Monday, February 16, 2015

What Is Expected of Disciples?

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

The prophet Elijah figures prominently in today’s readings. He’s represented in one of our stained glass windows, but I can’t justify asking you “Which one?” because you’d need binoculars to find him, up in one of the petals of the great rose window.

But his protégé Elisha makes a showing in the medallion of the lancet window nearest the font. Those five windows feature women and children of the Bible, a memorial tribute honoring Alice Schermerhorn Carter, remembered for her devotion to the wellbeing of women and children here in the North County between 1900 and her death in the late 1920’s.

In that last window of the set, the younger prophet stands with a woman and her son. Their story prefigures the resurrection of Jesus, for Elisha has raised this young man from his death bed. Here is one way Elisha is remembered to have used the power he gains today from his mentor Elijah.

Elijah had a reputation for appearing and disappearing in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. This is not lost on Elisha, who anticipates the requirement that if he is to inherit his mentor’s spirit, he must see the very moment of his death. And Elisha desires more than his master’s spirit: He wants a double share of it. All the more urgent, that he keep his eye on the prize.

It’s not hard to imagine his annoyance as members of the national prophets’ union, local Bethel chapter, swarm around him, buzzing like bees with the news that charismatic Elijah is about to be recalled to heaven. “Yes, I know; keep silent,” replies Elisha, swatting away at these distractions.

It’s surprising to me that Elijah is right there as all those local prophets chirp and chatter about his death. Elisha dares not look away for a moment, with old Elijah capable of disappearing as skillfully as Harry Potter under his invisibility cloak. When Elijah says to his disciple, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho,” it’s as if Elisha hears his master’s motor revving up for take-off, and he answers back, “Fat chance, Father Elijah: I’m stuck on you like glue.”

You must have noticed that today’s reading resembles an echo chamber. With barely time for a breath, we hear a second time the swarming of the local prophets, and the wily master’s second attempt to shake free from young Elisha. One of the first things we learn about ancient Hebrew thinking is that if something is worth saying once, it’s worth saying twice.

And then they’re at the Jordan River. It will be here, centuries later, that Jesus of Nazareth will have poured out on him both muddy water bonding him in solidarity with us, and the divine Spirit that will empower his every move.

And now, the language is meant to remind us of Moses leading the displaced Hebrew slaves out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. As fast as the eye can see, Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it tight, and wales it against the water of the Jordan, clearing the way for them to cross.

When they reach the other shore, the master asks what parting gift or favor he may present to his protégé. That’s when Elisha reaches for the moon. “A double share, please, of all that makes you you.”

And that is the moment when what Elisha instinctively knew is confirmed. “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.” As if to say, To comprehend what God is doing in me, you must see my final moments. You must pay attention to me.

And what a stunning scene, in those moments of Elijah’s transition. A chariot of fire, horses of fire, and a whirlwind bearing Elijah to heaven! Put on your 3-D glasses and picture that on the big screen.

It is more than Elisha can bear. Overwhelmed by grief, and is it also guilt?, he tears his tunic in two. I ask about guilt because that rending of garments was a classic sign of remorse and repentance in the ancient world, and it may suggest that now that Elisha has met his goal and gotten what he wanted, he recognizes his loss, he counts the cost of losing his mentor, he realizes that he will be just as tested, just as exposed to risk and danger as was his teacher.

He tears in two his old cloak as he sheds the skin of a student and assumes the mantle of a teacher. He is bumped up a generation.

And he tears it to make way for wearing his master’s mantle. But before he puts it on, he does what he has been taught: He rolls it tight and wallops the Jordan, just to see. And indeed, the waters part for him.

Goodness, what a long preamble to making us ready to ask two questions. First, why this story on this day? Second, how does this story of prophetic succession help us appreciate Mark’s story of the Transfiguration? And yes, let’s work on a third question: So what?

This story comes to us today courtesy of a season called Lent, the Church’s season of transitioning from winter to spring (all in favor say aye), the Church’s season for making the case that to comprehend what God is doing in Jesus Christ, we must see his final days. For us to comprehend what God is doing in us, we must keep our eyes on Jesus. We must pay attention.

And like Elisha, we enter this season wanting something. And if a share of that something is good, let’s make it a double share; and so we tend to expect more of ourselves, and more of God, in what we call the holiest season. The time is ripe: Enough of this icy mantle of winter! Rend it in two and bring on the season of growth and new life to take the place of earth’s long frigid sleep in barren death.

And with Elisha’s recognition of his own grief, his own guilt, the tone is set for Ash Wednesday, the Church’s way to make a right beginning of Lent. It is the one remaining time in the Christian year when Episcopalians still kneel to pray.

To our second question, how one reading speaks to another, clearly there is overlap in the cast of characters, for Jesus is seen talking with Elijah and Moses. As each of them parts the deep waters that could have been an obstacle to God’s people but instead became a pathway, so Jesus strikes death with the rolled-up mantle of his own flesh and becomes the way, the truth, the life.

And taken together, these two readings show what is expected of disciples. The very presence of Elijah, the fleet fellow here one moment, gone the next, reminds us how focused Elisha had to be to get what he wanted, not for a moment taking his eyes off the prize. By sharp contrast, and in a Monty Python kind of way, Jesus’s proteges (Peter, James, and John), are remembered to have had a tendency to fall asleep on those mountaintop retreats Jesus took them on.

I know, Mark doesn’t say they slept, this time; but if they did, picture them wakening with a jolt, sensing this aurora borealis experience they’ve almost missed, blinking away sleep, blurting out, “Rabbi, isn’t this wonderful that we’re here? Let’s make three shrines, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah…” Whereupon they are overshadowed by the Shekinah, the divine presence in the cloud, and from the cloud a voice: “Hush. Be still. This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Lent invites us to practice mindfulness, to focus on what matters most and let go of what matters least. Lent urges us to be alert to recognizing our best choices and avoiding our worst.

What Elisha wanted of Elijah was that same spirit that made his master who he was. Elisha’s persevering attentiveness to the teacher is the quality of discipleship that Mark teaches in his story, in that voice from heaven that requires the church to give first place to listening, listening to the Beloved.

How will you do that, this Lent?