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Givin' is Livin'

Sermon - 2/19/12
Rev. April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Kings 2:1-12

I begin with a story:

Once upon a time a traveler said to one of the disciples, “I have traveled a great distance to listen to the Holy One, but I find the words quite ordinary.”

And the disciple said, “Don’t listen to the words; listen to the message.”

“And how does one do that?” the traveler asked.

“Simple,” the disciple said. “Just take hold of the Holy One’s sentences and shake them well till all the words drop off.  And what’s left will set your heart on fire.”

Understanding the transfiguration (we read it earlier in worship:  Mark 9: 2-10) has been just that sort of experience for me – not just this week - but my whole life – I have questioned the need to even address the theology, what is the purpose of telling this story -  today when we have such little time together – and could be talking about something more important and relevant to our daily living – like maybe compassion for others! 

I want to make relevant a theologically confusing story.  I want to help myself, and hopefully one or more of you make sense of what many would now call irrelevant day in the life of the church.

The church celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus once a year as a turning point between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent.  It’s theological significance is to make rock solid our faith that Jesus is the authoritative messenger of God – but you know what? we celebrate that every week, don’t we? We are called the Christian Church… Its historical significance is to place Jesus as an authority figure in the line of Moses and Elijah – we can trust him!  Listen to him!  He carries the same weight as the others – but I don’t believe any of those points have relevance in our lives today – you could be asking yourself right now – Who is Elijah? –

We owe that historical significance to the early church fathers, the first biblical scholars.  The biblical scholars of today do not see any of these words in Mark, or the other gospels, as actual words of Jesus but a story attributed to Jesus by the early Christian communities that wrote about him – so what are we to do with this text? 

To me, the relevant point of this story in Mark is in the meeting of humanity with the Holy Spirit – that is something we can hold onto today –  how do we make that happen? On the surface the story makes one think that the union is only complete in Jesus – his humanity and his divinity – that’s certainly what the Disciples think.  but after shaking the story and my brain several times this week, I believe transfiguration teaches us how our humanity meets the Holy Spirit – how we can be filled with the glory of God. 

And in two stories today – from Mark and from 2 Kings (so you’ll get a little bit of Elijah today too) – the characters are taught to see in new ways – and are called to serve others – just as their mentors, their messiahs, their prophets had done before them. 

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’

4 Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’

6 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then 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.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ 10He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Both stories, with Jesus and the Disciples on the mountain, and Elisha receiving the blessing of Elijah – the “double portion” in some translations -  are told in their time and context to solidify the authority of the prophet – in 1st Kings it is Elijah – now in 2nd Kings the leadership is passed onto Elisha.  In the NT, Jesus is seen with Elijah and Moses to carry on that lineage of leadership and authority. 

Both stories also point to coming back down the mountain – to continue the work, a return to the real world. 

And both stories ask the Disciple present to “see” something new.  I like how Elisha keeps saying in the Message “I will not let you out of my sight.” And how important it is that he “see” Elijah being taken away in order to get the full blessing.  And in Mark, we read from the NIV/NRSV but in the Message “seeing” the transfigured Jesus is an opportunity for 3 disciples to “see” what they could not see and understand in previous Chapter.  Let me say more.

This whole section, Mark 8:22 to 10:52 focuses on Jesus speaking openly about his upcoming trials and suffering how the disciples do not understand – and Jesus is trying to give instruction on true discipleship, knowing what lies ahead, how he won’t be with them forever.  This section fittingly Starts and ends with 2 “giving of sight” stories – the healing of blind men – they can now see - but throughout the section Jesus wants the disciples, the listeners, SEE!  LISTEN!!  UNDERSTAND! And they just don’t get it. I can relate to that.

What are they supposed to see and understand?  Jesus teaches in Chapter 8:34  “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”  I’ve heard this passage many times as an instruction on how to get into heaven. That we must suffer, die for our causes, to have new life and eternal glory with God.  That Jesus is shown in perfection, dazzling bright white in Ch. 9 does not help to dissuade that idea – we want to be THAT.  I believe that is a misunderstanding of the vision of Jesus transfigured – read it in another translation and it says the Disciples see  “His [Jesus’] appearance change from the inside out” – Hey now – that I can hold onto.  Maybe That is what they are supposed to understand – that a man can change from the inside out. 

At the end of both stories – everyone Comes on Down the Mountain.  For Elisha, he is so grieved already at idea of the loss of his teacher, he keeps telling others to be quiet – don’t talk about it, and when Elijah is gone,  he tears his clothes, but then finds his way back down to the Jordan, picking up the cloak of Elijah and carrying on in the work.  For Jesus he comes down the mountain, and moves onto healing an epileptic child and journeying toward Jerusalem – where what waits for him is violence.    The disciples want to stay on the mountain – this is good!, Peter says, let’s stay here for more worship!  But Jesus invites them, and us to follow his example  - come on down the mountain.  Invites us to follow his example of meeting the needs of those whom society has ignored.  This message is not one of suffering and dying as a means to heaven it is a message of service, that we lose ourselves in the other, in the compassion we have for another.  The message we are to take hold of is that real faith is not lived apart from real life.

We are not called to seek out suffering but to serve those whom society disdains  - which will lead us to suffering.  But if we are honest with ourselves we are already suffering, in our own lives.  We are not whole, when we are self-contained, insulated, having so much yet seeing others without. 

We are not whole when we feel alone and believe that no one understands the pain and suffering we experience.  Jesus wants us to use that pain, and deny that illusion of isolation, and to learn how to open our hearts to the realities of another’s life – empathize, resonate, understand – those are  the windows to compassion.   When we do that, wherever we find ourselves, whether in the remoteness of North Africa, in the bus station of Eugene, in the sanctuary of another congregation – we can experience ourselves transfigured – have that mountaintop experience – and that gives us courage to continue on the way, back down the into the valley, and then up again. 

We too, are needed “down here.”  It is understandable that we imagine we must retreat to meet God, (take a time out) but Jesus reminds us he’s in the flow of daily life.  He asks us not to retreat from society’s needs, but teaches us to embrace them.  Asks that we not ignore the unclean or diseased but offer healing.  Instead of staying on the mountain and condemning others not there – we are invited to come back down the mountain and forgive them.  Meet them, with solidarity, at the places where their lives are fractured.  See them as ourselves - That’s where Jesus wants us to see and understand – and in that place we find God waiting for us.

That is compassion – that’s why I thought we were here today – to learn how to live more compassionately.  Compassion is not just an external state of giving.  It means suffering with others.  A Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.

Jesus may be transfigured on a mountain top – but Transfiguration is not just left on the mountaintop – it can occur in the most heart-rending and chaotic moments.  We can discover God in the most futile experiences –

If we can help our brother or sister to feel love, acceptance, fill his stomach, teach her how to read, if we can empower one another, which means getting our hands and our clothes dirty, and maybe being a little hungry ourselves, – we will feel ALIVE – not holier than thou – but truly like we are breathing for the first time.  It’s a paradox - The more humble we are the more majestically we all shine. The change comes from the inside out.

Givin’ is Livin’ people.  Compassion, solidarity, these are not just ideas, they are the way of life that Jesus walked and is praying that we will have the courage to walk ourselves.

And the even better news is – we don’t have to do it alone.

I end my thoughts today with a reflection shared by Marilyn Reid to the Elders earlier this week.  It’s a daily devotional written by Quinn Caldwell, and Associate Minister of our brother UCC tribe.

There are about 5400 animal species that make complex, intentional, repeatable, musical vocalizations.  That is, there are about 5400 species that sing.  The majority live in the trees, a few live in the oceans, a very few live underground, but there is one – only one – singing species that lives on the ground:  us.

Another thing:  humans are the only singing species with a precise and shared sense of rhythm, which is what allows us to sing together.  Two birds might sing the same song, but they cannot sing it together. 

Another thing:  if a roomful of people sings at the same time, they start to breathe at the same time as well.  Some studies suggest that if the drumbeat or bass line is strong enough, their hearts will begin to beat together, too.  And if we’re singing together and breathing together and our hearts are beating together, then it’s like we’re one body.  And you know Whose body it is.

One other thing:  all the other species stop singing when danger approaches.  But humans sing louder the closer the danger gets.  We sing together, and we become large, and we do not back down. 

So come racism, and “we shall overcome” you.

Come fear, for “it is well with my soul.”

Come war, for tonight is your “silent night.”

Come suffering and injustice, for we will “Fill this world with Love.”

Come death, for “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

Come, all ye faithful, and sing.


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