Monday, November 26, 2018

What can we say June 30? 3rd after Pentecost

    2 Kings 2:1-14 provides us with one of the more touching scenes in Scripture. Elisha, attached to Elijah since that moment when he was out plowing and he unexpectedly had a mantle thrown over him (1 Kings 19), and when he abruptly left his oxen right out in the field, like Jesus’s fishermen to come, and traipsed off after him, so very understandably and zealously refuses to let Elijah get away from him. Twice he reiterates, “I will not leave you.” And after Elijah’s strange movements indicate he preferred to go off and die alone. In an unforgettable scene at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, Samwise Gamgee jumps in the water, not knowing how to swim. Barely surviving, he explains, “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee, and I don’t mean to.”

    The text says this happens “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” Today we think, What? Imagine back then, when death was quite simply the end, no thoughts of eternal life! Elisha, humbled, in awe, grieving, asks humorously and again understandably for a “double share” of Elijah’s power. He’ll need it… and if you count, Elisha’s miracles exactly double Elijah’s (16 to 8!) – just as Jesus told his disciples, who didn’t believe him surely, that they would do even greater things.

   Elijah leaves this earth in… a whirlwind? In a chariot of fire? Chariots of Fire was a great film with many profound moments pondering sabbath observance – and joy. The mantle Elijah had thrown on Elisha when they first met was the mantle draped over Elisha’s shoulders as Elijah departed. Did it fit? Was it too big? In The Lord of the Rings, the wise wizard Gandalf somewhat foolishly left the course of affairs in Middle Earth to the diminutive, fun-loving, timid hobbits. “Despair, or folly?” asked Gandalf. “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”

   A virtuous approach to preaching here could be to speak of the importance of mentors. Who are the wise sages who know you in depth and speak to the holy in you, and rouse you from the stupor of your complacency? I can tell of my mentor, God's astonishingly great gift to me, Father Roland Murphy, who was far more than a professor and doctoral advisor to me. Who is or has been your mentor? Might you be a mentor to someone?

  {Parenthetically, if you are interested in mentoring as it relates to ministry, you might enjoy this collection of essays I edited with Jason Byassee and Craig Kocher a couple of years ago - called Mentoring for Ministry: The Grace of Growing Pastors}.

    Galatians 5:1, 13-25 arrives in the lectionary as if timed to stake out what freedom is (and isn’t) as we ramp into July 4. The text does not say You are free! So freely choose God! or God gives you freedom and hopes you’ll choose good instead of sin. No, it’s that Christ sets us free, implying we are (as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, all the great theologians have clarified) most assuredly not free. Our wills are bound, shackled, to sin, self, world. Our only hope is to be liberated by the miracle of God’s Spirit – and once free, it’s not so we might do as we wish, but so we might then bind ourselves freely and joyfully to God, to do God’s bidding – as Wesley put it, My life is no longer my own.

    Paul’s words, genius or inspired, recognize that a battle is being waged in the soul. Do we even notice any longer? Flesh vs. Spirit (which isn’t visible vs. invisible/“spiritual”) – flesh being idolatry, jealousy, anger, dissension (sounds like my denomination!) vs. the Spirit, which is tangible, real life as motivated by God’s Spirit.

   The “fruit of the Spirit” is one of those shining moments in Scripture we could ponder forever. People ask What is God’s will? Galatians 5:22 could keep you occupied every minute for decades. I’m especially fond of Phil Kenneson’s thoughtful book, Life on the Vine.

    Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16), and “My Father is glorified when you bear fruit... I have said these things so my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:8).

 Thomas Merton said “a tree gives glory to God by being a tree.” Am I like a tree? My life is not my own: I depend on the sun, the rain, the grace and power of God which I do not control, but only soak up as precious gifts. I live in the light, but my roots go down deep where it is dark - so perhaps I need not fear the darkness? What is growing on my branches? Am I bearing fruit? or am I just some driftwood that used to be a tree?

   Holiness is not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying really diligently to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me, I am not capable of the life God wants for me. A changed life is the gift of God's Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit.” Not “the fruit of my good intentions,” but the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”

   Not only are these not against the law. They are not the law! Paul does not say, “You must be joyful, patient, faithful.” Rather, if we just calm down and let the Spirit have its way with us, we discover to our delightful surprise traces of joy, peace, gentleness in our lives, all gift, all the work of God in us. These nine (love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) are what trees look like when giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, watered by the grace of Baptism.

   I wonder if the preacher might lift up a story, a face, a short biographical sketch of someone who lives such a fruitful life. Whom do you know – in your world or in history, who has been loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle? Notice how a joyful person is also a patient person, the kind person is peaceful. They feed off one another, depend on one another.

   Consider joy, so different from happiness. Like all fruit, joy requires time, tending, maturity. Evelyn Underhill notes that “it is rather immature to be upset about the weather... Pursuing the spiritual course, we must expect fog, cold, persistent cloudiness, gales, and sudden stinging hail, as well as the sun.” Joy is about consistency in the spiritual life. Joy knows God is incapable of drifting away from us, and the very fact that we turn our heads and grope after God in the dark is God’s gift that gives birth to joy.

    Luke 9:51-62. Luke’s overall plot are in evidence here. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”: as we see in Luke, volume 2 (Acts 1), the climax of Jesus’ work is his ascension, when he leaves the church behind to be his Body. He turns his face to Jerusalem: in the first half of his ministry, Jesus is an actor, in control, impressive, striding across the stage of history – but then in part 2, he is increasingly passive, acted upon, headed to die. He is “handed over.”
 This (as W.H. Vanstone pointed out in The Stature of Waiting) is the plot of our lives: we are active, but then late, we are increasingly passive, acted upon – and that is Jesus’ glory, and our glory (so counter-cultural…).

     The Samaritans irritate the disciples – so they wish to bring down fire: very Elijah-like! – undergirding our notion that Elijah’s summoning of fire was not God’s wish (from last week's blog). They are overly or inappropriately zealous – in distinction from those who have good intentions but aren’t really ready to follow Jesus: We have very important things to do that keep us from Jesus. We clergy do, the people we preach to do. Good cause for much mercy, and yet never any slight complacency that we are already the disciples Jesus longs for! Foxes have holes. We have our homes, etc. Let the dead bury their dead. 
Hard not to think of John Wesley, missing his own wife’s funeral – not entirely out of zeal for the Lord, I might add.

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