Succession Practice

Notes from
Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018  
‘Trinity on Church’, Kitchener

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-12

Does anybody you know go to church?  Do your children? Your parents? If they do, is it a church like this?  There was a time when everybody went to church. The only question was ‘which one’?  Now, I find that even my clergy colleagues in retirement or on Sundays they don’t preach, don’t go to church!

Even I have been telling you not to come here to worship here this season, but to visit 8 nearby churches, to explore whether or why people go there.  Everybody knows that at least the liberal ‘mainline’ churches are sidelined, and if anything, God is in the ‘hipper-than-thou’ alternatives!

Ideally, people want to avoid churches associated with the abuses of power from the past, like residential schools or abuse of women and children.  They also repudiate the leftish politics of our church, the ‘NDP at prayer’, or the ‘Liberal party on its knees’.  Comfortable or uncomfortable, pews are empty!

Instead of practical advice, I spoke even longer than usual, from the obscure ‘Former Prophets’ today, the histories that follow the Torah and Joshua in your bible.  1 and 2 Kings continue stories begun in 1 and 2 Samuel.  The Samuels got us from tribal anarchy to King Saul, then David’s rise from obscurity to rule over a united kingdom.  1 Kings tells of David’s rule, abuse of power and all, and his succession by Solomon, in all his glory, building a temple.

Today’s reading from 2 Kings 2 is about Elijah’s succession by Elisha.  Sure, Solomon’s era had been all about expansion, affluence, building a big temple.  The king slept with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, the African Queen of Sheba, and a whole list of other global elite women listed in 1 Kings c11. But after him, the kingdom split, and first Ahab’s Israel, then Judah despite reform attempts, fell to Assyrian then Babylonian empires: prophets’ perfect targets.

By the time this version of the history is written down, we are scattered, long past the times described.  Our temptations are toward assimilation and intermarriage with our neighbours in Persian and Greek empires.  This tale of how kings’ greedy upward mobility abandoned the people to poverty is a warning:  ‘if you marry money – you earn it!’

Rags to riches to rags in 3 generations is a familiar, universal old story.  Here, it’s an arc from David to Solomon to conquest of a divided kingdom.  The Samuels started in a regime of anarchy after Joshua, occasional rallying by judges in response to external threats.  Kings gave us the rise and fall of monarchy and kingdoms, with Elijah challenging Ahab and Jezebel in Israel, through 1 Kings, and Elisha challenging kings of Judah in 2 Kings.

Reforms under Hezekiah and Josiah miss the memo that religious revival is not enough to save a nation, without justice for the poor.  Reformers kept nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of wealth and power under Solomon, or even Ahab’s success in developing northern free trade.  Elijah and Elisha demanded more than reform, seeking justice. Does our story long to emulate the great kings, or the great prophets?  Says who?  In that context, I invited to hear the story:

Today’s lesson is the farewell tour of Elijah.  Amid the decline and fall of Israel in the north, he said the rich and powerful betrayed the people.  The blood of Ahab and Jezebel proved him right.  Now is Elijah’s turn to head into the sunset.
He is a proven great prophet, a symbol of a generation, of a proven value-set.  Who are your heroes and martyrs of the 1960’s, proven right by history?  Most might include Martin Luther King, and maybe Nelson Mandela, eh? Now who?

This was the farewell tour of Elijah: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, Jordan all on the fans’ Tshirt.  These are the religious centers – shifting from north to south –
but not Jerusalem, yet.  Elisha is still Elijah’s sidekick – like a warm-up act,
or perhaps just a guy in the band, or a groupie.

Elisha, you will remember, was not Elijah’s son.  He had been running a set of 12 teams of oxen.  Elijah had said ‘follow me’, and he did. Picture a guy running a heavy equipment business, with a set of graders and gravel crushers,
working on highways that Rome loved to run through expropriated land.

Elijah says ‘leave it, and follow me’, Elisha kills one of his 12 yokes of oxen, feeds the people, then joins the prophet. Picture a guy leaving his business, but first selling one grader, and throwing a party with the proceeds! Can you imagine somebody successful making such a grand gesture, taking his profits and giving a lot of it away?  As Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book title puts it: “When All You Ever Wanted Is Not Enough” – what do philanthropists come from?

So the lesson today starts ‘when it was about time for Elijah to be taken up to heaven’.  Everybody knew they were anticipating the loss of a person and an era: does anybody you know go to church?  Why do you keep it up?

Now when it was time for God to take Elijah up to heaven, Elijah and Elisha were in Gilgal.  Some time later, Elijah says to Elisha ‘God’s calling me to Bethel. You stay here.’ Elisha replies ‘As the Lord lives, and as I live, I will not leave you.’ He tags along to Bethel, and the prophets of Bethel, purveyors of the conventional wisdom, taunt Elisha: ‘Don’t you get it? Elijah is over! What are you doing with him?’ Elisha replies ‘Yes, I know. Shut up!’

In turn, Elijah says to Elisha, ‘God’s calling me to Jericho. You stay here.’ Elisha replies again, “As the Lord lives, and as I live, I will not leave you.’  He tags along to Jericho, and the prophets of Jericho, the common sense in that town, derides him: ‘Give it up! Elijah is so over! Why are you still associating with that loser?’ Elisha says ‘Yeah, sure, I get it. Shut up!’

Finally, Elijah says to Elisha, ‘God’s calling me to the Jordan. You stay here. You’ll never guess what Elisha replied.  As they approached the river Jordan, 50 of the company of prophets watched this disaster waiting to happen. And what they see is old Elijah slapping the river with his mantle, his robe, and the water parting,  the 2 guys waling across the river on dry ground. 

Nobody you know goes to church. But you keep it up. Conventional wisdom is ready to tell you about your error. Don’t you know this is obsolete and so over? If you must do religion, could you not at least do one of those new ‘hipper than thou’ versions with rooms full of young people and praise choruses?  You keep saying, in effect: ‘Yep, I know. Shut up.’

That rare persistence has not changed in 3,000 years. You hang tough with what the world says is obsolete, stay close to what is old and tired and ending,
hoping to be there when the waters are parted. Whatever that elusive and pervasive sense of Spirit is, you find hints of it in your elders here, and you stay close to it.  Who do I want to emulate, to be like if I grow up?  Them!

Everybody is always telling me to do something else, or do it somewhere else. Why do I spend a lifetime hanging in with old people in declining churches? I’m guessing it’s the same reasons that you do. There is something compelling in the heritage of service and celebration, of relationships among people and with a creation and a creator, a spirit and a Spirit, that redeems us.  It’s not just nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of power and privilege – but also the prophets.

We need to be persistent, to stay close to the miracles of a community that gives, serves, learns, and celebrates. Imagine what these few feeble folks will do again this week and this year – and tell cultured despisers of religion ‘Yes, I know: shut up!’ You won’t see it if you aren’t here.

Elijah asked Elisha ‘what do you want?’ Elisha replied: ‘let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’  Elisha already walked away from money –he’s after something else –but he uses the language of inheritance laws to name what he’s after. Our system may be ‘all or nothing, primogeniture, eldest son takes all’, but theirs was a set of shares, with the eldest getting 2 – or perhaps 2/3. 

Elijah says ‘that’s hard to deliver’. You’ll have to stay close, right to the end, and not get distracted from what you are asking. Newer folks, younger folks here say that they see all the 80-somethings and 90-somethings in the congregation, and they want it. They want to be known and loved, to have relationships that go back decades with all the conflicts and care of it all. You can’t buy it, you can’t just add water and mix – you have to hang in to make that real.

Once Elijah was taken up, Elisha looked around, and there was Elijah’s mantle or robe. It’s a symbol, a sign of that elusive, ubiquitous spirit. He picks it up, and hits the river, and it parts for him, just as it had for Elijah! 50 prophets watched and witnessed the miracle, which worked for Elisha, not for them. That’s where we get the phrase: ‘passing the mantle’ of leadership.

Remember the mythical town of Lake Woebegone on US public radio, ‘where the men are all strong, the women are all pretty, and children are all above average’?  Despite recent news of the writer’s sins, the words still make me smile in recognition.  We live in a time when all children are gifted – some of them severely and tragically gifted – and we ignore and erode the normal or differently able children, for whom I give thanks to God!

We have structured a myth of meritocracy, but we know that our own gifts and abilities do not justify our privilege and wealth of opportunity. We suffer imposter syndrome, anticipating exposure. There is a dominant culture all around us, of progress and success and positive thinking. Things are getting better and better in every day in every way, say expert companies of prophets.

We all know at some level, at some times, that this story is inadequate, and that in face there are cycles of decline and fall and lament and grief, losers and victims to match winners and heroes.  Remember the good old days? Is it true that everything in the old days was black and white – or were there shades of gray, and rising and falling,  and lament and grief? Of course there were!

We remember the highs and lows, the drama and the glory and the tears – because they focus the story, and what matters, and what built up to a moment or flowed from it.  Stories that only make sense of half of reality  are inadequate, whether they are comedies about ‘Horatio Alger’ success, 
or tragedies of the consequences of ‘hubris’ and pride and greed over-reaching.

How do we retell our stories a generation later, like the books of Kings, telling of decline and fall of something once powerful and privileged, without becoming maudlin and judgmental? We need the Elijah/Elisha prophets to our David and Solomon rulers, Josiah and Hezekiah reformers. We need a few fools who keep hanging in so they can see the bitter, glorious end, and pick up the mantle.

Writing these notes up late this week, on Tuesday, preparing for a funeral tomorrow of a women who died in my company on Saturday, I am reminded of something I didn’t say on Sunday about Elijah’s place in the tradition.  Our ‘people of the book’ tell this story that Elijah did not die, but was ‘taken up’, and is expected to return upon divine fulfillment.  Jews set a place at the Passover table for Elijah, available to any unexpected hungry guest.  Christians shape our understanding of Jesus by this story.  Our funeral tradition includes a prayer, as I have repeated it so many times for nearly 40 years now:

O Lord God,
 who knows the way that we must go,
guide us on our journey, 
and grant that we
who have stood in the presence of death
may at all times remember that we stand also
in the presence of one who is alive for evermore,

Give us such faith in this saving power that,
being upheld by this love and faithfulness
we may be enabled to run with perseverance
the race that is set before us and
in your own time and in your great mercy
may be brought to the glory of your eternal reign
over our commonwealth