Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon: The Sacred in our Midst

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
St. Mark United Methodist Church
February 22, 2009

The Sacred in our Midst
2 Kings 2:1-12 – Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the Lord live, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 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."

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. 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."

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. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah too 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.

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." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you; if not, it will not." 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. 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. 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.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, "The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha." They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

Leader: The Word of God for the People of God.

People: Thanks be to God.

Our text today begins with a spoiler about the best part of the story. The author of 2 Kings really tries to take some of the punch out of the story, by letting you know how the budget for special effects was blown even before telling you why. It's an odd way to begin, but it's certainly no stranger than the story's conclusion, where a fiery chariot from heaven swings down and whisks Elijah away in a whirlwind. But since we know the end of the story, we should spend some time with what happens before that. Maybe the author of 2 Kings is trying to tell us something. Maybe the story itself is even better than the ending.

Following Elijah's most recent prophecy both he and his devoted mentee, Elisha, know that the end of his prophetic ministry is coming. Elijah instructs Elisha to stay put, for he was on his way to Bethel. Elisha pulls a great Biblical one-liner, and offers, "As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." And they go together to Bethel. There, all of the prophets came to greet them, and take Elisha aside to warn him that Elijah is about to be taken away. But, Elisha already knows; he is a prophet, after all.

This exact scene is repeated as Elijah tells his progeny: "Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho." Again, Elisha repeats his refrain, "As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." The company of prophets in Jericho welcomes them, warns Elisha, and he silences them, saying, "Yes, I know. Keep silent."

Because all good stories, it seems, include a repetition of an event three times over, it happens again as Elijah tells Elisha: "Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan." Elisha gives his now-standard response: "As the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will not leave you," and they start out toward the Jordan. This time, however, 50 men of the company of prophets join them, standing at a distance. They become a great cloud of witnesses who see the events of Elijah's whirlwind absence with Elisha.

As the men approach the water, Elijah took his mantle – his robe – and rolled it up, and struck the water. In standard, Old Testament story fashion, the water obeys by parting to the left and to the right, until the two of them crossed onto the other bank. This action evokes Moses, and – maybe you'll remember – Joshua, who did the same thing before Elijah. They parted the waters for the sake of the Israelites, and passed through to safety.

But this journey evokes more than just Moses and Joshua, its patterns are more than just familiar lilts of a Bible story. This story takes both Elisha and us on a journey though familiar places. These are not cities that our tongues fumble over in our reading. These are places we know – Gilgal, which was established by the prophet Joshua (Josh. 3-4) when he and twelve leaders, one from each of the tribes of Israel, carried the Ark of the Covenant on dry ground through the Jordan. Gilgal means the "circle of stones," and was founded by God's command in memory of the tribes of Israel, so that all the people of earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty. It is in Gilgal that Joshua receives Moses' blessing to continue on the prophecy after Moses' death. And, it is in Gilgal, the most select of memorials, that Elijah begins his last tour. There, with Elisha, he meets with the company of prophets, who are coming to send their blessings. In Gilgal, there is a circle of stones that is drawn with a narrow radius, indicating that God's chosen people are few and that those represented are singular and select.

Elijah and Elisha travel from Gilgal to Bethel , which literally means "The House of God." Jacob named this place after his dream about the ladder leading to heaven in Genesis 28. In the dream, the Lord appears to him and says, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go." Jacob awakes, places a stone in this place and promises to be faithful to God who has already promised to be faithful to him. Later – this site would be home to the Temple, where all Israelites could come and worship. Jacob was sent back to Bethel by God (Ch. 35), and instructed to build an altar there to the God "who has been with me wherever I have gone." In this place, God spoke to Jacob, comforted and affirmed him, and covenanted with Jacob that from him, many generations would follow. Jacob's name was changed from one to another, and he was known from then on as Israel (v. 10), and he became the father of the 12 tribes. It was here, in Bethel, the House of God, that God promised to be both found and remembered there, but also to go where Israel would go. This sacred place was a living memorial to God Almighty, who is unbound, and yet still faithful.

In Bethel, Elijah and Elisha encounter the prophets, and bid them farewell. Bethel, the House of God, is just the first of many places where they hear God's voice. They are sent from there to Jericho, the place where the Israelites had settled after their exile. But, it was in Jericho that the Israelites found another kind of exile, and God commanded Joshua to lead the priests to march around the city, blow their trumpets and watch the walls come crumbling down. Joshua cursed this city, and the next king who tried to inhabit it lost his children as a result. Later, Jericho was where Jesus healed the blind and saved the tax collector, Zacchaeus. In Luke, Jesus tells a story about a man who was traveling to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of robbers, and found mercy in the hands of a foreigner – one on the outside of the chosen people. Jericho was no bucolic setting. This was a place of tumult and unrest. God's presence in this place was mighty, and terrible. Elijah and Elisha pass through, giving their greetings and accepting their warnings from the belabored prophets in Jericho. God's presence was not bound by the walls of a temple, or a city. Here, God was working in mysterious and difficult ways to continually remind all who had ears to hear that the Lord Almighty is not to be contained or shut away.

The final destination for the pair of prophets is the Jordan. They are accompanied on their journey by 50 of the prophets from Jericho, who had witnessed God's power and presence outside the Chosen people. On the banks of the Jordan, the prophets gathered to watch Elijah part the waters, while they remembered Joshua crossing through with the Israelites and one man from each tribe carrying the ark of the covenant. The prophets watched as Elisha received a double portion of Elijah's spirit, as the elder prophet was taken up to heaven by the Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen. In the Jordan, Elisha told Naaman to wash and be free from leprosy. And it was in the Jordan where John baptized Jesus and the promise of God to God's chosen people was given not only to the Israelites, but to all who would come to know the Son of God.

Standing at the Jordan, it is clear that this is not Elisha's story alone. His ministry is not just the culmination of Elijah's prophetic work. This is the story of Moses, who passed his mantle to Joshua, who founded the "Circle of Stones" at Gilgal, and led the Israelites out of exile into the "City of Palms" at Jericho. This is the story of all who came to the banks of the Jordan, and witnessed a repetition of God's promise being enacted: That God is with us, and will never leave us. The waters part, and the image of waters crashing at creation and nurturing life in the womb are brought together by the Spirit of God, which uses this single element to enact, cultivate and restore life.

This is not Elisha's story. It's Joshua's. And Moses'. And Jacob's. It is the continuation of the lineage that began when God's spirit swept over the face of the water, when deep called to deep at the thunder of God's cataracts, and the Word was spoken and called into being. And that Word was Life, and that Life is the Light of the world, which shone as the stars and moon and sun were formed.

This is not a story of transfiguration alone – it is not simply about being changed from one into another. It is a recounting of the Creation in the beginning of our time, when in the beginning all that existed was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It is a story about Life coming into being, and the life was the light of all people. John, who baptized in the River Jordan, came to testify to this light, which is the true light that enlightens everyone. The chariots came for Elijah, but Elisha was forever changed by this witness.

In this story, Elijah is not taking a memory tour around good hang-outs and checking in with friends. Elijah is walking Elisha through the entire story of the people of Israel, and at each stop, is making the past events present and alive again. It is a story of promise and fulfillment, and this fulfillment is complete in Christ Jesus, who, in his coming, collapses all of time into a single moment where past, present and future collide in the one moment of God’s eternal covenant with all of creation.

This is truly a story of eschatological hope – that is, what comes at last is not death and destruction, but final victory and feasting at the heavenly banquet! No, this isn't just good news for the prophets, but this is our story – that was witnessed by Prophets (Joshua) and Law-givers (Moses), tax collectors and prostitutes, those inside the temple and outside the camp, men and women, slaves and free, Jews and Greeks, me and you. Our lives do not end when we die the little death of loss in jobs, news of an illness, brokenness of relationships. Our lives begin again with the possibility of hope that is promised to us when we say, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you" to those who have changed us so completely.

This is not some displaced, odd story that has little relevance for us or anyone other than the prophets experiencing this moment with those being transfigured. Elisha was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who watched as Elijah was taken up into heaven in a Chariot of Fire. Jesus' face and garments were turned into Clorox-y white as the voice of God thundered down the answer to say, "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" The transfiguration from darkness to light is not just for the witnesses of the events. This marks the 40 days after Epiphany – when the world "got it" that this baby Jesus was really something. This marks nearly 40 days until Easter, when death is destroyed by life in Christ. This moment that happens in between the seasons is not just something to break the monotony – it is a full in-breaking of the Holy that is meant to grab the attention of all who will take notice and say, "This is what it's all about!"

This is not just about light or prophecy – it's about baptism and the life of the church. We, here, are doing something different. We, here, are opening ourselves up to the possibility that the story of God is our story to share and live out. We have marked ourselves with the sign of the cross, remembered our own baptisms, which began in the river Jordan, and are celebrated at this font. If you think this story isn't for you, then you're wrong, because the opening lines of our very lives were uttered at the moment God said, "Let there be light," and our stories have been precluded by all the prophets who have come before, so that we may say in response: "Hallelujah! God is Here and Now and With us and For us! Hallelujah!"


Mark 9:2-13
– Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Response to the Word:

"Glory Bound" – The Wailin' Jennys
When I hear that trumpet sound
I will lay my burdens down
I will lay them deep into the ground
Then I'll know that I am glory bound
I'll be travelling far from home
But I won't be looking for to roam
I'll be crossing o'er the great divide
In a better home soon I will reside
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
When I'm in my resting place
I'll look on my mother's face
Never more will I have to know
All the loneliness that plagues me so
So I'm waiting for that train to come
And I know where she's coming from
Listen can you hear her on the track
When I board I won't be looking back
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
Hallelujah, Hallelujah! (x3, last time a cappella)
Performed by Greg Earnest (banjo), Leah Calvert (fiddle), Mandy Flemming (guitar)

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