Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year B 2 Kings 2:1-12
One of the many ways that this pandemic has affected us is that it has robbed us of the rituals surrounding transitions: graduations, marriages, baptisms, and funerals—to name a few. The transitions have still happened, but we have not been able to mark them in the same way. There have been online graduations, zoom weddings, small baptisms celebrated outside, and graveside services, but it’s not what most of us are accustomed to. I am sure the ultra-introverted among us are relieved to avoid some of these things, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to miss all of these things.
While we associate joy with events like marriage and graduation. They are still emotionally charged. Without the tradition, without the people to acknowledge and celebrate that transition, it’s hard to really process it. We all know change is hard. We have had far too much change and not nearly enough ways to honor or acknowledge those changes. And of course, there has been a tremendous amount of death, and too few ways to grieve. Death and mourning is hard enough…not being surrounded by family, not having a funeral or even a burial is a burden no one should have to bear.
Both the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are stories of transition and transformation. We usually focus on the Gospel readings for this Sunday, but this year, it was the Old Testament reading that spoke to me. It is a familiar one in some ways. We have all heard the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven in fiery chariot. It’s evocative and kind of exciting, but I found that was pretty much all I remembered about the story and that is one of the least important parts.
This is a story of two great prophets: Elijah and his successor Elisha. We know from the very beginning that God is about to take Elijah into heaven. Elijah knew it. Elisha knew it. Even the band of prophets who were with them knew it. Despite that, Elisha was still having a hard time accepting Elijah’s departure, and who can blame him—he was about to lose his mentor and friend? Over the course of our reading, Elijah was going on a rather elaborate and circuitous journey. He was kind of walking in a circle, but it was a very deliberate circle where he stopped at historic and symbolic places.
On three different occasions, he asked Elisha to stay and not follow him. On every one of those occasions, Elisha responded, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” It’s not clear why Elijah discouraged Elisha from following him. What is clear is that Elisha was not letting go. As long as Elijah was living, he would be by his side. On the one hand it’s a beautiful tribute to his love for Elijah, but it also seems like he was having a hard time letting go. It’s almost as if he thought, if I never leave him alone, maybe he will have to stay. I think many of us can resonate with that experience—knowing it’s time to say goodbye but doing everything in our power to delay it.
Finally Elijah asked Elisha if there is anything he can do for him before he is taken. Elisha asked for a double share of his spirit. The double share is a reference to what the oldest son would receive upon the death of his father. The oldest son would receive a double share of the inheritance. Elisha didn’t want money or land. He wanted Elijah’s spirit. Elijah was a great prophet, one of the greatest leaders and miracle workers of the Bible, but he was humble enough to know that this spirit was not his to give. It was God’s spirit that allowed him to accomplish the things he had accomplished. So Elijah told Elisha, that if Elisha saw him taken into heaven, then he would know he had it.
Thankfully, Elisha did witness the awe inspiring event, one that would never be repeated. Witnessing that gave him two important things. It gave him God’s spirit which Elijah had carried. It also gave him the opportunity to witness a transition that few of us see. It gave him the kind of closure that we all crave but rarely receive. That didn’t mean he wasn’t sad or overcome with grief. He was. But he was also emboldened to take something on that would require tremendous strength, courage and faith.
It wasn’t just Elijah’s transition that Elisha witnessed, it was his own. This event also marked a transition for all of Israel. They were moving into a new phase with a new and different leader. Soon after Elisha tore his garments in two and grieved, he picked up the mantle that Elijah had left. In doing so, he acknowledged God’s spirit in him. Before, he was holding on to Elijah and the past. But now, he could carry on what Elijah had started.
If I had more time to go through all the symbols within this story, you would see that it is steeped in ritual, tradition and community. God knows those are important things to have. Change must happen, but God gives us tools to navigate these endless changes. As the church, we try to provide those same tools, in the form of traditions and ritual. And the secular world does it as well, not as much or as often as the church, but they do. We have been deprived of these rituals and traditions over the last year. Even those of us who have been fortunate enough to remain healthy and keep our jobs and/or retirement accounts—feel the loss of all that we have missed. And we need to acknowledge that loss and honor it. But it will take time and sadly, we aren’t even at the end of the tunnel yet. We are closer. We can see it. But we can’t yet hold on tight enough to pull ourselves out.
As a church, we should start considering how we can help people through the transitions to come while also acknowledging all that has been lost. We are a church steeped in tradition and ritual. My friends, The Episcopal Church is made for this. The world needs the church even more than it did before the pandemic started. This week, we have one of our most beloved traditions—Ash Wednesday. Normally, it seems an odd thing to do, put ashes on our foreheads and acknowledge our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This year it almost seems cruel to remind people of that. Haven’t we seen enough reminders of our mortality over the last year? We have, but that’s not all Ash Wednesday is about. In putting the sign of the cross on our forehead, we also acknowledge that we are God’s beloved children who have been given the gift of eternal life. We are dust, but we are so much more. In our rush to get back to “normal” life, let’s not forget to honor all that has transpired. We will need God’s strength and spirit as we come out of our quarantined lives—as we break out of these cocoons we have built. Because there will be times we will want to crawl back into those cocoons, because we have found safety there. We can’t. We have to grow from this experience or we will never recover. So let’s go back to those rituals and traditions that have allowed us to experience life fully in the context of our church community. But let’s share what we have with the world so we can help more people. We might just need the double share of God’s spirit so we can change what needs to be change, challenge what needs to be challenged and love those beloved children of God who need our love.