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Upside Down Reality


Matthew 16:13-20

I saw it yesterday on Spring Pond. I’m betting most of you have seen it: when the wind is calm, the water is mirror smooth, and the light is coming at just the right slant, the sky and the trees and the landscape are perfectly reflected on the water’s surface upside down, and the reflection can look clearer and more real than what is actually there.

That, says the Hebrew and Christian Bible, is how God sees the world: upside down from the way we usually see it. We see the world sponsored by the ones who are in control: the winners, the top dogs, the mighty and the famous. God sees the world from the standpoint of the refugee, the migrant, the homeless child, the abused woman, the exploited worker, the unemployed coal miner, the addict, the underdog. God sees the world from the bottom up. God loves the world from the bottom up.

It starts in our Exodus reading Patty presented. It’s the birth story of Moses, which begins the great drama of liberation from slavery in Egypt and the forming of the Jewish people, our partners and mentors in faith. Last week we read about Joseph, sold by his brothers, arriving in Egypt, the dominant nation of 1500 BCE, dragging chains of slavery. Joseph, inspired by God, organized a brilliant system of famine relief during a time of climate change, took charge of the Pharaoh’s entire grain industry, and saved an entire nation from starvation. He also got jobs and homes in Egypt for his 11 brothers, their families, and the whole Hebrew tribe.

Then things turned upside down. A descendant, a new Pharaoh, inherited the Kingdom and ruled as God, (as was the habit in those days ). He declared Joseph a fake and Joseph’s growing tribe a horde of dangerous, hostile wetbacks bent on replacing the hereditary population, the “real” Egyptians, by overbreeding. A return to slave status was the king’s chosen solution. Patty read to us what happened next:

Once tyrants get started, it’s hard to stop. The Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew boy babies be slaughtered. As God, and as the son of the sun god Ra, if Pharaoh said “jump”, the response was “how high?” The slaughter proceeded. But — two of the Hebrew midwives, introduced to us by name, Shiprah and Puah, let the boy babies live, undercutting the King’s command. The Hebrew women, they said, were just too speedy in childbirth, delivering their babies before the midwives could arrive. Then Pharaoh escalated, ordering not just the Hebrew midwives, but every citizen of the Kingdom to participate in the genocide, hurling Hebrew boy babies into the Nile to drown the way farmers sometimes drown unwanted cats.

But a Levite’s wife - Levites were the tribe of priests, so, in our terms, a “pastor’s wife”, (I can so totally see Binnie or Mary or Ashley or Anne doing this. Pastor’s spouses learn to be strategic ) a Levite’s wife protected her boy baby by building a floating bassinet, waterproofed with tar, and setting it adrift in the river current just above the spot where the Pharaoh’s daughter came every day with her handmaidens to bathe. The Pharaohs daughter found the baby, took him home to raise him, and, amazingly, hired the baby’s own mother to be his nurse. And that baby, spared through womanly ingenuity, was Moses, the Martin Luther King of his time, who led the Hebrew people out from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. The Pharaoh, the king, who knew he was God with total control was upstaged by a midwife slave who said “no way” to his order to commit genocide.

Golda Meir, the first president of the modern state of Israel, was a direct descendant of Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who stuck their fingers in the Pharaoh’s evil eye. And Harriet Tubman, the Black Moses. And members of the resistance to Nazi oppression. And Medgar Evers. And Anne Frank. And Martin Luther King, on this 60th anniversary of the the March on Washington which was re-enacted yesterday. How lovely that we are assigned this foundational Bible message today.

When worldly leaders, or would-be leaders, drunk with power, turn things upside down, God, through God’s people, acts to turn things right side up. So much in our world is the inverse, the opposite of what God designs, and our faith is a resource to help us unpack our own illusions and see things from God’s point of view. People have learned techie tricks to make upside down reality look real, and it’s got us a a little bonkers. We need all the help we can get to keep grounded in reality.

Fast forward 1500 hundred years from Moses to the time of Jesus, that adopted son of Joseph, conceived in the womb of an unmarried mom, someone many in his world would have considered expendable scum from a corrupt town in a disreputable part of the country. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was a popular saying of the day. Jesus was born at a time when a king like Pharaoh, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, ruled as God. In 70 AD the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by Roman soldiers because Jews as a people refused to worship the Roman emperor as a god. Matthews Gospel was written down sometime after 70 AD in the aftermath of that catastrophe when, according to historian Josephus, over a million Jews died, hundreds of them crucified. It was against that historical background Matthew’s Jesus asked his disciples, the friends and students who knew him best,

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” “Son of Man” was the title Jesus applied to himself,”’huios anthropos” in Greek, “Son of the Human.” “Hey, Man,” people in my old neighborhood would say. Jesus, referring to himself, third person, would have said, “Who do people say “The Man” is?

“ Some say John the Baptist, some say you remind them of Elijah, some say you’re more like Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” These were all well-known and honored heroes, all of whom suffered for confronting corrupt rulers. “But who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus persists.

“You are the Christ, the son of the living God” utters Simon son of Jonah, thereby earning the new name, “Petros” meaning “Rock”. Dangerous words! “Christ” is a greek word meaning “anointed.” Singled out for a purpose, a translation from the Aramaic “Messiah,” and it referred to an expected revolutionary military leader who would raise an army of humans or angels and drive the Romans out of the Holy Land. “Son of God” meant, for most people at that time, a king or emperor who would rule over a re-established Jewish dynasty and establish God’s kingdom on earth as a political and historical reality.

What Simon Peter is saying is “You, Jesus, are God on earth, not Caesar!” And Jesus, after praising him, and promising him a key future role in the Jesus movement says, “Hush. Don’t tell a soul.” Because Jesus knows that to follow him is going to be dangerous. To even say what Peter has said is dangerous. People are being betrayed, arrested, locked up for saying what Peter just said. It’s like saying, in Moscow’s Red Square, “Putin is a fraud” and then buying an airplane ticket.

Just a few verses after Peter’s confession Jesus lays out the mission strategy: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him or her deny themselves take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

In order to turn the world dominated by fear and oppression into a world dominated by love and forgiveness, Jesus is going to go, willingly, to his death. To conquer the violent by nonviolence. To conquer the vengeful through loving service. Having been betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, abandoned by the rest of his friends, mocked and ridiculed and condemned by his countrymen and tortured by the civil authorities Jesus will say, breathing his last through a thick haze of pain, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And then, he will be unable to stay dead. He will rise into the life of his followers, as he rises into our lives when we gather in the hope of changing a world of fear and oppression into a world of love and forgiveness. He rises into our lives when we help others face death and live in the inevitability of our own mortality, unafraid. He rises into our lives as we strive to conquer violence, in ourselves and in others through nonviolence and when we disarm the vengeful through loving service. He rises into our lives when we set aside our own goals and desires to meet the needs ofd others.

I felt very honored that other morning, when the light was just right, and the water was perfectly still, and the wind was calm and the trees and sky and the landscape were reflected in the mirror surface of the water upside down, and the reflection looked brighter and more real than the reality itself. When you can see with the eyes of Jesus and God, this upside-down world looks right side up, and the world of justice and peace we dream seems more real than the broken reality we survive in these days. “I have a dream that justice will roll down like a mighty stream,” Dr. King famously said, 60 years ago tomorrow. And we need to keep dreaming. That’s who we are, North Woods Pilgrims, we are the Dreamkeepers.

You, and I, and we, like Peter said of Jesus, are anointed peaceful warriors, anointed messiahs, legitimate sons or daughters, persons of God, equally crafty as Puah and Shiprah, equally daring as Martin, Medgar, Harriet to deny our own comfort and to pursue the heavenly vision of justice for all. So, Here we go! I can’t wait to hear the stories!


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