Take Up the Story

Sunday, June 30, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)

Focus Theme:
Take Up the Story

Focus Prayer:
O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.

Focus Reading:
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

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 lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 with Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 with Psalm 16 and
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Focus Questions:

1. What do you think Elijah was feeling as he made his way toward the river Jordan?

2. What do leaders need today, in the church and in secular settings as well?

3. What do you need to follow God’s will for your life?

4. How do you discern what God wills for your life?

5. How do we participate with God in raising up leaders for the church?

by Kate Matthews

Of course, there are prophets, and then there are prophets. Most of us are familiar with “the big names,” like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and even with some of the “minor” prophets like Amos and Micah (they’re called “minor” because their books are shorter, not because they’re less important).

And then there’s the great prophet himself, Moses, in whose footsteps, one way or another, just about every prophet in the Old Testament wants to walk.

Elijah and Elisha, who don’t have a book of the Bible named after them–they belong to “the nonwriting prophets”–are no exception, and this story about them does a good job of ringing the memory bells of just about anyone who’s heard the stories about Moses, whether he was parting the Red Sea, or traveling a long way to the River Jordan, or turning his leadership over to his successor, Joshua.

Little stories with lots of power

Walter Brueggemann explains why these somewhat “odd” (to use a favorite Brueggemann expression) stories about Elijah and Elisha, the most familiar names among the nonwriting prophets, are important in the larger scheme of things.

He first describes “The Great Tradition,” with all those stories so important in the life of faith, like creation, exodus, time in the wilderness, the Sinai experience, the Promised Land, and so on. Next to those grand stories he places the “little stories” that provide “memories that helped shape the world and situate Israel in it.”

The power of “little” people

This week’s passage does more than simply recall Moses parting the Red Sea or recognizing his successor: Brueggemann says that it helps us to see the power in those “little” people, like dusty, wandering prophets who live outside the court of the king and answer to a very different authority.

While history, even in the Bible, may provide long lists of rulers, Brueggemann says that texts like this one remind us that there is more to the story, down below the high and mighty, and in defiance of what the royals may dictate as reality.

Paying for the misdeeds of the parents

Elijah and Elisha were working in difficult times for Israel, the northern kingdom, about nine centuries before Jesus. The Omri dynasty, of which Ahab and his wife Jezebel are, alas, the most well-known representatives, was not a stellar time for God’s people up north. It required many a prophet, not just Elijah or Elisha, to speak against the Baal worship of the wicked or at least the weak King Ahab and his pagan wife.

However, it wasn’t only the worship of false gods that got the Omri dynasty into trouble with Yahweh, because the kings of Israel often illustrated what Lord Acton would say so succinctly many centuries later, about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

As we know, none of this was pleasing in the eyes of God. By the time we reach the end of Elijah’s work, and the beginning of Elisha’s, the reigns of Ahab and then his son, Ahaziah, have both ended in death, and now Ahab’s other son, Jehoram, is king. Poor Jehoram will reap the consequences sown by his predecessors and will lose both his power and his place.

Elijah’s story goes on

This second chapter in the second book of Kings appears to give away the ending of Elijah’s story when it mentions that God was about to take the prophet up in the whirlwind (we note, by the way, that it was indeed the whirlwind and not the chariot that carried Elijah away).

However, we know that Elijah’s story goes on, in fact, for Christians, his presence is felt in many ways in our New Testament. We may recall his appearance with Moses at the Transfiguration, or the perception that Jesus was calling for Elijah at his death, but even more significant is the way Jesus and his words and deeds made people remember Elijah.

What is going on here?

Our passage, of course, is from the Hebrew Scriptures, and the story it tells is rich with meaning in its own context, so rich and complex that the commentators find it difficult to agree on what is going on inside the hearts and minds of its main characters, Elijah and Elisha.

It’s intriguing to try to read into what’s happening here, to try to figure out why Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, or why Elisha refuses to leave his teacher, or what Elisha means when he cries out at Elijah’s departure.

Longing for the mantle of authority

Perhaps Elisha knows how much he will miss Elijah or how much he depends on him, the way any understudy looks up to a mentor. However, Tremper Longman III is persuasive in his claim that Elisha–who really wants to succeed Elijah–knows that he actually has to be with the great prophet in order to succeed him.

We can imagine his saying, “I am so not letting you out of my sight until I get that mantle of authority placed on my shoulders!”

Tensions between student and teacher

By this time, there may even be a bit of tension between the two prophets, teacher and student or–more accurately, according to Kathleen Robertson Farmer–teacher and servant. Maybe Elijah wasn’t too crazy about this upstart that he had to accept just because God told him several chapters ago (back in 1 Kings 19:16) to anoint Elisha as “prophet in his place”; after all, Farmer says, Elisha followed him as his “servant” and not as his successor.

We have to wonder why Elijah has even a moment’s doubt that Elisha is called by God to receive his mantle, his authority, as his heir, since God was the one who actually called Elisha in the first place.

Warnings and questions

This last journey of the traveling prophets is also open to more than one meaning, and the verses left out by the lectionary add to the suspense of the story (even if we do know the ending), as Elijah tells Elisha three times to “stay here” rather than to follow him all the way to his end.

Elisha’s refusal each time may also add suspense to the story, along with the curious observation–or warning–from the “company of prophets” at each stop who ask Elisha if he knows that God is taking his master away that same day, and Elisha’s answer that indeed he does know.

We can almost hear the grief and worry in the questions put to Elisha by the company of prophets, and the grief and worry in the voice of Elisha the Understudy-Soon-to-be-Head-Prophet. Yes, Elisha seems to say, he may be leaving, but don’t talk about it. I can’t bear it yet.

A double portion of his spirit

When the time finally comes for parting, Elisha realizes that his own path is laid out for him and that he will need help along the way. He knows that this great prophet has been, in many ways, a father to him, and he considers himself Elijah’s heir.

Not just any heir, but an eldest-son-kind-of-heir, the firstborn son who gets the extra measure of everything for his inheritance. And so, like an eldest son, he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, twice as much as any other heir.

Chariot of fire

There is of course that dramatic moment when a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two, and Elijah is indeed carried away in the whirlwind, and Elisha cries out, “Father, Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Tremper Longman points out the meaning between the lines here, for the imagery contradicts the cult of Baal as “the cloud-riding deity” with the power of the mighty God of Israel.

Some scholars find it difficult to explain Elisha’s outcry, and we’re left to wonder how it might feel for the Spirit of God to come upon us in such a dramatic way. Ironically, we hear these same words from the king of Israel when Elisha himself dies, in 2 Kings 13:14.

Leading with wisdom, justice and gentle strength

Some people say, with good reason, that we have a crisis of leadership in the world. The problems we face as a nation and as a global community often appear dire, and the consequences of bad leadership–whether unprincipled, corrupt, incompetent or simply hapless–will be visited upon millions of innocent people now and in the future.

We know that Ahab was a bad leader, perhaps the worst of a bad lot. Retracing the line of succession from one such bad leader through another, we ask, “Where is the one who can lead with justice, wisdom, and gentle strength?” Just as importantly, we might ask, “And how will we recognize that leader when he or she comes?”

Churches struggle with this as well

In the life of the faith community as well, there are moments of crisis, when a beloved pastor leaves or becomes ill or dies, and the community looks for new leadership, even in the midst of grieving.

As a pastor, I know how it feels to be the one who leaves, and it’s only human to worry about what will happen next with a beloved congregation. Perhaps it’s especially difficult to retire, leaving one church without a new one to turn one’s attention on as fully as a pastor would. These are hard transitions for everyone involved.

Looking for a clear sign

The community, in its feelings of loss and being lost, understandably wants a clear sign, when they seem to have a candidate, that this one is “the One,” that this one can be trusted. Several writers find reassurance in this text that God will indeed raise up leaders of power and goodness, and will sustain them and their followers in whatever they face.

Haywood Barringer Spangler connects this text with the African American spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with “the chariot and the whirlwind [representing] divine support and deliverance [as well as] God’s empowerment of believers for ministry in the world.”

Spangler urges us to discern God’s will in our own lives, so that we might live faithfully, “embracing the suspense or ambiguity that is part of life” even as we ask, “What is God calling me to do in this situation?” Like Elisha, we may have to take action in order to find out the answer to that question.

Trusting that God is at work in all things

How much do we trust that God is at work in every loss and that God is working in mysterious and amazing ways, behind and below and above the scene? There are some very dramatic touches to this story of Elijah being carried up to heaven, chariots and fire and all, but the most powerful thing about the story, its heart, is something much more accessible to us for those times when we have lost a strong and beloved leader: God will send us the leader we need.

Indeed, our prayer might be for the wisdom to recognize the right leader at the right time, and to have the courage to respond when we are offered our portion of the spirit of leadership ourselves.

A little story, a larger tradition

Here the reflection of Trevor Eppehimer is particularly helpful in bringing this discernment process, and this call, into sharp focus, as he draws a bigger picture, for even this “little story” connects after all with Brueggemann’s “Great Tradition.”

The story of the Bible and of our own lives is often that same old story, Eppeheimer writes, of “the struggle between YHWH and Pharaoh,” for there are many manifestations of Pharaoh throughout the history of Israel, including, tragically, its own kings (who certainly should have known better).

Remembering who is in charge

The challenge faced by Israel and by us as well, Eppehimer writes, “is remaining faithful to YHWH in a world in which Pharaoh appears to have all the power.” In this “little story,” we meet a character, a prophet, Elisha, who has the sense and the vision enough to know that YHWH, and not Pharaoh, is in charge.

In our search for leaders in the church, we may not ask such a question on our ministerial profiles, but perhaps we should spend far more time and attention–and prayer–considering the possibilities of being led by those whose vision is matched by hearts set on God and on God’s will for the earth and all its peoples.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Joan Chittister, 21st century
“Prophets are those who take life as it is and expand it. They refuse to shrink a vision of tomorrow to the boundaries of yesterday.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Stephen King, 21st century
“If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”

Booker T. Washington, 20th century
“The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 21st century
“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, 21st century
“Every minister worthy of the name has to walk the line between prophetic vision and spiritual sustenance, between telling people the comforting things they want to hear and challenging them with the difficult things they need to hear. In Oxford, Daddy began to feel as though all the members wanted him to do was to marry them and bury them and stay away from their souls.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century
“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.”
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