Monday, February 23, 2009

Watching the Whirlwind

Transfiguration Sunday
2 Kings 2:1-13

photo credit: Nonac_Digi via photopin cc

When I was growing up we had a small terrier, Daisy. For all practical purposes she looked like a light brown Toto from the classic, Judy Garland Wizard of Oz. Daisy was a great little dog, and, of course, a bit spoiled. OK. More than a bit. But we loved her. She was our girl.

Daisy, like most dogs I know of, had a bit of a problem, though, when vacation time came. The problem was that she didn’t get to go. Whenever those suitcases were pulled out of the closets and the clothes started to pile in them, Daisy got into a funk. She moped around the house, got underfoot, barked to go out more than necessary, then barked to come back in. I can remember one time when I was packing, I had gone down the hall to the laundry room to get some clothes from the dryer and when I returned Daisy had packed herself. There she was, this cute little dog, smack dab in the middle of my suitcase, comfortable in a pile of clean t-shirts and socks. I don’t think she wanted to come with me as much as she just didn’t want me to go.

That’s what I hear in Elisha’s voice this morning. I don’t think he wants to wander all over Israel with Elijah as much as he just wants Elijah to stay with him. But that just isn’t in the cards for either of them.

It’s declared right there for us from the start. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven….” I have to believe from the way the story unfolds that both Elijah and Elisha knew it too. In fact, from what we hear EVERYONE knew it. And so, it seems Elijah needs to get packing for his farewell tour. Elisha is beside himself. He’s not ready for this time to come; he’s not ready to be on his own prophesying in the land, speaking God’s word, healing and leading God’s people. Elisha all but crawls in the suitcase between them – just to stay near Elijah to squeeze every nugget of wisdom, every ounce of blessing he can out of his master.

More than sensing his anxiety, Elijah tries to protect his protégé, his friend. “Stay here,” he says. Elijah doesn’t see any need for Elisha to come along and witness all that he needs to do to tie things up, wrap up his business. He doesn’t see any need to prolong this difficult and painful good-bye. But Elisha sees it entirely differently. Again, he doesn’t so much want to travel from here to there to anywhere as much as he just doesn’t want to be separated from Elijah, “…as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” He climbs into the suitcase.

And who can blame him? Elijah is his teacher, his mentor, someone so close he calls him “Father! Father!” He is the greatest prophet any of them have seen, the greatest any of them could ever have imagined since Moses. Who would be ready to see him go?

Certainly not Elisha. He knows it’s going to happen, though, and he knows it’s going to happen soon. And the thought of it, the stress of it, has him torn up inside and out. He is, in an over-used and understated word, stressed. He worries about his future. He worries about his ability to effectively follow God. He worries about being alone. He worries about serving God’s people. He worries about losing his teacher. He worries about his credibility. He worries about what death will be like. He worries about the things he doesn’t even know how to worry about yet.

He is filled with fear and worry and grief and sadness and self-pity and feelings of insignificance and incompetence all at the same time. And what about that horrible Greek chorus of the company of the prophets? Everywhere they go, in Bethel, in Jericho, at the Jordan, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” It would be comical if it weren’t like a knife digging into him each time he hears it. “Do you know? Do you know?” Of course he knows! It’s the only thing he knows right now! It’s what’s brought him on this trip; it’s what keeps him up at night listening to the sound of each breath of his master. Of course he knows!

The kind of grief and worry and stress Elisha feels isn’t confined to the epics of Scripture. We know it well, too, don’t we? Too well. We know it when we get the news that a parent is dying. We worry about what it will mean to be the patriarch or matriarch of our family. We worry about how we will fill those shoes when the family-buck stops here. We worry about what kind of pain they will experience. We worry about the finances we will face. We worry about how we have treated them in the past. We worry about how we will care for them in the future, however long that future will be.

We know this worry and stress when the job we have come to depend on is suddenly at risk, reduced, or gone all together. We worry about how we will support our family. We worry about how we will stay self-sufficient. We worry about how we will keep our home, our car, our kids in clothes, and the whole family fed and warm and healthy. We worry about what the future bring, how the past has prepared us, when we will be out of this, from where the next paycheck will come

We know Elisha’s worry when the friendships and relationships we thought we would have forever don’t seem so close anymore, when people move away, apart, or in different directions, when confidences are broken and feelings are trampled in the wake of arguments, insecurities, and misunderstandings. We worry about secrets told that haven’t been revealed, but could be. We worry about facing the world without someone by our side. We worry about starting over, building trust from the beginning again when everything before felt comforting and full of love.

We feel the stress Elisha feels whenever the comfort and stability of life that is not only predictable, but pleasant and good and life-giving, is ripped out from under us and we find ourselves facing a world that suddenly looks unfriendly, hostile even, foreign, and unknown. It’s the worry and the stress that comes not just with death and grief over a lost loved one, but that comes with change of any kind that seems to turn our lives on end no matter what our age or what our change. And it’s that stress that is multiplied every time the doomsday chorus of newspapers, commentators, and on-lookers shout in our ears – “We’re still on our way down; rock bottom is yet to come.” “It’s the worst we’ve ever seen.” “It can’t be beaten this time.” “You know he’s leaving you today.”

“Silence!” we want to shout. “Be silent!” Not because we want to avoid the inevitable, but because it does us no good to hear it over and over. Not because we think we can ignore the pain, but because we have to find our way through it. “Be silent,” we say, so that we can focus on the only thing that will get us through.

Elisha knows he can’t make this transition, he can’t survive this change on his own. Ministering with Elijah he knows the realities of life and disease and sinfulness he will face. He knows the task of going forward that is in front of him, and he knows he doesn’t have what it takes. Aware of his abilities and inabilities, aware of what he does and doesn’t have, Elisha begs for something more – strength, spirit, faith.

Elisha doesn’t try to stop the inevitable. He doesn’t beg for the impossible. He asks Elijah, and at the same time God, to deliver what it will take for him to face that which is already discouraging him, grieving him, and threatening his very sense of call. This isn’t to say that he has lost faith in the strength and the miracles of God. I’m pretty sure Elisha would have happily taken a miracle in the moment, and maybe he even got one in the prophet’s ascension instead of his death. But it is to say that in the midst of one of his greatest crises he lost his need to demand miracles. Instead his prayer, his request, was the spirit to go on.

What could our prayers be? What could we ask for in the face of the stresses that threaten to discourage, disturb, and disrupt our lives to the core? Beyond the miracles we can and will request, what could we pray that will help us move forward, continue on in our own stressful situations?

Like Elisha could we pray for strength for our weakening spirits? Could we pray for wisdom in planning? Trust in the future? Rest in the midst of emotional and physical and spiritual exhaustion? Maturity in youthful faith? The companionship of the body of Christ in loneliness and despair? Maybe now is the time to beg God for courage to follow, dedication to our call, grace in our relationships. Maybe this is the time to ask for endurance for the race, compassion in grief, glimpses of glory that we might continue in faith. And like Elisha- - why not ask for a double portion of it all?

I love that part of the story. Elisha had no delusions of grandeur as he faced the daunting task before him. No one could accuse him of over-confidence as he reluctantly said good-bye. He wasn’t waiting with excitement about how he would do it different, follow better, heal more, or lead successfully. Instead, Elisha new the best posture for him to take was one of the grateful recipient, not the greedy entitled. He didn’t reach out to grab what he thought was rightfully his, but with humility and wonder, and even fear at what lay before him and what was going on around him, he looked up into the whirlwind.

Elisha turned his face not inward to whatever abilities he possessed or THOUGHT he possessed, but turned his face upward to the churning and powerful presence of God. What was going to bring him through his trial was not what he held onto inside of himself. What was going to bring him through his loss, his grief, and his worry was God who is above it all.

And it is God who will bring us through ours. Whether we are struggling with the loss of a parent or friend, whether we are facing economic stress or a crisis of belief and faith, whether we are missing our child or our sense of childlike wonder, God is not only present in the whirlwind above, God is blessing us and calling us out of that turmoil.

As Elijah is taken up into heaven with the power and presence of God enveloping him, something falls behind. His mantle, the symbol of his strength and his call, comes falling down as he is taken up. And as the cloak of blessing comes floating to the earth, right there, in the middle of probably the greatest change of Elisha’s life, God is there and God is calling. The way forward isn’t reverting to past roles no matter how comfortable, no matter how stable. The way forward is in watching the whirlwind of God’s presence for the sign of God’s next call.

Friends, trust in this good news. Trust in this comforting promise of God’s love. Our ability to go forward comes not from ourselves. Our strength to continue loving the Lord and serving others in the midst of our grief and fear comes not from the emotional muscle we have attempted over time to build up and pack on. Our courage to face whatever this day and the next and the one after that throws at us comes not from anything we have or have not mustered up inside ourselves. Our strength, our spirit, our courage to carry on comes from God who is present in the whirlwind, God who blesses us with faith to look upward, God who trusts us with a continuing call to ministry in God’s most holy name. Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Questioning Authority

Mark 1:21-28
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Not too long after I got my driver’s license when I was 16, I found myself in a Defensive Driving course in order to avoid paying for my first ticket. (Just for the record, the car behind me was riding WAY TOO CLOSE and had I stopped instead of turning left on the YELLOW arrow there would have been a big mess in the intersection, thankyouverymuch.) A 16 year old over-achiever, I was attentive and studious throughout the class. One lesson in particular stands out to me to this day. The question came, “You are approaching a 4 way stop intersection from the south at the same time someone approaches it from the west. Do you have the right of way?”

My hand shot up in the air like a scene from Welcome Back, Kotter. Oooh! Oooh! Pick me! Pick me! “Of course I have the right of way. I’m to the right of the other driver.”

“Wrong!” was the answer of my very satisfied teacher, satisfied that he had sucked another unsuspecting student into his trick question. He had the attention of us all then. We all knew we were right. We all knew I was right. But I wasn’t, he kept insisting. “You only have the right of way if the other driver gives it you.” Ahhh… my teacher’s point was subtle, but true. The right of way, the authority to drive through the intersection safely and in conventional order is only useful if everyone agrees to it. The right of way only exists if all the drivers at the intersection respect it.

Such is the way of human authority. Authority as we’re used to it is something granted or given - - whether it’s granted by law such as the authority of elected leaders, or granted by convention, such as the authority given to magazines to decided what’s in and what’s out of fashion. Authority, as we know it and live it, gets its power because at some point individuals or societies grant it and agree to live by it.

Such is the way of human authority, but it’s not quite the same with divine authority. Divine authority is on another plain all together. It’s not earned; it just is. It’s not decided or given or granted. It’s just claimed and lived and known. The worshipers in Capernaum that morning that Jesus walked into the synagogue could have told us the difference.

In walks this Jesus, if they even knew his name, and he begins to teach in their synagogue like no one they have ever heard. He doesn’t need to quote the scribes and rabbis of generations gone by to prove his authority and knowledge. He speaks with authority like they have never seen or heard. It didn’t come from their respect or from the recommendations of others. They didn’t vote him into position or even invite him to come teach. But here he was, teaching among them with an inexplicable authority. Almost immediately they begin declaring their astonishment at his teachings, the authority he seems to just exude, authority beyond even that of their local scribes and leaders. They were astonished and, I imagine, probably a bit thrilled, likely growing proud of their little seaside town for the stir this would make throughout the region.

This guy, whoever he is and from wherever he comes, is good and this guy is with us!

What happens next would cause the jaws of all first century Jewish listeners to drop to the floor. It doesn’t so much have the same effect on us. Such is the small downfall of working with ancient Scriptures. We miss some of the inside jokes and nuances. “Just then,” Mark writes, “there was in their synagogue” (the holy place on a holy day, Sabbath, the place of worship, the place only clean people and clean things would dare come) “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out.”
Big problem! Or should I say big problems! First there’s just the distraction, right? Here there is this teacher teaching in front of a totally captivated congregation. They are engaged. They are astonished. They are fully into what is going on, and this…this man comes bursting in, crying out, and messing it all up. What is going on?

But then beyond that is the bigger problem - - holy day, holy space, clean people, clean space and now there’s the man with an unclean spirit. Whoever this new teacher is, the worshipers worry, he is NOT going to think much of us after THIS unnecessary episode. Why won’t this guy just sit down?

But instead of sitting down and being quiet, the man keeps going. “What are you doing here with us Jesus of Nazareth?” (Ohhhhh!!! So that’s who he is. Who’s Jesus of Nazareth?) “Have you come to destroy us?” (Destroy us? But he’s teaching so well. He really speaks to me. He’s not going to destroy us.) “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Now wait just a minute. That’s taking it a little too far. He’s good, but really….)

“Have you come to destroy us?” Really? The congregation had to be furious! Here is this teacher, this one with this AUTHORITY, and this unclean man with unclean spirits has the audacity to question him, question his intentions! They were probably all THRILLED when Jesus rebuked him. They all wanted to tell him to shut up and get out, so I imagine there was a collective sigh of relief when Jesus himself to him to do as much. “Be silent!”

But Jesus doesn’t seem upset by the distraction in the way I imagine the folks of Capernaum were. He silences the man, or the demons in the man, but he doesn’t send him and them away. Instead he calls them out. He calls the unclean spirits, the demons that bind this man, that control him, that make him unfit for public appearances, that keep him from the holy places and the holy days, that keep him God and keep him from the community, that have overtaken his life and forced his hand in so many ways. Jesus calls these demon spirits out into the open, and yes, yes is the answer to the possessed man’s question - - He did come to destroy them.

The congregation in Capernaum is astonished by Jesus’ authority, but the unclean spirits have the clearest insight. I know who you are. You’re the Holy One of God! None of the worshipers claim this. None of them pick up on it. Sure they recognize his teaching is, dare I say it, out of this world, but even in their amazement they have missed the TRULY amazing, the truly UNIQUE thing going on right before their eyes, and it is more than just a man teaching with authority, even divine authority.

People who can teach with divine authority, prophets really, aren’t anything new, right? I mean, the people of Israel wandering in the desert knew there were prophets who could teach and speak a work from God. They had Moses before them, and they looked for the day when new prophets would arise from among them. They may have wondered how to tell which ones were true, and which spoke most authentically or with authority from God, but even they never questioned that divinely-appointed teachers exist.

Like the Israelites knew to look for a prophet, the people of Capernaum knew enough to be amazed by the one in their midst who spoke with authority, but in the end they stopped short of the best response to the one among them. The unclean spirits, though, knew what was up. They drew the line to connect the dots from great teacher to one with authority to Holy One of God with the power to destroy, but destroy with a power that brings life to the world.

The unclean spirits were exactly right with their questions of this authority, their anticipation of what Jesus was there to do, and they had every reason to be scared. Destroying that which control us is exactly what Jesus came to do. Destroying that which divides us from God and one another is his goal and his purpose. Destroying the unclean spirits the try to lay claim to the people of God is exactly what Jesus’ authority is for.

Demons and unclean spirits are sort of a foreign and maybe anachronistic idea to many of us. We don’t usually think in those terms, and many of us might question the validity and existence of these sorts of demonic forces in, as we like to say, “this day and age.” But our belief or disbelief doesn’t change the work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, then or now. He still comes with authority, and he still comes to destroy.

He comes to destroy the things the bind our bodies, our hearts, and our minds. He comes to destroy our attitudes of self-righteousness that keep us separated from one another. He comes to destroy our need to consume and collect more and more, things greater and greater than our neighbor. He comes to destroy our greed and our self-centeredness. He comes to destroy addictions and habits that harm ourselves and harm others. He comes to destroy the grudges we hold, the sorrows that grip us, the jealousy that paralyzes us. He comes to destroy with all divine authority, divine power, and divine love anything and everything that keeps us from God. He comes to destroy it all.

The unclean spirits were right to cry out. They saw into the authority and recognized God in this man, and that should frighten anyone or anything working against the will of God, because God will go to any length necessary make us whole. Jesus will go as far as we need him to go to grab us out of the clutches of unclean spirits. Like the bread that is broken for us at his table, even his life is broken that we might live, free from sin, free from the suffocating spirits that choke us, free from the walls that divide us from love.

Astonishment is obvious in the presence of one with such awesome authority, the Holy One of God, but knowing who he is, declaring his power, and giving in to its life-freeing destruction - - that is even better!