Sunday, June 26, 2016

June 26, Proper 8, Prophecy 3: Elisha Sees the Chariots

2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14, Psalm 77, Gal 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62

My buddy Orville likes Yogi Berra quotations. He told me a new one last week. Yogi’s wife asked him, “If you die before I do, where would you like me to have you buried? Here in Jersey, or in New York City, or back in St. Louis?” He said, “Surprise me.”

The Lord Jesus tossed off those three answers to those who would follow him as one-liners, sort of nonsensical non sequiturs. Of course the Son of Man did have places to lay his head, and of course the dead are unable to bury the dead, and if you’re plowing you actually do check your alignment behind you. He throws off these one-liners like he’s pushing away the branches to keep his path clear. He’s not so much talking about the general challenge of discipleship as about his own challenge, about his new determination and resolve, that he has now set his face towards Jerusalem, time’s a-wasting, and things that were normal are now distractions.

So it doesn’t bother him that the Samaritans will not receive him. So what if they hate Jerusalem and Judea and therefore expected any Jewish Messiah to be their enemy. Look, he’s going to frustrate every expectation of how he should be the Messiah anyway, and if the Judeans do receive him they will soon reject him even worse. Rejection is precisely what he has set his face to enter into.

Why is he suddenly so focused and determined? Why has he ended his patient preaching tours of Galilee? The change, according to St. Luke, follows upon his discussion with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of the Transfiguration, just a few verses earlier in this same chapter. They talked about his “exodus,” a word which meant both his exit and his victory through death, and now he wants to get on with it. He knows he will die, and he believes that he will be “taken up,” as it says in verse 51. Both Moses and Elijah had been “taken up.” Moses to the mountaintop, to see the Promised Land, and then he died in the arms of God. Elijah was taken up directly while still alive. Might Jesus be their combination, dying, but then being taken up alive again?

There’s lots of Elijah in the background of Jesus. It was Elijah who had once called down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, which the disciples want to copy. Jesus was criticized for not being more like Elijah. But Jesus was inspired by other prophets too. He was actually more like Elisha, the healer, who was less confrontational. And like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who was tortured and imprisoned in Jerusalem, and rejected by the city that he loved. The Samaritans had no idea!

Jesus had a vision, and he had to keep to his vision, the vision that only he could see, and yet once you saw it too, you could then see it all through the scriptures that you thought you knew. But you cannot see it at all without the gift of the Holy Spirit. To be prophetic, you need the Holy Spirit.

That’s my new thing for today. In my first sermon in this series, I said that we are prophetic when we speak the truth about ourselves, when we confess our sin and that we confess our only identity in the sovereign grace of God. As the Catechism says, “Our only comfort, in life and death.” In my second sermon, I said that a church is prophetic when it keeps pointing to the alternate reality of this world, to that more true reality which except for prophecy is unacknowledged by the world, to the Kingdom of God which is hidden and yet is always bearing down on us. And today the scripture is telling us that it’s the Holy Spirit who empowers you to see prophetically and to speak it.

Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken up from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah responded, “You have asked a hard thing.” Because it was not Elijah’s to give him. The spirit working prophetically in Elijah was none other than the Holy Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit inhabits whomever it wills.

But when Elisha was able to see the chariot, that showed that the Holy Spirit had already come upon him, or he could not have seen it. And the Spirit gives him power to tell what he sees, and he cries out, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” He sees more than just one chariot, he can tell the presence of a multitude of the heavenly host. The heavenly host who showed themselves and sang to the shepherd on the hillside near Bethlehem, the heavenly host, the cavalry of angels, the power of God, the Kingdom of God, and Elisha he could tell it was there, the alternate reality always pressing down on us even if we do not know it. The Spirit empowered him to see it and call it.

This same Holy Spirit is given to all of us, according to our lesson from Galatians. You, as a very ordinary Christian, can live by the Spirit. Like we’re up there with Elijah and Elisha. Like we’re up there with Jesus. Who, us? We don’t speak in tongues, we don’t do miracles, we don’t see chariots, we don’t have visions supernatural. But we are prophetic in our behavior when we shape our lives by that alternate reality.

That’s what you are called to do. And because you want to do that is why you came here today. You know that the present reality is not just disappointing but destructive. You know that our current way of life is rich and prosperous at the cost of toxicity, pollution, and violence. You want to live by a vision of the world in which the fruits of the political economy are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

In this passage, what St. Paul means by “flesh” is not the human body. Notice that some of the “works of the flesh” are spiritual works. Flesh is a shortcut word for St. Paul. It means the world that tries to live on its own and free from God. Its freedom is for its self-indulgence and consumption. We are “flesh” when we call ourselves “consumers.” We “bite and devour and consume” each other. It is under God that freedom is really found. And to live in such freedom is to be prophetic. We are living in terms of a reality that depends on God, and gets its power from the Holy Spirit of God.

So if we’re prophetic, we have this double relationship with the world. We quietly discredit all the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve their sorry glories no less than their miseries, but we do not despair. Because we live by hope. Because this alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Creator of this and the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is based on God. Prophets may be critics by they live by hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

We prophets are crazy. We keep hoping against hope. Every week we celebrate Communion, because “as often as we eat that bread and drink that cup, we do show the Lord’s death until he come.” Until he come! We celebrate communion every week in order to nourish and sustain our hope, to keep us alive as prophets.

But we have more than hope. Something real is here already. For just as Holy Communion is a sign of what’s to come, Holy Baptism is a sign of what’s already so. The Holy Spirit allows you to see in little Ella Elisabeth Platt “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Do you know what this little girl represents? Why the eye of God is on her, why all of God’s attention is on her, what God has in mind for her? By the Holy Spirit you can see it in the Baptism and believe it. It’s not just hope, it’s already accomplished, so certainly as you see that water upon her, so certainly has she been crucified with Christ and in him raised again. Not just one more soul snatched from evil, but one more warrior in the heavenly host. Only her weapons will not be violent, but such things so wonderful that we call them the fruits of the spirit. And that has already begun to happen in this little girl.

The baptism of a child is a thoroughly prophetic act. Because her faith is totally from God, and not from her own decision or achievement. Because the Holy Spirit in her is nothing that she’s asked for, but freely given her by God by God’s own sovereignty. And it’s prophetic because already as an infant we see these gifts developing in her.

I’m going to read these backwards: we can tell in Ella already the fruits of self-control and gentleness.

We can tell in Ella already the vision of faithfulness, generosity, and kindness.

We can tell in Ella the realities of patience, peace, and joy.

And we can tell in Ella the fullness of love. She knows full well what love is. This baptism is the prophetic sign of a whole life of her coming to know how much God loves her, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, June 03, 2016

June 5, Proper 5, Prophecy #2, Elijah Raises the Dead, or, How Is the Church Prophetic?

I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

I love the story of Elijah and the widow. Zarephath was a village to the north of Israel, in the Phoenician realm of Sidon, where the local god was Baal. Sidon is where Queen Jezebel was from. She and her husband King Ahab imported Baal-worship into Israel. Ahab was punished for this by Elijah announcing a terrible drought. Ahab would not repent, and Elijah became a fugitive. God sent him up north to Jezebel’s own country, to be sheltered by her opposite, a poor starving widow.

I love the story’s dry humor. God had not consulted the widow. When Elijah first spots her, gathering sticks, he shouts at her for water. That’s cheek. Wordlessly she goes for it—her life is suffering anyway—and then he dares to shout: “While you’re at it, get me some bread!” Now she responds with an oath. She must have recognized his foreign accent because she swears by the name of his god, not her own. She says, “As The LORD your God lives, I’ve got nothing past lunch, and then we’ll die.” It’s because his God lives, and not hers, that she’s suffering as a collateral casualty.

Elijah makes his promise about her meal and oil not running out. He seems to be able to presume on God like this. And she goes with it. Maybe one part of her says, What have I got to lose, and another part of her has hope; she sacrifices her oil and meal for him. And the promise holds.

I love the picture we get. A hovel, a little table, behind it a little boy, on one side is his mother and on the other a refugee. It’s a meal on God, it’s a Holy Communion, it’s a Lord’s Supper, and these three are God’s people. One a renegade, the other two outside the covenant, not of the seed of Abraham nor of the promise, but “God has visited his people.” By God’s word they are alive. The kingdom of God is here, her house is its palace and its capital is not where Ahab is. Her table is the temple and they eat their bread as a royal priesthood. There you can see the Kingdom of God.

God does not mind this humility, this lowliness, this lack of prestige. God doesn’t mind being believed in more by widows than by kings, by little children more than public intellectuals. God doesn’t mind being more honored by the oppressed of the world than by the successful of the world. We see in this tableau an alternate vision of what in the world is honorable and good.

We see an alternate vision of what is beautiful—the potato-eaters painted by Van Gogh instead of the elegant aristocrats painted by Van Dyck. 

No wonder Van Gogh was unpopular in his lifetime—because he was prophetic. This is what a prophet does, and often in humility: the prophet points to an alternate reality. Prophecy offers not an alternate world, like a Harry Potter world accessible only to wizards, from which the rest of us are excluded, but an alternate reality of this world, for us, but in contrast and tension with the prestigious realities that presume the power now.

This is a how a church is prophetic. We celebrate this alternate reality of the world. We express it in our hymns and address it in our prayers and confess it in our creeds. We touch it and taste it in our sacraments. The Christian worship service is full of icons and hyperlinks to connect us to that alternate reality of the world which is the real truth of the world and where the world is going.

But it hasn’t fully come, and it’s in tension still. And it’s resisted and opposed, and we might well doubt it and lose sight of it. That’s why we need prophecy. When it is “fully come,” as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, then “prophecies will cease.” But not yet, and in the meantime prophecy is both needed and opposed.

The presumptive reality fights back against the liberating prophecy. The prophet gets tested. The boy gets sick and dies. The mother blames Elijah that now her life is worse than before. Elijah prays for the boy. He covers the boy’s body with his own body when he prays, symbolically perhaps, like heaven over the earth, but there is certainly raw emotion in it too. He cries out to the Lord. It’s not easy being a prophet. Then God revives the boy. The two come down and Elijah gives him back to his mother. She responds with a confession, a confession of her faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord in you is truth.”

You can see that the Elijah story is the background of the gospel story. Jesus raises the dead young man and quite deliberately gives him back to his mother. The villagers notice it too, and they responded with their confession too, “A great prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people.” 

The people put Jesus up there with Elijah, and like Elijah, he’s the leader of the true Kingdom of God, and they hoped that Jesus will go against Herod in Galilee and the Romans in Jerusalem just as Elijah had gone against Ahab and Jezebel.

They people had been suffering so long. Heavy taxes and mounting debt, increasing violence. God had been so silent so long, God had been so absent from their lives for so many generations. The mighty acts of God were only a distant memory and the words of God were just a tradition that had lost its potency. The grind of life goes on, the sons of widows die and widows fall into poverty with nothing to live for. What else is new. Now suddenly God has visited his people. What good news. But if God is here again they will have a list of things they want from God.

We can imagine their expectations from our own questions. What about all the other widows in Israel, why only this one? What about all the other young men dying, why only this one? Why even raise him if he’s only going to die again some day? Why not fix the structural and systemic problems of Israel that forced such widows into poverty? The disciples of John the Baptist will ask those very questions of Jesus later on in this very chapter of Luke. Where’s the social justice, Jesus?

There is a humility to prophecy, even an ineffectiveness. Prophets do not build, prophets see. Prophets do not solidify, prophets imagine. Kings build, kings solidify, kings gather power. Prophets scatter power, and open up the systems, and let things loose. Even when a prophet does a concrete action, like raising the dead, that action is to validate the words they speak. Their actions are not ends in themselves, but pointers, hyperlinks, icons through which you see that alternate reality.

This is why the church so often seems irrelevant in the eyes of the world. Yes, we may have the respect of the public, and its esteem when we do our acts of mercy for the hungry and the homeless, but apart from that we are irrelevant. This makes us nervous, and churches try to get relevant by getting involved in the current issues of the day, especially social justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe it’s important for Christian individuals and Christian groups to get involved in social justice issues, especially when Christians work together with groups and individuals that are not necessarily Christian. I think we could do more of this. But it’s a distraction for the church as the church. The church’s agenda should not be set by the issues of the day in order for the church to be prophetic.

The church is prophetic when the church does what no other human organization does, and that is to discern and describe and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and offer colorful windows and icons for people to see into it.

We do this holistically, by means of our worship and music and teaching and groups and activities and even our building. We renovate this great big visible symbol with its generous great space and we welcome into it men like Elijah, needing refuge and a place to stay and a little bread while we are at it. That’s the Kingdom of God!

We are pointing to a reality that is not some other world, some so-called spiritual world, but we are celebrating heaven impinging down onto this world, as Elijah covered the boy with his body, breathing into him, onto this world, and everything in it, including its money and oil and meals and music and science. So the alternate reality is always relevant, but only on its own terms. In that it is not humble, but rather patient. That’s the church’s prophetic mission.

That’s why you do church. That’s why you commit to a church. Not just to see the Kingdom of God but to show the Kingdom of God, in many passing ways. That’s why you volunteer, that’s why you serve on a committee or teach Sunday School, that’s why you tithe. You do it all to maintain this living, organic icon that is a congregation. You might be tempted by how down-to-earth it always is, and how so often not much different from so much else in the world. But that’s because God loves this world, and the reason you do church is finally because God so loved the world. 

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.