A message on the sixth beatitude.
A few nights ago, with daughter Hannah away at camp, and wife Kathi out for dinner with a friend, my son and I opted to have what he calls “Daddy and Graham time.”
We did lots of things together that night, but the best moments were spent in the backyard. There’s a small firepit behind our home that I’m embarrassed to say we hadn’t used yet – even after being in Iowa for a year now – and it was high time to break it in.
First we gathered the tinder, some kindling, and bigger logs and set them all up in the pit. After getting the fire started we cooked hot dogs over the flames, nibbled on pretzels and peanut butter, and washed it all down with a favorite beverage. Graham, age four, loves his ‘lemolade.’
And if I’d planned a bit better we would have had smores too, it’s hard to beat munching on a sandwich of graham crackers, chocolate bars and marshmallows, while outdoors, watching the sun go down.
The two of us listened to birds chirp, heard grasshoppers sing, and watched as lightening bugs began to light up the night sky. Our home backs up to a forest full of trees, with plenty of greenery, and accented by vibrant flowers in multiple hues. We took the time to appreciate all of it.
Best of all we got to talking about anything Graham wanted to. It was our version of a fireside chat, no topic held back. He told me about the VBS he went to this week, singing a couple songs and sharing a bible story he’d learned. We talked about school starting again, he’s excited to begin using his new Incredibles backpack. And it sounded like he really missed big sister Hannah, and looked forward to her being back home from camp.
When it came time to go inside and start winding down the day I asked if he’d like to watch Ninja Warrior for a bit. “No thanks,” he replied, “screens are boring. Let’s play cars in my room instead.” Yes, I thought to myself, (parenting win!) and we excitedly headed inside to do just that.
After tucking Graham into bed I went back to the fire and reflected on the evening.
We’d eaten, and drank, and played, enjoyed nature, and connected in conversation. Our time spent together was one of those moments I’ll hold on to for a good long while. The experience makes me want to spend an awful lot more evenings fireside outdoors. At least while the weather here in central Iowa is amenable. It was peaceful. It was fun. And it was incredibly simple.
In the beginning it was also incredibly simple. Before distinctions like sickness and health, poverty and wealth, cleanliness and filth, there was, simply, God. A universe, population one, is about as simple as simple gets.
When God got to creating creation complexity first entered into the equation. The heavens were separated from the earth, the waters from the land, and all sorts of life, from microscopic plants to big blue whales weighing a whopping 200 tons, suddenly, with the snap of a cosmic finger, all came to be.
Despite this increased complexity all was as it should be. The master builder had a master plan, and executed that plan masterfully.
To help manage all this newness God created Adam, and then Eve, forming them from the dust of the ground, breathing life into them. But God didn’t create them to sit on their hands and do nothing: God gave them jobs. Their job description, too, was simple. “Till this land, and keep it,” God said. Adam and Eve were the original gardeners, the original park rangers.
Our creation provides humanity identity: we are children of God.
But our vocation provides purpose: we are caretakers of all there is.
It was a pretty cool gig these two had, from what I understand. Their compensation was infinitely high – all their needs were met, they were free to roam the land, and could appreciate and partake in almost all there was.
Their healthcare plan too was unheard of, it had no cost, with no copays. Even more amazing, the plan included a guarantee of no sickness, and a promise of eternal life. Whoa! Try getting *that* from your government or health care provider. 😊
Best of all, after work finished up for the day Adam and Eve had the chance to walk in the garden, together, with God, and talk about anything they wanted to. No topic held back. I like to think that during these evening strolls they ate and drank as they walked and talked with God, grabbing some fruit from this tree and some cool water from that creek. I like to think they too enjoyed the chirping of the birds, the singing of the grasshoppers, the lighting of the lightening bugs, and everything else this original paradise contained.
And heck, Adam and Eve didn’t even have to worry about clothing; there was none. They were naked, and they were unashamed.
God then gave these first employees the shortest employee manual there ever was. It had just one rule. Eat from whatever tree you’d like, the manual says, with the exception of just one. You heard the rest of how that went down from Genesis 3. We’ve being living in the aftermath of the forbidden fruit ever since.
The Pure of Heart
Today we enter week six of our sermon series on the Beatitudes. The focus of this message is Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Author Dale Allison, in his book The Sermon on the Mount suggests this beatitude has generated perhaps more discussion than any other. What does it mean to have a pure heart? Biblical writers refer to the heart as where the true self resides, and also the symbolic center of both feeling and thinking. Scripturally speaking the heart is what makes us, well, us. It’s the whole ball of wax.
St. Augustine, who conducted his own beatitudes sermon series way back in the year 393, refers to a pure heart as being a “simple heart”.
A simple heart is single-minded in devotion to God. A simple heart is not divided or conflicted in allegiance. A simple heart doesn’t jostle between trying to please both God and humans. A simple heart is rightly directed. A simple heart is a singular focus on God.
And the blessing from having this simple heart? You will see God.
My favorite scriptural example of what this looks like is in the first two chapters of Genesis. These two chapters are all we have that describe what life was like before Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit. Here we have the first humans, of simple heart, that walked with, talked with, and saw God, in the flesh.
And it represents less than two-tenths of one percent of the entirety of biblical text.
I wish there was more, because what’s there paints a beautiful picture of life on earth before it got messy, complicated, and entirely screwed up by selfish human desires.
The beatitudes have been used at times to encourage a more cloistered lifestyle, where people separate from much of the world, to better focus on the divine. This approach, in a very tangible way, is a call to simplicity. This is the goal of many an order of monks and nuns. Martin Luther himself spent two years in the Augustinian order of monks, and it was deeply formative.
Most of us, however, are not called to a cloistered life of this sort.
(Tho if you are, please do consider selling *all* your belongings and then do consider donating the proceeds to our fine congregation. I’d suggest that you could just make the check out to Pastor Ryan, though that would impede my own aspirations of being pure in heart. 😊)
For the rest of us, we non-cloistered types, there is plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from this beatitude.
This beatitude represents, for all of us, a call back to simplicity.
Our world is incredibly complicated, and our allegiances are constantly being compared, tested, and challenged, in all sorts of ways.
For public school systems which is better, Gilbert or Ames? I’d guess in this room our allegiances are divided. And for the record both, from what I understand, are amazing.
The Scandinavian Coffee event we do here at Bethesda is a fine tradition that goes back over 60 years. But what about the upcoming Oktoberfest here? I hear that we’ll sell beer! Which do you swear allegiance to, coffee connoisseurs or lovers of beer breweries? And for the record I love both coffee and beer, and the traditions both hail from, and will be attending both.
And talk of politics? Of Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians, oh my? For the record I probably shouldn’t even go there. For the record it’s yet one more way for us to divide.
A pure, simple heart is single-minded in devotion to God. A simple heart is not divided or conflicted in allegiance. A simple heart doesn’t jostle between trying to please both God and humans. A simple heart is rightly directed on God.
Personally speaking I needed that reminder, that call back to simplicity, and it happened earlier this week outdoors with my son. Our time was spent eating and drinking, and talking and just being. All while surrounded by and appreciating God’s creation. For the two of us it was fairly novel – we really need a lot more of this kind of time together – and it was wonderful. It was divine.
Jesus modeled what it means to be pure in heart more than anyone who has ever walked this earth. His focus was on the will of his Father, at all times, and he lived that allegiance out on the daily.
Now this message isn’t a full treatment of the creation story, or of original sin.
But the garden of Eden, and the simple perfection it contains, offers an exquisite narrative of how we can live out this simple heart Jesus speaks of.
The original garden is a reminder, that the master builder has a master plan for all that is, including you. You, yes you, are part of that master plan.
The original garden is a job description. We are caretakers of all there is, keepers of the land, tillers of the soil. We are to love the land and its inhabitants, just as God loves this planet and all that it contains.
The original garden is a warning, of what happens when we engage in the tug of war between our will and God’s. Allegiances become divided, simplicity is lost. Life becomes more difficult, more complex.
And the original garden is a promise, of what our life can be like, in the here, and in the hereafter. For when our hearts are pure, and simple, and focused on God, over and above all else, we are better able to see. It is then when we can see the world not just as it is, but as it should be. And it is then when we can participate, in the divine job of bringing this world closer, into alignment, with this idyllic garden.
Keep your heart simple, my friends, for therein lies the blessing.
Keep your heart simple, my friends, for it is there you will see God. Amen.