Silent Watchfulness

Note: This sermon was given at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, Kentucky and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Anchorage, KY on February 14, 2021 on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B. The recording at the bottom of this post is the version for St. John’s.
Readings:
2 Kings 1:1-16
Mark 9:2-9

“Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.” — 2 Kings 1:8

Where is God calling us today?

Where is God calling us today?

This morning we hear the readings of the transfiguration, the moment in the Gospel where Peter, James, and John realize the true divinity of Jesus. We hear this story every year the last Sunday of Epiphany— as we turn our attention back to the cross and to Lent, preparing to “give something up” or “take something on;” some sort of spiritual discipline that we keep for forty days as we prepare to relive the Passion of our Lord during Holy Week.

Last year, well, I couldn’t even tell you what I gave up. Because as Lent started, the news started to get ugly. We started to get that “oh no” feeling as a country and realized that the pandemic was coming to us. In February of last year we went from seeing a virus spread from China to Italy to the Virus being here; on March 11, it was declared a pandemic, and by the end of March the virus raged across the United States. Churches shut down, lines at grocery stores, graphs and statistics and predictions plastered across the papers. We thought we’d be clear by the summer, but the Virus just got worse and worse. We knew winter would be harder, but we just stopped caring. More and more people are giving up on rules that keep us all safe even as more and more become infected, and those at risk retreat further into the margins. We’ve given up so much. We are giving up so much.

And it all comes back to here. These stories of transfiguration, of Elisha and Elijah, and of Jesus and his disciples. These are the stories we heard before we entered Lent, before we entered Coronatide. These are some of the last stories we heard in St. John’s, when we could gather as a fuller community. Last Lent is a lent we are going to remember forever; and this one, though we have hope in the vaccination process, still looks a lot different. Lent’s going to look different in the years to come. There will be new grief, uncovered trauma, and hard memories to wade through at this time of year. And it will be even harder for those of us who have lost someone too soon to this deadly pandemic.

Where is God calling us today?

In Kings this morning, Elisha is undergoing a similar kind of grief- a trauma, and a separation. Elijah abruptly announces that he is going to Bethel; and Elisha refuses to be parted from him. The narrator brings us in; we know Elijah means to go to heaven, so he is going to Bethel, a famous temple site; and then perhaps Jericho, a site of great military victory, and then to the Jordan River. This passage is littered with famous sites. At Bethel, the company of prophets comes out and remind Elisha— you know your master is going to heaven right?? Is it a taunt, or are they warning him? Elisha responds “Yes I know, keep silent.”

Again the pattern repeats: Elijah goes to Jericho, “no, I will not leave you,” the prophets warn Elisha, “yes keep silent.”

And a third time: Elijah goes to the Jordan River. This time the prophets hang back, and we see another sign; just as the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea and the Jordan to get to the promised land, Elijah demonstrates his ability to part the waters of the Jordan so the two of them could cross. Surely here, is where he will get swept away into heaven!

Well, no. Actually, it is beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness. That is where the miracle happens; that’s where Elijah is swept up into heaven, and where Elisha is left, starting into the clouds, hoping and praying for a double share of Elijah’s spirit.

These miracles, these life-changing, God filled, spirit-driven events. They don’t occur at pre-determined places or exclusively in Holy Sites. They occur here, and now. In plain old Murray, in a small-town Episcopal Church with a big heart. All those Holy Sites weren’t “holy” to begin with; they became holier and layered with meaning after God acted. Before the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Jordan, it was just another sea, another bend of a river. Before the walls came crashing down in Jericho, it was just another fortified town. Before we built our sacred spaces in specific places, they were just part of the ordinary fabric of our everyday existence. And when Peter, poor Peter, asks to build dwellings for the figures in the vision, God thunders down that Jesus is his son, and they turn away, Peter’s suggested left unanswered.

Today, just like then, a company of prophets pretend to tell us exactly what is happening; some might say that the world is fine, while others spell out our imminent doom. Some place hope in a cure, while others place their faith in myths. Perhaps most insidiously, is the hope and desire in all of us for things to be how they were; for things to “go back to normal” though we fear that there is no more normal after this, that our world and our understanding of life might be forever changed, transformed, even transfigured.

Where is God in all this? Where is God calling us today?

What does Elisha do? In a word, he hearkens back to the great story of Elijah’s calling— you know, with the earthquake, and the storm, and the fire? And after all that, God comes in the sheer silence?

He meets the clamor of the prophets, those who are accurately predicting his master’s absence, with silence.

Yes I know: be silent.

You see, Elisha hears the noise of the world, and he persists: he follows his prophetic master even when given three opportunities to leave and go an easier way. And finally, when Elijah leaves him, there is no dove, no transfiguration. Elisha is left with grief. He is left alone. He is left in silence.

Yet, he carries on. In the next verses, he picks up Elijahs mantle, that same one which Elijah used to part the Jordan, and he to parts the Jordan. He does inherit Elijah’s spirit. He begins his own prophetic ministry and takes up the mantle of prophetic work.

There are two faithful responses at work here; Elisha’s persistence, and Elisha’s silence. He persists in following his master, and he meets the bad news of the crowd with silence.

Where is God calling us today?

God calls us to persist.

And God calls us to listen.

God calls us to persistence; not too hasty prophecies of doom nor false prophecies that lie about what is happening in the world. We are to persist and continue to seek the Lord. We continue to show up on Zoom, on Facebook Live, and in-person as the times allow. “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

God also calls us to silent watchfulness. Now there are many kinds of silence; and silence can be complicit, or silence can dismiss the truth; but here, Elisha models a different kind of silence. “Yes I know: be silent.”

He acknowledges the truth of the circumstances, and he persists in his watchfulness. He waits for how God will act, and how the spirit will move.

God does not take away our grief, nor deny the truth of our very real pain and lives. God acts. God delivers.

Amen.

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