God with us
2009-02-19 by Holly Hearon
Because 2 Kings and Mark both offer dramatic and engaging narratives I want to let the two texts do the storytelling. However, I want to frame the sermon with strong connections to our own context. Since the sermon focuses on a challenging question (where is God when all the good around us seems to be disappearing?) I want to begin with a personal example that lets me laugh at myself. As it happens, a good illustration arose this week: I was playing a board game with my sister. Her first move resulted in a double score, compounded by bonus points. Despite my best efforts, I trailed behind throughout the game; that is, until the second to last move. By the luck of the draw, I was able to pull my score just beyond that of my sister, and win the game, at which point I shouted ‘there is a god’!
Now, I don’t actually believe that God had anything to do with my winning the game. But my spontaneous remark was a reminder of how often we use the circumstances of our lives as the basis for answering the question “Where is God?” if I win, there is a God; if I don’t win, God has rejected me. If my life is secure, things are going well, and I’m feeling happy, there is a God; if I experience a disappointment, receive devastating news, or face difficult challenges, my relationship to God comes into question.
At this point I would transition to the experiences of loss that have recently devastated the congregation, recognizing that for many this may leave them feeling that God has abandoned them. Conversely, those of us who are doing well in hard times can develop a false sense of ‘God with us’. How are we to hold onto a sense of God’s presence when all the good that we have experienced seems to be disappearing? How do we develop an understanding of God’s presence that is not tied to our own personal circumstances? (A good novel that addresses these questions is Dwelling Places by Vinita Hampton Wright [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006]).
The texts for the day speak to both of these experiences. Since I’ve already outlined the stories and the connections I find between them in my second blog I won’t repeat that material here. In reflecting on the two stories, however, I would observe that, just as we cannot expect to always live on the mountaintop, neither are we allowed to remain forever in our grief. God meets us in both places, but if we let those experiences define our relationship to God, then we will miss where God is leading us. Peter comes down off the mountain; Elisha returns to the Jordan and takes up Elisha’s mantle. Neither experience, however painful or powerful, should become the sum total of our understanding of God or ourselves, although they can give us important insights into God, ourselves, and our relationship to God. Here I might adapt a quote that hangs on my wall from Daniel Berrigan, S.J.: “These many beautiful [and sad] days cannot be lived again but they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit and I take them in full measure toward whatever lies ahead.” What lies immediately ahead is Lent: the texts for the day remind us that God journeys with us, even when those things most dear to us are going away.
Bringing Text and Context Together
2009-02-17 by Holly Hearon
As I reflect on the situation of my community I find the deepest connection with the text through the question posed in 2 Kings 2:3: “Do you not know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” Change the words around a little and you can hear them echoed as people watch the economy disintegrate and their jobs evaporate – something I am seeing daily among my colleagues and friends. The pressure this situation places on families can result in breakdowns in relationships, and the pressure it places on mental and physical health can lead to crises no longer covered by health insurance that has vanished. In the midst of this, people begin to question whether God is present in their lives. These texts don’t address every angle of this question, but I want to explore them in relation to the question.
2 Kings 2 describes the departure of Elijah from his disciple Elisha. The call of Elisha is described in 1 Kings 19:19-21, but we do not hear of him again until 2:1. The earlier call of Elisha has established that Elisha will succeed Elijah; nonetheless, the story in 2 Kings 2, at least as I hear it, is full of pathos. Three times Elijah tells Elisha to “stay here” and three times Elisha refuses to leave the side of Elijah (v. 2, 4, 6). When Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha cries out “Father!” The use of this kinship term describes the close relationship between Elijah and Elisha (i.e. of father and son or master and disciple). This relationship is underscored by v. 10 where Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit: i.e., the double portion due to the firstborn son (Deut 21:15-17). Elisha then rends his clothes as a sign of his deep mourning. What is intriguing to me is the question twice asked by the company of the prophets (vv. 3, 5). Are they taunting Elisha? Are they asking him if he is prepared for the eventuality of Elijah’s departure? Are they wondering why Elisha is still following Elijah and not ‘staying here’? It reminds me of all the tactless questions people ask without knowing it when we are in grief.
Despites all urging to turn back, Elisha stays with Elijah to the end; he does not take his eyes off of him (v. 12). I am struck by two things in this: 1) Elisha’s determination to stay with Elijah – even though he knows Elijah is going away. 2) Elisha genuinely mourns Elijah. There is no avoidance of grief. To hear this text in relation to my question, I think it is necessary to include vv. 13-14, where Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle and goes back to the Jordan. This adds a third impression: 3) Elisha does not see Elijah’s departure as an end to the relationship, but recognizes that the relationship has changed and that this change requires agency on his part (i.e. he takes up Elijah’s mantle). Elisha’s request in v. 9 anticipates this. When he strikes the Jordan in v. 14 and the waters part, we know that God, who has taken away Elijah’s master, is still present with him.
Mark presents a kind of counter-narrative to 2 Kings. In chapter 8, the disciples have learned that Jesus is going away – to die in Jerusalem. This ominous news is followed by the glorious vision of Jesus on the mountain in the company of Moses and Elijah. Peter, having already rejected the idea of Jesus’ death (8:32-33), chooses this scene as the vision he wants to hold onto. This is what I might call the ‘good time god’ image: we not only want to hold onto the image of a powerful and glorious Jesus, but want that vision to be reflected in our own lives by security, health, and stability. It is not wrong to want these things, but we run into difficulty if we count on these things as the assurance of God’s presence with us. The voice from the cloud offers a corrective to Peter’s vision. A few verses earlier, Jesus has declared to the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by religious leaders, and killed, only to rise on the third day (8:31). To listen to Jesus means that we must be prepared to accept Jesus’ suffering (and our own). That Peter is unable to do so is brought home painfully as the story unfolds and Peter denies Jesus three times (in contrast to Elisha who three times chooses to follow Elijah), and flees with the disciples, unable to watch to the bitter end (again, in contrast to Elisha). I think the voice from the cloud, which calls our attention to Jesus’ impending death, also calls our attention to God’s presence not only on the mountain, but also at Jesus’ moment of suffering – that is, a God who is present in every place.
If I were to try and tie in the passage from 2 Corinthians I might suggest that it is our desire for a ‘good time god’ (the god of the world) that prevents us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ. If God is the one whose light shines in the midst of darkness, then God’s presence can be known even when we feel farthest removed from God. I’m not sure yet whether this adds or distracts. It seems to me that, together, the passages from 2 Kings and the Gospel of Mark warn against holding on to only one image of God, to tie that image too closely with the condition of our own lives, and the need to be willing to embrace endings so that we can also experience new beginnings.
2009-02-16 by Holly Hearon
The transfiguration – again. Since this text turns up in one form or another every year, my first reaction is a slight groan of despair. But I also enjoy the challenge of trying to see the text with ‘new eyes’ so, what are the possibilities here? There’s the matter of timing: we are given a glimpse of Jesus’ glory before descending into the long season of Lent and the journey towards the cross. It can become a vision that sustains us in our journey through the wilderness. There’s the matter of geography: the mountain is a place of revelation. Sometimes we need to go to a place that takes us apart from the crowd and above the fray, to be able to see with God’s eyes. The challenge, of course, is holding on to that vision when we descend into the fray again. There’s the matter of discipleship: Peter’s well intentioned, but misguided response may be well-worn, but we seem to find endless ways of repeating it. Finally, there is the matter of Jesus and those who appear with him: what does this tell us about who Jesus is? And what is it that we are to listen to?
The passage from 2 Corinthians (4:3-6) complements this final question: who is Jesus? It presents a bit of a problem since it picks up in the middle of a larger dilemma Paul faces with the Corinthians who seem to find his ‘proclamation’ less than clear. This could serve as a helpful reminder to us that what we consider ‘self evident’ may not be so to others. Paul’s rejoinder, however, that his Gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing is hardly helpful; it promotes the attitude that if you don’t understand, the problem is clearly with you. Well, it may be, but we shouldn’t use this text as an excuse to avoid considering whether the problem is with us and our proclamation. It is vv. 4-6 that offer a way to further explore the question “who is Jesus?” The idea that it is God who gives us the knowledge of who Jesus is opens the door to considering additional questions related to “how do we know Jesus?” Is it through revelation alone? Is it through personal encounter (which Paul certainly had)? Is it through proclamation? Is it through disciples speech and actions? These can be important questions to raise in a congregational setting where we often simply assume that we know Jesus. Yet the “how” is also an important question. And can we ever assume that we have seen all that there is to see? Further, is this a Jesus that we are willing to follow through the journey of Lent to the cross?
The passage from 2 Kings 2:1-12 offers a way to continue the exploration of this question through consideration of Elijah. Why is it that Elijah appears with Jesus? What does it mean for Jesus to stand in continuity with Elijah and Moses? Yet the passage also offers an opportunity to move in a different direction. These verses tell the story of Elijah’s ascent into the heavens, and the passing of Elijah’s spirit to Elisha, his disciple. So, another possibility is to explore the relationship between this prophet and his disciple and to compare and contrast it with the disciples in Mark. Unlike Peter, Elisha seems to know precisely who Elijah is and seeks a share of his spirit. Another interesting theme that this passage introduces is found in v. 3: “Do you not know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” This echoes the context in Mark, where the transfiguration occurs just after the declaration that Jesus is going to be taken away from his followers. Elijah’s spirit will pass to Elisha, and Jesus will be restored through resurrection – but it is not a replication of what has been; rather it requires a new way of seeing, a new way of relating, and a new way of being.
Psalm 50:1-6 feels odd to me in relation to the passages discussed above. It introduces the theme of judgment, which is not found in the other passages – although it could be combined with 2 Corinthians (those who are blinded by the god of this world) in a way that pushes that text beyond what it says. While judgment is certainly a theme that arises in the Bible, I believe it is inappropriate to project it onto passages where it is not already present, or to exaggerate what a text says by combining it with another. If I were to reference the Psalm at all, it would be to focus on God shining forth (v. 2).
I want to ponder these options and consider them in relation to my own particular context before choosing a direction.
Our guest blogger this week is
2009-02-16 by David Howell
Holly Hearon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary. Among her publications are The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media: Story and Performance (ed. with Phil Ruge-Jones), "Storytelling in Oral and Written Media Contexts of the Ancient Mediterranean World," in Jesus, the Voice, and the Text, ed. Tom Thatcher (Baylor University Press, 2008), and "The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities" (The Liturgical Press, 2004), awarded first place in the category of "first time author" by the Catholic Press Association. Her research interests include oral and written media contexts of the ancient Mediterranean world, the role of social memory on the formation of identity, women and Christian origins, and the emergence of Christianity within Formative Judaism. She is a minister of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Thanks and Marathon
2009-02-12 by David von Schlichten
It is great to have guest-blogger Dan Flanagan's thoughts about the Naaman story. I value highly Dan's comment about Americans receiving help from Iraqis or some other people we are not very receptive to. Such is the case with Naaman - he gets help from an "inferior" and adversarial people.
I will preach on 1 Corinthians 9. As I train for a marathon that I will run in May, I see this passage in a new light, which is a keener understanding of the brutality of hard training.
The passage talks about working for the prize, which is NOT eternal life. After all, Christ has won eternal life for us. So then, what is the prize? Maybe it is not something for the individual, the racer, but is something for others, perhaps sharing the good news with as many people as possible.
I welcome input, ever
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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