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Sunday Worship 19 March | Beatitudes 3

Updated: Jan 19

Over the past two weeks we have begun to explore the beatitudes, the expressions of blessedness found in Matthew 5. As part of that, we have thought about what it means to be blessed, and I have suggested that Jesus is not talking about being happy or favoured, but about being held in the grace of God in every circumstance. This may be an appropriate point in the series to say that I find the experience of speaking and receiving blessings to be deeply profound, I think because they have always felt like an act of love and a desire for goodness, and they easily reduce me to tears. This week I was reading some blessings by Jan Richardson, and I want to offer some words from her to take us into this morning's beatitudes.


"Blessings enable us to perceive the ways the sacred inhabits the ordinary, impressing upon us that every moment and each place lies within the circle of God’s care...A blessing will not fix us. It will not, of itself, resolve the difficulty we are in or undo harm we have caused or received. Instead, a blessing is a channel of the Divine, a profound means of grace that has the capacity to open our eyes so that we might recognize and receive the help of the One who created us in love and whose deepest desire for us is that we be whole...Rather than being an indicator or measure of God’s favour, a true blessing most often meets us in the place of our greatest need, desperation, pain, or lack. By design, a blessing finds us when it has become difficult to perceive the providence of God—those occasions when the benevolence of God is hard to fathom...A blessing is, finally, something wild. It leads us where we did not imagine to go, and never in a straight line. That is the nature of a blessing—and the nature of God, who meets us in each moment, within time and beyond it, encompassing us season by season in a circle of grace." (Jan Richardson, Introduction to Circle of Grace)

Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. (The Message) 
Remember Ruth, who was merciful to Naomi in their shared grief, and was shown mercy by Boaz in her quiet need. There was sorrow and sacrifice along the way, but finally there was celebration and satisfaction, and through that mercy came their descendant Christ and mercy for us all. The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and may we strive to be likewise.


Blessed are...for they will... At first glance, the beatitudes all seem to follow the same pattern, so it's easy to assume they all work in the same way, but I think if we look closer we see that's not quite the case. The first two we considered related to the poor in spirit and those who mourn, and I absolutely believe that God does not want these circumstances for us. They are temporary situations and the blessing comes in the promise that they will be redeemed. But then the second set of two related to the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and I believe that God does want these qualities from us. They are ethical virtues and the blessing comes in the promise that they will create a new world. I think today's beatitudes continue in the same spirit as last week's, as merciful and pure are also qualities we should seek to nurture, and which promise a better day for all of us. These blessings may seem less surprising than the first, but meekness and righteousness and mercy and purity are not always valued or encouraged in a world in which it is more often the arrogant and the ruthless that seem to succeed, and so there is still an element of subversion at play here.


We start this morning with "blessed are the merciful", and the Greek word eleos, which is the root of the word translated in this verse as mercy, is also used to translate the Hebrew word chesed, which is often translated in the scriptures as lovingkindness. It seems reasonable to assume that chesed formed the background to what Jesus is saying here, and so I want to explore it a little. It conveys a deep sense of care, as reflected in the Message interpretation of "care-full" and the Godly Play reference to the story of Ruth, who cared for Naomi and was cared for by Boaz. It is shown by both people and God, and it expresses the steadfast love which is the very foundation of the world. English translations of Psalm 89:2 vary quite a lot, but most have something like "mercy stands forever", and yet the Hebrew word rendered forever can also mean world, and so it seems that a more common Jewish interpretation is something like "the world is built on lovingkindness". Isn't that such a brilliant image? Lovingkindness is the fundamental quality on which the whole creation rests, and so when we express it we are living deep within the way of God, recreating the world in its original goodness.


Lovingkindness is also a term commonly used in meditation, as a translation of a core Buddhist practice. The person meditating seeks to generate positive feelings about themselves or others, with the intention of cultivating a sense of goodwill towards all things. It can only be a good thing to practise feeling lovingkindness towards ourselves and others, but I do want to be clear that I think what Jesus is talking about is not just an attitude of mercy but acts of mercy. This feeling of lovingkindness has to be put into practice, which in all fairness is probably the point of the meditation too. Mercy calls us to respond to others both emotionally and practically, and this comes back to some of what I said when we looked at the second and fourth beatitudes, about the importance of both compassion and righteousness, feeling with and for others but also acting with and for others. We might also think back to our reflections on meekness being an appropriate use of power, as there can be a sense that mercy is having the ability to punish or cause harm but choosing not to use it. We are starting to draw connections between the beatitudes, and I like to think of them not as a smorgasbord but as a stew, stirred up together with one part flavouring another. The point isn't to pick which group we are in and which blessing we get, because if we are experiencing the fullness of life and nurturing the qualities of Christ, then eventually we will know all of them. 


This beatitude declares that those who are merciful will be shown mercy. It sounds a bit like the song at the end of Bugsy Malone, "you give a little love and it all comes back to you." That perhaps isn't always borne out by our experience, as kindness can be taken advantage of and we do not always receive the same care that we show. How are we to understand this then? What does this beatitude mean if the merciful are not always shown mercy? Jesus pointed towards the kingdom of heaven in the first beatitude, so it seems he is taking the long view here, and I think we need to do the same. Our hope is that one day all things will be put right, that everything sad will come untrue and the righteousness of God will be fulfilled and the world will be rebuilt on lovingkindness. But our hope is also that we do not simply wait, rather we participate in the transformation of the world until that day comes. We show mercy even when we do not receive it, because the more mercy there is in the world, the nearer we are to that day, and to the kingdom in which all shall be mercy. And what about those who are not merciful? Does this beatitude mean that they will not be shown mercy? I have said before that I am a hopeful universalist, that I believe God and eternity are so generous and expansive that we will never run out of chances to choose mercy and be shown mercy. But I do think that those who do not show mercy are less likely to recognise it and therefore to receive the fullness of it. If we want to experience the goodness of the world, we have to open ourselves to it, and we cannot do that without practising it ourselves. In short, be kind, it's good for everyone.

Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. (Message)
Remember the children who came to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples tried to send them away but he called them to himself, saying that anyone who wants to enter the kingdom of God must do so as a little child. The children surely did see God that day, and if we come with the same openness and simplicity, seeking nothing more than the presence and love of Christ, surely we shall too.


Somewhere in my reading this week, someone described this as the most beautiful verse in all of scripture. That took me a little by surprise, because I find this verse to be a source of some anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, the promise of seeing God is wonderful, but the idea of purity has become quite problematic. The basic meaning of pure is clean or innocent or refined, and that seems to be the sense intended here. It recalls the purity laws of the Hebrew scriptures, which were incredibly exacting and I would imagine quite stressful to live under, although I do appreciate that a different temperament to mine might find the certainty reassuring. It also raises the spectre of the purity culture of contemporary evangelical Christianity, which is obsessively concerned with bodies and sexuality, and which has been incredibly damaging for me and so many of my peers. At least the purity laws had ways to make things pure again, but the way that purity culture has been taught has made it sound like the stains last forever, and as that same culture also has a tendency to emphasise human sinfulness, it seems to set us up for failure. Because of this, purity has often felt like being given a bucket of red paint and told to decorate a furnished room with a white carpet and no dust sheet, but don’t you dare make a mess. Perhaps you can see now why this verse may make me anxious, although over time I have come to see that there is no grace in that kind of purity, and so I have come to understand it as the purity religion has demanded, not the purity God seeks.


So what is the purity God seeks? I don’t think we should let go of the basic meaning entirely, but I think we need to learn towards the purity laws with their hopeful emphasis on making ourselves pure, rather than purity culture with its oppressive requirement to keep ourselves pure, and I feel more comfortable with refinement than with cleanliness or innocence as a definition, as it inherently recognises that this is a process. We will all get things wrong but what is important is that we try to put them right, and perhaps it is in that desire for atonement and betterment that we find a pure heart. I grew up in a tradition where we used a prayer of confession every week, and some of those words are still burned into my brain: we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. I know all of that is true and yet I struggle with that kind of confession now, because it seems to tell me that I am bad without also telling me that I can be good, despite the fact that I am acutely aware of the first point and it is the second I need to be reminded of. Even the call for God to forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and shape what we shall be seems to suggest that we are so hopeless that God must fix everything for us. I think that absolves us not only of our wrongdoing but also of our responsibility, and it fails to acknowledge our innate potential for righteousness. We have to be honest about our messes and our limitations, but I think we also have to recognise our duty to clean up after ourselves and be optimistic about our ability to do that well. And perhaps it is in making amends that we will be refined and so fulfil the promise of this beatitude and see God.


I’m a little concerned that the last five minutes have just been me processing my own religious trauma, so we’ll move on now. I was drawn this week to Psalm 24:3-4, which says "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart". It struck me that these beatitudes were first spoken to the disciples as they stood on a mountain with the Lord, and so perhaps we are to understand that they were people with clean hands and pure hearts. We know for sure that they weren't perfect because the gospels are honest about their failings, and Jesus frequently seems to have his head in his hands despairing at their ignorance and ineptitude, so perhaps this also tells us that purity is not the spotless perfection it has sometimes been made out to be. In what way then might the disciples have been pure in heart? If there is anything that sets them apart it is their devotion to Christ. From the moment he called them, they were his disciples above all else, so that their entire lives were shaped by that call, and there is certainly a clarity and purity of intention there. Our devotion will naturally be expressed quite differently, as following Jesus around Galilee on foot for three years is not currently an option, but we too must allow our identity as disciples to shape our lives, being clear and pure in our desire for God and God’s purposes.


Before we close, let’s take a quick look at the non-traditional versions of this beatitude that we heard earlier. The Message reads: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world”. I think there is something interesting in that interplay between our inside and outside worlds, and I do believe that the more we dwell on the things of God the more we will recognise the things of God, but I want to steer us away from any sense that we can only see God when we have everything sorted, because I can assure you God will turn up in the dirt and the mess too. Likewise, the Message translation of the second beatitude seemed to say that we can only be embraced by God when we are grieving, but while it is often true that we allow God to hold us more closely when we feel we have lost everything else, of course God also embraces us when we are rejoicing and when we are bumbling along. There’s some poetic use of opposites and parallels here, and we mustn’t take them too literally. As for the Godly Play retelling, this introduces a new understanding of purity, comparing it to the children who came to Jesus for a blessing and so characterising it as openness and simplicity. We might also understand it as curiosity and straightforwardness, an honest desire to know more about God and to know God more, for no other reason than that it seems a good thing to do. Such purity will allow us to engage in all the complexities of life and faith while keeping our focus on God.


Once again, we’ve pulled a lot out of only a handful of words. In a moment we will sing ‘Purify My Heart’, which draws on the image of metal being refined by fire. It comes close to the language of confession, recognising that there are things we need to be cleansed from, but it does so by reminding us that we are as precious as gold. First though, it seems appropriate that we draw things to a close with a blessing. So may we be merciful and receive mercy. May we practise lovingkindness which is the foundation of all things. May we be pure in heart and see God. May we do all we can to make right what is wrong and seek the Lord with an honest devotion. And in so doing may we be blessed and be a blessing to the world. Amen.

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