Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2020 || All Saints A || Matthew 5:1-12
There are many ways to describe the overarching narrative of the Bible, the connective tissue that weaves through the many and varied voices and genres that make up the library of our Holy Scriptures. One theme describes God’s love and grace restoring all of creation back to God. Another tells a family story and invites all who read it to share in that story. A third way of viewing the thrust of the biblical narrative is what I’d like to focus on today. This third way sees our holy texts speaking to an upside down world – speaking God’s yearning for justice and peace in order to empower people to partner with God to turn the upside down world right side up.
I’m focusing on this third way today for two reasons. First, today’s is All Saints Day, and the saints of the church embody this (and other) themes of Holy Scripture. And second, with Election Day in two days’ time here in the United States, I need to hear a reminder of this third theme so that I can bring what I believe God’s dream to be into the voting box with me on Tuesday. I need to hear this reminder, and I’d like to share it with you.
But first, let’s talk about Stranger Things, the wildly successful mix of science fiction, horror, coming of age, and 1980’s nostalgia that is by far and away Netflix’s best original show to date. I’ve already said the name of the thing I want to talk about, and if you know the show, then you probably already guessed. It’s called the Upside Down. In the fantasy world of the show, a dimensional portal rips open under a U.S. Department of Energy lab in Hawkins, Indiana. From the real world, characters can enter (or be dragged into) this other dimension that they call the Upside Down. The entire first season of the show revolves around rescuing Will Byers from this mirror dimension. In subsequent seasons, Will flashes back to his traumatic days in the Upside Down. His bathroom and the local arcade go dark and cold. Malignant vines grow all over everything. Motes of debris float through the air like a slow motion explosion. Will quakes and shudders, afraid that somehow he was shifted back there. And he should be afraid. The Upside Down is a scary, shadowy, toxic reflection of the real world. Monsters dwell there. Literal monsters.
Imagining the Upside Down in Stranger Things has helped me grapple with the third theme of the Bible I mentioned before, this call from God to turn our upside down world right side up. For a long time I had trouble seeing this theme in our scriptures because the various facets of my identity urge me to believe that I already live in the right side up world – at least, right side up for me, a straight, white, cis-gendered, well-educated, economically comfortable, able-bodied male. When I saw the Upside Down in Stranger Things (this scary, toxic mirror of reality), I started asking myself questions that began with “What if.”
What if the Upside Down is an amplified metaphor for how people who don’t share all my historic privileges view the real world? What if the Upside Down is the real world, and I’m the one living in some mirror dimension of comfort, complicity, and apathy? If the world is upside down, then I would need to flip my perspective to see it for how it truly is. It is so easy when I read the Bible to place myself in the footsteps of the Israelites fleeing bondage in Egypt. It is so easy when I read the Bible to place myself by Jesus’ side as one of his disciples and friends. And while I do belong there because God has graciously and mercifully adopted me into God’s family, I also need to expand my biblical imagination. Given my historically-advantaged status, I turn my scriptural mirror on the Egyptians and the Romans, and I see myself reflected back in their oppressive, imperial attitudes. And I realize I don’t live in the Upside Down with the fleeing Israelites and Jesus and his disciples. But nor do I live in the Right Side Up, because the Right Side Up cannot exist while even one person still lives in the Upside Down.
When you begin to read the Bible through the lens of this imaginative framework – turning the Upside Down Right Side Up – the stories of the Bible grab you like they never have before. You see younger brothers throughout the Old Testament become the main characters in a world that favors the first born. You see women who face their society’s shaming of them for their inability to have children finally bearing children that go on to change the world. You see the constant refrain of God’s special concern for justice for widows, orphans, immigrants, and those who are poor. This concern ran completely counter to the society’s expectation that God blessed those with material wealth, which is why the prophets screamed it from the rooftops again and again and again. You see in Mary’s song the hope that the upside down world would be turned right side up. With the baby Jesus growing in her womb, Mary sings, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
And in perhaps the clearest example, you see Jesus himself turn the upside down world right side up in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel today. In the Beatitudes – the blessings – Jesus flips the societal script. Jesus blesses those who are poor in a world that favors the rich. Jesus blessed those without power in a world dominated by those grasping for power. Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for justice in a world that is stacked against so many, many people. Jesus blessed those who seek peace in a world that is always at war. In his blessings, Jesus teaches us what to focus on in order to turn our upside down world right side up.
The saints we remember and even more whom we’ve forgotten stepped into Jesus’ shoes and carried on this work. They looked past themselves and saw the vision of a right side up world for all people. They lived in the Upside Down on purpose in order to learn how to turn it right side up. The saints are inspirations for us who think we can’t possibly make a difference. If they did, then so can we, because they were just people, people who saw clearly God’s dream of a just and peaceful creation. And so we can pray with the old children’s song, “God, help me to be one too.”
Carry this prayer with you into the voting booth on Tuesday. Cast your vote not only for yourself and your own self-interest. Cast your vote for those whom the prophets stood up for. Cast your vote for those whom Jesus blessed. Cast your vote with Mary’s song on your lips and in your heart. And when all the votes are cast and the electoral moment passes, no matter the outcome, recommit to turning this upside down world right side up, with God’s help.
Season 3, Episode 4:
Frozen: Open Up the Gates
In Season Three, we are looking at facets of identity, and our fourth episode looks at the songs in Frozen, as we talk about love, fear, and vulnerability. Plus, in our book club we tackle chapters 11-13 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.