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Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Upside-Down Kingdom of God

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

At my first training weekend as a curate the then Bishop of Barking, David Hawkins, performed a handstand to demonstrate the way in which Jesus, through his teaching in the beatitudes, turns our understanding of life upside down. His action turned our expectations of Bishops and their behaviour upside-down at the same time as it perfectly illustrated his point.

Jesus is depicted upside-down in the painting Jesus Striped and Stripped created by Cedric Baxter for a set of Australian Stations of the Cross. Victoria Emily Jones has written that “Baxter's tenth station captures Jesus mid-tumble, naked and abused and down on his way to death, but what Christians know and glory in, especially during the Easter season, is that he's circling back. He's turning a cartwheel! The upside downness of Jesus in this image challenges us to look at Passion Week with the right perspective: as a journey that brings Christ low only to raise him up.”

G. K. Chesterton used a similar image in writing about St Francis of Assisi: “[Saint] Francis, at the time … when he disappeared into the prison or the dark cavern, underwent a reversal of a certain psychological kind … The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again … He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands … If a man saw the world hanging upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence … It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing.”

In what ways do these images and Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes turn our understanding of life upside down? Donald Kraybill writes in The Upside-Down Kingdom that Jesus startles us as paradox, irony and surprise permeate his teachings flipping our expectations upside down: the least are the greatest; adults become like children; the religious miss the heavenly banquet; the immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Things aren’t like we think they should be. We’re baffled and perplexed; uncertain whether to laugh or cry. Again and again, turning our world upside down, Jesus’ kingdom surprises us.

It is the humble poor who know their need of God and those who have nothing who know they need everything. So we should pray for those moments when we and others become poor in spirit, bereaved, meek, hungry, thirsty, as they are moments when we are more likely to turn our faces to God looking for salvation. We need to pray for the opening of doors in us and others that gain and comfort have locked tight.

The Gospel announcement, our salvation, is truly comprehensive, is truly for all, because it is offered to losers, by circumstance or choice. The poor have no means of becoming rich but the rich have within themselves the possibility of becoming poor. There is nothing that we don’t have that will bar our entry to this upside-down kingdom and so we can pray to be rid of what we do have that God’s kingdom may truly come to all.

In this way, as the Beatitudes state, our lives are turned upside down and we are blessed with poverty, with grief, with meekness, with hunger, with mercy, with purity, with peacemaking, and with persecution (Gerard Kelly, Humanifesto).

As opposed to the survival of the fittest or looking after No. 1, the kingdom of God, as it is described in the Beatitudes, is a place of happiness for those who know they are spiritually poor, a place of comfort for those who mourn, a place of receptivity for those who are humble, a place of satisfaction for those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires, a place of mercy for those who are merciful, a place in which God is seen by the pure in heart, a place in which those who work for peace are called God’s children, and a place which belongs to those who are persecuted because they do what God requires.

This is what those, like St Francis, that we call saints came to realise. It is what we must seek through prayer as we too respond to our calling to be saints.

May God forgive our attempts to be loved, our pride, our pleasure-seeking and our leisure-seeking and instead turn our lives upside down and bless us with poverty, with grief, with meekness, with hunger, with mercy, with purity, with peacemaking, with persecution and with his upside down kingdom. Amen.


T. Bone Burnett - Shut It Tight.

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