“Blessed are the Merciful and Pure in Heart”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 19, 2017
University Baptist Church
As you know, throughout this month we are exploring the Beatitudes that begin Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. As we said before, these are stepping stones for a faithful life.
Jesus begins by saying blessed are the poor in spirit. These are not the physically or economically poor, but the ones who are emptied, who long to be in right relationship with God—the people who have suffered and are at the end of their ropes. They are the ones who recognize their need for God.
This is followed by blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. These people do not seek the comfort of platitudes, the patting on the head and saying things will be all right in the sweet by and by. These are people who care enough about the brokenness they see around them that they mourn. And their mourning takes on action that seeks to make the world a bit saner. That’s the kind of comfort that they seek.
Last week we looked at blessed are meek and blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice. The meek are not just doormats, but they are humble and they are gentle. And as such they have tapped into great power that comes from knowing who you are and whose you are. When you are meek, you do not use your authority or position or even your strength to abuse someone else. You use your power to bring about justice. Only then you are worthy of inheriting the earth.
As a result, you hunger and thirst for righteousness, also translated as justice. You hunger and thirst, you long, you crave a better condition and you will not rest until you are satisfied. We need those kind of people—those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Next week, the beatitudes will culminate in blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Of course, they will also be persecuted for doing so.
But first we need to reach the next rungs on the ladder: Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. And blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
The first one makes sense: you get back what you give—mercy for mercy. But the second is the odd one. The pure in heart will see God. Does that mean that if our hearts are not pure then we don’t see God? Will the god we see be a partial image? How about a deceptive image? Here’s another question, can you become pure in heart if you have done some great wrong in your life or does that stain stay with you for the rest of your days? It’s so much easier to talk about mercy. So let’s do that first.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. We spent an entire worship year talking about just mercy just a year ago. We looked not only at the criminal justice system, but also the ways that we have been less than merciful in our words and our actions. Looking at this topic made us consider housing people who are threatened with deportation.
I think about the work we are preparing to do as we welcome people seeking sanctuary in our building. This is about being merciful. One commentator said this is about unconditional love-serving others without counting the cost. It involves giving of ourselves, dying to our own agendas, timetables, dreams, plans and priorities. We cannot know what people might be facing when they come to our doors. It’s about keeping families together. It’s about holding people in their grief and showing them our lives as merciful people.
Mercy is one of the ways you will know a Christian. A real Christian. Mercy shows up in the Bible 276 times. We say it in the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Grant us mercy as we grant mercy.
The Hebrew word for mercy is HESED. It’s also translated as steadfast love. It’s the love of God. It’s ultimate steady, uncompromising love. Psalm 136 says over and over again, “God’s hesed, God’s mercy endures forever.” But how about ours? How can we live merciful lives? Hear this, the ones who receive mercy are the ones who give it. Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Mercy is not pity or compassion or sympathy. Mercy is something that you do! There’s also a power dynamic to it. We have compassion on someone and we walk the road together. When we have mercy on someone, we grant them something. Mercy implies a power imbalance. One gives mercy and one receives it. It’s like a mercy-or and a mercy-ee. In Biblical terms we ask God to have mercy on us, like a judge in an ultimate courtroom. Have mercy on me. Save me from the pits of hellfire and damnation. Or if not that, have mercy on me and save me from the person who really annoys me, which can feel like hell.
St. Augustine said in one of his sermons: “Two works of mercy set a person free; forgive and you will be forgiven and give and you will receive.” How are we at giving and receiving mercy?
When we are merciful, we stand the risk of being used. Think loan sharks, politicians. Jesus says we are to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. For the alternative is to be mean. Meanness carries more risk than mercy.
We ought to love people and use things, but too often we love things and use people.
Jean Vanier once asked, “Is not one of our problems today that we have separated ourselves from the poor and the wounded and the suffering? We have too much time to discuss and theorize and have lost the yearning for God which comes when we are faced with the sufferings of the people.”
Psychologist Karl Menninger said that the best way to prevent a nervous breakdown is to put on your coat, turn the doorknob, go across the tracks and find someone to minister to.
Mercy is about giving of ourselves, but not for selfish gain. We are blessed when we do so for it might inspire mercy in others.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. We’ll try, we really will.
Blessed are the pure in heart comes as an introspective shock. We think our mercy and our activism makes us good people. We do our part. We like people’s rants on Facebook. We write and even protest our elected officials. Heck we even point out the flaws in others and say they are fit or unfit for office. We want everyone to be pure, just like us. Jesus said those without sin should cast the first stone. Dang it. We have such a nice pile of stones that are all ready.
To be pure in heart means to have our priorities in the right place. It means that we must not have conflicting loyalties. To be pure in heart means that we must seek first the kin-dom of God and it’s righteousness, then all the other good things will be added unto us.
To be pure in heart means that (as Jesus says in Matthew 5:20) “our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and Scribes.”
To be pure in heart means that we must be totally convinced and committed to our faith in God. The minute that we put our faith or trust in something other than God, we have lost our purity.
We can be swayed and have our eyes on different prizes. When that happens, we can’t see clearly at all. The pure in heart shall see God.
Clarence Jordan said that the “pure in heart won’t hesitate to dump mammon, race, prejudice, militarism, egotism or any other jealous demonic gods which demand respect and obedience.” The pure in heart will be the opposite of the hypocrites with two gods: one for inside and one for the outside. Keeping your eyes on two masters makes you cross-eyed and your vision is blurred. Neither is in clear focus. But those pure on the inside and out can see clearly. They shall see God.
I had a friend who worked on a peace and justice magazine. It pushed for purity and pointed out the flaws in others. He said in a fit of despair, “I love the world, it’s people I can’t stand.”
Thomas Merton said, “Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and women, and love God above all else. Instead of hating all the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorders in your own soul which are the causes of war.” Now this is getting downright personal. I guess that’s the point.
James 3:17 says that wisdom from above is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
First Pure? Really. Can’t we be just before we are pure? Can’t we be gentle, merciful, poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting as we are, mourning over the state of our world? But pure in heart? I’m not sure I can pass that test.
Maybe none of us can. But the point is to keep working at it. When you have fallen short, ask forgiveness, try to make amends. Take that fearless moral inventory that the 12-steppers talk about. Get back to your inner purity. That’s where you will see God.
It’s easy to point out the speck in someone else’s eye, but ignore the log in our own. We need to take care of our own house first.
I am hoping that these sex scandals in the news are causing all of us men to take a long look at ourselves and how we have benefitted from a system that has made statutory rape or harassment commonplace. There are few women who are surprised by these allegations. Saddened, angered, frustrated, but not surprised. We need to be pure in heart as well as actions. That takes hard work.
Jesus said blessed are the pure in heart, not those who practice the best outward piety.
The pure in heart believe in redemption and are not afraid to look inside to see if there are flaws in the armor. The pure in heart listen, because they are merciful, they are gentle, they seek the truth. And when they do so, they confront their own flaws. And when we do so, we see God.
The point is to see God. Once we see God, then we are ready to be peacemakers.
So my friends, be poor in Spirit—recognize your needs.
Mourn for a world and a people who have lost their way.
Be gentle and meek for that is the way of God—never dominating or lording it over another.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. Don’t rest until your craving has been satisfied—the craving for righteousness.
Be merciful. Meaning give of yourself so that others might have life and have it abundantly. Don’t define someone by their worst decision. Recognize their ability to be redeemed.
Be pure in heart. Have a change of heart. Recapture the piece of God that is in your heart. Speak your truth with love, and seek out the kindom of God. Pray that we might be better. Ask God to heal your brokenness. Then you shall see God.
And then and only then are you ready to become peacemakers.
As we enter this thanksgiving week, may we call to mind the deepest desires of our hearts to be those who set the table for peacemaking. If we do so, then we are ready to become the children of God.