You Can Change the World: TURN THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
SCRIPTURE: ACTS 17: 1-8. (NKJV)
DATE: May 18, 2014
I have read and watched with great interest all of the news reports surrounding the opening of the 9/11 museum this past Thursday in New York. Last week there was what was described as a “solemn” procession from the City Morgue in New York to the museum to transport a container holding about 1000 human bone fragments that have never been identified that were found in the debris of the towers. One article said that there are still 100’s of people for whom no physical evidence of death has been found. It is still considered to be an open investigation as the coroner’s office continues to comb through debris trying to identify evidence of dead bodies. When asked why? officials say that families want closure. And really that’s what the 9/11 museum seems to be all about – closure. At least according to the initial news reports. But I hope for the families sake, as well as ours, there is also something about it that celebrates the life of those who perished that day. You know, Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb early on the day after the Sabbath, really seeking closure around the death of Jesus. They expected to find evidence of death in that tomb, but what they really found was proof of life. All of this has reminded me of the story that Tony Campolo tells about how as a balding, white Italian-American professor, sociologist and sometime pastor, he wound up becoming involved in a predominately African American church in Philadelphia. He said that it all began when he went to a funeral of a friend and colleague at that church. He said he had never attended a funeral at an African American church before. He was used to Italian funerals, which are sad and tragic occasions. There’s a lot of crying and wailing and mourning; very sad affairs. So he said, that’s what he expected. But, he said, he couldn’t have been more wrong. This funeral was fun. Campolo said that the pastor began by talking about the joy of life after death for 15 minutes. In fact, Campolo said that “he made it sound so wonderful that half way through his talk, I wished I was dead.” But that was just the beginning. After speaking about life after death for a while, the pastor stepped over to where the family was gathered and he spoke words of comfort directly to them. Quoted scripture. It was like they were the only ones there, even though the church was packed. But when he finished with the family he wasn’t finished. Because then he stepped over to the casket and he started preaching to the corpse. Campolo said, “What’s that like preaching to a corpse? Well, ask many protestant ministers what it’s like to preach to the dead and they will tell you they have that experience every Sunday?” (Not at St. Luke, of course. But just in case, reach over and nudge the person sitting next to you.) But to his amazement Campolo said, the preacher started yelling out the deceased’s name. “Clarence. Clarence.” he said. And Campolo said he spoke with such power and authority he would not have been surprised if Clarence answered. But once he got Clarence’s attention, the preacher said, “Clarence, there were a lot of things that we should have thanked you for because you did a lot of good things in your life. But you left too soon Clarence. We didn’t get a chance to thank you.” And then he spent another 15 minutes thanking Clarence for all the good things he had done on this earth. And then when he had finished with that, he said, “Well that’s it Clarence. That’s it. There’s nothing more to say and when there’s nothing more to say, there’s only one thing to say.” And then he did something that I have wanted to do so many times when presiding over a funeral where the casket was still open but I’ve never had the guts to do it. The preacher said, “Good night Clarence. Good night.” And then he reached over and grabbed the lid of the casket and slammed it shut. The sound of the casket lid slamming down reverberated all over that Sanctuary. Campolo said that everyone there was shocked at what had just happened. And then the preacher lifted his head, got this big smile on his face and said, in that wonderful style of the great African American preachers, “Good night Clarence. It will be a good night. Because I know . . . I know . . . . that God is going to give you a great morning.” And with that Campolo said the choir immediately sprung up and started into an old spiritual, “In That Great Getting Up Morning We Shall Rise. We Shall Rise.” And the whole congregation got to their feet and started to sing and dance and cheer and they were hugging each other. And Campolo said that it was at that moment that he knew that he was in the right church because this was a church that could take death and turn it into a celebration. “That’s the church of Jesus Christ.” he said. That’s the church of the Empty Tomb. That’s the church that will change the world. That’s the church of Jesus Christ alive today. And we should be celebrating that every time we gather, not just on Easter Sunday. So today we are continuing our Easter Celebration as we continue to think how Christ alive through us will change the world.
When I was a kid I had this marvelous toy. It was shaped much like a periscope. On one end was where you looked in. And then there was a square tube about a foot and a half long and at the other end the viewfinder. It came in great when we would play army, which we did a lot as kids. You could hide behind something and then stick the periscope up and look all around to see if anyone was coming without having to stick your head up. Or you could look around the side of buildings. It was a wondrous toy. And what made it even more wondrous was that it had a knob on the side of it and if you turned the knob you could look to see what was behind you rather than in front of you. And if you turned the knob again it would make everything look like it was upside down. I never knew exactly why you would need to look at the world upside down but it was great fun and so I used that feature a lot. I discovered that sometimes an upside down world looks better than one that is supposed to be right side up. Of course, at that age I had no idea how that little gadget made the world appear upside down, but that didn’t stop me from sharing that experience with my friends. I don’t know what happened to that toy. I suppose I wore it out in time, or maybe it’s tucked away in a long forgotten box in an attic somewhere. And over the years I learned in science class that it worked with mirrors and when you shifted the angle of the mirrors it changed the perspective of the view. And I also learned, as I grew older that there were many things other than that toy that could make my world appear to be upside down. But those times didn’t seem nearly as much fun as my toy made an upside down world seem.
In this passage from Acts, the journey of the Apostle Paul had taken him to the city of Thessalonica. And as was his custom when he visited a new place, Paul sought out the Jewish synagogue and for three weeks taught the Jews of Thessalonica the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And things were going pretty well. We are even told that some of the Jews believed, along with many of the Greeks and many of the women who came to hear Paul, and they joined Paul and Silas on their missionary journey. However, Paul wore out his welcome, and the scripture says that some of the Jews were outraged and they led a mob in an assault on the place where Paul was staying. And their charge was that Paul and his people were “turning the world upside down.”I suspect, that even though Paul didn’t enjoy facing another angry mob, He liked the charge that was leveled against him. Guilty as charged of “turning the world upside down.” But, of course, they were only half right. Because it was not Paul who was turning the world upside down, it was Jesus through him who was doing that, just as he had been accused of about 30 years before, precipitating the dizzying chain of events that led to his crucifixion. Elsworth Kalas in his discussion of Acts for the Disciple Bible Study says that Jesus and His followers did not turn the world upside down, but rather they turned it right side up. Well, however, we want to describe it, there is no doubt that the mob was right. By preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul and his followers, the earliest Christians were seeking to disrupt what had become the order of the world because that’s exactly what their Lord had come to do. They set about to change the world by turning the established order upside down. But at first glance such turmoil seems so out of character with the Jesus that we learn about in Sunday school. When we were children we learned the children’s songs about Jesus. “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”, “Jesus Loves Me”, “Away In A Manger”. We learned an image of Jesus that was reflected in those songs, a man who was meek and mild, never got angry or upset. Never raises His voice; kind and understanding. It is that kind of imagery which most often comes to mind when we talk about Jesus in today’s church— meek and mild, not offensive to anyone. But that’s not who Jesus was. Jesus came to replace what had become an evil world with the Kingdom of God: to disrupt the established order. In essence to restore the world to the way that God had intended at creation. And in a world that seems to have capsized once again, we need Jesus to turn things upside down once more. But the problem is that, in so many cases, we have watered down the Gospel to try and make it palatable. We have watered it down so much to try and make it compatible with so called cultural trends and norms, that rather than turn the world upside down, all we can manage is an occasional ripple in the tide. Perhaps today’s equivalent of the the charge that was leveled at Paul and his followers, are those who say that the church is out of touch with the world and today’s culture. That is, of course, meant to be a criticism of the church, but I really find it to be an affirmation that, in some respects at least, we are doing exactly what Jesus wanted His Disciples to do.
Stanley Hauerwaus is a professor at Duke University and he often begins his class by reading a letter from a parent to a high official. The parent complains that their son who was once a highly motivated and obedient young man had gotten involved with some weird religious group. The group had completely taken over his life, forced him to forsake all of his friends, and turned him against his family. The parent pleaded with this official to intervene against this group which had disrupted their family and caused such pain. Then Hauerwaus asks the class, “What is this letter about?”And the class answers like we would expect, naming several of the prominent cults that continue to try to establish themselves on a college campus. And after several minutes of speculation, Hauerwaus reveals to his students that the letter was actually written by a third century Roman parent about a weird religious group called “Christians”. They were turning the world upside down. Did you know that those early Christians were considered to be such a threat to Roman society and order, that for the first three hundred years the practice of Christianity was considered to be criminal activity? They were enemies of the state because they sought to turn the world upside down. And those early disciples were all punished as the criminals they were. And the church grew and thrived underground and in the shadows. In fact, a case could be made that it wasn’t until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire and brought Christianity out of the shadows, that the explosive growth began to wane and the church, rather than being a counter-cultural movement, began to drift towards a cultural icon. In fact there are those who believe that was exactly what Constantine planned on. Three centuries of death and persecution couldn’t stop the church from growing underground, so he brought it out of the catacombs to see if it could withstand the light of day. Well for the last three weeks we have been talking and thinking and praying about how each one of us can change the world. The first week we said that most often the way that you and I change the world is one soul at a time. And then we said that it’s not just our world, the places and people that we know and are comfortable with that we seek to change. As Disciples, we are to be Jesus throughout the whole world, among all peoples. That, in essence, is how we can turn it upside down. While we have been in the midst of this series, posters have started appearing around the church about vacation Bible School. And those posters feature a child who appears to be hanging from a wire, upside down. And it occurred to me that that was a great visual image of this passage from Acts. And then a week or so ago, Mark Walz received the outside banner with that image on it and when he unrolled it to show it to us, he had the banner upside down so it appeared that the child was on her knees right side up and everything else was upside down. And it occurred to me that perhaps that would be the better way to display the banner –signifying that the true vision of VBS in July is to help children get right side up, in what must seem to them an often upside down world. And the best place to begin is on our knees. Because when we talk about changing the world, aren’t we really talking about making things right side up with God again, whether that means turning humanity right side up, or turning the world upside down? You see, most of the world tends to view the empty tomb as something completely out of the ordinary, unheard of, a miracle of epic proportions. But as Disciples we should know that it was really none of those things. The empty tomb returned God’s order to the world that had been thrown into chaos by the actions of human beings. The empty tomb brought life back to a world where we had created death. Eternity back to creation. So in essence resurrection faith is not so much about changing the world as it is about restoring the world to what God created in the first place. It is about turning the world upside down so that it can truly be right side up once again. Because Jesus, the Messiah, came to restore the Kingdom of God on this earth. And when He sent the Disciples into all the world, He literally unleashed His living presence everywhere, in all time and in all places. And so today we want to celebrate life and pray for a world in which Jesus Christ is alive this very moment and through His Disciples changing the world one life at a time until truly Jesus Christ is in every life. But in a world that seems more intent on removing Christ from every life, which will require Disciples with the courage to turn the world upside down, to change the world. John Masefield was a popular British poet and writer of the Twentieth Century and one of his most popular works was a play called The Trial of Jesus, which is about the Passion of Christ. And in a scene at the end of the drama, the Roman Officer who was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus comes to report to Pilate concerning Jesus’s death. And he meets Pilate’s wife who, of course, had dreamt that the death of Jesus was going to come back and haunt her husband for the rest of his days. And she says to to the officer. “Tell me Centurian, did you see Him die.”“I did madame. I saw him do what men call die.”“You don’t sound as though you believe he’s dead.”Pilate’s wife accuses. “I don’t believe He’s dead, Madame. I don’t believe He’s dead.”“Then,”Pilate’s wife says, nearly panicking now, “if you don’t believe He’s dead –where is He?” And the Officer pauses for a moment and then he says: “I think He’s been let loose on the whole world. They’ll never catch that man again.” That’s resurrection faith. When the earth quaked and the stone fell away and Jesus stepped from the Empty Tomb, God let Him loose on the whole world. And no matter what we humans have done or will do, they’ll never catch Him again. He made sure of that when He unleashed His disciples to go and turn the world upside down. And we have been unleashed too.