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Wisdom Sits in Particular Places

July 9, 2019

lg A Brave and Quiet Heart

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part III
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20         2 Kings 2:1-14

Artist Janet McKenzie’s painting above captures for me the younger Elisha I try depict in this sermon, complete with double doves (of spirit), rainbow mantle, and all. This sermon was preached on Pride Day. The artist writes: “The subject within A Brave and Quiet Heart offers a gesture of possibility while simply looking at the viewer, flanked by doves symbolizing this person’s inherent sanctity, something that is so often forgotten or dismissed. The pride flag is interpreted as inextricably part of their essence. My hope is that A Brave and Quiet Heart will serve as a visual testament to hope over despair, to love over hate and to the memory of those souls who lost their lives at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando – June 12, 2016.”

I hope my appropriation of the image to be the Prophet Elisha ministering to the victims of those who do violence honors the artist’s intent.

It has been my intention to preach a series of sermons this summer that emphasize the earthy nature both of scripture and of our experience of God. Our Psalm this morning gives voice to a human being in despair. “I cry aloud to God; aloud that God may hear me,” shouts the psalmist; or perhaps cries. “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” We never learn what the problem is that the psalmist has experienced, or is experiencing, but we get a sense of the pain involved when she shouts out loud in the face of silence to the point of exhaustion. The only comfort comes with memory. The psalmist recalls the ways God once before appeared in the elements of earth: the clouds and the rains, the thunderclaps and lightning, the whirlwinds and earthquakes. “Your way was through the sea,” she says, recalling the exodus from Egypt, “your path through mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen…” Word of God, Word of Earth.

[Read the Psalm]

This Psalm was chosen by the lectionary committee no doubt because of the reference to the experience of God in earthquake, wind and fire which we encountered in our reading of Elijah on Mt. Horeb last week, but also because of the appearance of the whirlwind and water crossing in our text today.

Our scripture reading this morning in intended to present Elijah (with a “J”) and his disciple Elisha (with an “SH”) as a new Moses and a new Joshua. The experience of God in the elements atop Horeb connect Elijah with Moses, who also experienced God in a powerful display of elements atop the very same mountain when God appeared and gifted Moses with the language of the covenant. God told both Moses and Elijah to “go down” and “go back” to help and heal God’s people. And both were instructed to appoint successors – Joshua and Elisha respectively. Our text this morning is primarily about the transfer of spirit, power and authority from an elder prophet to a younger prophet.

I want to make a few notes here before we read this story together so that we can hear all the connections being made between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha that the author intends.

  • First, there is the Jordan River crossing. Elijah and Elisha each strike the water to part it so that they may cross over on dry land, just as Moses and the people first crossed the Reed Sea in their flight from pharaoh and toward freedom, and as Joshua led the people through this very same Jordan as they entered Canaan.
  • Second, the mantle of Elijah plays a role in these stories analogous to that of Moses’ staff. This is presumably the same mantle Elijah wrapped around his head so that he would not be overwhelmed by God’s appearance in the storm.
  • Third, when Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he is not asking to be a greater prophet than Elijah. He is asking for intimacy. A double portion is the inheritance of a first-born son. Elisha wishes to be treated like a son, to ‘take up the mantle’ of Elijah (yes, this is where the expression comes from).
  • Elijah rightly responds that this is not his to grant, but that it may only be given if God so wishes.
  • The intimacy of the prophets is expressed again when Elijah ascends and Elisha cries out, “Father, Father,” and rends his clothes in grief.
  • And finally, the chariot of fire (chariots, plural, actually) do not take Elijah “up.” Elijah is taken in a whirlwind. The chariots are there, in the end, to keep the younger prophet, who until now has refused to leave the elder prophet’s side, to keep him from following where he cannot go.[i]

Let us listen for God’s word to us.

[Read 2 Kings 2:1-14]

All of this is pretty conventional. We understand easily what is going on – Elijah is passing on, and Elisha picking up, prophetic power. With just a little help, we can make the connections to Moses and Joshua. But I have found myself wondering over the last couple of weeks, why the long journey? The two prophets take a four-legged journey from Gilgal to Bethel back to Jericho and across the Jordan. Three times Elijah asks Elisha to remain behind. Three times Elisha refuses. “I will not leave you.” Perhaps it is a test of Elisha’s loyalty, or perhaps a voluntary display of faithfulness. Could it be a reiteration of the wilderness wanderings? I don’t think we are intended to compare Elisha’s protestations to the commitment of Ruth to Naomi, though once thought I cannot unthink that. What is going on here?

WISDOM SITS IN PLACES

One of the my early summer reading books has been Robert Moor’s New York Times bestselling On Trails: An Exploration. It is not, or at least not primarily, about hiking, the kind of book you might expect from my reading shelf. It is, instead, about the search for meaning, about the paths and patterns we lay down, the very creaturely habit of ordering our world to make sense of the chaos. Moor, who started imagining this project while hiking the Appalachian Trail, starts the book with the oldest trails in existence, ‘footprints’ laid down by a creature so old it is still something neither plant nor animal. In other chapters he explores the chemical paths of ants and caterpillars, buffalo traces and deer trials, the lines and lanes laid out by animals as diverse as elephants and goats in order to find far-away food, and finally Native American footpaths and the interstate highway system.

While reading, I have learned a new word: topogeny. Topogeny is the study of the way language, story and culture are geographically rooted in the experience of the land. Barbara Duncan, for example, a folklorist who has studied Cherokee myths and legends describes a difference she discovered between the stories of eastern Cherokee who had managed to avoid being violently displaced from their land by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1833, and the western Cherokee who were forcibly relocated to land not their own. The stories of the eastern Cherokee retain their reference to local landmarks, while the western stories do not. She describes

an ancient folktale about a race between a turtle and a rabbit, in which the clever turtle fools the cocky rabbit by positioning [all his relations] on top of a series of peaks, so that every time the rabbit crested one mountain, he was shocked to find the turtle ahead of him on the next. The recollections of eastern Cherokee mentioned that the story occurred on what is today Mount Mitchell, whereas those of western Cherokees typically do not specify a location. “And if you got the Mount Mitchell, you can see the land formation that is described in the story,” Duncan said. “You can tell the story without ever going to Mount Mitchell, it’s still an entertaining story. But when you go up on top of that mountain and you see that landform, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what they’re describing.’ It’s amazing.”

“Almost every prominent rock and mountain, every deep bend in the river, in the old Cherokee country has its accompanying legend” […]. “It may be a little story that can be told in a paragraph to account for some natural feature, or it may be one chapter in a myth that has its sequel in a mountain a hundred miles away.”

The important thing I took from this is that “In the storytelling traditions of virtually every indigenous culture, stories don’t unfold abstractly, like Little Red Riding Hood skipping through unnamed woods, they take place.”[ii]

This is not unlike what we have learned about place-ed-ness from our embrace of watershed theology – learning divine speech and our own responsibility from the natural community in which we find ourselves placed by God.[iii]

In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, renowned linguist Keith Basso recounts meeting an Apache cowboy who he found talking to himself – muttering. Listening more closely, Basso discovered that the man was reciting place names. “Why?” he asked, and was told that when the old Apache “talked names” he could “ride that way in my mind.”

This explains for me why we have this extended and curious story of an elder and younger prophet visiting specific places. Far more important to the ritual act of passing on spirit, power and authority – more important than the passing on of the physical and symbolic mantle – is the passing on of geographically rooted story and experience. This is Elijah telling, training, grounding-through-memory the younger Elisha into the past/place so that he may faithfully serve God’s future/place.

[Here I took time to retell a series of important biblical stories that took place at…

  • Gilgal (1 Samuel 3 and 4): The initial, ritual, highly symbolic and memorialized crossing of the Jordan to enter the promised land for the first time. The stones described would have still been standing for the prophets to consider.
  • Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22 & 35:1-15): Bethel is the place where Jacob slept on a stone and dreamt of a staircase joining heaven and earth – “Surely this is the house of the God and I did not know it?” – and where Jacob was later named Israel, gifted with land, and erected an altar. It was still active in the prophets’ day.
  • Jericho (Joshua 6): Admittedly a difficult story, as it has been used to justify holy war. But it was understood as a ritual war in which God fought, not the people. More on this another time.
  • Jordan River (Deuteronomy 31 and 34): Crossing over the Jordan bring the prophets back to the region where Moses anointed Joshua and where Moses died, never to be found.

You can read them yourself]

There are four take-aways this morning. The first take-away from this sermon is … that ‘wisdom sits in places.’ These stories take place and learning from place, from the earth, the watershed, the local weather and wild elemental displays is a way of attending to and listening to God. Word of God. Word of Earth.

WARS AND THE WAGES OF WAR

The second take-away from this sermon should be … that of war and the wages of war.

As I have been working with these texts over the last couple of weeks, we have heard the President of the United States call for air strikes against Iran, and then abruptly call them off, a response to the shooting down of an unmanned drone which may or may not have been in Iranian airspace. Which was a response to what may or may not have been an Iranian attack on a tanker ship. Which may or may not … so on and endlessly on …. We are dangerously close to war, and the United Stated is acting belligerently because we have backed ourselves into this corner by pulling out of the multinational Iran agreement. Those who desire this war will soon declare ‘we had no other choice’ but a strong display of force, and that is by design. Over the course of this week alone we have learned more about the awful conditions under which children are being held in Clint Detention Center on our nation’s border – concentration camps, interment camps, call them what you will – they are horrific and a national shame and they are happening on our watch. And we all saw the photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23 month-old daughter, Valeria, facedown, drowned in the Rio Grande, a poignant reminder of the desperate choices migrants make everyday. And then the brief but hopeful story of resistance as Wayfair employees shouted ‘shut down the concentration camps,’ hundreds walking out of work on Wednesday in protest of their company’s profiting off our government’s policies.[iv]

Do you know what Elisha’s first prophetic act was when he returned from the Jordan? It was to prevent children from being separated from a parent. (2 Kings 4:1-7).

Gale A. Yee, a Chinese-American biblical scholar, has written that “Much of the background for the so-called miracles that Elisha performs [after taking up Elijah’s mantle] is the hell of war: the death of a family’s financial support and the danger of selling one’s children into debt slavery (4: 1–7); war captives (5: 2); famine (4: 38–39); starvation (6: 24–25; 7: 3–4); cannibalism (6: 26–31); economic chaos (6: 25); and ecological destruction (3: 25). To counteract and militate against the trauma of war in its myriad guises, Elisha performs miracles at the local level.” While Elijah (with a J) worked against the war making machine of his illegitimate government, its land-theft and climate denial, Elisha deals with the consequences and casualties of those wars when they finally came.[v]

For all of their bluster, belligerence, and obsession with borders, the books of First and Second Kings (Walter Breuggemann suggest we call them First and Second Kings? – with emphasis on the question mark) the kings of Israel and Judah and all their neighbors have the power to produce casualties, but they cannot produce peace; they can prove their corruption, but they cannot correct their national course. That takes a prophet, or whole companies of prophets, working with the power of God that operates outside the halls of power.[vi]

WE PUSH FROM THE OUTSIDE

And so, here is a third take-away form this sermon … though it would surely be selling these stories short to reduce them to the point I am about to make. Nevertheless, I want to highlight an important aspect of how these ‘action prophets,’ Elijah and Elisha, worked. During the first Democratic primary debate this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren put forward a theory of change: “We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.” Elijah and Elisha pushed form the outside. Hard.[vii]

Elijah and Elisha worked entirely on the outside. They spoke truth to power, denounced official falsehood and lies (#fakenews), earning Elijah the title “the troubler of Israel” and “the king’s enemy.” But they also took prophetic public action to restore covenant community. They organized confrontations, marches and demonstrations against the kings and rulers; they healed the sick, fed the hungry, rescued those in debt, restored the land to productivity, protected drinking water, and food to eat. They addressed economic crisis.

And they did not do it alone. The vocation of the prophet of not that of a loner but one of active, activist, community. Elijah and Elisha organized something known as the Company of Prophets – units, cells, focus groups, churches and synagogues (if you will) ready to act. Did you wonder about that in our reading today? There were communities of activists in every village visited by Elijah in his training journey with Elisha – in Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho and Jordan. The Elder prophet was checking in, and checking up on, their readiness for action.

GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT

Which brings me to the final take-away. The call of the prophet is not a solitary calling but a general calling. It is our calling – to read the signs of our times and take action to confront those leading us toward destruction and turn ourselves toward life and community, not just in word but in deed; not only speaking truth to power but performing the truth with our lives.[viii]

Elisha asked for a double-portion of the prophetic spirit.

This is the same Spirit given to Jesus at his baptism – the spirit to enact God’s coming realm of love, peace and justice.

We are told that in Luke’s Gospel that this Spirit ‘descended upon him in his baptism’; that ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit of the God’; that ‘filled with the power of this Spirit, Jesus returned to Galilee,’ where he proclaimed

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim released to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor (Luke 4:18-19)

This is the very same Spirit promised to each of us in our baptism when we passed through their waters to the other side, to life in and with God. It is the Spirit that calls us to act today. I invite you to sing our next hymn, Carl Daw’s “O God in Whom All Life Begins”, as a prayer to receive a double-portion, an intimate portion, of God’s Spirit with courage to risk and dare our lives as these present days demand.

.

[i] The image I have is that of Gandalf (obligatory Tolkien reference for Pastor Lynn) standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm exclaiming to the Balrog “You. Shall Not. Pass.”.

[ii] Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration. (Simon and Schuster, 2016). Native American footpaths are explored in Chapter 4. Barbara Duncan’s observations begin on page 180, followed by Keith Basso’s in my next paragraphs.

[iii] I have preached regularly on watershed discipleship, for example “When Jesus Was Baptized in the Bronx River,” July 26, 2016, and the references associated with it.

[iv] “’Shut Down the Concentration Camps’: Wayfair Employees walk out, Hundreds Protest.” USA Today, June 26, 2019. For an article more in the spirit of Elisha, see “Wayfair’s Walkout Against Concentration Camps. Jacobin, July 27, 2019.

[v] Prof. Yee continues, however, “but [Elisha] does not critique the roots of war at the systemic level. His prophecy to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom deals with whether God will grant them victory over Moab (2 Kings 3), not whether they should engage in war in the first place. These texts encourage us to examine the systemic causes of war to eliminate the monstrous effects of war on the people and the land.” Gale Yee. “1, 2 Kings.” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr. and Matthew J.M. Coomber. (Fortress Press, 2014).

[vi] On working outside the halls of power, see Brueggemann below.

[vii] On the idea of activist prophets or ‘action prophets’ as they are known in scholarship, see my earlier sermons on Elijah and Elisha and the references associated with them.

[viii] Walter Brueggemann uses the term ‘preforming the truth’ in his essay on Elisha, “Truth Has Its Day: Elisha,” in Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. (WJK, 2013).

 

 

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