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Tasting Beauty, Seeing Mystery

Matthew 5:8
David A. Davis
May 3, 2020
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Cathy and I have been taking long walks on the weekends. We walk multiple times a day around our neighborhood with the dog. But on weekends we leave the dog home. The longer, faster walk has a different focus. The weekend walk is for exercise and the dog stops too often! On the Saturday before Easter we walked from our home to the church because we wanted to see the “Christ is Risen’ banner and the beautiful flower arrangement at the top of the church steps. We walked by way of Prospect Street, all the way from Lake Carnegie to the university campus. Now I have driven that route more times than I could ever count. Past the Wakefield home, the Gregory’s, the Feldman’s, the Katen-Narvels, the Schreibers, probably a few others. On that several mile walk that day, trying for a bit of pace, I learned something I never realized before. Going that direction from the lake to the university on Prospect Street is up hill! Never noticed it in the car! I noticed it on foot! A gradual, mile or so, uphill. A different focus changed what I could see.

Matthew 5:8. The sixth beatitude of Jesus. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The pure in heart and seeing God. Not quite as clear, not quite as literal, not quite as straight forward as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Seeing God. The prologue to John’s gospel ends with this: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” So we see God in the life of the historical Jesus and we believe we will see Jesus Christ again when he welcomes us into the kingdom of heaven. But it seems to me the promise of the beatitudes in the teaching of Jesus connotes something more, or something in addition to the “wait…and see” assurance of eternal life.  And as for “the pure in heart”, let’s hope Jesus is not referring to only those with a sinless, perfect, stumble-free walk of faith. You and I won’t make that list. No, we join our voices with that of psalmist. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51)

            “Pure in heart”. The expression comes in Psalm 24 as well, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in God’s 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. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 24:3-6) Pure hearts in the company of those who seek the Lord. Pure hearts among those who yearn to see the face of the God of Jacob.

Dr. Dale Allison, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and part of the Nassau faith community, links Psalm 24 and Matthew 5:8 in his book on the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Allison reminds his reader that Psalm 24 is one of the Psalms of Ascent. They are psalms intended to be read by the people of Israel as the ascended the hills up to Jerusalem to visit the temple. “The company of those who seek the Lord” are those who are heading up the hill to experience God in the rites and rituals to temple worship. Their purity of heart reflects the singular focus of the journey toward praise and worship of the God of Jacob. In those acts of worship in the temple, people experienced the holiness and the presence of God.  They experienced, they knew, they saw God. In a helpful way, Professor Allison points to Augustine’s definition of a pure heart as a “simple heart” undivided in allegiance and rightly directed. And he cites Kierkegaard: “purity of heart is to will one thing.” A faithful pilgrim whose very journey changes the focus, brings the focus, burns a laser focus in a heart yearning to be nourished by the presence of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

            It strikes me that I have probably made mention over the years of those who choose to experience worship on the Lord’s Day out in creation while walking in the mountains or being on the water or on the golf course. I am sure when I have done that there was hint of ministerial disdain or at least the strong suggestion that it could never be replacement for gathering with the people of God as the body of Christ here in the…..sanctuary. Well, I hope I won’t do that anymore. Because the yearning to be nourished by the presence of God these days doesn’t come with a pilgrim’s journey to the temple of Jerusalem nor the sanctuary at 61 Nassau Street for that matter. But it is there, isn’t it? The longing, the intent, the desire to be in God’s presence and to offer praise and adoration, to be fed by word and by sacrament, to worship in song. It is a longing for the presence of God made known in the rites and rituals and worship of our tradition. The longing still comes with the journey. But not the journey along the pilgrims way, not the journey of a morning rush to church hoping all the kids have shoes on, not even the journey over to your device this morning. No, it is a journey of the Holy Spirit that stirs our hearts and moves our soul. A movement of the Spirit that in all of its mystery, purifies our heart if but for a moment with the singular focus of coming into God’s presence. A gift of God’s grace in our journey together, even while physically a part from one another. A journey, a gift that burns a laser focus in hearts yearning to be nourished by the presence of God.

Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead takes the form of a long correspondence from a Presbyterian pastor to his young son. The pastor married late in life and is older than most father’s of a young son. He is also unwell and wrestling with the reality of his mortality. The book represents all he wants his young growing son to know and learn in his absence. At one point he tells of being in the sanctuary of the church he serves one Sunday after worship.

“Today was the Lord’s Supper, and I preached on Mark 14:22,”And as they were eating, he took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave it to them, and said, Take ye: this is my body.” Normally I would not preach on the Words of Institution themselves when the Sacrament is the most beautiful illumination of them there could be. But I have been thinking a great deal about the body these last weeks. Blessed and broken…. I have been thinking lately how I have loved my physical life. In any case, and you may remember this, when almost everyone had left and the elements were still on the table and the candles still burning, your mother brought you up the aisle to me and said, “You ought to give him some of that.” You’re too young, of course, but she was completely right. Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you. Your solemn and beautiful child face lifted up to receive these mysteries at my hands. They are the most wonderful mystery, body and blood.” A face lifted to receive the wonderful mystery of the very love of God. A face, a heart, a soul lifted, focused on the wonderful mystery of the very love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

            Over at Princeton Seminary, they have been having daily worship each day of the semester even though the campus is closed and students and faculty are working from home. One day this week the final chapel service on the last day of class was held virtually. The choir offered a final hymn that just gave me chills when Cathy invited me to watch it.  While it doesn’t take much to bring me to tears these day, it was deeply moving to me. The choir is led by Martin Tel. Martin, Sharilyn, Theo, Sarah, and Kathryn are such a part of our life here at Nassau. The song is entitled “The Journey Song.”  “Come with Me for the Journey is Long. The journey, the journey, the journey is long. Come with me. Walk with me. Sing With me. Pray with me. For the journey is long.” Each member singing in their own Zoom box one the screen like Marissa, George, Elem, and Maria along with Michael at the organ did for worship with the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter here at Nassau. Near the end more and more singers appear represent all parts of the community; Faculty, administrators, President Barnes and his wife Dawne. Most of you would see faces you recognize on the screen. Faces you have seen on Sunday in worship in the sanctuary. What touched my heart was not just the song. But an educational, theological faith community, physically a part from one another with united hearts laser focused on worshipping in the presence of God and singing of their desire to walk this pilgrim’s journey together…no matter how. Miller Chapel as forever been the physical heart of the seminary campus. In that moment at the close of the service, there was an affirmation, a proclamation that worship is indeed, at the heart of the seminary’s life.

To all of you I love and serve at Nassau Presbyterian Church and beyond, our pilgrim journey to come into God’s presence, our journey to be nurtured by the promise and presence of God, the journey is long. Some days, some weeks, some months, some seasons (like right now)  seem a lot longer than others. But we walk together. We sing together. We pray together all along the way.

Friends in Christ, come with me, for the journey is long.

And together we shall taste something of the beauty of God.

And together we shall see something of the mystery of God.

Lift your face. Lift your heart. Lift your soul to the most wonderful mystery of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.”