Sunday, April 2, 2017

Pure in Heart

Psalm 24:1-5, Matthew 5: 1-2, 7-8
March 19, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

In this week’s selection from the Beatitudes, Jesus makes a shift in his sermon focus. Up to now he has focused on the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, calling them “greatly honored.” Now he focuses his words of blessing on the merciful and the pure in heart. Once again, he quotes directly from the Psalms, and uses a term that is infrequently used in the Scriptures – the “pure in heart.” The first scriptural mention of the pure hearted is in Psalm 24. Let’s listen for the promise of God’s realm in Psalm 24: 1-5:

The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

We return to the fifth chapter of Matthew now,
to these blessings from the Sermon on the Mount.
Listen for the blessing of God’s word to you in Matthew 5: 1-2, 7-8:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

You probably heard or saw last week the debate in congress over what constitutes an act of mercy. Speaker Ryan referred to a particular piece of legislation as an “act of mercy.” Senator Kennedy disputed that claim, quoting the gospel of Matthew, saying that scripture “calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.” Now whatever you think of that piece of legislation to which Ryan referred, when it comes to the definition of mercy, Kennedy had it right. The dictionary definition of merciful is “treating people with kindness and forgiveness : not cruel or harsh: having or showing mercy : giving relief from suffering.” In Jesus’ context, being merciful meant more than just feeling pity. Mercy was not only pity or clemency, but loyalty, and steadfast love. It consisted of feeling, action, and commitment. Professor Margaret Aymer, in her study of the Beatitudes, says that

“One who shows mercy feels emotion when faced with the pain of another, takes action on behalf of that person, and demonstrates ongoing dedication to that person…
The promise of the fifth beatitude is that those who show mercy shall be shown mercy.
Jesus teaches that those who are merciful will experience the compassion, intervention, and dedication of the God of mercy.“

This fifth beatitude is the only one that is reflexive in that way - in the other beatitudes, the blessed see God, or inherit the earth. Here, the merciful receive mercy. Perhaps Jesus wants us to understand that receiving mercy, as we receive mercy from God, unlocks our hearts to let mercy in, and then, with our hearts pure and open, we can let mercy flow. Both the receiving and the giving of mercy bring a blessing. Shakespeare phrased it this way:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.[1]

But it seems that this mercy, falling on us like a gentle rain from heaven, goes unnoticed in today’s atmosphere. We are so awash in consumer goods, in self centeredness, in competition, in judgment of others, in the flood of messages of fear and suspicion, that we cannot feel the rain of mercy falling on us even now.

And because we do not feel it, it becomes hard for us to pass it along.
We are showered with blessings but we are thirsty, so thirsty!
Water, water, everywhere, we say, but nary a drop to drink.

Friends, we do have mercy falling on us like a gentle rain!
It is God’s mercy - that loving kindness,
which is from everlasting to everlasting.

God’s mercy washes us clean – enabling us to show mercy - and that is what makes makes us “pure in heart.” When Jesus refers to the “pure in heart” he is making reference to Psalm 24. But what does it mean to have clean hands and a pure heart?

We remember Pilate, before Jesus went to the cross, washing his hands of the matter.
His hands were washed, but no one would say Pilate had clean hands or pure heart, in the matter. Washing your hands gets them clean, if you are thorough. Making your heart pure is more complicated. Perhaps clean hands and a pure heart refer to congruence between the outward action and inward motivation. Perhaps clean hands and pure heart are a kind of shorthand for righteousness – for being in right relationship with God and neighbor.

In spiritual terms, it sounds like an inside job.
In practical terms, it is probably far simpler.

When I was trying to think of a practical example of what it might look like to be merciful, and to be pure in heart, I ran across the story of Ginger Sprouse and her friend, Victor.[2]

Let’s start with Ginger. She’s a wife, mom, and entrepreneur - runs a cafe called “Art of the Meal.” Looks like a nice person, Ginger does. And as she drove to her café every day, she saw Victor, standing at the corner.

The same corner.
Every day.
For three years.

People in town wondered about Victor.
Who was he? Why was he on the corner every day?

Ginger did more than wonder.
She started spending her lunch break getting to know Victor.

She discovered that Victor, who has some mental health issues, was standing on that corner every day because it was the last place he had seen his mother. Gradually, as their friendship developed, Victor visited Ginger’s home. Occasionally he’d stay with her family, to get out of the weather. It didn’t stop there. Ginger started a Facebook page called “This is Victor.” She set up a “GoFundMe” website for him. 

She arranged for him to get dental care, medical care, and new glasses. Ginger made sure Victor was in the social service system, so that his ongoing mental health issues could be addressed. That necessitated getting some form of identification for Victor. He had no ID, no Social Security card, no birth certificate, not a single piece of paper that proved his identity. Eventually, Victor was placed in permanent housing, and was given a bicycle to use for transportation, and Ginger hired him to work at her café. All this is amazing and wonderful, merciful and righteous.

But here’s what struck me about the story: Ginger could not do most of what she did alone. Yes, her initial conversations and lunches with Victor were her action. But there were many, many others in her community who had noticed Victor, brought him food, given him money. They, too, had wondered, “Who is this pleasant young man on the corner?” “What is his story? Why does he stand there day after day?”

They cared – I have no doubt they cared about Victor. But it was not until Ginger spoke up for him, became his voice, that the community began to act in his behalf. Ginger didn’t save Victor! At least not on her own!

Ginger was merciful, and pure in heart, but that was not just a feeling. 
The story of Ginger and Victor is a story of mercy in its purest sense:

Mercy as emotion – Ginger felt compassion for Victor.
Mercy as action – Ginger began to develop a relationship with Victor,
and continued to act and to speak out on his behalf.
Mercy as dedication – Ginger showed steadfast love and commitment.
She didn’t just feed Victor, or give him money or a bicycle,
she stood with him until he was able to stand on his own.

You may be wondering why this white Texas woman would help this mentally ill young black man. I certainly wondered. What prompts a nice middle class white lady to bring a homeless black man with mental illness into her home, with her children, into her life, and her business?

Then I found her personal Facebook page. What would you guess was the motivation for Ginger to help Victor? If you guessed that it was her faith, you are correct. Ginger had received mercy. She said of herself:

“I'm a redeemed disciple of Jesus.
Committed to serving Christ in my life, family, work and community.”

It started with a simple meal, an offering of mercy to one who had nothing.
You know the story well, for you also have been hungry, broken, alone –
maybe not physically so, but spiritually so.

You know the story well, for you, too, have been welcomed to a table,
you, too, have received mercy, received a pure heart,
been given the bread of new life, and the cup of salvation.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Friends, God’s mercy is here for us, to open our hearts, to make them pure.
God’s table is set, and we are welcomed in, to come and sit and feast at the table of blessing.

Thanks be to God!


[1] Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice” Act IV, Scene 1


1 comment:

  1. Great story and illustration. I wish I had taken a picture of the sign, an ordinary-sized yard sign like one for a candidate or a going out of business sale, I saw Saturday. It was near the entrance to a small strip mall. It had no context, like an invitation to church or proximity to anything bur retail. It just said, "Practice Kindness." That's close enough to mercy for me.