he is, as one commentator said, intensifying it. And this intensity comes around how we break our relationship. His words in this section of the sermon known in biblical scholarship as the “antitheses.” Each one begins with Jesus saying,
            “You have heard that it was said …”
            “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
            That’s just for anger. I don’t think I’m a candidate for anger management classes just yet, but how many times have I gotten angry with someone? How many times have I thought something insulting or said, “You fool?” even if it was only to myself? I might have said that yesterday when I was cut off in traffic driving in Nashville. And my poor family knows that I can get pretty mad at times.
            Yet Jesus makes a correlation between anger and murder. It is not just about the physical action of murder. It is about what is at the heart of a person. It is about the anger we carry within us, even if we don’t act on it in a violent manner. Who among us has not, in a moment of anger, said “I’m so mad at (fill in the blank) that I could kill him/her/them?” Even though we may say it, we also know that it would be horrendous to act upon that instinct. Jesus says it is equally horrendous to think it.
            In each of these antitheses, there is also a given way to remedy or deal with the wrong that is done. Jesus tells the disciples that if they are angry with someone, or if someone is angry with them, before they can bring their gifts to the altar, they must reconcile with that person. They are to go and work out whatever conflict they have with someone before they can bring approach the altar with their gifts. In our context that would mean putting off partaking of the Lord’s Supper until we have reconciled the broken relationships we may have with a person or with people.
            But have we done this? I know I haven’t. When we celebrated the Lord’s Supper two weeks ago, did I come to the table with anger in my heart for someone or some ones? I’m sure I did. I’m sure I stood at that table with broken and unreconciled relationships. What about you?
            Jesus does not stop here. He goes on to talk about lust and adultery, divorce and swearing falsely.
            In that culture and in the context of the Law itself, adultery was defined as something done only by the woman. A woman who had a relationship with another man was the adulterer. This was not true for the man. A man could have several wives and concubines; and we have examples of this throughout scripture, starting with Abraham, the patriarch of our faith. It was a patriarchal society, so the burden of adultery was on a woman’s shoulders, not the man’s. That’s the way it was. But as one commentator put it, Jesus reorients, reaffirms and radicalizes the Law of Moses. It is not just about the physical act of adultery, nor is the onus of adultery only on the woman. If a man looks at a woman with lust; if he, in our more contemporary terms, objectifies her, then he is guilty of adultery. It is about what is in the heart and what is in the intent, as much as it is about the physical action.
            Jesus says it is better to tear out your right eye, cut off your right hand, purposely lose bits and pieces of yourself than have your whole body thrown in hell. Yes, Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, in exaggerated, extreme speech, in order to get his point across. But his hyperbole does not detract from the radical demands Jesus makes of anyone who follows him.
            Now we come to what is for so many of us the hardest part of this passage to hear – his words about divorce. At that time, divorce could only be initiated by the husband, and all he had to do to divorce his wife was write it down and hand it to her. I was told once that the husband merely had to speak it three times: I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you. It was done. Cause or reason for the divorce does not seem to have been a factor. If a wife burned bread, the husband had just cause to divorce her. Certainly, that is different from our contemporary context.
            But in any context, these are difficult words to hear. For as much as people desperately want to be in relationships, sometimes relationships end. Our songs about heartbreak don’t come out of a vacuum. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and it is no secret that the person standing in the pulpit understands intimately the pain of that statistic. All of us have been directly or indirectly affected by divorce. Even if we ourselves are not divorced, who know people who are. We have family members who are divorced; friends, colleagues, children, parents. How do we hear Jesus’ words? How do we deal with them? How do we deal with them in light of our own broken relationships?
            In the last of these antitheses, Jesus speaks about swearing. This is not about using bad language. It’s not about cussin’. It is about oaths, swearing on or by something. Growing up, I used to hear the phrase, “I swear on a stack of Bibles.” That seemed to add emphasis to whatever was being promised. Yet Jesus warns against that.
            Do not swear on heaven. Do not swear on earth. Heaven and earth belong to God. Do not swear on Jerusalem, that is the city of the great King. Do not swear on something else as a way of guaranteeing you keep your promises and your oaths. If you make a promise, keep it. Do not swear to keep it. Keep it. Let you word be “yes, yes” or “no, no.” Do not swear by something to do something, then break the promises you’ve made. It is just one more way of breaking relationship.
            That’s what all of this is about – broken relationships. We harm one another. We break our relationships. We break them not just in our actions, but in our thoughts. We also must remember that these antitheses were not spoken by Jesus in some random conversations. They were and are part of the Sermon on the Mount; the sermon that began with the Beatitudes. Blessed are … the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the reviled. Jesus tells those who will listen and follow that they are salt, they are light. We are called to be salt and light. We are called to be salt and light in a broken world filled with broken people and broken relationships. We, the broken, are called to serve, to minister to, and to love the other broken ones. But wounded as we are, in following Jesus, we have been given a glimpse of the kingdom in our midst. Even in this broken, hurting world, we can see a bit of the kingdom reflected even in the places and people that seem most shattered. Our calling is not to avoid broken relationship. We all them, in one way or another. No, our calling is to work for their healing. Our calling is to choose relationships, to choose to be in relationship, no matter how hard, how messy, how broken they may be.
            To quote the late Paul Harvey, we who know the rest of the story know that Jesus came to heal what was broken. His birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was about restoring relationship. His coming into our lives restored our relationship with God. His ministry sought to restore our relationships with one another. Jesus came for the hurting and the sick, the forgotten and the oppressed. He came to bind the broken-hearted, and to tell the least of these that they were valued by God. Jesus came to show us in his very being what it means, what it truly means, to be in relationship. The very trinity we proclaim, God, three-in-one, is a model of relationship. This passage from Matthew’s gospel, as harsh and as painful as it is, is about relationship. That is good news. It is good news because it reminds us that God values us, and God values our relationships. Broken as they are, broken as we are, we are valued by God. We are loved by God. That’s why we are called to restore, to reconcile, to heal with is broken; in ourselves and in the world, and to trust and lean on the good news that God loves, no matter how broken we may be. That is good news indeed. So let all of God’s children, all of God’s broken children, say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Salt. Light. Law. Kingdom.

Matthew 5:13-20
February 9, 2020

            My first cookbook is one that I was given when I was probably seven, and I still have it today. It is called Kim’s Cookbook for Children, and I used it often as I began to learn how to cook. I had been helping my mom bake since I was old enough to hold a spoon, but I hadn’t really tried cooking.
My first big test came when my older brother, Brad, had been sick, and he was just starting to feel well enough to try some food. I wanted to make him scrambled eggs from the recipe in my very own cookbook. I realize that needing a recipe for something as simple and uncomplicated as scrambled eggs seems strange if not slightly ridiculous, but I was seven. So I used my cookbook.
            I followed the recipe as carefully as I knew how. I scrambled the eggs, toasted some bread, plated both. My mother helped me put them on a tray, along with a glass of juice. I carried them triumphantly up to my brother’s room on a tray. I waited with great anticipation as he took the first bit of the eggs, and then I watched as the expression on his face changed from home to horror. He took one bite of the eggs and spit them out. Too. Salty. Inedible.
I didn’t understand. I thought I had followed the recipe so carefully. I went back and looked at it again with my mom. I showed her exactly what I did, including showing her the tablespoon I used to measure the salt required; except for I wasn’t supposed to use a tablespoon. I was supposed to measure a teaspoon of salt. First lesson in cooking, there is a big difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon; especially when you’re talking about salt.
I’ll admit it. I struggle with sodium. I do use salt when I cook – and you will all be glad to know that I do now know the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon – but I don’t use a lot of salt. I use it when a recipe calls for it, but I rarely salt my food after it is cooked. When we have friends staying with us, I forget that they might want to add salt to their food, so I forget to put any salt on the table. I know that we all need some salt in our bodies. But I worry about the large amount of sodium that is added to processed food. I’m trying to be aware of how much processed food I consume, but I don’t avoid it completely, and sodium levels can be off the charts. And considering the amount of heart disease running rampant in my family, why take chances with too much salt.
            But I also know that I am looking at salt with 21st century eyes. Salt in Jesus’ context was more than just a condiment, it was a necessary and highly valued commodity. If you wanted to flavor food, you used salt. If you wanted to preserve food at a time when there were no other options for preservation, you used salt. And there’s this; Jesus said to the disciples,
“You are the salt of the earth.”
            This was not just a random statement; some offhanded, throw away metaphor on Jesus’ part. We are still in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a metaphor that Jesus uses to help those who would follow him not only understand who they are as his followers, but what they are to do. As salt you add flavor and substance to the world. You show people that following Jesus may not mean a life of wealth or acclimation, but it will be a life with zing and zest. And maybe, just as salt creates thirst, your call is to make people thirsty for the Living Water, the Good News that Jesus brings. Your call is to make people hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the kingdom. You also might be called to pour salt in the wound, to sting the powers and principalities that seek to do harm to the least of these. Maybe being salt of the earth means to put a bitter, bad taste in the mouths of those who turn blind eyes and deaf ears to injustice, to misery, to exploitation. Those in power may want to spit the salt that we are right back out, just like my brother spat out my eggs. But if we are the salt of the earth, then we can’t stop being salty. If we lose our saltiness, then we are “thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Otherwise we aren’t being disciples.
            Jesus didn’t stop there. He also told his disciples and those who would follow,
“You are the light of the world.”
Now light I understand. I mean I don’t understand the physics of light, but I understand what it means to have light. I have light at my fingertips. I have light in my home, in my car; I even have a flashlight built into my phone. To my contemporary, grew up in a city eyes, darkness is much harder to wrestle with. For those of you who live out in the country, you are probably much better at dealing with darkness than me. Because with as much artificial light as we have, you don’t have to live in downtown Nashville to not realize just how dark dark can actually be. Street lights and building lights and ambient light keep us from being in true darkness much of the time.
But the truth is that all of the artificial light in the world can’t fend off that other kind of darkness that can settle over us; the darkness of despair and hopelessness, the darkness of violence, the darkness of lostness. Talk to someone who has struggled with depression, and they will tell you about that kind of darkness.
When we read Jesus’ words about being the light of the world, about letting our light shine, not putting it under a bushel basket, but setting it out on a lampstand, we often think of our personal lights – our talents, our abilities and gifts. If God gave you a gift, then let your light shine so all the world can see it. This is not a bad or wrong interpretation, but the world that Jesus was born into was a world lost in darkness. It was the kind of darkness that all the lamps and candles and fires in the world could not fully banish. Is our world any different? Our world now may be bathed in artificial light, but just like Jesus’ time, it is a world that is drowning in the darkness of violence, war, oppression, poverty, and sickness. Maybe we are called not to think only about the individual light that our gifts may offer, but about the light of the good news that the church is called to shine.
            You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But what about the Law? God gave the people the Law, but the world is still dark. We abide by the Law, but our world is still a world of darkness. Jesus says,
            “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
            God gave the people the Law, but in the hands of some religious leaders, it had become a weight of guilt and a burden of sinfulness. It was punishment and divine retribution. But Jesus says that he is not there to get rid of or usurp or undermine the law. He is there to fulfill it. It seems to me that he is there to fulfill its true purpose, because perhaps God gave the law not as punishment but as gift. The law is about relationship; relationship with God and relationship with one another. Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the law. He is about relationship. He embodies relationship with God. He spends his whole life building relationship with others. That does not mean that he doesn’t confront when confrontation is needed. That does not mean that he doesn’t hold others accountable. But he came because God created the law and creation for relationship. Jesus was not about to abolish the law; Jesus was there finally, completely, to make it real and to give it flesh.
            And why is any of this necessary? Why does any of this need not only to be said, but to be done? Because of the kingdom. With Jesus came the kingdom, right into the midst of the people. With Jesus came the kingdom, right into the heart of God’s creation. Yet the people still saw the kingdom as being far away, out there, up there, somewhere, somewhere else.
            However, it seems to me, to not only enter the kingdom of Heaven but to even recognize it, you have to be in relationship. You have to be in real and right relationship with God and with one another. You to have live in righteousness according to the law, not for the law’s sake, but for God’s.
            Those who want to follow Jesus – the chosen disciples, the crowds who heard his message and saw his truth and us – need to be about the kingdom. We need to about the kingdom of Heaven, not only for our sake, but for the sake of the world. And how do we do this? We are salt. We are light. We live according to the spirit of the law. We seek the kingdom. We hunger and we thirst for it, and we make others thirsty as well. We shine our light so others can find their way. We abide by the law, so we can keep and build our relationships with God and with all people. We point to the One who has brought the kingdom into our midst. We who follow Jesus are salt and light. We who follow Jesus live in relationship. We who follow Jesus seek the kingdom in their midst.
            Salt. Light. Law. Kingdom. Salt. Light. Law. Kingdom.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Upside Down

Matthew 5:1-12
February 2, 2020

           Trees walking on their branches.
            Houses dancing on their roofs.
            Birds flying down to the sky.
            Raindrops reaching up to the ground.
            That’s what I imagined the world was like when I was upside down.          
One of my favorite things to do as a kid was swing. It still is. I loved seeing how high you could swing. I imagined that if I could get just high enough, I might just reach the trees or convince the birds that I was flying along next to them.
Some of my friends were much braver than I was. They would swing as high as they could, then jump out of the seat and try landing on both feet on the ground. I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of the jumping as I was of the landing. Besides, I was perfectly content just swinging.
Even though swinging up to the treetops was tempting, my favorite thing to do was to get into a steady rhythm, swinging back and forth, back and forth, and then I would lean way back. I would still hold on tightly to the chains, but I would hang my head toward the ground and straighten my legs, so they were pointing sort of toward the sky. Then with a good swing, you would feel almost as if you were standing on your head. Then I would let the swing slowly drift to a stop, and I would look at the world around me and imagine that the world had turned upside down instead of me.
Trees walking on their branches.
Houses dancing on their roofs.
Birds flying down to the sky.
Raindrops reaching up to the ground.
That’s what I imagined the world was like when I was upside down.
            The world from this upside-down viewpoint looks strange. I never grew tired of looking at it in this upside-down way. I found it strange, yes, but peaceful too.
            I know that upside-down is not the first thing that comes to mind when we hear these familiar opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. These are verses that are well known and beloved beyond our church circles. I would say that for most of my life, I have thought of them as pretty straightforward; although I fully admit that I have struggled with understanding what it means to be “poor in spirit,” and I can never seem to accomplish meek.
And what does it really mean to be “blessed?” I used that word all the time. I pray for blessings on this congregation, on our meetings. I say it when my husband or anyone else sneezes. Does it simply equate to “happy?” Happy are the poor in spirit. Happy are the meek. Or is there a deeper meaning? I wondered about this. I wonder about it whenever this passage rolls around in the lectionary cycle. Then the biblical scholars in a podcast that I listen to suggested that a preacher might replace the word blessed with the world enviable. This doesn’t mean that in the Greek, blessed, makario, can necessarily be translated into enviable. But using enviable instead might give a new perspective on these familiar words; much like hanging upside-down on a swing gives a new perspective on the world.
            “Enviable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            “Enviable are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
            “Enviable are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
            “Enviable are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
            “Enviable are the merciful, for the will receive mercy.”
            “Enviable are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
            “Enviable are the peacemakers, for they will called children of God.”
            “Enviable are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Enviable 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.”
            Okay, maybe I can understand envying someone who is pure in heart or merciful or meek. But envying someone who is persecuted? I don’t want to be persecuted. I know that the process of living brings mourning, but that doesn’t mean I look forward to it. I don’t envy those who mourn. Don’t get me started on being reviled. It’s one thing to say that people with these qualities are blessed, but it’s a whole new ball game to say that they are enviable.
            If I think someone is enviable, then I think they are fortunate or lucky in some way. Is someone who is persecuted and reviled for their faith lucky? Are they fortunate? Is someone who is poor in spirit, someone who is so downtrodden by the hardships of life a person to be envied? Wait a minute? This doesn’t make sense. It seems too, too upside down.
            It made me think, who do I envy? Who in the world do I think is enviable? Who do I think is lucky and fortunate? Someone who has enough money and never has to worry about money. Someone who wears clothes well. You know, someone who could put on a rag, and you would think, “Wow! That person knows how to dress.”
            Before I got my first smartphone, I envied people with smartphones. It seemed the whole world had technology, and with that technology access to apps and stuff, that I didn’t possess. I couldn’t wait to buy my first smartphone. Then of course, they’ve got you, because technology advances quickly. And that first smartphone gets replaced with the next greatest smartphone, and then I envy the person who has that.
            But I don’t envy the poor in spirit, and I don’t envy the poor. Poverty is not glamorous. Poverty is grinding. It chews up and spits out generation after generation of people. No, I don’t envy the poor or the poor in spirit.
            But if someone being enviable means that they are considered fortunate, then maybe there is a connection to being blessed after all. It seems to me that that is the connection Jesus was making. And that’s why these words of Jesus seem so upside-down. Why would he say that those who are in the least enviable positions in life are the ones to be envied? Why would he say that those who are the least of these are the ones who are blessed?
            Because in his living, his actions, and his words, Jesus showed that God holds close the least of these. God loves all of us, but the least of these seems to be of special concern. That is what Jesus said over and over again. And that is what he showed to us, over and over again. He came and he ate and associated with and preached to and healed and taught sinners and those who were marginalized and forgotten and lost and reprobate and defenseless and odd and so on. He came to the least of these and told anyone who would listen that God was with them too. He preached about reversal; the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He turned upside-down the expectations of Messiah and what salvation really meant. If the Sermon on the Mount presents us with an upside-down view of the world, then why are we surprised? We shouldn’t be, not if we’ve been paying attention. Jesus said that in his presence, with his coming, the kingdom of Heaven was in their midst. And the Kingdom of Heaven was and is unlike the world as we know it. Thanks be to God.
            Jesus came and turned the world upside-down. And maybe it is not as I imagined it from the seat of a swing when I was a child, with trees walking on their branches and birds flying down to the sky, but it is a world where the poor in spirit and the poor are lifted up and the meek are celebrated and the persecuted are to envied.
            In a few minutes, we are going to do what some might consider the most upside-down thing of all. We are going to gather around this table. We are going to take bread and cup and say ancient words about the body and the blood. We are going to serve one another, and we are going to be called to remember something that none of us can physically remember. And while we are good Presbyterians, and believe that Christ is spiritually present in the bread and the cup, and that the elements are not divinely transformed, we are going to have the opportunity to see one another and to see the world God has given us through this table. And through this table, we are going to have a chance to feel and known and be nourished by Christ’s presence.
            At this table all are invited to partake of spiritual nourishment. At this table all are invited to share in the sacrificial love of God through Christ for us and for the world. At this table all are welcomed to remember their baptisms even if they don’t remember their baptisms. At this table all are called to serve.
And from this table all of us are sent, back into the world, back into the midst of the poor in spirit and the meek and the mournful, and those seeking righteousness, and those who are persecuted. From this table we are sent out to throw our lots in with the least of these, and from this table we are sent to spread the good news of the upside-down world Jesus preached of and died for and rose to save. Jesus turned the world upside-down. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.” Amen.