Message for May 24, 2020
Texts: Luke 24:44-53 and Ephesians 1:15-23
The song I invited you to listen to as you prepared for online worship today, Paul Baloche’s “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” has long been a favorite contemporary Christian worship song of mine; I’ve probably been singing it for 20 years, and among those who love that worship and music genre, this is one of the “classics” that has persisted while many other songs have had their period of popularity and then fallen from use. The biblical verse on which the song is based is probably less well-known than the song itself; more than once, someone has complained to me about the strange imagery of it, not realizing that another Paul — the author of Ephesians, that is — was the first to pen that phrase. I think it is beautiful, metaphorical language:
I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call … and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers (Ephesians 1:18-19a, Common English Bible).
I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear this verse, or this phrase, “the eyes of your heart.” I did some internet searching and found quite a fascinating variety of things, some of which will appear on the screen as I deliver this message. (Some were a bit fanciful, I’ll admit!)
The NIV and NRSV translations use the word “enlightened” in this passage. Perhaps that is a term we more often associate with “Eastern” religions or schools of thought. (Oddly enough, the popular paraphrase, The Message, does away with both the word “enlightened” and the phrase “eyes of your heart,” choosing instead the words: “intelligent and discerning… with your eyes focused and clear, so you can see…”).
How do we seek light? How do we seek enlightenment, as people of faith?
Our gospel text, which describes the “Ascension” of Jesus (40 days after the Resurrection), suggests that we might “look up” — or as Marcia McFee says, “elevate.”
Now I think it’s helpful to note that the wording of the Ephesians passage, no matter which translation you choose, is in the passive voice; it isn’t the believer who does this “enlightening,” but rather it is something, Paul says, that God does, as a gift. We don’t manufacture the light; we simply receive it. The best we can do is position ourselves to receive it, by praying for one another (as Paul prayed for the people of the church in Ephesus), and by turning our attention, like a sail tilted to catch the wind, or as a plant inclining itself toward the sun’s rays. Grace is all around us, eager to flow into and flood our hearts and our lives like a stream and like light. All we need is to turn, pay attention, open the door.
So often, we’re focused on looking down, keeping our eyes on our feet, looking only to the next step, making an effort not to trip. I think this is true both literally and figuratively. When I walk my dog, once in a while, I notice how much I’m looking down. It’s not a bad thing. I remember the chant from my childhood: “Step on a crack, and you’ll break your mother’s back,” and while I know that’s superstition, I still hear it in my head, and I avoid the cracks in the sidewalk. I wonder if the origin of the little rhyme was really meant to keep little kids from tripping and falling! There are lots of hazards on the sidewalk, after all — raised parts, little stones and seed pods, the occasional discarded toy or trash or piece of “doogie doo-doo” one would like to avoid. On colder or rainy days, when I’m wearing a hat or hood, or both, I find myself hunching my shoulders so my head covering won’t fall off, so the wind and rain won’t get in my face. And when I’m looking down, I realize I’m missing a lot. When I take walks without my dog, I notice, and appreciate, my surroundings much more.
One day, years ago, I was just about to set out on a walk with my dog, and something tugged at me to stop and look up. In the sky I beheld the most amazing sight: a flock of birds circling far overhead, riding a thermal, I suppose There were hundreds, tiny black shapes against a brilliant blue sky. I was spellbound for a few minutes, watching, and I was struck by the realization that I was perhaps the only person watching those birds at that moment. They were too high for me to hear their calls, or perhaps they weren’t making noise at all; I’m not even sure just what it was that drew my attention to them. It made me think of all the awesome things going on around me that I miss when I’m focused downward, — the squirrels chasing each other across a telephone line, nests high in the trees, the fruit ripening up there where the sun reaches the best, the birds and the ever-changing patterns of the clouds. I started a practice of intentionally looking up sometimes on my walks, alert for the secret blessings just waiting to be received by my eyes and my soul. But it is easy to forget, easy to bring our focus back downward.
There is a remarkable stained glass window that dominates the chancel of the Burlingame United Methodist Church. Most people there call it “the Jesus window,” and for the eight years that I served there, it was my visual worship “anchor.” In the morning, the eastern sun catches the glass and the colors light up; at night, there’s a “Jesus window” switch on the breaker panel in the sacristy that can be flipped so that the darkened sanctuary may be illuminated by this powerful image. What some folks there may not recognize is that it’s a portrayal of Jesus ascending; his arms are stretched out in a comforting gesture, and he is surrounded by clouds and shafts of light.
It is a beautiful reminder that God does not leave us desolate. God is present in the midst of our uncertainty, and God commissions us to responsibility and risk-taking.
Because like those disciples in Bethany, we don’t get to stay on the top of the mountain, looking up. Like those disciples in Jerusalem, we won’t be waiting forever. With our eyes opened, our hearts enlightened and lifted up in gratitude, we are also called to move courageously into a new world, God’s power working in us. The Spirit moves us. With open eyes and open hearts, we will move forward, together. Amen.