Jesus stood the world upside down. He presented us with a picture of what it would look like if we saw things, not from our perspective – from the bottom looking up all the time, like someone who has fallen into a well or a mineshaft who stares up at the sky hoping somebody will hear them shouting for help – but from the perspective of God, the helper, seeing things from above and eager to rescue and save.
From our perspective, we get a view of life that goes something like this:
“Sorry about the down-and-out. They’re kind of stuck.
It’s too bad for those who are grieving. That’s life.
It’s a shame about the mousey-types. They never get their due.
You have to feel for the folks who always think they get a raw deal. When will they learn?
Forgive, maybe. Once. But don’t forget.
Ignorance is bliss, but it’s still ignorance.
Don’t make enemies, but when you do, remember who they are.
Whatever you do, don’t make waves.
If you can’t be good, be careful.”
From Jesus’ persepective the view is totally different. No wonder Matthew describes him as delivering his message from a mountain. What Jesus proclaims is the broad message, the long view. What he teaches is that the love of God overcomes despair and always will. There is no such thing as a hopeless situation. God is always there to turn things around in surprising ways.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
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 the kingdom of heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5:1-12]
The troubles themselves are not good news. It’s not good news that someone who has been looking for work for too long gives up and decides he is clearly not worth anything to anyone. It’s not good news that a kindly parent or grandparent is taken advantage of. It’s not good news that somebody trying to settle bad blood between their siblings may be rejected by both sides. It’s not good news that a teenager who just tries to do what is right may feel caricatured by classmates as snooty or stuck-up. All of those things happen. We all know it.
The good news is something that comes from having a view that is wider than the moment, the view that Jesus shares with us of what goes on in God’s mind, and what God’s plans for people are, troubles or not. It’s to turn the world’s way upside down.
I have a stereotyped image in my head of rural New Englanders as stiff, reserved, unsmiling people. Even their humor is dry.
“Excuse me, sir! Can I take this road to Bangor?”
“Reckon you could, but don’t they have enough there already?”
Frederick Buechner, who lived in Vermont himself, preached a sermon on the 200th anniversary of a church in Rupert, Vermont in which he said this:
“In the year 1831, it seems, this church was repaired and several new additions were made. One of them was a new steeple with a bell in it, and once it was set in place and painted, apparently, an extraordinary event took place. ‘When the steeple was added,’ Howard Mudgett writes in his history, ‘one agile Lyman Woodard stood on his head in the belfry with his feet toward heaven.’
That’s the one and only thing I’ve been able to find out about Lyman Woodard, whoever he was, but it is enough.”
Part of me wants to give a back-story, making this man into the standard, sour character, someone who declared at the previous year’s town meeting, “We no more need a steeple than I need to stand on my head in it.” Buechner points to the act as a crazy-wonderful expression of faith.
In a world of troubles, he reminds us,
“We must help bear each other’s burdens. We must pray for each other. We must nourish each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other. Sometimes we must just learn to let each other alone. In short we must love each other. We must never forget that. But let us never forget Lyman Woodard either silhouetted there against the blue Rupert sky. Let us join him in the belfry with our feet toward Heaven like his because Heaven is where we’re heading.”
In fact, when we discover the unexpected, upside-down ways of heaven touching earth, as they do when those who mourn are comforted, or when those who hunger and thirst for righteousness do get a taste of it, or when a little bit of mercy finds its way into the world, then we may realize that heaven is a whole lot closer than we usually realize and we may not have all that far to go.