2 Kings 2:1-14
The scripture for today is about a critical life passage. Elisha was forced to face the departure of his mentor and friend, Elija. Elisha was forced to adjust to the loss of one in whom he trusted, one upon whom he had always counted for guidance, one whom he admired and emulated. It is hard when someone who is the center of our mental, spiritual, and emotional universe leaves us. Elisha now had to find within himself the strength that he had always counted on in another. He did find that strength. And he continued, as this passage suggests, with a "double portion" of the spirit of Elijah.
There's a piece of the text we read today that was missing in the lectionary. I reinserted it because it provides an important piece of this picture. The passage is those seemingly repetitive verses where Elijah and Elisha travel from town to town and at each stop are greeting by groups of individuals named in the text as the 'company of the prophets.' Elijah and Elisha were not alone. They belonged to a community, a community that consisted of scattered bands of like-minded people in each major city and town of Israel. Other old testament texts in 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings suggest that these "companies of prophets" were following in a noble tradition of reform and protest that dated to a time even before the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. Bible scholars have sometimes referred to these prophetic associations as "the schools of the prophets." They were especially visible in times of spiritual, social, economic, or political distress. These "schools" or "companies" of prophets likely consisted of women as well as men. Many of them (like Elijah) came from extremely humble backgrounds or were outcasts, though some (like Elisha) came from wealthier families. They gathered to teach, preach, and study together to worship God through music and singing and through ecstatic praise. They performed miracles. And they confronted and raised prophetic protest against injustice and idolatry in their day. The ministries of individuals like Elijah and Elisha did not evolve in a vacuum. They were nurtured and sustained by a community defined by fierce loyalty to God and a love of justice. That Elijah and Elisha were greeted in every town by bands of the company of prophets suggests that the relationship between Elijah and Elisha unfolded in the context of the life, aspirations, and work of this larger community.
The life, aspirations, and work of the company of the prophets was a work of spiritual and social reform. Elijah and Elisha lived in a time when the people of Israel had been divided into two rival kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The division resulted from jealousies and rivalries among the ruling classes, who used old dynastic feuds and exploited popular discontent to seize power. Unfortunately for the northern Kingdom of Israel, the Temple of Solomon, the cultural heart of Israel, was located in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah. This tended to undermine the authority of the King of Israel, since it was a reminder of a time when all Israelites owed allegiance to Jerusalem. Like many monarchs before and since, the king of Israel tried to remedy the situation by creating a competing religion. First, the old golden calf cult was reintroduced. In the time of Elijah and Elisha, King Ahab, under the influence of his Tyrean wife Jezebel, began to encourage the worship of Baal. It goes without saying that the priests appointed by the King to promote these Northern Israelite cults were more or less lackeys of the court, a priesthood whose function was to bolster royal authority rather than promote true loyalty to God.
Policies that this state-appointed priesthood were called upon to support included continuing, unrelenting taxation of the poor, and a virtually constant state of war against neighboring kingdoms, especially against the Kingdom of Judah. Wealthy landowners (including the king of Israel) consolidated and expanded their landholdings, driving more and more Israelites into poverty and dependence. Israelite law requiring periodic debt relief and granting all Israelites their own share of land (known as the year of Jubilee) were ignored. The widows and the orphans, who under Israelite law were to be provided for, were left without provision.
One of the more egregious examples of lawlessness is described in I Kings 21. It illustrates perfectly the way in which the wealthy and powerful classes of Israel were using violence and deceit in order to expand their wealth and power, while more and more Israelites were forced into poverty. King Ahab coveted the land of a man named Naboth. When Naboth refused to sell the land to Ahab because he wanted to remain on the land of his ancestors, Ahab's wife Jezebel arranged to have Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy and treason and stoned to death. With Naboth dead and out of the way, the king quietly possessed his land. The scriptural text is silent about the fate of Naboth's widow and children, whom this royal intrigue simultaneously deprived of their husband and father, and their land and sole means of support. Like so many others, they were driven into ranks of the landless and homeless poor, forced to live at the mercy of those who had shown no mercy.
This was the kind of lawlessness and spiritual decadence that Elijah, Elisha, and communities of prophetic women and men throughout the Kingdom of Israel protested and denounced. For their vocal dissent, Elijah and Elisha and other members of the company of prophets were branded as enemies of the state, as dangerous subversives who spread treachery against the king and against organized religion. As enemies of the king, their lives were in constant danger, and so far the only thing that had saved them was divine intervention.
I was having a conversation about the state of affairs in Israel at the time with a good friend of mine. We agreed that the sin entrenched in the social, political, and religious life of the day was no worse than what we find in America today. The wealthy and powerful in ancient Israel abused and exploited the legal system to avoid punishment for wrong doing. Is it so much different in America today? Government agents in ancient Israel used assassination and deception against their political enemies, and against neighboring countries. Has not America done the same, both at home and abroad? In ancient Israel at least there was a Jubilee Law on the books (even though they ignored it). We've never had any concept of communal responsibility for the poor, any notion that all people are inherently entitled to a means of livelihood and self support. This country has a heavy legacy of slavery and racism, violence against the working class, and scapegoating the most desperately poor. We are reaping the results of this evil legacy, with the largest per capita prison population in the world, the highest rates of gun-related casualties in the world, school yard massacres, rampant drug addiction, rapidly rising homelessness, violence, and despair... We are destroying ourselves. America's answer is "welfare reform." Our government says to ignore the poor, and maybe they'll go away. What we must realize is that it is not the poor we are ignoring, it is our own souls. It is the quality of community and society and spirit in America that we are ignoring. If there was a need for companies of prophets in ancient Israel, then surely there is need today, in this country, at this time.
When we look at the scripture text for today, we see that more than anything else, that quality which prophets are in need of is the ability to see things in unconventional ways, to see things through spiritual eyes. A true prophet may or may not be able to see physically. Physical sight or blindness has nothing to do with it. But one gift of the prophet, sometimes called a seer or see-er, is the gift of seeing things from an unusual perspective, seeing things in ways that defy conventional wisdom and conventional expectations.
In the scripture text for today, when Elijah asked Elisha what he wanted, Elisha asked Elijah for a double portion of the Spirit God had given to Elijah. Elisha wanted Elijah's ministry. Elisha wanted Elijah's prophetic calling. Elisha wanted Elijah's spirit -- a double portion of it. Elijah's response to Elisha's bold demand was, "You have asked a hard thing." Indeed, he recognized that what Elisha had asked was not his to either give or take away. Elisha's ability to receive the gift he had asked for depended upon his ability to see things in a different way, to see things with spiritual eyes. Elijah reminded Elisha of this by focusing in his response on seeing: "If you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you -- but if you do not see me, it shall not be so."
Immediately following Elijah's ascent into Heaven, the fifty prophets who accompanied Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan rushed to meet Elisha. They were convinced that Elijah had been caught up in a tornado, and that his broken body had been tossed somewhere on a mountain peak or in a valley. Despite Elisha's protests that they would not find him, a search party scoured the area for three days -- to no avail. They did not see what Elisha had seen. Watching from a distance, they saw a tornado tearing their beloved teacher to pieces. Through spiritual eyes, Elisha saw something different: he saw the horses and chariots of Heaven taking his friend into the bosom of God.
Elijah had born witness throughout his ministry to the importance of seeing things through spiritual eyes. The community that sustained and supported Elijah and Elisha in their ministries, the Company of the Prophets, all had this gift of seeing things differently. Had they not separated themselves from a society that had chosen the path of greed, power-mongering, deceit and idolatry? Had they not rejected the conventional wisdom of their day that idolized wealth and power? They had chosen another path. They had chosen loyalty to Jahweh over loyalty to wealth, loyalty to power.
How we see is shaped by our choices and loyalties. We can choose to see things differently. Or we can choose not to see. When somebody's primary loyalty is to the accumulation of money, how do they see the poor? In the eyes of those obsessed with wealth and power, the poor become invisible. They become morally inferior. They become unworthy. They deserve their plight. But when somebody's primary loyalty is to God, how do they see the same? They see the poor as sisters and brothers, no more nor less deserving of God's blessings than themselves. When somebody tells us what they see, they are telling us about their loyalties.
To choose loyalty to God when the culture has its own, more self-serving, nationalistic, idolatrous agenda requires tenacity. It is not a choice that anyone can make lightly. Elisha demonstrated this tenacious loyalty in the last days of Elijah's ministry. He refused to leave Elijah's side, despite Elijah's repeated attempts to get him to do so, and despite the discouraging taunts of his peers. Elisha chose a path of radical loyalty and love. And when the moment came, while the others saw a whirlwind tearing Elijah to pieces and tossing him onto the sharp rocks of the mountains, Elisha saw chariots of fire.
When we choose to see things through the eyes of spirit, when we choose a perspective, a vision shaped by loyalty to God, it will cut us off from all who choose to see in conventional ways. But, it does not merely cut us off. It opens new paths, new ways. We will see the pathways, the doorways that no one else can see. We will see the ways of liberation. When Elijah ascended into heaven he left his coat. Elisha found the coat, picked it up, hit the Jordan River with it, and the Jordan parted. A path was cleared as the waters moved to either side, and Elisha crossed over with dry shoes. The parting of the Jordan was a reminder of the path taken by the Children of Israel out of slavery. It was a reminder that when we take the side of God, God will open up ways of liberation to us. God will free us.
Brothers and sisters:
We are the company of the prophets.
We are the ones who must see things, not with physical eyes, but with spiritual eyes.
We are the ones who will look at the world through eyes of love, who will see suffering and demand justice, who will see disloyalty to God and demand allegiance.
We are the ones who will strike a sea of neglect with our mantle, and make it part. We will strike a sea of hatred, and make it part. We will strike a sea of indifference, and ignorance, and greed, and fear, and make it part. God, whose power moves ocean and mountain, sun, moon, and stars, will open the way before us, but we take the steps, and we walk in the path, and we find a new world on the other side.
We must not be afraid, when we come to these life passages. When we face loss, when we face illness, when we face death, when we face hell and the devil himself, we need not fear. Others see a whirlwind coming to tear us to pieces. But we are the company of prophets, and we can, we must see things differently. Through eyes of the spirit. Through eyes of love. If we open our hearts to see things differently, we will see the bands of angels surrounding us, bearing us up and carrying us deeper into the heart of God.
Each of us who is here today, is here because of a choice to be faithful in at least some small measure. Each of us who has chosen to be a part of this community, this Lyndale United Church of Christ, is here because we have some love in our heart that is calling us to move into a greater, a larger love. We want to join the company of prophets. We don't always make the right choices. Our heart is not always filled with love. Sometimes we lose track of the thing that originally brought us here. Sometimes we see things the way God calls us to see things, and sometimes we don't. We're supposed to see the chariots of fire, but all we can see is the whirlwind. But that is why we have each other. And if we are here today, we can remind ourselves that we all have the ability to perceive things differently. We can remember the choices we've made in the past that have brought us deeper into the heart of God, and we can find out what it takes to keep making similar choices.
These last months have been hard for me. Two years ago, I accepted two half-time jobs: one here at Lyndale Church, and one at the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir. I had two part-time jobs, and I became a full-time secretary. A secretary is a servant. A secretary is someone who does things that other people ask him to do. A secretary is a person who has to make sure that things get done that no one else cares to do or has time to do or thinks is too insignificant to bother with but will really mess things up if it doesn't get done. I was OK with that. I thought, I love Lyndale, I love my Gospel Choir. I am willing to be a servant, because I believe in the Church, I believe in the Choir. A servant is a facilitator. A servant is someone who makes things work, and I believe in the communities that I'm serving. I want them to work. I was OK with that.
But sometimes you want to be more than a servant. And sometimes in the bump and grind of day to day work, you wonder if everything is what it's cracked up to be. And sometimes your body just gets worn out and you feel tired. Sometimes your body just doesn't cooperate, and you get sick. And your commitment wavers. (This is hypothetical of course. This never happens to me!) When you give of yourself, when you agree to be a servant, the test of fire is those days when you wonder if you are really appreciated. When you realize that you have given something of yourself that you can never take back, and you wonder if you have given in vain. When the devil whispers in your ear, and says, You could have been so much more than a secretary.
Brothers and sisters, I need your help to see the angels that stand around me and hold me up, and that are carrying me deeper into the heart of God. I need your help to see this world through the eyes of love. I need your help to open more paths to freedom; not a personal freedom; not an individual freedom; not a freedom of career advancement and raises; not a freedom of money or wealth or power. I need your help to open a path not of egotistical freedom, but of communal freedom. Freedom from want, freedom from injustice, freedom from war. All I'm asking of you is to help me build the kingdom of God on earth. If you can convince me that we are walking this path together, then I will know everything I do is worthwhile, and we will all find a joy that is deeper than the oceans and higher than the heavens.
In Jesus' name. Amen.