January 19, 2017, Scraped Knees and Cluttered Closets – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000006
There may be people in the world who are full of pride and think they are God’s greatest gift to the world, but it seems to me, as I have come to know people a little better, that most of the people I know are quite the opposite. Most people, I think, have a very low opinion of themselves. Most people have very low expectations of what they are really able to do and be. So that when we read the Beatitudes, where Jesus tells us what a disciple is really supposed to look like: to be someone that is meek, someone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, someone who is merciful – most of us don’t feel a warm saintly glow in our hearts – instead, most of us don’t honestly recognize ourselves in them at all. But the truth is, Jesus isn’t only talking about himself here, or Mother Teresa, or Saint Francis of Assissi, or Martin Luther King Jr. The Beatitudes are for us.
There isn’t time in one sermon to look in depth at every Beatitude, but today I wanted to take a closer look at one that maybe we we would least expect of ourselves: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” I wanted to look more closely at this one in particular, because unless we are pretty delusional it is very hard to see how we could ever really be called “pure in heart”. We know, when we’re being honest with ourselves, that we are poor in spirit. I think we can all imagine working towards being meeker and more merciful. We have all grieved over the suffering in the world, especially this past year when we see pictures of little Syrian children homeless and afraid and hurting. We all know what it is to long for justice to be done, even if we haven’t got a clue how it can be done, even if we aren’t 100% agreed on what it really means for justice to be done. I don’t think any of us has ever really suffered persecution for our faith, not really, but we all know what it is for someone to make fun of the things we hold most dear.
But pure in heart – what would it look like for a real, normal, sinful human being to be pure in heart? Is it something we can actually work at becoming? Isn’t that a little bit like trying to be humble – as soon as we try, we’ve already failed? When you come right down to it, what does it even mean to BE pure in heart?
Purity of heart has two different and related meanings. The one kind of purity of heart is being morally pure, to be a person who is undefiled not only by outward actions, keeping the letter of the law, as it were; but to be a person who keeps the law in their inmost being. It’s exactly that kind of purity of heart that Jesus described to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. He went through the rules with them, one by one: “You know that it’s against the law to murder, right?” he said to them. “But I’m here to tell you, if you harbor hatred against your brother deep in your heart; if you secretly despise him, you have already committed murder in your heart.” And the same with that tricky thing called lust: “You know God doesn’t want you to have an affair with your neighbor’s wife, of course,” he said to them. “But I’m telling you now, when you looked at your neighbor’s wife to satisfy your inner Hugh Hefner, you were already committing adultery.”
Purity of heart raises the bar on keeping the law higher than any of us disciples have ever reached. During that time of silence before we make our confession, when we consider our sinfulness before God, we might find we are scoring pretty good on not actually committing murder, not actually shoplifting anything, not actually telling any out-and-out lies – but in our heart of hearts we know that our desires and our intentions and our motivations are very, very far from pure. And that’s what the time of confession is for. We bring our cruel, selfish thoughts and our slimy motivations and our corroded intentions to the foot of the cross. We finally get to stop carrying them around in our bag of shame and self-denial – we lay them down, and we find sweet forgiveness and the refreshment of cleansing. We come away truly pure of heart, not by virtue of our efforts or our righteousness, but purely by the gift of God, through the work of Jesus on the Cross.
Becoming pure in heart for Christians is never our natural state, but continually our life’s work. That’s why we begin our worship together every week with the prayer we call the “Collect for Purity”. Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. We begin our liturgy by laying our hearts bare, eager to be washed clean once again by the grace of our Lord, like a little child who comes to his mother with a scraped knee so that she can wash away the dirt and the gravel and kiss away the hurt so the process of healing can begin. Sunday morning should be the most honest time of our week, as we open ourselves to receive the purity of heart that we could never hope to achieve except as his free and loving gift.
But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do ourselves to become more pure in heart, because being pure in heart also means being single-minded: what Bishop Dan likes to call “putting first things first” and what Jesus called “seeking first the Kingdom.” We can’t be pure and sinless by our own strength of will; we can only find cleansing from our sinful desires and inclinations through the grace of God. But by the help of the Holy Spirit, we can practice the skill of single-mindedness.
We begin our worship every week by open our hearts to God’s purifying grace. But we close our worship most weeks by praying these words: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord.” We ask God to give us the power to go out each week and to become more pure in heart, by practicing serving him with an un-distracted mind and heart, by working to have a life that is focused on the main thing, and by not meting out our love and our energies sparingly among the thousand demands that are clamoring for our attention. Instead we pray that we will grow in giving our heart fully to the work God has put into our hands. It’s definitely something we have to strive for, but it isn’t something beyond our capabilities.
It’s the very lesson Jesus taught to Martha on the day he came to dinner. Remember how Martha was rushing around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to put a nice meal out for her good friends, while her sister Mary sat quietly at Jesus’ feet and just listened to him. Who wouldn’t be annoyed? We would have complained, too, like Martha – “Jesus, please tell my sister to get up and help me!” But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, he gave the answer that drives all us Marthas crazy – “Martha, you are worried about too many things. But only one thing is necessary.” In the midst of our Martha lives, our work is to learn to seek the one thing, and to stop worrying about everything else. The Beatitude of being pure in heart, learning single-mindedness, letting go of the “tyranny of the urgent”, – that may be one of the hardest Beatitudes of all, for some of us.
This past Tuesday I ended up having some unexpected free time because of the icy roads, and so I had time at long last to take down our Christmas tree. We store all our decorations in a little cupboard under the stairs that we call the “Harry Potter closet” – which you understand if you’ve read Harry Potter. So, with a whole day free, I decided to pull everything out of the closet and sort through it all. It strikes me that cleaning out a closet is lot like the work we have to do to learn how to live single-mindedly, how to find the “one thing necessary” and grow toward the blessedness of being pure in heart. It turns out, both jobs begin with a big mess, with all the things and feelings and crises that are clamoring for our attention all at once, big things and little things and broken things and shiny things and things with sentimental value that we’ve hung onto forever, all that stuff in our lives, we begin by facing it all head-on. And then we begin the hard work of keeping only what we really need.
There are always all those things that are still good, still useful, still pretty, but we just don’t need them anymore. Some things belong to our past; and some things are still perfectly good but we just have to let them go. In the closet, there is that adorable snowman candle holder your Aunt Trudy gave you 41 years ago that you used to set up on the coffee table but now it hasn’t been unwrapped for so many years now that the tissue paper has turned yellow and crumbles when you unwrap it. In our lives we hold onto so many less tangible things that are much harder to let go of – maybe our rights, or maybe our resentments, or maybe a standard of perfection that has become a barrier between me and the people I live with. Whatever it is we find, there was a time when we held it tight; there was a time when it felt like the one necessary thing, maybe – but now we find it’s time to let go; if there ever was a time when it helped us see God, that time is gone. Now it’s just in our way.
It’s hard work, becoming single-minded – the hardest and also the simplest of life-long tasks. There is only one thing necessary. Seek first the Kingdom and your Father takes care of the rest. Keep the main thing the main thing. It’s simple. But really hard.
As we work at the Beatitude of becoming pure in heart, the prayer of David in Psalm 51 is a perfect prayer for us to make our daily petition. With David, who often found himself in a mess of his own making, we pray for God to graciously purify the hopeless mess that we have made of our lives, and we ask him to give us the strength to seek and to find what is pure. This is David’s prayer, and ours: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.