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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 AND Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 OR I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 AND Psalm 16:1-11, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

I’m not really into mediums who “channel” messages from “departed” spirits.  I’m thinking of “channeling” as something a little more generic, a process in which we become a “channel” influenced by some power beyond ourselves.  We may at times think of it as the “spirit” of some person who has influenced us.  There is little doubt that I “channel” some of the spirit of each of my parents, as well as numerous others who have left their mark on my personality, ways of looking at life and living.  As Christians, we talk about the Spirit of God dwelling in us, influencing and guiding us.  In that sense, we may “channel,” give expression to, the divine Spirit and intention.  (This notion of an indwelling divine spirit is not, of course, exclusive to Christianity.)

The lectionary readings for the coming Sunday may be seen as inviting us to reflect on whose spirit we “channel”?

Two of them deal with a transition in leadership---from Elijah to Elisha.  It is tempting, and perhaps interesting, to compare and contrast the stories and character of the two men---or are they two traditions relating to the same man?  After a few minutes of such endeavor I returned to my initial observation that the stories are about the process of transition.  It was common in biblical times for a person’s spirit to be shared with someone else.  It was part of the process by which a father passed on a blessing to his son.  It sometimes involved the laying on of hands, a practice which we continue to this day.  God told Moses to gather seventy of the elders.  I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them,” he said.  (Numbers 11:17)

As a congregation preparing for a transition in leadership, we might jump from this to the details of transition.  This story, however, is less about details and more about spirit.  It is the continuation of the work of the divine spirit that is at stake.  As a congregation, as individuals, what (and whose) spirit do we channel?

Elisha has been with Elijah for a long time.  The second reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (from I Kings 19) actually occurs earlier than the first and records the beginning of that relationship.  Elijah finds Elisha plowing in the field.  He throws his mantle on Elisha, signifying his blessing and his desire for Elisha to follow him.  (I Kings 19:19)  There is a big family farewell feast, and, “then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.”  (vs. 21)

There’s a mantle in the first story as well.  A mantle was a garment, usually an outer garment that could double as a blanket for warmth.  To wrap oneself in another’s mantel was to bask in the warmth of that person’s spirit.  In the story as told in II Kings there is no evidence that Elisha has already received Elijah’s mantle.  The story is all about Elisha following Elijah to the end of his earthly career begging for his blessing.  He wants to pick up where Elijah left off.  His request is bold---“a double portion of your spirit.”  (II Kings 2:9)  One source I read suggests that sometimes there was both an inner and an outer mantle.  Was Elisha asking for both?

Whatever the meaning, Elijah has something Elisha so admired that he wanted a lot of it.  Sometimes in times of transition we try to hang on.  We don’t leave room for the differences in leadership style, and heaven knows that Elijah and Elisha were certainly different.  It’s also true that we don’t want to deny the influence of those who have gone before.  Elisha had certainly been deeply influenced by Elijah and probably already channeled a lot of his spirit.

In our own lives, who has influenced us?  Whose spirit do we want to live on in us?

In this story, the mantle is a symbol of power, as well as a symbol of the completion of the transfer of power.  Elisha uses the mantel to part the waters of the Jordan River so that they cross on dry ground.  (vs. 8)  After Elijah’s fantastic departure (a chariot of fire and horses of fire as Elijah ascends into heaven?), Elisha picks up “the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him,” returning to the Jordan River where he now parts the waters.  (vss. 13-14)  He now has the power.  Transition is complete.

Lots of strange miraculous stuff in there.  To try to explain it in rational terms is to miss the point of the story.  The work goes on and, in this case at least, the spirit of God continues to work.  The blessing has been passed on.  What blessing have we received from those who have gone before us?  How does that continue to influence us as we seek to be faithful to God’s purposes in the present?

We often think of these prophets as solitary individuals.  Often they were part of a “school” of prophets who traveled together.  Note even in Elijah’s case (the prophet who often cried out about being alone) that “fifty men of the company of prophets also went.”  (vs. 7)

Both Psalms depict a pilgrim who has a sense of being on a journey with God.  Although not specifically couched in those terms, the spirit of God is with them, guiding and sustaining them.  They are channeling God’s Spirit.  “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot . . . I bless the Lord who gives me counsel . . . I keep the Lord always before me . . . You show me the path of life.”  (Psalm 16:5, 7, 8, 11)  “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; . . . I will meditate on all your work . . . Your way, O God is holy.”  (Psalm 77:11-13)  Given the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea and the Jordan River, and given Elijah’s survival of a tempest on the mountain, the references to water and thunder and whirlwind in Psalm 77 are interesting.  (vss. 16-19)  Here, however, they seem to be signs of God’s presence, rather than the still small voice that comes to Elijah after his whirlwind, fire, and earthquake.

The reading from Galatians further defines the spirit we can choose to channel.  The initial subject is freedom.  Often we think of freedom as lack of constraint.  In Paul’s writing it is contrasted with the restricting limits of legalism.  We’ve been set free from destructive forces but we are tempted to go back, and sometimes do, using our freedom “as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”  (Galatians 5:1 & 13)  Freedom, for Paul, is the freedom to live by God’s Spirit, to choose to express the highest values in our living.  “Live by the Spirit,” he says.  (vs. 16)  He speaks of being “led by the Spirit.”  (vs. 18)  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”  (vs. 25)  The passage reaches a climax when “the fruit of the Spirit” is defined as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things.”  (vss. 22-23)  What spirit do we channel?  Whatever negative influences may have touched us along the way, we are free to choose a better way.

Notice that Paul doesn’t use the plural “fruits” of the Spirit.  They are all expressions on one reality, love.  Notice also, however, his intriguing comment after declaring that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the sum of the whole law.  (vs. 14)  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  (vs. 15)  What an image!  Paul recognizes that we are not perfect, that less than perfect spirits trouble our souls.

For me, the Gospel lesson is about facing our destiny.  If we use our freedom to place ourselves in the service of a particular spirit---to “channel” that spirit, so to speak---we have committed ourselves to a path leaving limited choices.  This passage from Luke demonstrates that commitment in Jesus.  “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  (Luke 9:51)  The rest of Luke’s Gospel shows the living out of that commitment.  Did Jesus have a choice?  My understanding of his humanity is that he did, but to turn back at this point would have been a denial of the spirit at work within him.

There’s a fascinating interlude in the s tory when “a village of the Samaritans” refuses to “receive him.”  What is the reason?---“because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”  (vss. 52-53)  One would have to get into the long-standing enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans (whose blood had been tainted by intermarriage), including their disagreements about the proper place of worship.  Jesus, by setting out for Jerusalem seems to have taken sides.  How often do we refuse hospitality (or respect or kindness or love) to those with whom we have philosophical or political or theological differences?

The heart of the passage is that there are many distractions that may lead us away from the destiny toward which our spirit is leading, even beyond arguments about heritage and places of worship.  The words of Jesus seem harsh (indeed quite in contrast to Elijah’s reaction when he calls Elisha) when he calls followers and they have business they want to take care of first.  (vss. 59-61)  It is not as if Jesus intended to deny their family connections.  I suspect he saw through their excuses.  Like the people Jesus was dealing with, we always have reasons for not sticking with our commitments, for losing connection with the spirit we are channeling.  His call is for us all to keep our focus, not just letting ourselves be blown about by whatever wind comes out way.  Find the spirit that gives us life and follow it with our whole being---body, mind, soul, and spirit.  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  (vs. 62)  It sounds very demanding, but, Paul reminds us, we have the freedom to choose that way.  “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”  (Galatians 5:25)

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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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