The Adventurous Lectionary – The Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-4, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Today’s readings take us beyond the ordinary and ask us to launch out in new directions of faithfulness to God. They ask us to awaken to higher levels of reality and believe great things. They challenge us to trust God’s presence working creatively and redemptively in our own freedom. They ask us to live by the spirit and in life-giving, not legalistic or guilt producing ways and to expect great things from ourselves as well as God.
Once again, our readings take us into the Outer Limits of spirituality, to dimensions beyond everyday experience. They invite us to accept and to enter the realm of the mystical, miraculous, and magical; the realm of paranormal experience. Not bound by death, Elijah is caught up in a whirlwind and ascends into heaven. The prophet is delivered from mortality to dwell in the house of God. Elisha asks from a “double portion” of his mentor’s spirit and is given a sign, and then goes forth with the same miraculous powers to shape the non-human world. Like Moses before them, the Divine Force is great with Elijah and Elisha, who can now part the waters.
Moderns and even post-moderns will have trouble interpreting this passage literally. Do people really escape death or ascend unto the heavens? Yet, the world is often more curious and wonder-full than we can imagine. We hear stories of shaman and rainmakers, all of which give some credence to such paranormal. In an interdependent universe, more awesome than we can imagine, we can understand Jesus’ stilling of the sea a manifestation of naturalistic, not supernatural, divine power active in the natural world. Still, such events seem incredible and violate everything we know about one-dimensional naturalistic causal relationships. Further, at the time Elijah went up into heaven, although the Hebraic peoples visualized a three-story universe, they had little or no positive vision of the afterlife. Where then did he go? Was there a heaven above, where the blessed dead lived in harmony with the divine?
At the very least, we can all recognize the power inherent in Elisha’s request, “give me a double portion of your spirit.” Such a request challenges us to ask God for great things, get our ego out of the way, and let Divine Providence move through us. It is clear that we often settle for “less” when we should settle for “more.” We are sounding the death knell of congregational life, when she should lean on divine energy and inspiration to empower our congregations. Elisha’s request invites us on a daily basis to ask “What great thing will you do in my life today, God?” and “What great thing will I do today, O God?” Expecting great things from God does not diminish our power or responsibilities, it increases them – in a world where God asks – and needs us – to be companions in healing the earth one act at a time. In an open-system universe in which the future is partly left up to us, we can expect great things from God and great things from ourselves, and our congregations. What great thing can our congregation expect as a result of God’s ever-present love and guidance?
The words of Psalm 77 reflect a troubled community’s cry for divine presence. They have heard – like us – the stories of healing and rescue, and they need it now. They need deliverance from the forces of evil and so do we. Obviously, we understand these stories differently than the ancients did – we don’t depend on literal parting of the waters – but we can still lean on God to inspire, guide, and energize our own efforts. We need a power and wisdom greater than our own to tackle today’s global and local crises, especially as our leaders stoke the fires of global change, despite dire warnings from scientific experts. Leaning on God does not diminish our power and responsibility but energizes us to be channels of blessing and healing – instruments of peace and creative transformation – in our world.
The Galatians passage celebrates Christian freedom, freedom from the confines of legalistic traditions, guilt, and shame, and freedom for life-transforming behaviors. Faith does not lay down the law, nor does it legalistically exclude God’s children from the scope of salvation, if their lifestyles and orientation differ from our own. The way of the Spirit opens us to the world in all its diversity, frees us from ego and individualism, and inspires us to bring greater unity and community to the world. It may even challenge us to let go of our laws and open to a deeper openness and flexibility.While Christians need to respect the separation of church of state and affirm diverse religious paths, we also need to let our values shape our politics and civil involvement. Our freedom as followers of Jesus is not revealed in phrases such as “nation first,” “don’t tread on me,” “it’s my property and my money,” or “it’s my life and I can do what I want with it” – these are the ways of death, according to Paul, because they destroy relationships and communities. Legalism about borders, leading to separation and incarceration of children, is also death-full. We need to balance individual desires and freedoms, even national policies, with the good of the whole and those who call strangers.
The Christian life affirms that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and that loyalty to God takes us from personal preference to world loyalty. Yes, explore your gifts and achieve much, but remember that creating healthy communities is as important as your own well-being. Once again, we need, as Whitehead says, to go from individual and community affirmation loyalty to world loyalty. All nationalism as well as ethnic and gender identity is subservient to the divine vision, which embraces all and brings out the best of our unique gifts.
As one who has led scores of memorial services and funerals, Jesus’ words are challenging ones. Our commitments are important and need to take center stage, though not to the exclusion of other commitments. We have obligations as citizens and followers of Jesus and we need to affirm our responsibilities to our families and loved ones. The realm of God is found in everyday relationships of fidelity, support, and healing. We love God by loving those around us. Still, we must accept the uneasy conscience that Jesus provokes even as we take care of our children and our parents, and go to work on a daily basis. Few of us will sacrifice “everything” for God’s realm. Those who do “sacrifice” should not succumb to a sense of spiritual superiority. We can’t take the bite out of Jesus’ words, and we need to continually ask ourselves as we check our bank accounts, drive children to school, pick up our grandchildren (in my case), and act as responsible members of society, “Are we looking beyond our own self-or-family interest? Do we see God’s way of life in our way of life?” We need to be willing to adjust our course to be faithful in our time and place to God’s ways – in economics, spiritual practices, and congregational loyalty.
Jesus is ultimately counseling a holistic spirituality in which all of our various “calls” and “vocations” must be balanced with one another, with no absolutes, but willingness to care for loved ones and yet look beyond family and nation, kin and allegiance, to our ultimate allegiance, the divine vision for our lives. Decisions will need to be made, and sacrifices too, but these are all ultimately for the greater good of creation and to embody our love for others as well as ourselves.
Today’s readings ask much of us. They also present a vision of alignment with God’s Vision that unleashes divine power and the ability to be faithful to God in ways we have not previously imagined. They challenge us to think larger in terms of ethics, social responsibility, and personal empowerment. In so doing, we may experience a “double portion” of grace, wisdom, and power.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of 50 books, including “Spiritual Decluttering: 40 Days of Spiritual Transformation and Planetary Healing,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”