Upside-Down (Sermon for May 3, 2020)

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Every year, on the very first day of confirmation, I take the kids on a scavenger hunt. Some of the things that they have to find are things: hands, a lamb of God, a ship, a manatee. And some of the things that they have to find are people: Annette Mohr, Derek Fox, Carol Beck, and Alice Mabel Mannington.

You know Mabel. You’ve heard the name before.

Mabel Mannington was the pastor of this congregation from 1918 to 1921. She was ordained in this church in 1919. Under her leadership, more members participated in the work of the congregation… and the Sunday School grew larger… and the church paid off its debts… and more and more people joined the congregation.

And I’m sure that some of that success was because of Mabel. And I’m sure that some of that success was because the church was willing to make a proclamation about who it was.

In a time when women could not vote… in a time when women could not hold their own bank accounts… in a time when women could be stripped of their citizenship if they married a foreigner… a little church in a little town in Iowa was willing to say, “Our pastor is Alice Mabel Mannington. That’s who we are.”

One Iowan who had heard Rev. Mannington preach wrote to The Continent, a Presbyterian journal, to say that, “she speaks with the assurance that comes only to those who know that of which they speak.”

And I’m sure that when she spoke, some people were persuaded; some people were convinced.

And I’m sure that when she spoke, some people were not persuaded; some people were not convinced. After all, that same Iowan, in that same letter to The Continent, wrote, “All honor to these great women, who have to do their great work against the great odds of a prejudiced ministry and laity.”

I’m sure that some people said, “Those people at that Congregational Church are turning the world upside-down!”

Every year, we work our way through a version of the Narrative Lectionary. In September, we start reading through the Old Testament. Around Christmas, we start working our way through one of the four gospels. And that means that books like Acts and the epistles and Revelation just kind of get crammed into the end of the Easter season, before the freeform sermon series of summer.

And that means that we don’t spend much time with Paul, who takes up so much space in Acts, and who wrote so many of the epistles in the New Testament, and who shaped the church in so many ways.

But you know Paul. You’ve heard the name before.

Paul was Jewish. And not just Jewish, he was a Pharisee. And not just a Pharisee, but someone who actively persecuted Christians. Paul was there when the authorities executed Stephen. Paul breathed threats and murder against the disciples. Paul wanted to go to the synagogues of Damascus… and root out those secret followers of Jesus… and bring them to Jerusalem in chains.

And then, on the road to Damascus, something happened. The book of Acts tells the story a couple of different ways, and Paul never quite tells the story in his letters, but something happened: Paul encountered the risen Christ, and he was filled with the Spirit, and he went and proclaimed the gospel… to gentiles… to people like us.

And he argued with Jewish people.

In today’s reading from Acts, we meet Paul in Thessalonica. And, as is his custom whenever he sees a synagogue, he is arguing with Jewish people. For three weeks, he argues with them and tries to convince them of the impossible: that the Messiah—the chosen one of God, who would restore the throne of their ancestor David and make Israel great—had to suffer and die and rise again; and that the suffering and dying and rising messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.

And some people are persuaded; some people are convinced: some of the Jews, and some of the gentiles, and many of the women.

And some people are not persuaded; some people are not convinced. And they start breathing threats against the believers, saying, “These people are turning the world upside-down!”

The church is in the business of preaching the impossible:

That the God who created and who sustains the world—the God who is sovereign over all creation, king of kings and lord of lords—put glory aside and became one of us among a dispossessed people in an occupied land.

That the God who became one of us was betrayed and arrested and hung on a cross. That the sovereign of all creation died like a common criminal. That the king of kings and lord of lords was executed by an empire that claimed all honor for itself. That the messiah was laid in a tomb.

That Christ got up again. That, somehow, through all of that, all of the world—including people like us—was redeemed and restored. And that, someday, the world will be as God intended it to be.

The church is in the business of turning the world upside-down:

Of imitating the God who put glory aside and became one of us. Of imitating the God who loved the world so much that he laid down his life for its sake and for ours. Of imitating the God who was laid in a tomb… and who got up again… and who kept loving.

Of imitating the God who is love… by loving.

And I know we’re in a time when we love from a distance because keeping a safe distance is a loving thing to do. But normally—most of the time—the love that we are about is not love from a distance… or love that keeps us safe… or love that keeps us respectable. 

It is a risky love… among dispossessed people… where we must pick up our crosses… where we may have to die… where we may have to rise again. It is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

It is the kind of love that makes people say, “Those people are turning the world upside-down!”

And I know that can be hard. It is scary to love with the love that turns the world upside down. It is scary to be loved with the love that turns the world upside down.

But here’s the thing: we know how to do it.

We can look to the example of the fishermen to left their boats and their nets… and who followed a stranger who had called them.

We can look to the example of the man who persecuted the church… and who encountered the living Christ and took the gospel to the ends of the earth.

We can look to a line of saints who have risked everything for the sake of the kingdom of God.

We can even look to our own congregation, which, during a great pandemic, ordained and installed a woman as its pastor, paying no attention to the cries of a prejudiced ministry and laity.

Later, after Paul has left Thessalonica—after a church has sprung up there, after a little consulate of the kingdom has grown there—he writes a letter to the Thessalonians. And in that letter, he tells them that he keeps hearing these good things about them: about how they imitate Christ and about how they love.

And he asks them to do more.

We’ve spent the last few weeks doing the impossible. At least, we’ve spent the last few weeks doing the very weird and very hard. It might even feel like this great pandemic has turned the world upside-down. It certainly feels like the world is askew.

And I know that we are eager to get back to normal. I know that I am eager to get back to normal.

But we are the church. We are not here to be normal. We are here to do the impossible; we are here to turn the world upside-down; we are here to get down in the dirt and love… in ways that are wild and dangerous and full of grace.

And we are called to do that more.

So I am going to make a big ask. We have already used this time to take on new ways of being the church. We have already used this time to imagine how we might carry those ways of being the church into the future.

Let’s also use this time—this time as a church, this time as families, this time as individuals—to imagine new ways to preach the impossible… to imagine new ways to cause people to cry out, “Those people at First Congregational United Church of Christ are turning the world upside-down!”

Because the world turned upside-down might just be the kingdom of God!

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