March 7, 2021: In Search of the Kingdom of God: Mercy and Purity
In Search of the Kingdom of God: Mercy and Purity
- Prelude – “Tune from Tallis” by Thomas Tallis; Terry Reitz, organ
- Welcome – Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 295 – “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” by John Bowring; Janice Parks, hymn leader; Pauline Olsen, organ; Terry Reitz, bells; Donna Grubbs, piano
- Prayer Time – Rev. Dr. Kathleen Charters
- Special Music – “Panis Angelicus (O Lord Most Holy),” by Cesar Franck; Patty Shoop, vocal; Pauline Olsen, organ
- Scripture reading – Matthew 5:7-8; Steve Downer
- Sermon – “In Search of the Kingdom of God: Mercy and Purity,” Pastor Brad Beeman
- Communion – Brad Beeman and Rev. Dr. Kathleen Charters
- Hymn 357 – “Just as I Am, Without One Plea,” by Charlotte Elliott; Janice Parks, hymn leader; Pauline Olsen, organ; Donna Grubbs, piano
- Postlude – “From Deepest Woe (Aus Tiefer Not),” by Mahlon Balderston; Terry Reitz, organ
Somehow it makes sense to put these two Beatitudes together. Not only does it catch us up, one feeds off the other, even defines the other. One is certainly the outgrowth of the other, and when utilized together they can be one of the most powerful forces for Godly good. Here’s what I mean.
For years I worked with gangs. In the beginning of those days, it wasn’t what you see today. There was no MS13, nor were there some of the gangs coming from places like Jamaica. In those days it was mostly “bloods” and “crips” and outgrowths of those. For instance, when in ministry in Sunnyside, a rural community in Central Washington, what I found was a recruiting and training ground for Latino extensions of both crips and bloods. The hatred was deep between gangs. These were younger versions of the older gangs, yet would still have to work their way up through the “merit badges” of gang culture. Drive-by shootings, attacking a police officer, killing or beating up a rival gang member, stealing certain dangerous objects like guns. Or for the youngest recruits, some of them in late elementary school, it was stealing things like bikes.
I’ll tell you the story sometime of Dorothy recovering a bike from one of those gang members. The police in Sunnyside still talk about her even today. My first introduction to these localized gangs was involvement in their funerals. The Catholic priest and I buried all too many, including my first three funerals; execution-style shootings of 14 and 15-year-olds. Suffice it to say that mercy was not a part of the gang culture. Yet the power of love, of grace, of mercy, of patience, of prayer, and relationships of trust, combined to overcome even the deepest of hatreds.
The first time I met Hector was at the alternative high school. We were introduced by the principal of that school, Gary. Of the sixty or so students, approximately 80% were Latino gang members. Some in opposing gangs. It was always volatile, but Gary had an uncanny way about him that created trust, something gang members didn’t give very much.
Hector, Gary, and I met after school one day. I asked Hector to describe what it was like to be a gang member in the Yakima Valley. He talked of the boredom as one contributing factor, of the focus for most gangs was to fill time with gang-related activities; things like what I described before. “There is just nothing else to do around here” he would say. I asked him what he might enjoy doing if given the chance. Basketball, break-dancing, and having a safe place to relax were among the things he shared. So, Gary and I and a few of the other members of the United Methodist Church went to work.
Over five years, and after losing about a third of the church membership because of my involvement with gang members, things began to shift. The church had a gym so we offered basketball, with the rule that colors (gang identification paraphernalia) had to be checked at the door. That turned into a break-dancing school. That turned into a mentoring program where older gang members would tutor younger ones in all items related to school, not gang life. That turned into what would become the largest espresso delivery organization in the greater Yakima Valley, all done at the church. That turned into members of various gangs coming together at a City Council meeting to propose a skate park, and the commitment to contribute to the construction in whatever ways they could. That turned into a safer community on every level. Oh, and the church grew from 50 to well over 200 because of this work.
Our work didn’t fully eradicate the deeply ingrained gang culture, the person who was acting as my Associate Pastor decided to test the loyalty of the gangs to him. He pitted one against another in an unhealthy and manipulative way. The gangs recognized it for what it was, self-focused manipulation. That night, that pastor’s home was visited, not in a violent way but in a way that clearly communicated that he had crossed the line. On his porch was a black rose with a card that had one word…tomorrow. Jerry had a wife and two children. I explained what the rose and word meant. He and his family were in serious danger. He was gone within 24 hours.
The gang members didn’t want to do anything that would have caused harm to what had been accomplished, but the rules were still in place, and Jerry had broken them in what was considered unforgivable ways. Jerry ended up not only moving out of the area, but out of the country. Probably wise given the connections among gang members. He now lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. I share that simply to say that the work we did was dangerous, but once the trust was built, we saw miracle upon miracle as opposing gang members began working together, even protecting each other. We showed them patience, and love, peace as an alternative, and yes, mercy. We walked through difficult times in their lives and the mercy and kindness we showed became a foundation for the changes we saw in them, and ultimately in the community. These godly elements carry immense power with them, if we choose to implement them in our lives and the communities that surround us.
Like meekness, mercy is one of the deeper emotions and requires more than is normal. It goes beyond that initial feeling of anger or the need or opportunity to punish. In as much as someone may have the power to harm or punish, mercy moves them in the opposite direction. It moves us toward deeper relationships that offer a deeper and more action-oriented level of healing. It is often life-changing for the recipient. Mercy takes focus and it takes intentionality. It is a vital part of our emotional health; even community health. To withhold it is to hold back one of God’s great gifts.
Think about how many times the gospels identify Jesus as having mercy on someone, or showing mercy and compassion. Think of him on the cross forgiving those who have placed him there. “They know not what they do.” It is a feeling expressed in actions of overwhelming grace and love. Without it, I don’t think we could ever become truly whole; truly pure of heart, and that brings us to the next of the Beatitudes. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
There is so much to this simple sentence. We already know about being blessed as we kneel before our Creator, and in turn, He kneels and offers us a part of Himself as a gift. But the whole idea of being pure of heart often gets confused with the whole idea of being good.
This Beatitude is not about being good, doing good, or even offering something good to someone else. It is about seeing God with our eyes as the lamp to the soul. Here’s what I mean. Katharos is the Greek word for pure. It doesn’t refer to the actions we have or have not taken, doesn’t look ahead or behind. It describes the present, the purity that lay in the center of one’s soul, or what Jesus calls “the heart.” In ancient times, the heart was not the muscle that kept the blood flowing. The heart was the very center of the body, the location of our sense of self. The word pure describes something pristine, without additives or additions.
Think of freshly fallen snow in the mountains; so pure, so white, nothing added, and nothing taken away. We were created with that purity in mind. As Augustine would say, with a God-shaped void (heart). To be pure is to have God fully and completely within our souls or our hearts. To be that filled with the love of God is something we seek, and certainly something God constantly seeks to offer.
As we become pure in heart, God defines everything we do. God designs how we very literally see the world, and in return, we are able to see the purity of God and God’s intentions in the world.
To attain it, we have to come to terms with and be defined by the Beatitudes that precede it. Living the Beatitudes is a process. It is about living fully enough that each one becomes a part of who and what we are – every moment of every day. It takes effort. It takes discipline. It takes making the right decisions. It takes help and patience and understanding.
It’s really tough to do alone. But if we work to become pure, our hearts can change our lives, and in turn, the lives of others. Jerry didn’t understand that when he dealt with the gangs. Most of those who came to and remained in the church in Sunnyside did, and they did everything they could to check to make sure their motives, their hopes, and dreams, their hearts were pure when it came to trying to help these struggling kids find something beyond gang life.
Because of that, what happened was nothing short of miraculous. God provided the model, Jesus the example, and the Holy Spirit the direction. The power that lay beneath what happened in Sunnyside can’t be overstated. It was one of the most significant things I’ve ever seen spiritually, and the changes came from building relationships of trust, offering patience and mercy, being forgiven and forgiving, and seeking constantly to be pure in heart. Friends, it opens the opportunities to do the same today, within the pandemic, within this political climate, and certainly in this community. It is a choice we make. Are you willing?
And that brings us here, to this table… Communion