Sunday, June 27, 2010

Where Is the Lord, the God of Elijah? (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14)

Ah, the handoff. In my denomination, it happens pretty often, as pastors may move every few years and have the job of preparing the way for their successors.

And the successors have the job of learning the new path they're following. They chart some of it with their own dreams and vision and some of it by looking at what path has been followed before their arrival. And of course, they depend on God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The handoff between Elijah and Elisha is less formalized. Elisha has been Elijah's apprentice and student for awhile now, and the older prophet knows the time is coming for his work to be finished. At first he tries to make his leaving a solitary affair, directing Elisha to remain behind while he travels to whatever place the Lord has decided to lift him up from. But Elisha will have none of that and proclaims his loyalty and devotion to his mentor by saying he will not leave Elijah while either the Lord or Elisha himself are still living. That's an elaborate way of saying "Never," if you're curious.

What, then, would you have me leave you, Elijah asks. A double portion of your spirit, Elisha answers. Elijah warns his student that he's asked a hard thing. In fact, Elijah says, such a gift is not actually his to give, but God's. If Elisha can see Elijah taken up into the heavens, then he will know God has granted his request.

At the river, Elijah strikes the water with his mantle and it parts on either side, a sign of his status as a true prophet of God. God used Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea for the Hebrews to cross safely and later the waters of the river Jordan parted to let the Israelites cross into the promised land under Joshua. The miracle lets everyone know that the one working it does the work of God, listening to him as did Moses and Joshua.

Those men had been spiritual and political leaders of Israel, but since the time of Samuel the roles had separated. The kings were the political rulers and prophets tried to lead spiritually, even though the people tended to drift away from pure devotion to God. It was easy to tell who the king was, but it wasn't always easy to tell who the true prophets were. Anyone could say they were speaking for God like Moses had or like Joshua had, but how were the people to know? Elijah's dry-footed crossing of the Jordan was one proof that he was the real deal.

And then Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind, which seems to Elisha to be like fiery chariots and horses in the sky. The very mantle that struck the Jordan river falls to the ground at Elisha's feet where he stands. He has torn his clothes in the ancient symbol of grief at losing the mentor and teacher he loves. He picks up the mantle and starts his journey back. He saw a great vision, yes, but was it what Elijah had meant? Would he receive the spirit of a prophet, to speak God's word and do God's work in Israel? God was with Elijah, but would God be with Elisha in the same way? There are the fifty from the company of the prophets, watching and waiting. Two men crossed the Jordan, but only one returns. What happened to the other? This man wears the mantle, but is he a real prophet or just dressed up like one? And he comes to the river.

Recently at a local pastor's school I helped evaluate and respond to several people who were training for their local pastor's licenses. Among them was a woman who had been married to a preacher in our denomination. About a year or so ago, he came inside their house and said a wasp had stung him while he was mowing the lawn, and a few minutes later he collapsed, dead. She has had to raise their special needs son by herself as well as deal with the grief of losing her husband. At some point along the way, she decided she too was called to the ministry and is now training to serve churches herself. In her sermon, she said how she understood God was never far away from her and how moving on on in life after her husband's death and even hearing and answering a call to ministry would have been impossible without God's presence.

I knew her husband, and he never would have called himself Elijah in a million years. But this woman's awareness of and faith in the presence of God is the same faith upon which Elisha called when he approached the river. Aloud, he asked the question that he knew the fifty would ask, the question that everyone who saw or heard him would ask, the question that he probably had to admit to himself that even he would ask if he were one of them.

"Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?"

He answered his own question, though not with words but with action. With his mantle rolled up and striking the water, dividing it to one side and to the other, he proclaimed to all who could see and understand:

"Right here!"

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgiven (Luke 7:36 - 8:3)

I love the TV show Firefly -- I say "love" in the present tense because even though the network it was on couldn't keep one neuron firing long enough to let it stay on the air, I own the DVDs and I can watch it whenever I want.

There's a scene in the pilot episode in which a preacher -- called a "shepherd" in this show's world -- wonders whether he should stay on the spaceship he's boarded. The captain and crew don't like him, he failed to protect someone he wanted to safeguard, and it seems like there's no place for him here. He makes this confession to a woman called a "companion," which is a very high-priced and selective call girl. She embraces him -- chastely! -- and says something like, "Maybe that means you're needed here most."

In a discussion group about the show, I read a number of opinions from Christians who were offended by the scene. A preacher or holy man taking advice and compassion from a woman like that? Receive a gesture of grace from a whore? What kind of religious leader would accept that kind of welcome such from such a sinner?

Allow me to introduce you to Jesus of Nazareth, who may be doing exactly that right here in the gospel.

Jesus dines at the house of Simon the Pharisee, which is interesting already because we're conditioned to think of the Pharisees as the guys who are always out to get Jesus and who lay many heavy legalistic burdens on the people. But they began as people who thought that if you were going to call yourself a follower of God, then you ought to live a life that showed it. For them, that meant following the Law of Moses, and if some of them got a little enthusiastic in expounding on that law, apparently not all of them did. Jesus intrigued those Pharisees, because his message about repenting because the kingdom was at hand wasn't far off of theirs.

But while he's there, this woman -- a sinner, Luke tells us, for reasons we'll catch up with in a minute -- comes to Jesus, weeping so much she actually bathes his feet, dries them with her hair and then anoints them with ointment she's carrying that's probably perfumed. Simon is scandalized -- if Jesus was as good a teacher as some claimed him to be, he'd know she was a sinner and he'd know what people would start to think when they saw him accept such an intimate act from her.

'Cause, as Luke goes out of his way to remind us, she's a sinner. Of course, so was everyone else at that table except Jesus, but she's singled out. Why? No certain reason, but I think he was trying to politely hint that she was, maybe, a professional sinner. As in the world's oldest profession? As in, well, I don't want the children to hear, a sinner, and I don't mean she didn't buy her food at the kosher deli?

Jesus obviously knows what Simon is thinking. So he says, "Simon, got a story for you." Simon says, "Let's hear it."

"Two guys owe this fellow some money. One owes him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. He forgives both debts. Which one will be more grateful?"

"The one who owed him the most," Simon says. "Bingo!" Jesus says (I'm paraphrasing).

"Now, you invited me to dine with you but you didn't set out anything for me to wash with or freshen up or give me a kiss of greeting. This woman, though, hasn't stopped washing my feet or kissing me in greeting since I showed up. She's being forgiven a lot, so she is showing a lot of gratitude. People who aren't forgiven as much don't show as much." Then he makes it explicit, telling the woman her sins are forgiven and she can go in peace.

Our issue is that for most of us, we aren't as aware as we should be that we are just as much in need of grace as the worst sinner we could imagine. Sin isn't adding up a bunch of evil; it's separation from God. Give me the choice of which sinner to live next door to and I'll take the arrogant self-righteous jerk over the thief every time, but that doesn't mean that either of them is any more or less separated from God. One debtor may have owed more money than the other one in Jesus's story, but both were debtors. One sinner may have piled up more wrong deeds than another, but both are separated from God.

Well, both used to be separated from God, that is. In Christ, we're offered a reunion with God. We're offered a restoration of the relationship we were born to have but lost as we tried to set ourselves up as the gods of our own lives.

And at the last, it isn't that Sinner A is forgiven a whole lot and Sinner B is forgiven just a little. If we are really going to accept the gospel message and live it out, then we have to understand that the key is that Sinner A and Sinner B, as well as Sinners C through Z and way more than we have letters for, are all forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.

That sounds like good news to me.