The Prophet Elisha: From Generation to Generation
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2013
In my sermon last Sunday (Prophets of Action) I suggested that we think of the prophet Elijah, and his protégé Elisha, as what I called “action prophets.” All prophets speak truth to power, and wisdom to the people. Their primary role is to remind people of the basic covenant obligations of justice. They often speak in oracles, parables and poetry to address a people both desperate for and resistant to God’s word. And they often suffer for it. But Elijah and Elisha not only spoke truth to power and wisdom to the people, but also ran a school called The Company of Prophets; they led marches and organized demonstrations against their kings’ unjust policies, and these prophets made and unmade rulers. Their prophetic ministry of public action was an effort to bring God’s rule into being by mobilizing the public and forcing the hand of the king.
In our scripture reading today we witness the transferal of leadership from one generation of prophets to the next, from Elijah (with a J) to Elisha (with a SH). Elijah passes his mantle, a type of sleeveless wrap or robe, to his most trusted disciple Elisha as a symbol of this transfer of authority and power. Then the Fiery Chariot swings low to pick up Elijah and transport him to the heavens. Incidentally this makes him one of only two people in the Bible never to die. (The other is Enoch, Adam’s great-great-grandson). After watching Elijah disappear into the clouds, Elisha then goes down the mountain to lead of the Company of Prophets in adventure and action under and against the king.
Last week we also put Elijah and Elisha in their political context as prophets within the reign of King Omri and his sons. Omri, you will remember, became king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s son forfeited his rule through harsh policies of conscripting people to labor and refusing to pay them fair wages for their work. Omri led the people north to begin the nation again on a foundation of social justice, but soon, Omri himself neglected the poor, the orphans, and widows, in his quest for national security. He spent his resources building up his military power to spar with to the King of Assyria and Moab, even though it caused his own people to starve.
After three generations of kings, the situation has gone from bad to worse. So our newly empowered action prophet Elisha helps prepare the way for a coup-de-etat by an unknown man named Jehu. In one of my favorite Elisha stories, Elisha send his assistant to ordain Jehu as King even while Omri’s grandson sits on the throne. “Go,” he tells him, “find the man. Go into a private room and anoint his head with oil. Tell him he is king. Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: I anoint you king over Israel,’ and then open the door and run as fast as you can.” (Chapter 9)
While Elisha repeats many of the same prophetic things Elijah did — both, for example, provide food to widows starving under the policies of the government, both heal young boys thought dead, both lead campaigns against the king and the king’s own prophets. But even while continuing this kind of prophetic ministry, Elisha also has to address a whole host of new problems within the school of prophets he has inherited from Elijah.
- The Company of Prophets complain to Elisha that the place where they meet is to small – “will you lead us in a building campaign?” they ask.
- A man working on the new building drops a borrowed ax head in the water – “help me, Elisha, retrieve my lost tool.”
- The school cook mistakenly mixes deadly plants in with the cafeteria soup – “Fix it!, Elisha.”
- The wife of one of the prophets comes to Elisha after her husband dies because he has left her in debt, and Elisha has to find a way to provide, in effect, a pension for her.
Elisha was called on to give strategic military advice, pray for soldiers, feed prisoners, and even purify the drinking water. Elisha has a ministry of feeding, fixing, finding, and ultimately frustration to go with his ministry of prophetic action, mobilization and organization. Elisha, a second generation action prophet, has become Elisha, custodian of an institution; the Company of the Prophets. Because there is no way that the prophetic action ministry begun by Elijah and continued by Elisha can be sustained if Elisha doesn’t pay attention to the needs of the school and its prophetic members. Institutional care is necessary for ongoing, powerful prophetic action. And every generation of faith needs its Elisha’s who understand the importance of such institutional care and devote themselves to it.
We have a couple of ‘Elishas’ in our own congregation. On almost a daily basis, Elder John Timmons and Elder Olga Daniels are here caring for the needs of this great building and the logistics around where “our company” meets. John is here seven days a week, opening and closing the building, making the coffee, accepting the flowers for worship, depositing the money, fixing the computers, helping anyone and everyone he can (including running me out to Stop n Shop to unlock Noelle’s keys from the trunk of the car last week). Olga is here five days a week coordinating the many groups who use our building, the 12 step and recovery groups, Boy Scouts downstairs and nursery school upstairs, Zumba inside and soccer outside. She coordinates space for the two congregations who share this space with us, she manages logistics for the neighbors who park in our lot. This month we began hosting the Red Cross’s monthly blood drive in White Plains and both Olga and John have been indispensable in getting this ongoing, monthly operation situated. Of course as they manage tasks great and small, just like Elisha, people approach Olga and John with complaints great and small: and each of them respond with the patience of saints; triaging the significant from the trivial, while also seeing the large implications in small actions. Like Elisha, John and Olga’s ministry of management and care make possible our church’s prophetic action in the neighborhood and the world.
As generation passes to generation, we cannot simply repeat, but must reinvent, the prophetic tradition to meet the challenges of our day. And this is true of managing our campus as well. Just as John helped us get computerized back in the day, and just as Olga helped us figure out and implement a parking system, we now have a Green Team that is dedicated to helping our congregation become environmentally sustainable in both our practices and our edifices. You will find their names listed on the back of your bulletin.
This past Tuesday your church council adopted a resolution recognizing that Creation is a gift from our Creator that human beings are called to protect and care for, and committing themselves to see this reflected in our worship, our education and outreach, the stewardship of our physical plant and our annual budget. They then established and commissioned the Green Team to lead us in a two-year process of transforming our congregational life and campus so that we more closely uphold the care for creation that God desires. Over the next few months you will learn from the Green Team just what this is going to entail, and I cannot express how excited I am by how this will build our life together. I encourage you to give them one hundred percent of your support as they lead us in responding to God’s call to environmental stewardship.
Our life together forms the base from which we proclaim God’s prophetic call to for justice and compassion in our world. May our work within and beyond the congregation proclaim God’s new way of justice, joy and peace. Amen.