Wonderful News for the Pure in Heart
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 25, 2020
Psalm 24; Matthew 5:8
He needed a new angle to hawk his product. He knew that it was good and that the people who used it liked it. It did exactly what it was intended to do and was as good or better than the competition. But as any good businessperson knows, simply having a good product, perhaps even the best product, is not enough if people don’t buy it…if people don’t believe it’s better. So, because people like science he had his product evaluated alongside the competition. Though his product was composed of the same basic chemical ingredients, it turned out that his product had only .56% impurities. At first this did not seem to Harley to be all that big of a deal. But then, in a light bulb moment, in a once in a lifetime genius marketing revelation, it came to Harley Proctor. On the box of every bar of his product he would print, Ivory soap, 99.44% pure. And it worked. Ivory soap soon became the go to brand for millions. This morning then, I want us to hold onto Harley’s 99.44% pure idea, because that is the concept behind the word pure, in pure in spirit. Pure means to be without impurities, to be completely of one thing. So, with that in mind, the question for us becomes, what does it mean to be without impurities in our heart?
To answer this, we need to once again take a quick trip in our Way-Way-Back-Biblical Time Machine so that we are sitting on the grass with the crowd that is listening to Jesus. And when we do, we will discover two things about what the crowd is hearing when Jesus says, there is wonderful news for the pure in heart. The first thing that we would discover is that heart in Greek, is not the seat of the affections. It is not where love comes from. It is not what would be put on Valentines. Instead the heart is the seat of the will. The heart is the place in which choices and decisions are made. In other words, a person would have a wise heart, meaning they made wise choices, or a foolish heart, meaning they made foolish choices. So to have a 99.44% pure heart would mean to have a heart that makes 99.44% pure choices…more about this in a minute.
The second thing we would discover is that the instant Jesus said the words “pure heart” the minds of the people would immediately go to Psalm 24. They would go there because the concept of pure heart is integral to this Psalm and this Psalm is one with which they would have been familiar. They would have been familiar with Psalm 24 because it was used by Jewish pilgrims when they made their annual trek to the Temple in Jerusalem. Think again about the words. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his Holy Place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” These are the words that would be repeated year after year after year as pilgrims climbed the steps in the Temple, or ascended the Hill of the Lord, so they could offer their sacrifices. And not only would they know the words, they would know what the words meant. The words meant that those who came to the Temple were to have made 99.44% pure choices, or choices that aligned with the Law of Moses, or put another way the law of loving God and loving neighbor. Let me say that again, to have a pure heart is to have 99.44% of our choices reflect love of God and love of neighbor.
The wonderful news Jesus offers to those whose decisions reflect loving God and neighbor is that they get to see God. Again, to understand this we need to return to the Psalm. Let’s listen one more time. “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.” For those literally ascending the steps to the Temple these words meant they were meeting God. And in meeting God, they were being loved, forgiven and empowered by God, to love God and neighbor more fully. This means the same for us. That when we approach God with pure hearts, with decisions that are 99.44% aligned with loving God and neighbor, we get to encounter God and be blessed; be blessed with the love of God, with the forgiveness of God, with the very presence of God. In a sense to go back to Pastor Bethany’s sermon from last week, we get to pull up a chair with God and live in God’s life transforming presence. This all sounds wonderful…except for one thing…how do we get these pure hearts?
I realize that having our choices reflect love of God and neighbor is not a simple thing. So how then are we to do so? My answer comes from photography. I got my first nice camera when I went into the Peace Corps. My parents thought that I ought to keep a visual record of my time in the Philippines. Back then, everything about photography was manual. You had to set your aperture. You had to set your focus. You had to choose your film speed. Today though things have changed. Almost all modern cameras have an auto mode. Everything is set for you including the focus. One of my cameras will autofocus in .02 seconds…yes that is .02 seconds. Which is wonderful until…until the camera doesn’t know what to focus on. I discovered this years ago when our former Associate Pastor, Amy Morgan and I were making the very first set of confirmation videos. We were recording down by the Rouge River Corridor and Amy was next to some trees and bushes. We did the video, but then when I went back to watch it on my computer, it was obvious that the camera was confused. It was hunting focus, meaning that one moment it would focus on Amy and the next on the bush. In and out it went.
My friends, this is the problem with trying to have pure hearts…to make decisions that are 99.44% in alignment with loving God and neighbor. We have our lives set on autofocus, meaning rather than focusing on what would loving God and loving neighbor look like in all our decisions, our heart focuses on other things. It focuses on what would make us look better. What would make us more successful. What would make us more money. What would…what would…what would. Our hearts hunt for focus and often focus on the wrong things. If we want to change this; if we want to move closer and closer to having 99.44% pure hearts, then we need to take our hearts off auto focus and put them on manual focus. We need to constantly ask this question…what does love require of me? What does loving God and neighbor require of me in each and every decision I make. If we are willing to do that, then we will be on the path toward not only having pure hearts, but of seeing God.
My challenge for you then is this, that throughout this week and in the weeks to come, as you are making decisions that matter to ask yourselves, what does love require of me? And then allow that focus to help you shed the impurities of anger, prejudice and fear and allow your heart to become closer and closer to 99.44% pure.
Wonderful News for the Merciful
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 18, 2020
Exodus 25:10-22; Matthew 5:7
There is just something about a good chair. Look at the chairs around your home. Think about what caused you to pick that chair for the space it is in. Think about the chair you like to sit in the most, what makes it so perfect? When I was in college there was one chair we all fought over to study in because it balanced a book and a bowl of ramen perfectly on the arms. Chairs are important to the design of any room. When we redid Calvin Hall we had eight different chairs that the staff all sat in to pick which one we would buy in bulk. A lot goes into picking the chairs we sit in.
Some chairs hold onto their significance long after their usefulness ends. I have been to museums and seen the chair in which the declaration of independence was written and ones in which great scientific minds thought through the problems of the time. They are just chairs, yet we stare in awe and recognize they once held the weight of the advancement of humanity, comforting the sitters through their work. Chairs and human culture go hand in hand. Every great archeological site has found the chairs that once cradled that land’s people. Every time and place have need for a chair.
These past few months I have driven everywhere with a chair in my car. I put it in the back seat at first for a specific outdoor event, but its presence has offered me many more opportunities since then. It has allowed me to stay longer than I planned in places with people I have missed, and given me a last minute excuse to stop and have a solo picnic between errands.
The simplest of chairs holds immense power. When you nervously walk into a room and there is an open chair. you suddenly feel relief. An open chair is enough of a welcome to make us feel like we belong there. When someone pulls up a chair to sit next to us, we feel wanted and worthy.
So I think that it is incredible that in God’s grand design for this ideal worship space God includes a chair. The design that God lays out for Moses is intricate to say the least. God has thought about every measurement, every material to be used, every space of the room and its function. God has been dreaming about the day this place is built. In the Holy of Holies, the place where God meets with the priest, the representative of the people, God includes a chair. The chair says to me that these meetings won’t be quick, standing huddles to check in and a quick exit back to the heavens. God wants to sit and listen and build the partnership.
In the translation we read today, this chair is called the “mercy seat.” Now when I first heard mercy I thought about a football team dominating the game so outstandingly that the losing team pleads for mercy. Mercy as a call of surrender for the game to end and for the embarrassment of defeat to stop. This is what comes to mind because this is how mercy looks to most of the world. It looks like someone on their knees, hands clasped in front of them begging for those over them to stop the harm they are causing. Mercy is then granted from the more powerful to the weak.
But this mercy seat paints a very different picture than that understanding of mercy. The ones who are thrown to their knees at the sight of this chair are the powerful. When formidable armies see the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant, they tremble. Mercy in scripture is not about the powerful graciously halting destruction. Mercy is a third team, a stronger partner, showing up to help the struggling team play the rest of the game clock.
The ark of the covenant sends the powerful running because they realize God is such a regular visitor among these people that they have a special chair for when God shows up. A chair they bring everywhere with them because the chances that God is showing up to help is good. The enemies do not grant mercy; they run away at the prospect that mercy is on the way to turn the table against them.
In scripture, mercy is when a strong partner shows up to help. It is an act of partnership. It requires both parties to pull up a chair and sit together in the struggle. Because of this, mercy does not promise the problem will go away, or that the partnership means there will never be bad days. What it does is promise to be on our side during the fight. It is God pulling up a chair to be on our side.
It is God coming to earth to be on our side. It is Jesus dying on a cross to forever seat himself on our side.
Mercy is not something an oppressor can give us, it is the gift of a partner committed to taking a seat on our side through it all.
I saw a video this week of parents who redid their son’s bedroom as a gift. Friday, they sent him to stay with grandparents for the weekend and they got to work. This boy was obsessed with John Deere tractors so they had a whole design around the green and yellow logo and shelves on the walls for all his tractor collectables. The parents worked around the clock to have it ready for him by the time he came home.
When the big reveal happened they set up a camera to catch his reaction. The boy walks in, and for a moment joy spreads across his face, then he realizes he didn’t get to be a part of the transformation. His eyes fill with tears and he sniffs, “I didn’t get to help paint.”
The parents thought they would save him from the mess of redesigning. They would do all the hard sleepless work and he would be able to enjoy the final product. The boy however felt cheated out of the process. He didn’t get to help paint.
Mercy is a partnership. God could redesign the world while we are away for the weekend, but then we won’t get to help paint. God wants us to be a part of the process of mercy. Even the messy, hard, hurtful moments, God wants us to be included in the transformation. That is why mercy requires a chair. Mercy takes time. It takes time to build someone up who is feeling weak. It takes time to listen to their story and surround them with enough love for them to begin feeling strong again. It takes time sitting side by side as partners for mercy to transform someone.
And just as God pulls up a chair to sit on our side, we are also asked to be the ones pulling up a mercy chair alongside someone else in need. Mercy is meant to flow to us and through us. This beatitude says blessed are those who are merciful because they will receive mercy. It seems like an odd barter.
But what Jesus is affirming is that mercy is best when it is in motion. We can get our fill of mercy and be satisfied, but when we pull up a chair next to someone and offer them mercy then our giving is replenished with more mercy.
Here’s a modern parable for this concept: Let’s say at age 18 you got a choice. You could get a bank account with 1 million dollars in it or a bank account that could only hold a maximum of 100 dollars but every time you spent the 100 another hundred was deposited. We, of course, are choosing the one that will be replenished as we spend. We can never call ourselves millionaires, but we are going to be well taken care of. And we can care for others.
Mercy is a bank account that gets replenished every time we pull up a chair and offer mercy to others. When we sit with someone and listen to their struggle, God sits and listens to us. When we encourage one another through the hard times, God encourages us. When we walk in partnership with others lending our strength and surrounding them in love, God does the same for us.
Let’s take a moment to think about the chairs God is asking us to sit in. Who among our partners, which of our relationships need an infusion of our strength? Where can we pour out some mercy and make room for more of God’s mercy in our lives?
he Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 11, 2020
Jeremiah 22:1-5; Matthew 5:6
In February this church sent me to Kenya to meet with our mission partners and learn about their lives, and the mission projects we were working on together. While I was there a friend of mine sent a video to me of one of their pastors who just happened to also be in Kenya at the same time. He had made a short video about a “God moment” he had in the county.
In the video, he explains that his morning reading from scripture was God telling the Israelites not to worry about where their food would come from and that God would provide manna for them to eat. As he read the passage he sensed God asking him to trust that God would provide food for him that day. So he decided to not worry about buying food, he would wait for God to provide.
As his day progresses he gets hungrier and hungrier until he is slumped over on a bench hungry and exhausted. As he sits there he recounts that someone came up to him, and offered him a bag of chips. God had provided!
Now I understand what this person’s intentions were but the white privilege of the video hit me very hard especially because at the time I was living in the same context he was doing this “food experiment” in.
The first issue is the audacity that he would think this one day would teach him about depending on God for food. Instead of testing God, he could have found someone to visit in Kenya that could tell their story about what it was like to trust that God would provide food for them.
The second issue, actually the minute he said he was going to try to go hungry in Kenya, I laughed out loud because I have never been fed so much food in my life. Kenyans take hospitality so seriously. If you are white and in Kenya it is obvious you are a visitor and thus in need of hospitality. Every single place we went to we were given at least a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. Most places had prepared a full celebratory meal for us of meat and veggies and fruit and rice and dessert. When I say every place, I mean every place! If we were in one house then went next door to the next one they would offer us more water and more food. And we always ate it because we did not want to show favorites, and the fruit is the best in the world there. The idea that a Kenyan would let a visitor be anything except bursting full is ridiculous. For two and a half weeks I was constantly full and was getting sores in my mouth from all the beautiful pineapple they kept gifting to me. I have never been more taken care of when it comes to thirst and hunger.
These two impulses, thirst and hunger, are wired inside of us and every living thing. They are early warning signs that the intricate creation that is our bodies need something. Plants thirst and we can see them slump over and shrivel as they conserve the water that is left in them. Plants reach for the sun to gain access to their food source. We know animals are more dangerous when they are hungry, and even well-fed lions can be docile.
When God’s creation has pangs of hunger and thirst, those become the most important urges to have satisfied. Studies have shown that kids who go the whole weekend with little to no food do not perform as well in school on Monday as they do on Wednesday after two days of school meals. This is because when our bodies hunger and thirst all other non-essential functions begin to shut down to conserve energy. We go into survival mode. Our ability to think weakens and our capacity for handling stress diminishes. This is such a phenomenon in our culture we even have created a new word, hangry when your hunger makes it harder to choose kindness and anger takes over.
Hunger and thirst are pains that come from inside of us, telling us we need something to survive. The things we hunger and thirst for are so vital to our survival that everything else can wait so we can focus on meeting the need and living another day.
We don’t start out knowing how to express our needs or how to get food and water for ourselves. Babies have no clue how to find and prepare food and water nor do they truly understand the pains they are feeling. When a baby is hungry or thirsty they scream and throw tantrums until those who are tasked to take care of them come to help.
Children can ask for food and water a little better but they do not fully understand the cause of their hunger and thirst. They suddenly become very hungry or very thirsty. They often need someone else who is more mature to take the lead and notice how they are acting and ask “do you need a snack?” This outside input teaches kids how to notice what their body is telling them. As they grow up they become better at knowing what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty and can begin to meet those needs for themselves.
This understanding improves into adulthood where we are so in tune with the feeling of hunger and thirst they can sense the littlest signal that there is an imbalance. We can feel our mouths getting dry and seek out water before we get into a danger zone. When our heads get light or tiredness sets in, we consider whether some food could help fix the problem.
Now just about 100% of us have the privilege of food in our homes and clean water in our taps. So when we are hungry or thirsty it is simply a matter of hours before that need is met. But there are many in the world that for them those early signals of hunger and thirst mean a deadly clock has started ticking. They understand this scripture better than we ever will, but even we can appreciate what Jesus is telling us about righteousness.
Righteousness is one of those words we need to understand as Christians because it is all over scripture. It is used over 407 times in the Bible, so we don’t want to skim past it. The process of learning what a word means can take a few different paths. One way is by following the progression of that word backward through time to its origin. In reverse, we see how the word evolved, and all the different meanings it has collected and carried back into our time. Another important thing to consider is how people used the word at the moment it was written, or how the person who spoke it would have understood the meaning.
For example, the greeting “hi” is so ubiquitous in our language today we say it without even thinking about what it means. But, when I was in Minnesota a few years ago, I got in trouble using “hi” in the way we do here in Michigan. Here “hi” is less of an official greeting and more of an acknowledgment of someone. We say hi to strangers as we pass by simply to be polite. In Minnesota however, it means “I would like to have a full conversation with you.” They are so nice there, at least the people I met, they were thrilled to stop what they were doing and talk simply with the initiation of “hi.” When all I meant was I am not a rude person and will acknowledge I see you. Words can mean very different things in different parts of the world.
“Hi” also has an origin we can trace. “Hi” is derived from the longer word “hello” which is only 150 years old. In the late 1800’s it was exclusively used when one was surprised or trying to get someone’s attention. It gained popularity when telephones were invented as the appropriate way to greet someone on the phone. Which was, at the time, a surprising interaction. “Hello” grew out of the word “hail” which held a meaning of wishing wholeness or health on the person because Hail (h a i l) was derived from the word Hale (h a l e) which is also the root for the word “health.” SO we can see how words evolve and relate to one another to add deeper meaning when we take the time to understand them.
When it comes to the word righteousness, Jesus uses the Greek word dikaios (dik'-ah-yos) which would have been understood to refer to someone being correct or by implication innocent. If someone was dikaios, they were a righteous person to the point that if someone said they were guilty, everyone who knew them would know that was a lie because at their core they always acted and spoke correctly. But Jesus’ understanding of righteousness was fuller than simply being a good person. He knew the history of this word, especially the way God had used the word in scripture.
The word dikaios is a word that describes a person who does dike (dee-kay) which is right or just or self-evident. Dike was a term used by the justice system of the time to mean the correct verdict. Whether the court declared someone guilty or innocent people would say it was dike, the right, or self-evident verdict. It also could be applied to the sentence that was given. The sentence of life in prison could be dike, the right sentence for the crime. When dike is translated into English we use the word justice most often. The right, self-evident, and correct verdict and sentence.
But we can go deeper, dike comes from a Hebrew word tsedeq (tz-eh-dik). Tsedeq in English is translated as righteousness or Justice. The contextual usage of this word in scripture will help us understand what this word meant to the second temple Jewish community, aka what it meant to Jesus.
In Levitical law, it is used to denote fairness. When selling goods you have fair scales, tsedeq scales. When you negotiate with a neighbor you are supposed to be tsedeq, fair. In Deuteronomy, it is a legal term for a judge making tsedeq decisions, just verdicts, and sentences. We can see the link to the Greek evolution here. Job constantly asks God what is right and just, tsedeq, and calls God out for things he sees as not tsedeq. Psalms exclusively use the word to describe God, God is the one who is truly and always tsedeq. The prophets call God’s people back to their original purpose to be tsedeq people. Since God is perfectly tsedeq and humanity is made in God’s image and tasked with enacting God’s will in this world the people are supposed to be righteous, to do justice, to be tsedeq.
People who put aside their own bias and passions and want to seek first that which is right and fair and correct in God’s eyes. Tsedeq is our God-given purpose.
That is how Jesus would have understood righteousness. It is not just about being good innocent people, it is a purpose given to us by God and our responsibility to make it happen. It is such a part of who we are created to be we yearn for it the way we yearn for food and water. It is just as essential to our survival. All other functions fade away as we search for righteousness. For correct verdict and sentence, for fair transactions.
Just like with hunger and thirst, we have to learn how to notice our pains for righteousness and learn how to get that need met.
When we are just starting, our pain for righteousness will cause us to scream and throw tantrums like babies needing food and water. At first, we have no clue how to get righteousness. We just know we need it. We rely on others, those who have the power to get what we need, to offer us righteousness. We have seen people in our world in this stage of development. They know something is not righteous; they can feel it from within. Something is not fair or correct according to God, so they riot and loot and cause destruction. These are the tantrums of people feeling a new yearning from within them and not yet able to satisfy the need. Every moment their need for righteousness is not met by those who are supposed to be taking care of them, their screams get louder.
Eventually, we get to a stage where we can feel our yearning for righteousness, and instead of tantrums, we can express what we need to those who can help us. Riots become protests. Screams become phone calls to those in power. But we are still immature and only take action when we are very hungry. We don’t always anticipate the need for a snack. When something unjust happens, our pain quickly intensifies and we are again seeking a way to satisfy our inward yearning.
Eventually, we are mature enough to feel the small pains before the overwhelming hunger. We notice microaggressions when people say things like “you people.” We notice the tone in jokes. We can wonder why an industry hires mostly men, or why a disease is killing more of one community than another. The hunger and thirst for righteousness is so fine-tuned the slightest pain can call us into action. We organize for our community to experience righteousness. We say something when witnessing unrighteousness. We run for office and take on leadership roles in the systems that need to operate with more righteousness.
We are all somewhere in this development of understanding our God-given yearning for righteousness. This beatitude gives us the encouragement we need to continue developing and fine-tuning our sense of righteousness and our ability to meet the need because those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied. Those who yearn for righteousness as they yearn for food and water will be satisfied. They will be nourished to the point of being full. Be assured, God is making a world where righteousness is handed out like water and fruit in Kenya. It will be given at every stop we make. Every person we meet will offer us more righteousness. We will be satisfied.
It hurts now, I know. But there is wonderful news for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Wonderful News for the Meek
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 4,, 2020
Numbers 12:1-9; Matthew 5:5
It was about as cliché a Junior High school moment as one could imagine. It occurred sometime during the first week of school when I was walking down a hallway with a couple of my friends. Some older students were walking quickly past us when one of them clapped one of my friends on the back and said, “Welcome to Fondren.” The upperclassmen and his friends then continued their way laughing hysterically. It was at that moment that I noticed the piece of paper taped to my friend’s back. It read, “Please Kick me.” That incident always comes to my mind when I read this beatitude, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. It does so because my image of “the meek” has always been those who walk around with a sign on their back reading, “kick me.” The meek are those who let people walk all over them. The meek are those who cower in the corner. All of which has begged the question for me, how can the meek inherit the earth when we know that it is the powerful who rule the earth; the powerful who control the earth; and the powerful who oppress the meek? That being the case, what then are we to do with this beatitude? The answer is that we are to see it through the eyes of a first century Galilean Jew…then we will not only understand it, but we will find the wonderful news in this beatitude.
To discover the full meaning and the wonderful news of this beatitude I don’t want us to begin with the meek, but with “inherit the earth.” I would guess that for most of us this would be a strange concept. After all, how can someone inherit the earth? For a first century Galilean Jew however, inheriting the earth would be one of the great themes of their faith. So, let’s unpack it. First the earth is God’s, or as the Psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof…” meaning creation belongs to God and God can do with the earth as God desires. Second, God has children, meaning the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which would include those Galilean Jews in Jesus’ audience. Third, just as an earthly parent can give an inheritance to his or her children God can do the same. God can therefore give the earth as an inheritance to God’s children so that those children can rule and reign over it in order that the creation become a place of blessing for all nations; a place of peace, justice and love. There is one catch, however. And this has to do with the children. You see, first century Galilean Jews would not believe that all Jews would inherit. Those listening to Jesus would believe that only the righteous, meaning those who loved God and neighbor, showed kindness and did justice would inherit. It is with that in mind then that we return to the “meek.”
The Greek word we translate as “meek” never meant anything resembling the concept of walking around with a “kick me” sign on the back. The meaning of meek consisted of two integrated concepts. The first concept is humility. To be meek meant to be humble in the sense that a person acknowledges that they are not capable of knowing how to be righteous, of knowing how to love God and neighbor. Thus, a meek person is one who knows their limitations. The second concept is a word picture. It is the picture of a horse who has been trained to follow the lead of the rider; of a horse who goes exactly where the rider takes it. To be meek then, in Jewish circles meant to be someone who is humble enough that they know they cannot become righteous on their own, and so allows God to guide them. What the beatitude actually says then is, those who are willing to be humble enough to allow God to guide them into the way of loving God and neighbor will inherit this creation for the purpose of ruling and reigning over it, so that it can become a place of peace, justice and love. This my friends is wonderful news.
One of the great gifts we are given this morning is that we have an opportunity to see exactly what being meek looks like. We see it as this table (the communion table). We see it here because this is the culmination of Jesus living the meek life. In other words, Jesus was humble enough to allow God to guide him throughout his life. Jesus was humble enough to allow God to guide him to eat with sinners and tax collectors; to heal Jews and Gentiles; to welcome strangers; to forgive sinners; to feed the hungry and ultimately to go to the cross; to give up his life as the act of ultimate love in order that others might find the strength to become meek as well. What Jesus’ death on the cross did was to allow the life giving, sin forgiving power of God’s infinite love to be poured out on all creation so that people of all nations, languages, skin colors, sexual orientations and abilities might become children of God who inherit the task of recreating the creation we inherit. This is wonderful news for us and for the world.
My challenge to you on this day is this, that as you take the bread and cup, ask yourselves, “How am I being meek?” How am I being humble enough to allow God to guide and direct what I think, say and do? How am I allowing God to guide me into righteousness?”