Sunday, June 26, 2016

In His Footsteps

2 Kings 2:1-14     (NRSV) 

2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.


It is so good to be back!  Not that I didn’t enjoy my vacation, mind you.  I did.  I spent time with friends, heard many inspiring messages, ate great food, got the Parsonage in order - mostly.  Read.  Rested. Relaxed.  Cuddled with my cats.  Poor Doof was kind of traumatized by all the changes.  Nermal’s a kitten.  She thinks chaos is normal.   All three of us are pretty well settled in now.  But when you love your work as much as I love this work, it’s really good to be back. 

This is a story about Prophets.  There were a lot of prophets in the Old Testament.  Most of them are nameless, or maybe mentioned once or twice, like the groups of prophets described in today’s story.  Some were women.  Deborah, for example.   Some could foretell things to come, some could work various sorts of wonders.   Mostly their job was to remind the people what God expected of them.  As Micah said, God’s people were instructed to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with God.  The prophets would remind them of their need to be hospitable, to care for the weakest among them, to love one another.  Every king employed prophets, many of whom would say whatever the king wanted them to say.  Some didn’t.  Some of those, like Nathan with King David, survived their head butts with their king.  Others didn’t.  But in each generation a prophet who could do amazing things through God’s power would appear.  Elijah was one such.  You might remember from a few weeks back the story of Elijah causing the widow’s flour and oil containers to be self-replenishing, until such time as the drought should end.  He restored her son to life.  Like Moses, he was able to invoke God’s power to part the water of a river so he could get to the other side.  He defeated Ahab and Jezebel.  He did many wonders, many good things.  He was a powerful man.   And he was a humble man.  He prayed for God’s help.  He followed God’s direction.   He listened for God’s voice in the wind, in the fire, and in the stillness.  

I don’t know about you, but I always got Elijah and Elisha mixed up.  Their names are so much alike, they were active at roughly the same time.  I knew one replaced the other but I could never remember which was which.  But, as with anything else, the more I read the Bible, the more my understanding grew.  Elijah was one of the great prophets, like Moses.  It was Moses and Elijah who met Jesus on the mountaintop, that time when Peter and the others wanted to build them shelters to stay in.  Elijah was one of two people in the Hebrew Scriptures who didn’t simply die or have a burial site.  Moses went up on a mountain alone and disappeared.   Elijah was lifted up, he ascended in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire.  Later, Jesus would also ascend into the sky, another proof that he was one of God’s great prophets.  

I have a confession to make.  I am not all that fond of Elisha.  I think he is arrogant, more concerned about his own power and reputation than with his calling as a prophet of the Most High.  Elijah told him He seems to be a bit closed minded.  I mean, he clearly doesn’t want to hear anything he doesn’t want to know.  Every time one of the other prophets try to prepare him for what is to come, he’s all, “I know.  I don’t want to hear it.”  When Elijah asks “What can I do for you before I leave?” Elisha asks, not for a bit of the power Elijah holds, but for double.   

And this is where it becomes important which translation you use when interpreting Scripture.  I understood that bit, which actually says “spirit” to mean power.  That troubled me.  So I checked through a lot of translations, the vast majority of which use the word Spirit.  Only a few translate that word as Power.  The Contemporary English Version even goes so far as to say, “Please give me twice as much of your power as you give the other prophets, so I can be the one who takes your place as their leader.”   According to a Jewish Study Bible I have, however, what Elisha is actually requesting is not double his power as a prophet and worker of wonders, but double the blessing that the other prophets receive, just as an older son received double the inheritance of the younger sons.   OK.  So maybe he’s not as bad as I thought.  As I read further I found that he cleansed the well of a city, saying that from now on it would cause neither disease nor miscarriage.  He tried to dissuade a group of men from going to search for Elijah’s body, knowing they would find nothing.  Both good and admirable things.  But then, later on in this same chapter, when a group of young boys make fun of his bald head, he curses them and they are all savaged and killed by a bear.  Not nice, not nice at all.  Not what I would hope for from a representative of the Lord.

But the one thing Elisha was, without a doubt, was loyal.  “Stay here,” Elijah said.  “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Not once, but three times, Elijah told him to stay and Elisha refused.  He was determined to go with his master to the very end of the journey.  Even though he knew that at end of the journey he would lose his Master, he went.  From Gilgal to Beth-el to Jericho to the River Jordan and beyond, Elisha stuck by Elijah’s side.  He waited as all the good-byes were said, all the final instructions given.  He refused to listen to the other prophets who tried to dissuade him from going on.  Rather, he stayed to the very end, though the appearance of the fiery chariot and horses would have chased off any other man, and kept watching until he could no longer see his Master.  Then he grieved.  Then he tore his garments.  Then he turned back the way he came, to take up Elijah’s mantle - literally - and continue the work that had been given to Elijah, reconciling the people of Israel with the Lord their God. Especially the leaders, for as the leaders went so went the nation.  When the leaders sinned, when the leaders worshipped other gods, so did the people.

Elisha may not be my favorite Biblical character, but his loyalty, his determination to go where ever his Master leads, that is admirable.  And in my mind, that quality alone goes a long way to make up for his character defects.  He was unpopular even among the other prophets, but he was dedicated and determined to continue the work that was given to Elijah.  He was single-mindedly focused on returning Israel to the Lord their God, as was his Master before him.

We may know someone like Elisha, someone who is maybe a bit hard to get along with, but whose dedication to doing the work of Christ in the world is undoubted.  You might see them giving care and love to the homeless, the hungry, battered women, abused or abandoned children - or animals - and giving a seriously hard time to anyone who gets in the way of them doing their work.  You might see them in city council meetings fighting for their projects, or on the news being taken away from a protest in handcuffs.  I have friends who tend to make me slightly crazy with their seemingly single minded dedication to a cause.  But whether or not I agree with their position, I admire their dedication.  I understand that they are following in the footsteps of their Master, doing the work to which they were called.  They refuse to turn back.  And I cannot fault them for that.  

Like Elijah, Jesus’ mission was to reconcile the people with their God.  And we have been given a great commission to fulfill that mission.  We have been called by name to follow Jesus, as Elisha followed Elijah.  We have been called and sent out into the world to bring healing in the name of the Christ, to share love in the name of the Christ, to serve the least of our brothers and sisters in the name of the Christ, to do the work that Jesus left for us to do.  We come here, to this place, to be equipped for that work.  Let us be like Elisha in our determination to go forward, no matter how difficult that journey might be.  Let us be like Elisha in our refusal to turn back, in our refusal to listen to those who would dissuade us from our course.  Let us be like Elisha in our refusal to let even a chariot of fire turn us back.  Let us make the decision to walk with our Lord, to follow in his footsteps, no matter where that path may take us.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

TNG - Going Places

Luke 7:11-17     (CEB)

11 A little later Jesus went to a city called Nain. His disciples and a great crowd traveled with him. 12 As he approached the city gate, a dead man was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.” 14 He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

16 Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region.


It’s Graduation Sunday!  Today we celebrate all of those who have completed one level of education and are moving on to what ever comes next.  At my previous church we had a preschool and every year we held a graduation ceremony for the kindergarteners who were heading off to first grade.  I would don my Master’s regalia - cap, gown and hood - process in with the children, give a commencement address (usually from Dr. Seuss) and hand each one a diploma.  It was one of my favorite days, especially as we were in a poor community where finding the funds to send a child to preschool often meant the family had to make a significant sacrifice.  But there is no doubt that early childhood education leads directly to a better educated populace . . . children who go to preschool are more likely to finish high school and even college than those who cannot.  For many that means the entire family will enjoy a better life later on.  

He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.”  Jesus had compassion for her and raised her son from death, so that he could go on caring for his mother.  We’ve talked about what happens to childless widows before . . . Jesus wasn’t just restoring her son to her, he was very likely saving her from a life of hunger, degradation and early death.

One of the things we don’t always realize is that, when Jesus did things like raising the dead and making a few loaves and fishes stretch to feed 5,000 men (plus women and children), the people of the time didn’t say to themselves, “Look!  this man must be the Messiah.!”  No.  They saw that he was performing the well known functions of the ancient prophets.  “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said.   They recognized Jesus as one of the great prophets, like Elijah.

1 Kings 17:8-24  (CEB)
8 The Lord’s word came to Elijah: 9 Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. 10 Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” 11 She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. 14 This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.

17 After these things, the son of the widow, who was the matriarch of the household, became ill. His sickness got steadily worse until he wasn’t breathing anymore. 18 She said to Elijah, “What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?”

19 Elijah replied, “Give your son to me.” He took her son from her and carried him to the upper room where he was staying. Elijah laid him on his bed. 20 Elijah cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself over the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.” 22 The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived. 23 Elijah brought the boy down from the upper room of the house and gave him to his mother. Elijah said, “Look, your son is alive!”

24 “Now I know that you really are a man of God,” the woman said to Elijah, “and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth.”

Even Elijah, the great prophet, had to  prove himself to this woman.  It didn’t matter that he had improved her standard of living by giving her a self-replenishing source of flour and oil to last her through the drought.  Having food to eat was good, but it wasn’t everything.  Any magic worker could do that - or so she’d heard.  Bringing her son back to life, on the other hand, proved to her that this man, this Elijah, was indeed, a man of God, and that he spoke for the Lord God.    Thus it would be with Jesus later on.  The people would see his actions and realize that here was another like Moses and Elijah - a great prophet, whose words and power were given to him by the Lord God of Israel.  Through their acts of feeding and healing they were performing physical actions that indicated the desire of God to feed and heal the souls of his people.   They were doing the things that would bring new life, new beginnings, not just to the sons of these widows, but to all of Israel, and by extension, to all of the world.  

Imagine what it must be like to wake up and face an entirely new life. Oh wait, all of you graduates are doing that now.  When you wake up after graduation you realize that you are leaving behind something familiar, something you have become accustomed to over a period of time, and you are facing something new.  Maybe it won’t be very different . . . high school is not terribly different from junior high.  Law School isn’t terribly different from college.  Harder, but not really different.  The young men Elijah and Jesus raised would be going back to their normal lives, more or less.  Except for the whole everybody and their second cousin coming around to check out the dead guy who wasn’t dead any more thing, of course.  But they would do their usual work and they would see their usual friends and they would eat their usual food.  But maybe, they would also stop and think about what God had done for them.  Maybe they would allow this new thing, this new beginning, to change them in even more important ways.  Maybe they would start being nicer to people.  Maybe they would let compassion guide their actions.  Maybe they would be more generous.  No one knows if there was any real, significant change in the way they lived their lives, because the Bible story isn’t really about them.
At graduation ceremonies everywhere speakers have been/will be doing their own version of Dr. Seuss’  Oh The Places You’ll Go, which I think is probably the best possible commencement address and which actually was read at a Chapman University commencement one year by Dr. Marilyn Harran.  Graduates will be spoken of as The Next Generation, the ones who will stride forward to change the world, seeking new life and new civilizations, going where no one has gone before.    

And for some of you, the question you will be hearing is, “What next?”  Cindy and I had this conversation the other day.  Now that she has her Master’s degree, what next?  What will her next goal be?  What will she busy herself with?  She’s been in school a very long time.  She’s used to jumping from deadline to deadline, from paper to paper, from research project to research project.  And now - she’s done with that.  She’s made a conscious decision to just be.  To engage in a period of discernment, going about her daily life in a new way - going to her job, settling into her new roles as wife and mother and home owner, without all the stress and excitement of grad school.  It is a time of new beginnings for her . . . as it is for all of you.

And even for me.  I’m completely moved into the Parsonage.  It will take a while to get everything the way I want it.  I still have to talk about wall colors and such with Alan, and hang my pictures and figure out how the kitchen should be set up.  But this is the first time in over 30 years that I have moved into a home without worrying about keeping the boxes for the next move.  This is home, for the foreseeable future.  It’s a new thing . . . it’s also the thing that makes me feel even more completely yours.  Now I have a home in which I may entertain you, and have Bible Studies and small groups.   I’ve never had that before, and I am so excited. It’s a new beginning and a new life for me, and for all of us in our relationship with each other.   

For the graduates, and for me, life from here on out will be different in significant ways.   But in actuality, every day is a day of new beginnings for each and every one of us.  Maybe we didn’t just graduate, or move into a new home, or pass any other of life’s many milestones.  But we did wake up in a new day.  And simply by virtue of waking up in a new day we get to make the decision to be the best person we can be today, leaving behind the disappointments and pains of yesterday to face a new, bright future.  We can consider each morning the beginning of a new life, a new way of being.  We can choose to react to situations as if we are entirely new people.  Each of us can go forward, having made the decision to be the very best Christ follower we possibly can be, into a new day, a new life, treating others with compassion and mercy, as Jesus and Elijah did. 

That’s what Jesus ministry was all about, you know.  Making the world a new place, by healing the hearts and souls of the people in it.  Let us go forward from this moment into that new life, the life that Jesus calls us to, the life that God desires for us, in which we try to make the world a better place, a more compassionate place, a more caring place, loving one another as much as God loves us.