I will not leave you: A Transfiguration Sermon on 2 Kings 2: 1-12
Grace Episcopal Church, Newton MA
Sunday February 18, 2018
To follow Jesus is to know the end of the story. To walk in the ways of the Lord is to know how it will end, and where is our ultimate home. To follow the path of the prophets is to recognize that at some point we are on a collision course with the status quo. And to say we are Christian is to place our trust, however thin and fragile, in the One who makes the very humanness, the very brokenness of this world, of our lives and transfigures it all to dazzling.
The First Reading today from 2 Kings begins at the end. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind….” Our story starts by saying that Elijah will be miraculously transported into heaven in a tornado. Sure. Never accuse the Lord of burying the lede.
Elijah is the elder prophet with a whole crew of prophetic colleagues around. Perhaps they needed so many because the leadership was so corrupt. Elijah the prophet is saying hard things in the Northern Kingdom, during the 9th Century BCE, during the reign of King Ahab, who was a despicable leader and “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.” 1King17. Elijah and the prophets had plenty of scandal to keep them busy.
Elijah had a disciple named Elisha. Maybe folks got them confused with their similar names; they were in the same line of work, after all. Maybe they were like father and son, though their kinship was not from blood but shared devotion to God. Elisha walked with Elijah in the days before God took him up in a whirlwind.
And maybe Elijah knew the end of the story too. Elijah seemed to be trying to leave his young disciple behind. At each village, Elijah would say to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me” on to the next village.” And three times, Elisha would say “As the Lord lives, and so as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Three times Elisha followed his mentor anyway; thrice accompanying where on Good Friday the disciple Peter will three times deny Christ. Maybe out of anxiety for his own future, maybe out of devotion to Elijah, three times Elisha vows to remain.
If you look on an ancient map, their travel plans make almost no sense. Elijah and Elisha start in Gilgal to the East, head to Bethel to the North and West, go back East to Jericho, nearly back where they started and then across the Jordan. This pair is virtually back where they began. And each time, the choir of prophets says, “Elisha, do you know that today the Lord will take your teacher away from you?”
And three times, Elisha says, “yes, I know. Keep Silent.” At every turn, Elisha stays, even though he knows the story ends with his beloved teacher gone.
I think about this kind of fidelity in a loving relationship, to accompany through the hard times, even unto death. On the good days, staying faithful is hard, really hard. Staying committed when things are rough, and you can flee, or you can go back to Gilgal while your companion goes on to Bethel- is even harder. But this I believe: Accompaniment is the discipline of disciples and the posture of the prophets. We follow the One who asks of us “Follow me.” We follow the One who asks to stay with him in the garden of Gethsemane. We follow Jesus who himself promises to never leave nor forsake us.
Woods Garth Talman Jr. otherwise known as “Woody” died three weeks ago, at the age of 69, which itself was astonishing because no one expected him to live past 6 years old. Non-verbal and quadriplegic, Woody was born in 1948 with severe cerebral palsy. Woody is the older brother of my mother-in-law, Annie. So many times over those 69 years, professionals would voice the chorus of prophets and say “you know he’s going to die, right?” and each time, Colonel Woods Garth Talman and Martha (Richardson) Talman, and then Annie Talman would say “Yes, we know. Keep silent.” I only met Woody a few times in the nursing home where he spent most of his life, but he was remarkably clear and direct with his wishes. At the end, he wished to go home. He told us. And in his sister Annie, I saw the devotion of Elisha, who at each turn in her brother’s tough life said, “I will not leave you.” When Woody ascended into heaven from the Good Shepherd Nursing Home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he breathed his last breath resting in the arms of his devoted younger sister. I do not know if there was a whirlwind or a chariot, but I do know Woody was taken up into the heart of God. And I do believe that our very lives contain Gospel truths. We know just a taste of the faithfulness of God by experiencing the faithfulness of those who love us. We know just a portion of the steadfastness of God by knowing those who watch with us on our longest nights, who will stay near us when our anxiety has us crawling out of our skin, who pray for us when we lose the words, who weep for us when we’ve run out of tears, who hold our hand when there’s nothing else to say, who sit in the sadness so that we do not sit alone. Just a portion. Just the faintest breeze in that windowless waiting room.
This profound accompaniment is the discipline of disciples and the posture of the prophets. In a culture that puffs up each of us to the myth that “I alone can fix this” and “I earned it” and “I pulled myself up,” Christianity counters that we are inextricably bound together, that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. Again and again, sent out two by two, a community of saints across time and place, the life of faith is never a solo activity. And the fate of the church never rests on one person. A core commitment of the Massachusetts Council of Churches is the delight and necessity of every part of the Church. That you at Grace Episcopal Church need the Congregationalists at the Elliot Church of Newton and the Jesuits at Boston College, and that other church that you don’t really like in order to fully be the body of Christ. That we are incomplete without one another. That none of us, do any of this alone. That when we read the common lectionary today and stand in awe before the transfigured Christ, we do so with millions of others around the world today. That when we come to the table, we do so with the saints and the nameless faithful of every generation.
I do not understand the whirlwind or the chariots or the parting of the Jordan, but I know it’s true. Not everything that is real can be explained. And awe is a faithful response to the presence of God. What I do know is that those who have been most tormented by others in the depths of of human sinfulness have seen this chariot that took up Elijah.
We sang a hymn of those who have been kidnapped from their homes in Africa. We sang the words of those ripped from the land, packed like cargo in the hull of a ship with the enslavers above and the enslaved below, thrown onto foreign soil, the only chain migration was iron around one’s ankles. We sing the words of those precious children of God who were sold with the same care and dignity that one gives a bag of animal feed. They are the ones who saw the Elijah’s chariot.
Those who had no home on this soil found the words to prophesy that God was coming forth to carry me home. It is an audacious thing to borrow these words of the African American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sung by enslaved, free and freed black folk. And they declared with the fidelity of Elisha, they would not leave one another behind, “If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming too.”
This is where we fix our eyes. This is however haltingly we proclaim that our final home is in God. This is our practice as those striving to live as Christians, and this is our God. The one who never leaves or forsakes. As we enter this Holy Lent, may we trust in the promises of the One coming forth to carry us home. Amen.