Gazing at the Underside

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Matthew 5:1-12

1.

Have you ever gazed at an icon?

One of the panels in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt contains the oldest known icon of Christus Pantokrator, aka, “Christ, the Lord of Hosts.” I’ve never been there. But I’ve seen photos.

This particular icon first caught my attention because there seemed to be something wrong with Jesus’ face. It seemed somehow asymmetric, kind of like he’d suffered a minor stroke or TIA.

That was the first time I gazed at it.

Somewhat unsettled, certainly puzzled, I returned to it. The second time, yes, indeed, I saw there was something not quite right about his face—it hadn’t been my imagination. I also noticed that, in his left hand, he held a large, thick book; and was making a sign of blessing with his right.

Well, I don’t know how many more times I returned to this icon—how many total minutes I spent gazing at it—before someone spoiled it for me (as I am now, perhaps, going to spoil it for you).

This imposter (a church history teacher, actually) came with a sheet of paper and covered up the right half of Jesus’ face. “What does the exposed half look like?” he asked.

“Judgment,” I said.

He smiled then covered up the left half and asked, “Now what?”

“Wow! That’s compassion!” I replied.

And it clicked! That’s what was wrong with his face. The left half, reflecting the Torah in his left hand, displayed the judgment side of God; whereas the right half displayed mercy, seen in his sign of blessing.

Anyway, good icons are like that: one grows in one’s understanding as one gazes.

2.

Well, today I don’t so much want to gaze at icons as I want to gaze with you at the underside of tabletops.

Last week, if you recall, I framed my sermon with the image of Jesus turning over tables both literal and figurative. Why am I surprised, then, when following Jesus feels like I’m gazing at the underside of tabletops?

For instance:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he teaches us, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

And so on.

But . . . the poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? These aren’t exactly the bullet points I want to put on my résumé.

Instead, these strike me as kind of upside down.

And why, again, are these people—these disciples of Jesus—called blessed? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Because they will be comforted? Because they will inherit the earth?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with this. It all sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk to me!

Sure, you can tell me all you want that if I behave myself in the here-and-now then I will be rewarded in the future. But such moralizing sounds an awful lot like what my second grade teacher used to tell me. I didn’t really buy it then; and I don’t buy it now.

It’s not the future that concerns me; I want to be blessed now! And I’m pretty sure being melancholy and mopey isn’t going to get me there.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek who get their way in this present life; but the confident, the self-assured, and—dare I say?—the pushy! It’s fine and well to want a nice life in the future, or a nice afterlife; but what about the here-and-now? I want to be blessed now!

I want Jesus to say something like:

Blessed are those who make a lot of money! For they can buy a comfortable home in a low-crime neighborhood; their kids can attend the best schools; and every amenity they could ever need or want is at their fingertips.

Why doesn’t Jesus tell me this? That’s what the culture around me is telling me! Why does following Christ have to feel so upside down, like I’m staring at the underside of a tabletop?

3.

But to gaze at the underside might not be such a bad thing. Jesus seems to know this—otherwise, why would he turn so many tables over in the first place?

Maybe that’s why he calls you and me and all the saints to do so.

I mean, isn’t that really what we do when we gather week after week, when we come together and engage in corporate spiritual practices—sacred story, sacred rituals, sacred music, sacred seasons? In these upside down practices we contemplate Jesus and the tables he has overturned.

And don’t we continue our underside musings during the week with individual practices like contemplative prayer, spiritual direction, and gazing at icons?

And—you know—the longer we gaze at the underside, the more we realize that this hidden, forgotten side of the table was meant by the Table-builder to be on top all along.

That’s why the beatitudes can feel so upside down. They’re the hidden side of the table; yet the side Jesus really wants us to see!

Remember those wants I listed earlier? When I said I wished Jesus would say that those who make a lot of money are blessed because they can live in a big house and so on?

Now—please hear me—these wants and dreams are not necessarily wrong. But they’re the American dream, not Jesus’ dream.

Jesus proclaims compassion, justice, and a society free from oppression and hatred, fear and guilt.

The beatitudes show us harmonious community.

But the other side of this table—the American dream side of this table—tells us a very different message: to live well, to look good, and to stand out; to be an individual.

4.

So what can we do about it? Is gazing at the underside of tabletops a valuable use of our time? Are the beatitudes reality? Or, is Jesus presenting us with an unrealizable ideal?

Most of us are individuals, after all, who have come together because of our common understanding of Christ—Christians, yes, but nevertheless individuals.

And besides, even if we do manage to break beyond our individualistic values and begin to form a cohesive common good, we’re still just one local body of Christ—and not a very big one at that—in the morass of modern American Christian individualism.

So what can we do?

Well, gazing at the underside of these tables is a lot like gazing at an icon: the more one does so, the more one comes to understand.

Most people today, I’m afraid, look only and ever at the topside (maybe we are partly to blame: maybe we aren’t overturning enough tables); and the topside shows only the individual.

What matters on the topside is that I love Jesus. It tells me to learn and cherish all those precious scriptures about my individual relationship with Jesus, that as long as I believe in him I shall not perish but have everlasting life even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!

Fine and well. But what the topside leaves out is all those Bible passages, many and manifold, about societal injustices, about neglecting the poor and destitute among us, about caring for widows and orphans (and we might add the homeless and mentally ill).

It tells us, instead, that the poor and destitute need to develop a better work ethic and embrace family values; that it’s not society’s fault, and so why should I be forced to pay taxes for the good of those unwilling to work for their food?

By way of contrast, the underside reveals to us (in agreement with Jesus), over time and much gazing, that social structures do in fact play a part.

I was shocked to learn in seminary, for example, that in our own “land of the free” people of color were denied mortgage loans on the basis of their skin color well into the 1980s. In fact, it is argued that in some regions of the country such discrimination continues to this day!

The people affected by this practice are true victims of a grievous social injustice!

Even more shocking to me was the sudden realization that I did not know this had been going on. Unlike so many others, I’d never had to experience this kind of systemic injustice personally. And wasn’t my ignorance, in itself, a kind of injustice?

Gazing at the underside, we begin to ask questions like this. Who are the true victims of the system? How do we care for them when we find them? How do we foster a compassionate social order for the common good?

As small a church as we are, then, we’re not too small to figure out some way of bringing the underside of the tables Jesus overturns into sharper focus, so that others can gaze with us.

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