By stages

30 June 2013
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8C (RCL)
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2,11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

After Elijah heard the sound of silence on the mountain of the Lord, God told him to return by way of the wilderness of Damascus, and to anoint Hazael King of Aram, Jehu King of Israel and Elisha as prophet in his place. Whoever, says God, Hazael doesn’t kill, Jehu will kill, and whoever Jehu doesn’t kill, Elisha will kill, until only 7000 remain in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Ba’al. Not a happy errand. No wonder, then, that Elijah doesn’t complete his errand. He throws his mantle over Elisha, and leaves it to Elisha to anoint Hazael and Jehu.

At his first encounter with Elisha, Elijah throws his mantle on him, and invites to come follow. Elisha responds, “First, let me go and kiss my father and mother.” Elijah replies, “What have I to do with you?” — do what you want. Elisha does not return to kiss his father and mother, but slaughters the yoke of oxen he is plowing with, and cooks them over the equipment he was using. He has just done away with all the capital he had in the world. He now has no choice but to follow Elijah (not sure how I would have felt about that if I had been a member of Elisha’s household).

They then journey by stages back to the Jordan River, stopping at Bethel (one of the sites on which the Northern Kingdom had built a Temple with its golden calf), Jericho (the first city the Israelites had conquered when the crossed the Jordan) and at the Jordan, which the Israelites had crossed on their way in to the promised land. At each stage, Elijah tells Elisha to remain, and Elisha refuses. They are traveling the history of Israel in reverse, going back to the beginning, presumably to start over.

When Elijah is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha sees the chariots and the horsemen, the divine army of Israel’s holy war, which the kings of Israel had failed to rely on, as they drew up various treaties with various other kingdoms. Elisha receives a pretty good indication of what the future holds, and it is not altogether happy.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus, when the time drew near for him to be taken up (just like Elijah), set his face toward Jerusalem, and journeyed there by stages. In contrast to Elijah and Elisha, he does not go by stages through Israel’s history in reverse. He goes forward. Likewise, readers of Luke’s Gospel have received a foreshadowing of what lies ahead (in Jesus’ prediction of his passion) and it is not exactly happy, but it is God taking the calamity into God’s self rather than bringing it down on others.

James and John fail to understand this fact when the Samaritan village won’t receive Jesus. They want to call down fire in the village, just as Elijah had done on the representatives of the King. Jesus rebukes them, and they simply go on to the next village. Those who don’t understand what Jesus is about don’t suffer retribution — he just moves on. Others also don’t understand the level of commitment involved. Just as Elisha wanted to return to kiss his father and mother, one of those Jesus calls wants to bury his father (probably to stay at home and work until his father dies). Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” implying that anyone who doesn’t understand the urgency of this mission is already dead. Another promises to follow Jesus anywhere, and Jesus warns that it will involve giving up even physical security (foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests). One wants to say farewell (Just like Elisha), and Jesus says there is no turning back.

Very few times in life are we as individuals or communities called to make such radical commitments. Now and then a person may leave behind a career, make a physical move, recover from alcoholism or drug addiction, and have to make such a clean break. A congregation may at some point to chose to change course radically, but most often, these shifts happen by stages. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and then takes the bulk of Luke’s Gospel getting there. Commentators have pointed out that the section between 9:51 and the arrival in Jerusalem has little organizing structure. Geography is confused. There is no organizing sequence of miracles are organization of teaching (as Matthew’s five speeches meant to mirror the five books of Torah). Jesus teaches, heals, encounters along the way.

That’s encouraging for congregations and individuals. We know there is a level of commitment to the Kingdom and its goals, but we often don’t know how to get there. In contrast to the story of Elijah and Elisha, we don’t get there by looking to the past. The kingdom is out there ahead of us. We know what happens in Jerusalem, and we have to be prepared to face the cross (the opposite of the kingdoms of the world), but we are left to figure out how to go forward in the realities of this world. Each encounter will require us to think anew how best to make our way toward the Realm of God.

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