Scripture - Matthew 5:1-12
Have you ever stood on your head? I’ve never been good at it, but when I was young a neighborhood friend was great at it. Just about everything in the world was taller than he was, taller & very boring he would say, but by standing on his head he could liven things up. He would describe the grass hanging in front of his eyes. Trees grew down, not up, & the sky was a blue lawn that went on
forever. For as long as he could keep his balance, birds & clouds flew under his feet. The neighborhood swing set was no longer an “A” but a “V” & the houses seemed in danger of falling off the earth – just shooting into space like a rocket – leaving sidewalks that led to nowhere. He liked standing on his head because it made him see old things in a new way. He liked it because it made life seem exciting & unpredictable. In a world where trees grew down & houses might fall up, anything seems possible.
I think Jesus should have asked the crowd on the hillside to stand on their heads when he taught them the Beatitudes, because that is what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down, so that those who had been 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 formula itself was not new to anyone. Beatitudes were common expressions in those days, & not only in religious circles. They were everyday sayings about the Good Life, listing virtues that anyone would have been happy to have. ‘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. Another word for “blessed” in this formula of course is “happy.” The French translation is debonair. I like that: ‘Debonair are those who have invested well, for their old age shall be secure.’
What was so shocking about Jesus’ list was not the form but the content. Blessed are the humble? The grieving? The hopeless? Who was he kidding? There was nothing debonair about any of those. What was so happy about hungering & thirsting for righteousness, or about being insulted or harassed? Be full of joy & be glad?! No one with a lick of sense was going to vote for any of those definitions of the Good Life, but Jesus did not ask for anyone’s approval. He just redefined the Good Life in 9 short sentences & held them out for everyone to see: 9 portraits of kingdom people, previously known as victims, dreamers, pushovers, & fools. These are the chosen ones, he said, the blessed ones who will see God face-to-face. These are the happy ones, the lucky ones, who shall be satisfied – not because they got an advance copy of the rules & played by them to win but because winning was the farthest thing from their minds.
This is a list of losers, make no mistake about it. The merciful who keep forgiving their enemies so their enemies can trounce them all over again. The pure in heart who believe everything they hear & empty their bank accounts to keep crooks in business. The peacemakers who step into the middle of a fist fight & get clobbered from both sides. These are God’s favorites, Jesus insists – not the effective, successful people in the world but the ones who cannot even compete, who would not know success if it walked up & handed them a trophy. The blessed ones would insist there must have been some mistake. The blessed ones would give the prize away to someone who needed it more. The blessed ones would put it in a closet so they would not be tempted to think too well of themselves.
Most of us do not know what to do with the Beatitudes. Some of us have heard them for so long that they have lost their shock value for us. They just sound sort of sweet & familiar to us – a Christian poem – something to needlepoint & hang over the piano. Others of us hear them like new commandments & worry that we are not meek enough, pure enough, or persecuted enough. But please note that there are no “shoulds” or “oughts” here, no “shalt” or “shalt nots.” The language of the Beatitudes is not transactional language – do this & you will receive this; do that & you will receive that. It is descriptive language – this is who these people are now, & this is what the future holds for them. It is not the language of law but of gospel, the language of hope & promise that the way things are now is not the way they will always be, & that those who find themselves at the back of the plane now will be sitting in first class before the trip is over.
Today this same gospel is being preached around the world – in a cinder block church in Kenya, where people sit cross-legged on a packed dirt floor while carpenter bees fly in & out the open windows; in a shack on stilts in the wetlands of El Salvador, there the majority of those present must listen hard because they cannot read; or even on S Main St at the Catholic church, where Hispanics from the trailer parks have gathered to praise God in their own tongue.
Much of the power of the Beatitudes depends on where you are sitting when you hear them. They sound different from on top than they do from underneath. They sound different up front than they do in the back. Up top with the religiously satisfied & self-assured, they sound pretty confrontational. Where is your hunger & thirst, you well-fed Christians? Where is your spiritual poverty? Where are the bones of your soul showing through your clothes, & why aren’t your handkerchiefs soaked with tears?
But on the bottom, with the victims, the dreamers, the pushovers, & the fools, the Beatitudes sound completely different. Shhh, they say, dry your tears, little ones. The whole earth belongs to you, though someone else holds the keys. It won’t be long now. Heaven’s gates are opening wide for you, & the first face you shall see shall be the face of God.
They are the same words in every place, of course. It is just the ears that change, each of us hearing Jesus’ description of the Good Life through our own filters – as something foreign or something familiar, as something to be sought or something to be feared. I guess you can do anything you want with the Beatitudes; people always have. Some have ignored them, some have admired them & walked away, some have used them as a yardstick to measure their own blessedness, & 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, so that you cannot be sure anymore who are the winners & who are the losers.
Upside down, you begin to see God’s blessed ones in places it never would have occurred to you to look. You begin to see that the poor in spirit, the meek & those who mourn are not just people you can help but people who can help you, if you will let them, & that their hunger & thirst for God are not voids to be filled but appetites to be envied.
Upside down, you begin to see that the peacemakers are not flower children but physicians, prescribing God’s own tranquility, & that the pure in heart have just never gotten the knack of locking their doors. Upside down, you begin to see that those have been bruised for their faith are not the sad ones but the happy ones because they have found something worth being bruised for, & that those who are merciful are just handing out what they have already received in abundance.
The world looks funny upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you’ve got your feet planted in heaven. Jesus did it all the time & seemed to think we could do it too. So blessed are those who stand on their heads, for they shall see the world as God sees it. They shall also find themselves in good company, turned upside down by the only one who really knows which way is up.
Let us pray. For the words of challenge, for the words of blessing, for the spirit of wisdom moving in our midst, we give you honor and thanks and praise. Amen.