A sermon for The Last Sunday after Epiphany by Layleader Karen Wilford
INSIDE OUTSIDE UPSIDE DOWN
The title of my sermon today is Inside Outside Upside Down which is the name of a children‚Äôs book that was popular in my home quite a few years ago. Does anyone else here know the story? It features the Berenstain bear family teaching young brother bear about the positional words of inside, outside and upside down, by having him playing with a cardboard box. And all of us parents know that the best learning really does come from playing with a card board box.
I chose this as my title even before I began writing the sermon. And the reason this happened was that I was spending time during the beginning of the week thinking about the words of the Scriptures that we heard today. I was meditating, reflecting, puzzling. And it struck me that one of the amazing gifts of the Good News of the Lord, is that it always causes us to look in a new way. At the world, at our place in the world and at our relationship with God. It causes us, when we take the time and the space and the quiet to truly listen, to realize that Jesus brought a message that turned a world upside down.
And perhaps nowhere in the Bible is that upside down message more distilled than in Matthew‚Äôs verses that we heard today. That passage is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and is commonly known as the Beatitudes. I daresay that some, if not all, of those verses have been heard by you. And not necessarily in church. They have formed the subject of many essays, songs and other expressive forms of popular culture. That may speak to the enduring nature of the message, but herein there may be a pitfall of familiarity breeding contempt.
Today I would like to reflect upon the Beatitudes in a manner somewhat more deeply than observing that Sting wrote a song based upon them.
When I discovered that this was the Gospel reading for today, I was initially quite smug. Oh, the Beatitudes, I thought. Well, that sermon should just about write itself. The text is rich in poetry and in imagery. Then I realized that when the Gospel is so beautifully written and so clear in its message, the preacher has to work that much harder to come up with something that adds, or clarifies, or more importantly, inspires. Oh no, I thought, Matthew has said it all and said it well. There is nothing here for me to carve out. How can I put my brand on the topic.
And that was when I had yet another Epiphany moment: it‚Äôs not about me. My concern about delivering an inspiring message (especially with Father John in the room) needed to be turned upside down. My ego issues showed a lack of humility. I was not approaching this privilege of delivering a sermon with an open heart, as a vessel to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I was not one of the meek.
The word Beatitude comes from the Latin, beatitudo, meaning happiness. And in the context of the teachings of Jesus, this had to have meant more than just having a good day. This must mean a divine fulfillment. A complete inner peace. What it will be like to experience the Kingdom of God.
And hearken to the location of the delivery of this message of divine fulfillment. On a mountain: physically closer to heaven yet significantly challenging to get there. Particularly in the days before full shank hiking boots and breathable fabrics.
Let us reflect upon what Jesus tells his disciples:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: to be poor, or lacking implies that something is empty. Let your spirit be humble and not filled with pride. Do not make assumptions about your relationship with God. Strive to be open, to be available to the Holy Spirit. For yours then is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: have real grief for your actions that do not reflect the Grace of God. Name the sorrows of your imperfections because it implies that you desire to improve. For you will be comforted. And forgiven.
Blessed are the meek: be content with not having the loudest voice in the room. It does not mean that you are spineless. Work for good without being in charge or getting any credit for it. For you will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: hunger and thirst: perhaps the strongest of human sensations. It is with that intensity that you should seek a desire for justice and moral perfection. For your longing, your empty place, will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: pay forward a good deed and actively look for opportunities to do it. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. For you will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: remember that the bodily organ with which we experience God is not the eyes or the ears, but rather the heart. Live out the tenet that God is Love. Do this by wanting and creating the best for others, even when it is at the expense of yourself. Be free of selfish intentions and self seeking desires: for you will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers; seek out those broken places in your lives where there is no peace. Meet them head on and make them better. Create peace in someone else‚Äôs life: for you will be called a child of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness: find your voice when the topic is unpopular. Speak truth despite the fact that it is unpleasant. Stand up for what is right, not what is easy. For yours is the kingdom of heaven.
These words, these exhortations, were not only a way of producing a more just society. Jesus was providing a glimpse of life in the Kingdom of God.
Whereas Moses gave us a list of ‚Äúthou shall nots‚ÄĚ based upon prohibited actions, Jesus here does not focus on actions. He sets out a sublime way of being. A Holy way of being in relationship with ourselves, with others, and most importantly, with God. And one that has perfect happiness and peace as its end result.
At the time of the delivery of the Sermon on the Mount, the message would have been radical indeed. It was a brutal time; the swords had yet to be beaten into ploughshares. Might made right in those times: military might, political might, financial might. All of these blunt instruments were wielded by the powerful of Society and this was accepted as the proper way of living. Those with the power accepted it as their due and those without just tried to keep out of the way and feed their families. Society was broken into winners and losers, and you knew exactly which group you were in. Which group was up and which was down. And I am not so sure that life is significantly different today.
Then along comes Jesus of Nazareth and turns it all upside down. The meek, the poor, the grieving. Those at the bottom of the social ladder are those singled out for divine happiness. His message would have been a radical one in its day; a shocking departure from the reality that his followers would have accepted all their lives.
Paul reiterates this upside-down-ness in the reading from Corinthians. God chose the foolish to shame the wise and the and the weak to shame the strong.
The challenge is the same to us today; look at the world upside down.
There is a small bird called a nuthatch which is common in Ontario where I am from. It can walk both up and down trees in its quest for food. It looks rather comical walking underneath a branch, upside down. But in this position, it finds bugs and nuts and seeds that none of the other birds will find. What will we find, if we walk upside down?
Did you ever as a child (or an adult with too much time on your hands) lie on your back and imagine what it would be like in the room if the floor was the ceiling and the ceiling the floor. A more annoying but similar exercise is trying to have a conversation with my kids when they have decided that it‚Äôs ‚Äúopposite day‚ÄĚ. It‚Äôs about being conscious of your position in relation to others and purposely changing that position. How does it feel, how does it change your world. Jesus calls us to do this in a deeply meaningful way. Instead of striving to be the wielder of power, we should be striving for humility. Instead of avoiding our inadequacies (perhaps through unhealthy coping mechanisms), we must face them and receive God‚Äôs forgiveness. Instead of keeping a low profile and not rocking the boat, we must stand up for what is right, even when it
It is fitting I believe, to meditate upon this message as we prepare to enter the season of Lent. During the testing days ahead, days of questing and questioning, let us ask ourselves whether we are living the beatitudes. Which are hardest for us? Which are easiest? And what does this tell us about our relationship with God?
As we ask these questions and struggle with the answers, we may find our world shifting. Moving toward beatitudo. Turning inside, outside, upside down.
A Sermon by Lay Leader Kate Chenier for Lent 2, 17 Feb 2008
Today's readings are not as difficult as the lessons than I usually get - I especially like the Gospel reading, encompassing as it does that most famous of quotations; John 3:16.¬† Back when I ran a coffee shop, I had a customer, a street person with long hair and a beard, who would come in with a handful of coins and buy one cup of tea.¬† Then he would sit in the window seat and read his Bible.¬† He wore the same shirt every day, and in big letters on the front, it said: John 3:16.¬† I overheard two of my employees talking one day, and one of them was saying, "John 3:16 hasn't been in today".¬† I came up behind them and said, "You do know what that is, right?"¬† They said, no, and so I launched into, "For God so loved the world that he gave His only-begotten son..." and got blank stares in return.
John 3:16 is often said to be the essence of the Gospels in one sentence.¬† It is God's promise to the world.¬† I think one of the threads in these readings is promises.¬† But I also think there's more to it than that, I think it's also that promises are a two way street.¬† Let's see if I can elaborate.
Some of you know one of the RCMP members, Kevin, who plunged from his garage deck at home recently and hit the floor below, cracking some ribs and bruising himself badly.¬† He and Matt were having a conversation at work last week, about fraud and false pretences, and Kevin said to Matt, "Well, it's like if you asked me to shingle your roof and I said I would, so you paid me up front and I didn't do it."
Matt replied, "No, dude, I'd never ask you to shingle my roof". And I'm pretty sure I knew what he was thinking.¬†
In the Genesis passage, a homeland is promised to Abram and his people.¬† How many times have we heard that phrase?¬† The Promised Land.¬† It is all things to all people.¬† The land of milk and honey.¬† All Abram has to do is pick up stakes and go.¬† Remember, he's seventy-five years old.¬† But he goes, with all his followers and family. Romans says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."¬† It was not so much that he went, or that he believed, but that he put the two together and he went BECAUSE he believed what God told him.
I think that sometimes people get this round their necks.¬† They get tangled up in the idea that God only wants us to believe in His existence.¬† I don't think that's right.¬† I think the leap of faith that is made is that we believe not only in God Himself, but in the things that He says.¬† Just as Matt would not want to believe that Kevin could shingle his roof without breaking his neck, we need to be able to believe that God can do what He promises.¬† Romans says, "It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace."
In essence, although this is a simplification, nothing that we do or say makes a difference, for we are not justified by works, we are justified by faith.¬† What we have to do in the meantime is to behave as if we expect the promises of God will be fulfilled.
CS Lewis explains:
"You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, exactly what God does and what man does when God and man are working together.¬† And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say, 'He did this bit and I did that.'¬† But this way of thinking breaks down.¬† God is not like that.¬† He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it.¬† In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things.¬† But you will find that even those who express it different Churches say different things.¬† But you will find that even those who insist most strongly on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on
Faith tell you to do good actions."¬† And he finishes up by saying, "At any rate, that is as far as I can go."
It is not enough just to believe.¬† Like Abram, who later became Abraham, we have to hear, trust, and follow.¬†¬† It's a bit like getting married, this being a Christian.¬† Everyone makes certain promises at the beginning, and then finds the ways to make those promises and keep them meaningful, in the big wild world of the future.¬† In this time of Lent, as we try to listen to the ways God would like us make new starts, be it new lands, new lives, wherever we are compelled ‚Äď¬† as the passage from John tells us of those who are born of the Spirit - "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes".¬†¬† I find myself wondering what more I can do to let God work through me.¬† Maybe it is a question of being more willing to assume my part of the promise
‚Äď being the one who hears and trusts and follows, wherever I am led.¬†
Sometimes, and I know that I've talked of this with many of you here, I look around and I think, how did I end up here?¬† What brought me to be standing in front of a congregation in the Arctic, learning how to be a lay-reader and saying all my inside thoughts out loud?¬† Truthfully I couldn't tell you.¬† I remember saying to Miguel one morning, over coffee, "There's a job in Cambridge Bay I could apply for", and us looking at the map, sitting in our carport on a rainy day on Vancouver Island, and him saying "Are you out of your mind?"
And maybe I am.¬† Maybe the bits I don't understand, all the strange coincidences that¬†made us end up here, (because I didn't get that initial job that I¬†applied for, but we ended up here anyway) maybe¬†those¬†are the bits that are more God than me.¬† And as I stand here, as it says in the hymn, I'm Standing on the Promises of God.