Reversing Gear with Christ

A sermon based on Matthew 5:1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 2, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Christians are pretty well known for talking about heaven. Mostly we are thought to primarily focus on how to get there as a reward in an afterlife by some sort of correct theological belief. In my experience that is not an unfair general characterization of how Christians are often depicted and encountered in the media, and even experienced in many places. It is, however, not all Christians’ or clergy or churches’ primary focus when heaven comes up.
I have mentioned before that it is not how Jesus focused on heaven. For Jesus the focus was on a worldly place for the living with not so much little regard for correct theological belief as regard for correct action. When Jesus talked about heaven, he talked about bringing heaven to earth for the living. He talked about how close heaven is. He taught heaven is within reach in life on earth in the here and now. He taught that it is our call, our job, to reach out for heaven and help make it break-in, for us . . . for others . . . for ALL the world. See, heaven for Jesus in the Gospel accounts is far more about making life good through actions, than it is about making afterlife good through belief.
For Jesus heaven is about a way of being while we breathe that makes God’s Empire visible in our existence now. That way of being is to do as Jesus did and strive to make heavenly power reign on earth. Jesus reached out and brought heaven, the Empire of God into play pitting it against earthly empires and earthly powers. He did this over and over again. Jesus’ main focus was to work on reversing earthly powers’ reign so that heavenly powers would reign. Jesus’ focus is on replacing empires of man with the Empire of God. It’s about reversing the order of things. Reverse is actually a gear Jesus uses a lot. Reversal is a mainstay of his teachings.
New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson calls it “the reversal of common values” and points out that IN
the teachings of Jesus we find a common thread binding it all together: a social radicalism that calls into question common assumptions about how people ought to order their lives. (The God of Jesus, p 95)
Professor Patterson points out that the world can script our lives if we let it but
Jesus calls upon his followers to . . .give up the script and receive the new life that is offered in the Empire of God. To give up the script –that is the point. (95)
And here’s the thing, this was easier for Jesus and his followers because the script the earthly empire wrote for them cast them as expendables. The script of the culture ignored, shunned, tossed them aside or disposed of them. Why wouldn’t they want to give up earthly power’s script?
As Dr. Patterson puts it,
The unclean, the outcast, the beggar, the prostitute– these were the people among whom Jesus spent his last days. He and they were expendables. They fell through the cracks of ancient society. Their roles in the script, if written in at all, were nothing to cling to.
This is especially so since what Jesus offered expendables was a new heavenly script for life where “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The lesson this morning sets out some of the details of what that looks like. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount lays out some of the role reversals from the heavenly script in The Beatitudes– blessings that reverse earthly power’s script for expendables. (Which Bobbie read so well). To paraphrase Professor Patterson, if your part in earthly powers’ script casts you as last, you are cast as first in heaven’s script. If your part in earthly powers’ script casts you as poor, mourning, meek, or hungry you are blessed in heaven’s script; so too if you are reviled and persecuted. And this is just as important, you also blessed if you work to reverse the earthly power’s script by taking action to bring about the heavenly script with mercy, heart and peacemaking.
It’s not just the Beatitudes that contain Jesus’ teaching on what the heavenly script looks like– and how it reverses earthly powers’ scripts. Jesus teaches his followers to care about and work toward the well being of everyone. In Matthew 25, Jesus teaches that eternal life (heaven, if you will) is based on how we act toward the least among us, because how we act toward them is how act toward Christ. Jesus does not just teach this role reversal stuff in words he puts them into play by tending to the well being for everyone, expendables and non-expendables. Neighbors. Strangers. Enemies. Jesus’ Way aims to knock down every human constructed barrier to well being. He lived and died and rose again to reverse all inequality created by earthly powers and he commands that we do the same. On Jesus’ Way we are truly meant to bring peace on earth good will to all . . . to bring heaven to earth.
The Apostle Paul summarized how everyone in Jesus’ heavenly script is cast as equal when he famously wrote in Galatians 3: 28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
First Century Rome has not been the only culture to author earthly scripts that needed reversing by heavenly power. Earthly empires have long cast humans in lesser and expendable roles both before and after the Roman Empire.
As a whole OUR culture seems to resist, sometimes people even resent, talking about this, but earthly powers on our own shores have defied heaven and Jesus and Paul by scripting lesser and expendable roles to humans– many of them the same as those mistreated as outcasts in Rome. We have in our history scripted a lesser place of care, and inequality for human beings who are poor, sick, imprisoned and strangers. Such humans have been denigrated, ignored, shunned, tossed aside, even disposed of. Like in First Century Rome at times they have been treated as expendable to one degree or another.
Earthly powers in our nation’s history have also singled out Woman and LGBTQ to similar unGodly, expendable treatment. Reviling and persecuting people for how God made them or circumstances in life has occurred on the scripts earthly power has written in our history. That’s not heaven’s script for any one. It is not heaven’s script for any American and it is not supposed to be our secular script either – our nation’s founders started out scripting that all are created equal, all are endowed with unalienable rights by God.
There is a specific group of Americans I have not yet addressed who have been denied equality and God-given rights in earthly power’s scripts. More than any other Americans they have been tragically scripted as expendable in the eyes of earthly power: Americans with African ancestry. Racism was scripted by earthly powers as an evil construct fraudulently claiming that Black Americans were not the equal humans heavenly power scripted them to be. Consequently in the eyes of a number of humans – but never in the eyes of God– they have NOT been considered or treated by all as one in Christ Jesus. But they are and always have been on in Christ Jesus! Earthly power in America has defied Jesus and God and the scripted roles heaven has for all humans to be equal. This resulted in ungodly cruel enslavement and abuses made lawful under earthly power– despite it being clearly unlawful under heavenly power.
When people – including the founders of this church– worked with God to end earthly power’s scripted role of slave status for Americans with Black skin, earthly power rewrote the script so that the expendablity continued in legalized violence and mistreatment. That abuse continued as lawful under earthly power– but has always been unlawful under heavenly power. In many of our life times abuse under “Jim Crow laws” continued until people – including people in this church– worked with God to end it some fifty years ago.
But earthly power did not remove the repercussions and systemic nature of the centuries of racism. It left open the road of racism, so that while it may not be paved with Jim Crow laws, it still remains a trodden path yet to be plowed up. To this day Americans who are Black can experience being reviled and persecuted. Every week there are news stories about racist mistreatment of Americans. We CAN see it. We CAN hear about it. We CAN learn more about it too. Earthly power’s scripted racism continues. We must work to reverse it with heaven’s script. We must act so that ALL of us are one in Christ Jesus.
One of the ways we can work on reversing racism is to recognize it exists, and needs to be overcome. We need to become educated and aware. America has a secular tradition created to cause such education and awareness. It is step in the right direction called Black History Month or African American History Month. The tradition offers hope, one big reason is because it has long crossed political lines and has become a national effort. All presidents since the 1970s have annually proclaimed February as that month. Our current President continued the tradition again just two days ago. In that freshly minted proclamation he included these words
Through bravery, perseverance, faith, and resolve — often in the face of incredible prejudice and hardship — African Americans have enhanced and advanced every aspect of American life. Their fight for equality, representation, and respect motivates us to continue working for a more promising, peaceful, and hopeful future for every American. During National African American History Month, we honor the extraordinary contributions made by African Americans throughout the history of our Republic, and we renew our commitment to liberty and justice for all.
The President’s proclamation goes on to note that
This month, we celebrate the cultural heritage, diverse contributions, and unbreakable spirit of African Americans. We commend the heroes, pioneers, and common Americans who tirelessly fought for — and firmly believed in — the promise of racial equality granted by our Creator, enshrined in our Constitution, and enacted into our laws. We pledge to continue to stand against the evils of bigotry, intolerance, and hatred so that we may continue in our pursuit of a more perfect Union.
And the Presidential proclamation concludes by calling
upon public officials, educators, and all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.
As an answer to that call – and more importantly because Jesus calls us and tells us we are blessed when we work to bring about the heavenly script with mercy, heart and peacemaking– we have started African American History month with the “I have a Dream” book Hannah read so well and with this sermon. We plan to have all the Children’s Moments in February reflect on the contributions of one or more African Americans for all of us to hear. I have also put up posters in the education wing of notable African Americans. The newsletter note also emphasized ways we are (and can be) involved this month in a local effort, Knox Alliance for Racial Equality. We are also singing We Shall Overcome as our clsoing hymn all month long. These are efforts to remember humans of every hue and color are not only created equal and endowed with God given rights but are one in Christ Jesus; and all goodly made in the image of God. We need to take steps like these to work to reverse the earthly power’s script to bring about the heavenly script with mercy, heart and peacemaking. These are small steps. May we take many more steps, large and small to do the blessed work of overcoming racism to help heaven to break in the here and the now. AMEN!

1. Hodgin, Michael 1001 More Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p.158