Upside Down Saints

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

November 5th, 2017

St. John the Evangelist

All Saints’ (A): Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Earlier this year a YouTube video made the rounds in the churchy corners of the internet of an Eastern Orthodox priest in Georgia (the country) using a rather alarming technique to perform a baptism. He stood in front of a large font about waist high, took the baby (clothed only in a diaper; no fancy baptismal gowns here) and flipped him upside down, head-first into the water three times, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. No one in the video seemed too alarmed by this technique, and the babies were actually pretty amenable to it, but when I showed it to Melinda to ask if she thought I could baptize the babies this way today, she quickly put the kibosh on that idea. So parents, fear not, I won’t be flipping your baby upside down…but I have to warn you, Jesus just might.

Jesus was all about flipping our understanding of the world upside down. His message, over and over to the religious, social, and political hierarchies was that “You have it all wrong. What you think is up is down, because for God, what, and who are down, will be up.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in those famous “Blessed Art Thou’s” of the Beatitudes which served as our Gospel passage this morning. Jesus sits down on top of the mountain with his disciples and enumerates just how inverted things are going to get. Blessed are the poor, the meek and the mournful, and so on. Blessed, he’s saying, are the very people we think are not blessed. It is the radical inversion on display in these verse that I think makes them so famous. Rarely is Jesus so clear about the fact that the things God values and will reward are not often the things we value and reward. In this sense, to be a Christian in this world is to be counter-cultural. It is to be generous when the world tells you to look out only for yourself; to be patient when the world encourages you to rush; to be calm in a world of anxiety; to be hopeful in a world of despair; to be forgiving in a world of grudges; to be merciful and just in a world of vindictiveness and inequality; to serve in a world that encourages people to rule. In all these ways, Christians have to take what the world says they should be and flip it upside down.

I think one of the reasons we glorify Saints, and mark feasts like today All Saints’ Day, is because in a lot of respects, Saints are people who were able to live upside down lives. Somehow the message of Christ knocked them so completely head over heels, that they stayed that way. These are men and women who in many instances found satisfaction in servitude, richness in poverty, pleasure in prayer and peace in sacrifice. They were somehow able to live their faith with such complete commitment—even when the winds of the world blew hard against them—that it inspires us to try and do the same. That kind of authenticity, that synthesis between our faith and our life is something we long for but rarely seem to achieve the way they did.

But every time we baptize someone the opportunity for a new saint arises. The opportunity for a life that will fully follow the example of Christ is offered to us. Whether that life is grounded in the Beatitudes or the baptismal covenant, the question is the same: this is how God would have us be, can we do it? And for parents, Godparents, family, friends, congregation, it is our great responsibility and joy to help those who are baptized to answer “Yes!” to that question; to do all they can to inhabit the life of Christ, as fully as possible. And through doing that we ourselves are reminded that how God sees the world is often the inverse of how we’ve come to see it; that value and importance are to be found in the places we have stopped looking for them; and that true faith means living our life by Jesus’ rules, not someone else’s. The hope being that maybe such a reminder will encourage us, who may have given up on that saintly life, that perfect synthesis between the person God would have us be and the person that we are, to give it another shot. It’s a challenge. But each of these little cherubs has the makings of a saint and so do we, even still. That’s exciting. And it means that these babies might just end up upside down after all.


Unfinished Business

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

October 29th, 2017

Pentecost 21 (Proper 25 A): Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46

When I was younger one of my favorite movies was “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.” Do you know this movie? It’s about two dogs and a cat who through some mix up get separated from their family and have to travel across the entire country to find them. It was a live action movie with real animals playing the parts and actors doing their voicesHOMEWARD BOUND: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, Benj Thall, Kim Greist, Kevin Chevalia, Robert Hays, 1993, (c)Buena Vista Pictures They had various adventures and close calls along that incredible journey and while I don’t remember all the details, the scene that still sticks in my mind is the last one. After weeks of traveling through the wilderness, the pets somehow find their way to their family’s home and they come running through the back yard for a jubilant reunion with their beloved owners. Heroic music swells, there are smiles and tears and hugs and big slobbery kisses and the credits begin to roll.

            That’s how it should have gone. That’s how it should have gone for Moses. Well, maybe not the slobbery kisses, but that’s the kind of Hollywood ending he deserved. But that’s not how it went down. Continue reading


The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

October 15th, 2017

Pentecost 19 (Proper 23 A): Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Golden Calf

Of all the exceptional capacities human beings have, one of the most unique is our inherent capacity to be religious. From the earliest discoveries of human civilization, to the Egyptians, to the Native Americans, to the people of Israel, to the Greeks and Romans, to the East and to the West and the North and the South human beings share the conviction that there is something more to this world than what meets their senses, they share the drive to explore it, and the desire to worship it. Our capacity and inclination to worship is part of being human.

Like most deep desires, this desire to worship can be a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in that our questing spirits drive us to discover of God and experience God in our lives. In fact I see the common human desire to worship the divine as a powerful argument that God exists, how else could you explain such commonalities across such wildly different times and places? But the impulse to worship can be a bad thing when that impulse is directed away from God, for then it can lead us down some wayward paths. Our human need to worship can often lead us into the realm of idolatry. Continue reading