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Archive for September, 2021

May God Light Up Your Eyes

Ephesians 1:15-23, with Allusions to Jeremiah 29:11 and 32:6-15

Paul’s prayer for congregations reading this letter is a heartfelt mix of thankfulness for their faithfulness and love, and of loving concern for them.  He understood how challenging it can be to hold on to hope when the world gives us so many reasons to lose hope.

The respite we enjoyed earlier in the summer was short-lived.  Now COVID has come roaring back in the delta mutation.  This new wave of sickness and death is heartbreaking enough.  What’s especially challenging my sense of hope is that this human tragedy has become politicized.  We could and should be working together to contain and vanquish the virus, but instead relationships are being torn apart.  People are fighting over vaccinations and masks.  People are fearful and angry.

I’m also fed up with legislators focused on fighting and defeating each other, and focused on manipulating voters to solidify their power, instead of working together to serve the people, all the people.  I can’t help thinking of what Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address, when he said that the civil war was testing whether or not a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people—men, originally—are created equal can long endure.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people is being mightily tested now.

We are not the first to live through times of multiple traumas, wars, and disasters, both natural and human-made.  It was this bad in Jeremiah’s day, and he agonized over what was happening.  Babylonian soldiers were encamped around Jerusalem.  Any day now they could push through the city walls.  And that would mean more death.  And more people would be carried away into exile in Babylon.  

What made it even worse was that the people in control were in denial.  Jeremiah and other prophets saw that a certain amount of cooperation with Babylon would lessen the devastation and save people’s lives.  But King Zedekiah and his cohorts harbored grand illusions of pushing the much bigger empire, Babylon, away.  What’s more, wrongheaded notions about God were part of the problem.  The king was among those who said, “We are God’s chosen nation.  God’s Temple is here.  God is not going to let Jerusalem fall.  God is going to come and rescue us.”  This led them to believe they could rebel against Babylon and succeed.

Zedekiah was tired of all Jeremiah’s warnings of disaster and his preaching that the government ought to work with Babylon instead of continuing to antagonize Babylon.  In the eyes of the king and his minions, Jeremiah was unpatriotic.  Jeremiah was a traitor, and Zedekiah tried to intimidate him into shutting up.  So he had Jeremiah placed under house arrest in the courtyard of the palace guardhouse.  Jeremiah’s eyes were worn out with weeping over all that was happening, and over people’s stubborn refusal to listen and take productive action.

The people of Paul’s day were certainly no strangers to death and disease and dysfunctional and downright bad government.  In every age hope is a challenge, and so Paul wrote, “I am so thankful to God for your faith and your love, and I hold you in my prayers, always.  I pray that God will light up the eyes of your hearts so that you can see and know the hope that God is calling you to.  May God light up your eyes with hope.”

Then he points to where this hope comes from.  The source of this hope is the power of God, the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus Christ was tortured to death, leaving his followers in total despair, total hopelessness.  But God raised him up, put him on the throne that is above all thrones, and now the living Christ is the ruler above all rulers.

This same powerful, life-giving God is still at work, and our hope starts there.  When hope lights up our eyes, we may not be able to see the details of what God is dreaming of and working towards, but we know that death cannot stop God.  The God of resurrection continues to will and to work for what is good, right, just, loving, redeeming, saving, and life-giving for all.  Christ the king of love and light is on the throne.  God is the ruler yet.

God is the ruler yet.  By the Spirit, God reminded Jeremiah of that.  He was grieving what was happening in his country, but he was also listening intently for a word from God.  And here came the word instructing him to do something that did not make practical sense.  Despite the fact that Jerusalem and the nation was about to be overrun by Babylonians, God said, “Jeremiah, your cousin Hanamel wants you to buy his field in Anathoth.  When he offers you this land, I want you to buy it.”  Hanamel was likely cashing in and planning to get out of Judah before it was too late.  Cash is portable.  Land is not.

Jeremiah did what God said, bought the land, got everything all signed and sealed and witnessed and filed the documents away in a clay jar for future reference.  With doom on the horizon, why would Jeremiah buy a field that he in all likelihood would not live to be able to use?  It seems nutty.  

Well, this wasn’t just a real estate transaction.  This was a sermon in action.  Jeremiah explained it this way: “This is what God says: homes and fields and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country, just you wait.  God is going to make a new life here one day.”  In buying the field, Jeremiah said, “I am counting on God to make a future.”

Earlier, God put the promise this way: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a future with hope.”  Jeremiah literally put his money down on that hope.

Jeremiah’s eyes were alight with hope for the future as he imagined God taking action, even though it was action he would probably not live to see.  Jeremiah’s eyes were lit up with hope even though they were still filled with tears.

I join Paul in praying that prayer for us, that God might light up the eyes of our hearts with hope—we who pray again and again, “Thy kingdom come, God, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  May God light up our eyes, even when they are brimming with tears.  May God light up our eyes, that we might glimpse what the God of resurrection is working on even in the midst of the present darkness, or at least help us find the strength to trust that this God is at work; for whatever God is doing, it is leading to justice and righteousness.  It is leading to life.

This week I read some reflections on the challenge of hope by artist Jan Richardson.  She paints and writes as an expression of faith.  Jan survived the sudden, devastating death of her husband.  “Christ who wore our flesh abides with us still, hoping for us when our hope is shattered, breathing new life into us,” she writes.  And not only that Christ encompasses “us in the arms of a community that holds us with hope.”  In other words, hope is held in community, and when we are in despair, the community holds on to hope and holds on to us.

Jan describes hope this way:  “Hope is not always comforting or comfortable.  Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. [Hope] calls us to keep breathing when loves ones have left us, to turn toward one another when we would prefer to turn away.  Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future, but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.”  (Jan Richardson, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/)

Living into hope means looking towards the future with imaginative eyes, looking for what God is doing on the horizon, and letting that shape what we decide to do in the present.  We join God’s work towards a more whole world now.

In this present time of strife and fear and sorrow, we still look to the God of hope and to the king of love who is on the throne, and we remain determined to live and act the way he teaches us to live and act, with concern for the wellbeing of everyone.  Everyone.  Including those people whose attitudes and actions we just don’t understand.  We still look to the God of hope to show us where to put our money down, where to buy the field of hope.

My hopes were lifted yesterday during a lovely phone visit with my friend Bettie Powell.  Some of you may remember meeting Mrs. Bettie when she and her son Randy came to visit us one Sunday at Morton.  They are leaders in the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tarboro Street.  We almost always pray when we visit, and Mrs. Bettie prayed so eloquently and with so much heart that God’s dreams of loving community might be realized here in our divided nation.  She prayed for her church and our church, too.

Friends, I hold you in prayer, too, echoing Paul. Echoing Mrs. Bettie.  I thank God for your faith and your love.  May God light up the eyes of your hearts, that you might glimpse and know the hope God calls us to.  May God light up our hearts to glimpse God’s great power at work for good, the same power through which God raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  May God put glimmers of hope in our eyes even when, and especially when our eyes are brimming over with tears.  AMEN.

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