Worship 2/14/21

Call to Worship/Psalm 50:1-6 (NRSV)

1The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

2Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.

3Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.

4He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:

5“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”

6The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.

Opening Prayer

Beckoning God, as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Elisha, you invite us to journey into unknown territory.  You call us to listen for your voice and pass the prophetic mantle to us.  Help us to speak your truth in a world that does not want to hear.  Empowered by your Spirit, grant us the courage we need to journey, trust, listen, speak, and accept your commission to be your faithful servant people.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/2 Kings 2:1-14 (NRSV)

2Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  2Elijah 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.  3The 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.”  4Elijah 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.  5The 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.”  6Then 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.  7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8Then 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.

9When 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.”  10He 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.”  11As 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.  12Elisha 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.

13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  14He 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.

Message/A Test of Courage

I don’t know about you, but I thought most of the ads that appeared in this year’s Super bowl less than funny or inspiring.  Now I will admit that it was fun seeing Will Ferrell punch his hand through a globe and find himself in Sweden instead of Norway, and Jeeps’ ad featuring Bruce Springsteen calling us to meet in the middle in our politically polarized nation has generated a great deal of buzz.  But I have to say that my favorite commercial was from car manufacturer Toyota.  Their ad introduced us to Jessica Long, who took a 7,000-mile journey to becoming the second-most decorated U.S. Paralympian in history.  Born Tatiana Olegovna Kirillova in Siberia, Jessica suffered from fibular hemimelia, which means she was born without fibulas (shin bones), ankles, heels, and most of the other bones in her feet.  She was adopted from a Russian orphanage in Irkutsk by an American family at the age of thirteen months old and was raised in Baltimore, Maryland.  At eighteen months old, her legs were amputated below the knees.  Since then, she’s had over a dozen additional surgeries on her legs. 

Long began swimming in her grandparents’ pool after church on Sundays, pretending she was a mermaid.  She was like a fish taking to water.  According to her adopted parents, she’d be the first one in the pool and the last one to leave the water.  By age ten, she was swimming competitively.  At twelve, she made her Paralympic debut at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, earning three gold medals.

Long competed in the next three Paralympics, running her medal total to twenty-three.  For a time, she was in the same training group as Michael Phelps under coach Bob Bowman.  She expects to swim in a fifth Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

Long’s story is one of courage at every turn.  During my research this week, I ran across a twenty-minute video feature on NBC’s Peacock on-line channel.  It was taken in 2013 when a camera crew followed Jessica and her younger sister, back to Siberia.  Flying across the Atlantic, Europe, and the seemingly endless Russian steppes, they landed in Irkutsk.  There, she visited the orphanage where she lived prior to adoption.  She met the loving women who had fed and taken care of her there and visited with the babies, toddlers, and small children who were awaiting adoption themselves.  From Irkutsk, Jessica and her sister embarked on an eighteen-hour train-ride to the small, rural town where her birth mother and father now live.  Interviewed on the train, Jessica shared: “When I first see my Russian family, I want them to know that I’m not angry with them, that I’m not upset that they gave me up for adoption.  I think that was really brave, and I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her situation, at sixteen and having this disabled baby that they knew that they couldn’t take care of.  I want to tell her that when I see her that, if anything, I have so much love for her, my mom, because she gave me life.”  Upon her arrival at her birth parent’s home, Jessica was greeted warmly with hugs and tear-filled kisses.  It’s one of those moments that you hope a box of tissues is convenient.

Listening to Jessica’s words, watching the video of her incredible athletic prowess as a swimmer, and viewing her positive, uplifting interaction with her birth parents has inspired me in a way that I haven’t experienced in a good while.  There’s nothing like a feel-good story, but it’s effects are especially amplified given the stress and strain of the current pandemic, the incessant political bickering with all its accompanying emotional freight, all complicated by particularly nasty winter weather.  Here is a story where courage is displayed at every twist and turn.  There’s no bickering or backbiting, no grandstanding or polemical rhetoric, no name-calling or threatening words.  It is a story that transcends geopolitical boundaries and offers us a hopeful glimpse at what family and community can look like when people are willing to step out into the unknown, taking risks, and giving themselves sacrificially for the benefit of others. 

Imagine with me for a moment the amount of courage it took for Jessica’s American parents to decide to adopt a Russian orphan, especially this little girl who was facing such tremendous medical challenges.  That was a huge commitment and, seeing the loving home that they provided for Jessica is inspiring in and of itself.  Then imagine the amount of courage it took for Jessica’s sixteen-year-old birth mother to give up her daughter for adoption, knowing that she would never be able to afford or provide the necessary care needed to help Jessica with her disability.  And, of course, Jessica herself, enduring so many surgeries, always having to deal with prosthetics and physical therapies, attempting to fit in at school, and then developing the work ethic it takes to become a swimmer at such a highly competitive level.  It truly is a compelling story, with every person involved enduring challenging tests of courage.

In our text today from Second Kings, we are confronted with another test of courage.  Elijah’s time as God’s chosen prophet was coming to an end.  The mantle of prophecy, both figuratively and literally, passing to Elisha.  Elijah had confronted King Ahab and his nefarious wife, Jezebel, about their corrupt ways that led to a plethora of injustices in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Under their reign, the poor suffered greatly at the hands of the rich.  Peasants starved while the wealthy hosted opulent banquets.  Elijah also confronted Ahab and Jezebel about their idolatries which led to a showdown between the prophet and 450 priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  After that successful venture, Elijah found himself fleeing for his life, a man with a price on his head, a refugee on the run from the political powers with whom he was in conflict.  The once courageous prophet who spoke truth to power finds himself ready to give up.  Sitting under a broom tree, he asks God to take his life.  But God’s not quite finished with him yet and provides a freshly baked cake and a jar of water.  God then sends Elijah on to Mount Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai where the people of Israel made their covenant with God.  For forty days and forty nights, says the biblical text, Elijah makes his way to Horeb and it is there in a cave that God speaks to Elijah in the sheer silence reminding him that he is not alone.  There are other Israelites, says God, who have been faithful to God and have not knelt before the altars of Baal.

Elijah was a spent man.  He was, using a more modern term, burned out.  God acknowledges this and sends him to anoint Elisha as Elijah’s prophetic successor.  In what I think is one of the Bible’s most comical scenes, Elijah comes upon Elisha who is out on the back forty with his twelve oxen plowing one of his fields.  Elijah runs up to Elisha, throws his mantle over Elisha’s shoulders, and keeps on running.  It was the world’s first run-by mantling.  Elisha runs to catch up with Elijah and becomes his apprentice.  The story continues with various political intrigues and prophetic confrontations as well as battles between the neighboring nation of Aram and Israel in which King Ahab dies.

For about ten years or so, Elisha serves under Elijah’s close tutelage.  Which draws us into today’s story.  In a touching story with a slight comedic flair, we find Elijah telling his pupil to remain behind.  This is something I need to do alone, stay here, he instructs Elisha.  But, like a pesky gnat, Elisha refuses the command of his mentor.  “As the Lord loves, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  And so, they venture forth to Bethel.  Again, the mentor orders his pupil to remain at Bethel but, as before, the tenacious Elisha refuses to leave Elijah’s side.  At Bethel, there was some sort of prophetic school and so they warn Elisha that God will be taking his mentor away from him that very day.  Determinedly, Elisha shares that he already understands this and then tells them to shut up.  Even before his departure, Elisha is already grieving the loss of his friend and teacher.  This same scene is repeated at Jericho and then at the Jordan River.  Elijah tells Elisha to remain behind, Elisha refuses, and the company of prophets remind Elisha that God is going to take his mentor away.

It was a test of courage.  On the surface, it seems that Elisha is showing a degree of disrespect to Elijah by not obeying his mentor’s orders.  Students are supposed to obey the teacher in charge. But I don’t think that was Elisha’s intention at all.  In fact, I think it was the opposite.  Elisha respects and loves his mentor to the point that he will doggedly hold on to him as long as it’s humanly possible.  It’s as if he tells himself that he must see, experience his teacher’s departure in order to somehow be able to accept it.  It takes a great deal of courage to be with someone during such a transition.  I remember when I first started ministry.  I was thirty years old and had never been around anyone’s death before.  I remember one of my mentor’s, the late Jim Hundley who served in the Virginia Conference for decades, telling me that one of the greatest honors a person can give you is to allow you to be there at their death.  Now, I remember when I first heard that, I was both dumbfounded and a bit disturbed by the thought.  It seemed rather morbid.  But now, with over two decades of hindsight and many experiences along the way, I have come to believe that he was absolutely right.  It is an honor to be present at someone’s death.  But that doesn’t necessarily make these experiences any easier.  I still find myself having to prayerfully muster up the courage to walk into that hospital room, or bedroom, or wherever the air of impending death lingers.

Elisha somehow felt in his heart that he had to be there with his beloved teacher.  Elijah and Elisha’s relationship reminds me a great deal of the relationship between Frodo and Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  At the end of the first book, we find the group that is escorting Frodo to Mordor in order to destroy Sauron’s ring of power fall apart.  The wizard, Gandalf the Grey, had already fallen in battle with a demon.  Now, as they draw ever closer to the dark lands of Mordor, they are attacked by a group of orcs.  In the chaos of the ensuing battle, their small group is scattered, struggling to stay alive.  Always worried that his quest would cause harm to others, the conscientious Frodo sneaks away to a small boat to continue the journey alone.  Out of breath from running for his life from the orcs, Frodo’s best friend Sam comes upon Frodo who has already put the boat in the water and moving away from the shore.  Shouts Frodo, “Go back, Sam.  I’m going to Mordor alone!”  “Of course, you are,” responds Sam, “and I’m coming with you!”  Disregarding his inability to swim, the persistent Sam plunges into the river and finds himself in over his head.  He almost drowns before Frodo finally is able to reach into the water and pull him into the boat.  Once Sam catches his breath, he explains: “I made a promise to Gandalf, Mr. Frodo.  ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee,’ he told me, and I don’t mean to.”

Finally, Elisha and Elijah cross to the other side of the Jordan river, probably near to the same place where Joshua and the Israelites had traversed it at the conclusion of their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.  When the Israelites crossed the Jordan that time, the Priests carried the ark of the covenant before the people, God parting the waters before the ark so that the people could cross.  In a similar twist, Elijah strikes the river with his mantle, the waters also parting before them so that they could safely cross on dry land.  It is here that the teacher offers his last words, asking Elisha what he might do for him before he is taken away.  Elisha responds, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  Elijah reminds Elisha that that’s a tough request.  It is the inheritance that typically the first-born son in an Israelite family would receive upon the death of his father.  The oldest son would receive a double share and, if there were other brothers, they would have to divide up what was left.  But, shares, Elijah, if God allows you to see my departure, then Elisha’s request would be granted.

Suddenly, in one of the most dramatic scenes in all of scripture, Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind.  As an expression of probably both wonder and grief, Elisha cries: “Father, Father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  When he could no longer see his mentor taken further and further into the sky, Elisha tears his clothes into two pieces, an ancient articulation of grief.  But then he sees Elijah’s mantle that had fallen from him as he ascended.  Following his teacher’s example, he takes the mantle and strikes the water with it.  Once again the water is parted and Elisha is able to walk back across the Jordan.

Jessica Long’s journey from Siberia to a new home in Baltimore, lengthy recoveries from multiple surgeries, and commitment to her sport of swimming, was a test of courage.  It took great risk for her adoptive parents to take on the care and nurturing of a child with no lower legs.  A test of courage.  The birth mother, knowing that she couldn’t begin to provide the care for her disabled child, revealed great courage in giving her up to the orphanage.  It took great courage for Elijah to speak truth to power and confront Ahab and Jezebel about their corruption and idolatry.  And, given today’s story, Elisha’s courage was tested in his tenacious pursuit of being with his mentor until the very end.  And the mantle was passed on and Elisha continued the work of being God’s servant as a prophet.

My friends, this is the last Sunday before the start of the Season of Lent, a forty- day period, not counting the Sundays, in which we walk with Jesus to the cross.  As Jesus’ courage and faith were tested along the way, we are not exempt from these either.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to courageous confession of him as our Lord and Savior.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to emulate his example with all that we do and say and are.  As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to stand up to all that is unjust, all that threatens the well-being and dignity of others.  And, when necessary, take the risk of speaking truth to power.  Through the power of God and the mentorship of Elijah, Elisha was able to endure the test of courage.  Likewise, it was through the power of God and the teaching of Jesus, that the disciples, sent out into the world after Jesus’ ascension, were able to courageously live out his mission and reflect the values and truths that Jesus had revealed to them. 

Church, if there was ever a time for us to take up the prophetic mantle, I think now is it.  Let’s face it, a church that has lost its prophetic voice has ceased being the community God calls us to be.  While sometimes the Church has been self-absorbed, or afraid to try new things, or unable to open its hearts, minds, and doors to people who look or live or think differently than we do, the Spirit of God desires to transform us, the Body of Christ, into a closer image of Jesus himself.  In the middle of this pandemic and in the pervasive chaos that is today’s political reality, there are people out there who desperately need hope, a hope that reminds them that they are loved, needed, and cared for.  To stand up in the middle of this crazy world and offer such a word of hope requires us to take a great risk.  But we know that genuine love always requires risk and that there was One who passed this test of courage, a risk that got him killed on a Roman instrument of capital punishment but was overcome by the power of God in the resurrection.  Jesus was the embodiment of God’s love in the world and the Church, as his Body, is called to be the same.  In the Lord of the Rings, there is a brief dialogue between Frodo and his mentor, Gandalf.  Fretting about his journey to destroy the ring of power, Frodo laments, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”  “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Pastoral Prayer

Transforming God, you have given us a vision of your glory in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Hear us as we bring to you our own lives to be transformed by you through your redeeming presence in the midst of this community.  In a world which can so easily become dull to the wonder of your glory, we pray that we would be made salt and light, awakening all of those who come near to us with your Spirit which dwells within us.

Open us to the needs of those who pass our way.  Help us to serve you by serving them in the spirit of your Son, who showed us the way to life in its fullness.  Give us grace to honor his name in the life which we build together here.  To those who hunger, make of us bread; to those who lack shelter, make us to be a home; for those who are lost and lonely, make of us the peace and joy of Christ to them.  May we bring hope and a future to those whose lives are growing dim.

Lead us, Lord, in your righteousness; make your way plain before our faces; for it is you, alone, O God, who make us to dwell in safety.  Send us forth in your Spirit, we pray, to rejoice in every moment of our lives, for we offer these and all our prayers in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction

St. Augustine—“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Go now, and speak of what you have seen of God’s glory.
Do not cling to the holy moments when heaven overshadows you,
but as the Lord lives, listen to Christ and follow him
from the places of revelation to the places of mission.

And may God shine the light of glory into your hearts.
May Christ be with you and never leave you.
And may the Spirit renew the image of God within you.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.