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Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 19:15-16 & Psalm 16:1-11 OR II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 & Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20,Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

As the lectionary continues to take us through the Elijah stories, we come to the time when leadership passes from Elijah to Elisha. The biblical stories come from different groups within the Hebrew people, living in different places, using different names for God, etc. The stories have been woven together so that it is difficult to separate one from another.

Some have suggested that Elijah and Elisha may be two names for the same person, coming from two different groups, reconciled by making one the successor of the other. In any case, they present two people with similar ministries and somewhat different personalities and approaches. Elijah is the rough-and-ready, brash, character who goes at things head on—a contest in calling down fire from heaven, for example. Elisha has a more spiritual approach, his stories containing more miraculous elements. God can work through both kinds of personalities and approaches.

The selections for I Kings and II Kings seem to be two versions of the passing of leadership from Elijah to Elisha. In I Kings 19, it is fairly straight forward and down to earth. After Elijah’s encounter with God is the wilderness, he is sent back to anoint a couple of kings and to anoint Elisha as his successor. (I Kings 19:15-16) Elijah simply throws his mantle over Elisha’s back, the mantle being the symbol of spiritual presence and authority. (vs. 19) Elisha wants first to go back and tell his family good-by. (vs. 20) In contrast to what happens in this week’s Gospel lesson, he is allowed to do so, in fact, prepares a feast which his people all eat before he departs. (vs. 21) “Then,” verse 21 ends, “he set out and followed Elijah and became his servant.”

The version in II Kings has Elijah and Elisha walking to a place where Elijah is going to be taken up “to heaven by a whirlwind.” (II Kings 2:1) He keeps telling Elisha to stay behind and Elisha keeps saying, “No.” (vss. 2 & 6) Elisha wants a “double share” of the power Elijah has. (vs. 9) Then it happens: a chariot of fire and horses comes and Elijah ascends into heaven in a whirlwind. (vss. 11-12) Pretty dramatic, huh?

In this version of the story, it is only now that the mantle of Elijah falls to the ground. Elisha picks it up, using it to part the Jordan River. (vss. 13-14) That’s where the recommended reading ends, but it’s certainly incomplete without the next verse (15), where the prophets who were observing all this declare, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

The stories might cause us to think about transitions in leadership. How is the blessing of a beloved leader of many years passed on to someone new? How does a new leader avoid measuring himself or herself against the former leader, thinking he or she has to be twice as good to gain acceptance and be effective? The effects of previous leaders live on, as they should, but there also needs to come a point at which the followers need to be able to say the spirit has moved on to our new leader.

It is the “spirit” that is the key to all this. These stories are stories about following, Elisha following Elijah and the people following a new leader. It is not, however, just about Elijah and Elisha. The call is to follow where the “spirit” leads. May we seek the directions in which the spirit is leading us—as a congregation, as individuals, as societies and nations.

The Gospel lesson is also about following. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. Twice we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51 & 53) I take it as a moment when Jesus clearly sees and accepts his destiny. He is setting off on a high-risk mission and he does so deliberately, turning to “face” it head on. But woven into the story is Samaritan ambivalence about this move, since Jerusalem is not the center to which they would have him turn. They will not receive him into their village. (vss. 52-53) James and John want to bring fire down on the village, but Jesus refuses to let that happen, simply moving on to the next village. (vss. 54-56)

Jesus’ example is a challenge to all of us to turn and take risks as we follow in his ways. Are we up to it? James and John say they are. Jesus reminds them that it may take them wandering into places that don’t seem too friendly or comfortable. (vss. 57-58) “Follow me,” he says, but they first want to go take care of some family matters. (See the response of three different individuals in vss. 59, 60, & 61.) Jesus’ response is not as much anti-family as it is warning them against clinging to the past. He senses that they are not ready to let go and move on. Following involves turning, responding to the mission which is ahead, not behind.

Paul, in Galatians, puts the choice in terms of two contrasting sets a values/attitudes, with the leadership of the Spirit being key. Following means living by and being led by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16 & 18, ending with vs. 25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”) Paul contrasts “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” with the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (vss. 19-23) Tucked away in verse 15, is the pithy admonition, “If . . . you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Choosing to follow the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, is to build a community of mutual support rather than an adversarial dog-eat-dog atmosphere.

The two Psalms are, among other things, celebrations of and commitments to God’s guidance. They are another way of looking at the paths we are “following.” Psalm 77 ends with these words: “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (vss. 19-20) Psalm 16 speaks of a God who “is my chosen portion and my cup,” who “holds my lot” (vs. 5), who instructs my heart at night (vs. 7), who is “always before me” (vs. 8), ending with the declaration in verse 11: “You show me the path of life.”

As Pastor Rick so vividly pointed out last Sunday, Elijah issues a challenge to the people to choose. “How long,” he cries out in I Kings 18:21, “will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Questions of choosing and following are before us every day. We blunder and stumble along the way—and always will—but again and again God will pick us up and ask us to turn our faces toward realities we’d sometimes rather avoid. The saving grace is that the Spirit seems to be facing that way as well.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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