Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
My childhood best friend and I had the biggest imagination. We would go on long adventures – running from cheetahs in the Serengeti, creating nature soup that would protect us from the witch in the woods, setting treats out for fairies, never realizing it was the deer who ate our treats. My best friend could take a stick and have it become a sword, a wand, a spoon, a microphone, you name it. We were about six or seven years old when we were rushed indoors because of the rain. We were bored out of our minds, which was a rarity, when she said, “have you ever stood on your head?” I said, “No, but my brother has held me upside down. That’s as close as I’ve ever been.” And so, we decided to try to stand on our heads. I was the more athletic friend, which is saying something, so I went first. Just to be safe, we started on the bed. I laid on my back and leaned over the edge with my hands dangling above my head. Slowly, my friend helped me shimmy down the side of the bed so my hands were touching the floor and then my head. I was staring at her bookshelf, but I couldn’t read a thing, being upside down and all. Then, my friend went next. By that point, we thought we were experts. So we had to give it a try without the safety of the bed. We ran downstairs to the living room, who knows where her parents where at. I naturally went first again, with no plan in mind. I squatted down, leaned my elbows and forearms onto my thighs and knees, placed my hands and the top of my head on a pillow on the floor and out of nowhere, without telling me, my friend grabs by legs and pulls them into the air. I let out a scream and a laugh. It worked! The world was upside down. The chairs were glued to the ceiling. Somehow the curtains stretched upward and didn’t fall to the ground. Gravity had disappeared. The world was on its head. It was magical and it changed my perspective to a funny, strange looking world…just for a moment. Then my friend clapped her hands together in excitement, letting go of my legs. You can guess what happened next, I came crashing down, breaking a framed photo on the side table. Dare I say, my friend never got the chance to be upside down that day for we were given a talkin’ to about what’s appropriate to do indoors and outdoor Somehow, we always got that conversation.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a preacher and theologian, has said, “When Jesus sat down on that mountain and gave the Beatitudes to the people, maybe he should’ve asked the crowds to stand on their heads. Because that’s what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down.” Last week, Steve invited us to “turn around – turn from what was and turn toward something new.” This week, I’m inviting you to stand on your head and see the kingdom we thought we knew but take that thought and turn it completely upside down. Once again, Jesus presents a teaching that’s downright shocking.
At the end of last week’s passage, Jesus has started his public ministry of “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and “curing every disease and every sickness among people.” Jesus has called his disciples and invited them to fish for people. By the end of chapter 4, the news of Jesus and his new ministry has spread to great crowds from Galilee and beyond. At the beginning of chapter 5, our verses today, Jesus sees these great crowds and ascends the mountain, sits, and begins to teach to his disciples and whoever followed him up that mountain. This is the beginning of the sermon on the mount.
In nine poetic sentences, Jesus sums up the good life. They are sweet, dreamy-like words for us modern Christians to paint on wooden plaques and hang over our kitchen sinks. For the Jewish people, familiar with the ten commandments, demands and acts of expectations on a religious life, they never saw these words coming out of a Jewish Rabbi’s mouth. Jesus is speaking to a group of people well versed in the Jewish culture and religious life. His words, as a whole, are new to the group but they are imbedded with old language from Isaiah and the Psalms. They hear this language about the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the exiled and in the ears of the listeners they think of their ancestors long exiled from their home. And they think about their current situation – returned from that long exile, but found captive by a Roman empire, oppressed by soldiers and tax collectors and suffering from injustices and wrongdoings. Not only that, there are many different groups of Jewish people with strong opinions about religious life – the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and even John the Baptist’s followers. There are all engaged in the controversial theological and political debates on the best way to live that Jewish life. And so the people listening are not the elite or the people in power, but rather, people who are sick, afflicted, under the thumb of the most powerful. The sermon on the mount starts as an upside down, radical, and new teaching to the Jewish and Gentile ears. Jesus talks about a kingdom of heaven, sharing that it’s more than a synonym for heaven, instead, it’s heard as an alternative to that of Rome. The kingdom of heaven denotes a whole new order of life as they know it. A life outside of the Roman rule, a life outside of the controversy among the Jewish elite, an invitation to embrace their real day to day life, a new order “brought about by the dawning reign of God.”
And that’s the poetic beauty of this passage. You see, unlike other lessons from Rabbi’s in the Jewish community, Jesus does not start by giving a command, the verbs here are not imperative, but indicative. He’s describing the world for the listeners as it actually is, not the world as it should be or ought to be. Jesus is not using language of commandments, but descriptive language, the Gospel language, the good news full of hope, promise, and grace. It’s a lesson on how to open their eyes to what is, not what they’ve been told their entire life. Culturally, many would be seeking a divine blessing and here, the divine blessing is graciously given, no need to change your life, it’s no reward for their actions, it’s simply an unearned blessing a gift from God who loves them exactly for who they are and where they are at in life. The greatest sermon we study as Christians, the Sermon on the Mount, starts out with a blessing. Simple as that.
You’ve heard Steve and I preach on Brené Brown, a professor, author, social researcher spending almost two decades studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She’s motivated by inviting humanity to embody their true selves, authentic selves and find the courage to be vulnerable. Our biggest nightmare, right? In the world of social media, where perfection feels like it’s everywhere, where shame is not welcomed, where imperfections are rejected, where messiness has no place in reality, I’m challenged by what it means to be and feel enough. Especially when our teens see this fake perfection every day on TikTok. Where our moms read blog after blog and feel guilt of not being able to do it all and where women (and men) are expected to look and have a certain image. We’ve lost the beauty of valuing distinct features and individual personalities to feel enough. Brené Brown addresses this. She says, “We live in a culture of never enough: Never good enough, skinny enough, popular enough, never enough Twitter followers And there’s only one way out of scarcity and that is enoughness. At some point, we just need to say “enough!”: I am enough.
What I’m doing is enough. I’m about waking up in the morning and saying: No matter what gets done and how much is done and how it’s done, I’m enough and I’m worthy of belonging and love and joy.” I am enough and I belong. That’s how Jesus starts this Sermon on the Mount by beginning with a blessing instead of commandments or instructions. He’s telling his followers with doubt, mental illnesses, shame, fear, hunger, grief, poverty that they are enough. You are enough.
The Greek adjective for blessed is Makarios and it has a fairly wide range of meaning. It can refer to the state of being fortunate, happy, privileged. My favorite translation is replacing “blessed” with “greatly honored”. Listen to how it strengthens the meaning and the intensity and the newness to the listeners and even for ourselves: Greatly honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Greatly honored are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Greatly honored are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Greatly honored are the pure of heart, for they will see God. Greatly honored are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Do you hear the different? The meek, the grieving, the poor, the hungry, the peacemakers, the shamed, the depressed, the I’m not enough today, THEY are greatly honored. THEY are not just blessed or happy, but included and honored in the realm of the kingdom of God. THEY are what turns this world upside down, inside out, catty wompus when we get stuck in “should haves” or “ought tos” or “I’m not enough for this or that”. THEY welcome ALL into the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Because ALL, even those who think they have it all together, ALL are enough for the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Because that’s where it starts. The kingdom starts here on earth, in the lives we actually live, not the lives that are never deemed enough or reach the perfection we would like.
Barbara Brown Taylor has written extensively about this text and her words ring true in our ears if we let them, she writes, “Upside down, you begin to see God’s blessed ones in places it would never have occurred to you to look. You begin to see that the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn are not just people you can help but people who can help you, if you will let them, and that their hunger and thirst for God are not voids to be filled but appetites to be envied.” If you breathe into the blessings God has given us, ALL of us “– well, that’s when heaven comes to earth, because earth is where heaven starts for all who are willing to live into it right now.” You are blessed. You are greatly honored. You belong. You are enough.
Pray with me.
Loving God, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.
 Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, 222.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, 1995, 159.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Always a Guest, 203 – 204