010222 Christmas 2

Facing the Future with the Eyes of Our Heart Open

Ephesians 1:3-14; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23


       When I was working with marginal communities in Mexico to transform themselves, we used to invite them to imagine what they wanted their communities to look like in the future. That part was usually easy because what they lacked and what they didn’t like about their present situation were obvious. But when we got to the planning stage, and looked at the resources and obstacles that existed to reach that future, things were not as clear. They saw obstacles standing in the way all over the place. They had a much harder time seeing the resources available for reaching their goal. They took resources for granted and didn’t see them as elements that could be used to overcome obstacles to get to the future they wanted.

          I was reminded of that as I read the Ephesians passage: I pray that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Paul prayed that they could recognize their resources – what they already had. Right before the prayer Paul listed some of those resources: adoption as God’s children, forgiveness, God’s ultimate plan to gather everything together, an inheritance, and a pledge guaranteeing that inheritance.

       None of this was theoretical. The Ephesian church faced deep divisions, and did not know how to find unity. They only saw obstacles to achieving that unity – enmity between Gentiles and Jews, the passions of their flesh that seemed to work against being alive in Christ, the challenge of discerning lies from truth among all the empty words going around, and conflicts in the home around how far to take individual liberties. I promise I didn’t make up that list to be relevant. Those are truly the themes of the letter to the Ephesians.

       Some of you may recognize that I pray a portion of that prayer over people when we celebrate their birthday at church as they start a new year of life: that the eyes of your heart be enlightened. Of course, when I say the prayer, it is for an individual. But we must remember that most biblical writisung is addressed to communities, not individuals. As human communities on earth begin a new year, it might be good to ask, What does it mean to enlighten the eyes of our community’s heart? More to the point, what do we get with enlightened eyes in our hearts?

    Ephesians lists three outcomes of an enlightened heart:

  1. to know the hope to which God has called you.
  2. 2. to know the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints.
  3. to know the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.

How does this knowledge help us? Well, to know that the plan God calls us to is to bring everything together helps us maintain hope when all we see is division. To know that we’re heirs of God’s creation helps us want to take care of our inheritance like we would take care of the car our grandfather left us in his will. To know how much power God exercises on our behalf helps us speak truth to those who claim inappropriate power over us. To pray that we might keep remembering those things is not a bad resolution at the beginning of a new year.

       Turning to the Gospel helps us see what this looks like for us at this specific historical moment. The communities I worked with in Mexico knew what they wanted to be, and they knew how far they were from being like that. The problem with the United States is that we have claimed to already be what we want to be without being honest about what keeps us from getting there and what our true resources are to move us forward. We call ourselves A City set on a Hill as if we were that biblical city already.

       We think that we can be the City set on a Hill without facing the obstacles. So we refuse to repent of the sins that have brought us where we are. And many want to eliminate the very resources that are our only hope to get there. The current generation of immigrants carry the seeds of new life for the dream; but we can’t see that because we forget that we imported immigrants from Africa and considered them as less than human. We also fail to recognize the resource that exists in the indigenous peoples of this land who could correct so many errors that keep us from reaching the goal because our ancestors massacred most of them. We don’t want to face our shameful past.

       Many of you may be aware that last week, in what has been described as a watershed moment for President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent, Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the closure of Memorial International, the country’s oldest human rights organization and the main chronicler of mass crimes committed under the Soviet Union. The charge was that Memorial was a tool of foreign governments. But Ayman Mohyeldin, a news host on MSNBC, suggests that their real concern about Memorial may be what it was asking Russia to do. He quoted one prosecutor who asked, “Why, instead of taking pride for our country, do they suggest that we repent for our pitch dark past?” He editorialized that such an “argument will doubtlessly sound familiar to anyone following the fights over how we teach our own history in this country.”

       Today’s Gospel offers a course correction for both Russia and the United States with a healing approach to engaging our history. Matthew told these stories to help his generation face the obstacles and claim the resources for the journey to their promised land. The flight to Egypt evokes Israel’s own beginnings. At many times in Israel’s history, as in any nation’s history, people forgot their origins. In Israel’s case, they forgot their humble beginnings as slaves, and the hand of God in liberating them. In our case, we forget how our ancestors massacred and enslaved people to get what we have. We need to retell our versions of the stories like the flight to Egypt that remind us from whence we came so we can remove obstacles to what we want to be.

       Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents accomplishes a similar purpose. Herod ordered the slaughter of children because he feared losing power if a new king arose. That reality reminds people of Moses’ origins in Pharoah’s palace. Pharoah created a policy of killing all male Hebrew babies because of the fear that the Hebrews might rise up against their Egyptian overlords. Just as Moses was an unlikely exception to that policy, so Jesus’ escape from Bethlehem was an exception to Herod’s brutal slaughter. The difference was that Jesus was the target of Herod’s slaughter, whereas Moses was a lucky exception to Pharoah’s.

       Reading Matthew’s story forces us to ask how many policies being proposed in our country emerge from the same fear that other racial groups are starting to outnumber whites. Resistance to teaching shameful parts of our history in schools partly comes out of that fear. Until recently, most Americans  would have a difficult time relating to a despotic order of genocide like Pharoah’s or Herod’s because we have tended to believe that authorities act to protect citizens. Sadly, it is no longer so difficult to imagine. 2022 doesn’t begin with the same assumptions that previous years held for many Americans. In fact, yesterday’s LA Times listed three things we need to resolve to accomplish in 2022. It’s unlike previous lists of New Year’s resolutions. But anyone paying attention won’t question that we must accomplish these three projects: 1. Go big on climate change. 2. Save Democracy. 3. Vanquish COVID/ protect science.

       We’ll never find the courage to revisit our origin stories unless we first open the eyes of our heart to the true story of our origin. Only when we know the hope to which we have been called, the riches of our inheritance, and the power of God, will we be able to face the shameful part of our history. The shameful parts don’t define us; but they’re part of us and once we know who we are in Christ, we can incorporate them into our history without destroying our identity. May we begin this year with the eyes of our heart open to do the healing needed to restore our community.