The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
Several years ago, I spent an Advent Sunday as the guest preacher at the Duke University Chapel where, some six months before, their beloved Dean had left to take another job. One of the staff who hosted me said, “I think we’re all still in mourning.” He had been very charismatic, a big personality, very gifted, and he had brought so much energy to the place. It was clearly a very difficult transition for the staff, one that was taking a long time to work through, despite the immediate hiring of another charismatic Dean. He was, of course, a different person.
That staff member’s comment about the shock and difficulty of losing a beloved leader took me right back to instances in my own life when I’d felt the same. I remembered how I once was casually reading the New York Times while away on summer vacation when I saw an article about how the President at the University I was serving (to whom I reported) was about to start working at a philanthropy. In my denial, I told myself he was going to serve in an advisory capacity, but no — he was really leaving our university to take a very different job. What a loss. I felt a blow to the gut. I remembered further back, too, to when a minister who was very influential to me, William Sloan Coffin, announced from the pulpit that he would be leaving the Riverside Church to work for a peace organization. “At my age,” he said, “I’ve got one biggie left.” We all felt the loss very, very deeply, and wondered if the spirit that we so loved in our church would continue.
Elisha and all the prophets have these same feelings. Apparently, the worst kept secret in the land was the fact that Elijah’s life, as he and they had known it, was going to end that day with him being taken up to God in a whirlwind. Wherever he goes, Elisha, the great disciple and very soon-to-be-successor to Elijah is asked, “Hey, do you know that your master’s last day on earth is today?” and a (I imagine) frustrated Elisha says, “Yeah, I do know, just be quiet, ok?” I wonder why Elisha so wanted silence — was it so he wouldn’t be distracted? Is it because that’s where he thought he could hear the still, small voice of God? He was paying such close attention to Elijah; he wouldn’t let him out of his sight. Elisha was his disciple and designated heir, but he wasn’t sure he was up to the task of succeeding his great master. Elisha begs his teacher to give him what he will need to carry on with the same success, but Elijah does not know if Elisha will be granted his spirit. He wants to give him whatever he needs but can’t promise that this will happen. It’s going to depend on whether Elisha witnesses Elijah’s assumption to heaven.
This is a very challenging transition. We have the benefit of hindsight and know that all will be well, but Elijah, Elisha, and all the prophets are living with the true and hard uncertainties of the moment. Elijah’s ministry might have been ending before even he wanted it to. This ending was certainly God’s plan, but maybe not Elijah’s wish. How many of the transitions in our own lives don’t happen on our terms? Elisha doesn’t want this at all — an era is coming to an end, the great prophet’s work will end, and the responsibility for continuing the work will be all upon him. This new era — and his new leadership — start in sorrow and grief, as is often true in our own lives, and as I was told was true at the Duke University Chapel. Sometimes this is how it must go.
In our text from the Gospel According to Mark, we see another master and his disciples preparing for transition. Jesus needs to come down from the Mount of Transfiguration and make his journey to Jerusalem, to his death, resurrection, and to his own eventual assumption to heaven. He will pass the leadership of his movement on to his disciples, so he needs them to understand. First, he needs them to understand just who he is, and so the divine voice booms out, “This is my son!” After all the disciples’ quarreling about who he is, here he is named incontrovertibly as the very Son of God. And if that weren’t enough evidence to make anyone pay him strictest attention, the voice adds, “Listen to him!” These men need to get it; the future of what becomes the Christian tradition rests on them. They are next in the line of succession: they see Moses, they see Elijah, they see Christ transfigured before them. They need to know that their earthly leadership will follow Christ’s. Like Elisha’s, it will begin in sorrow and grief, as Peter watches his master die on the cross, and the others hide for their lives. Their imaginations can’t begin to fathom the new life that God has in store. All, for the time being, will be drowning in pain.
Elisha experiences his own kind of transfiguration, as he watches chariots of fire take his beloved master to the skies. He is altered, changed, suffused for the moment with divinity. But it doesn’t make him Elijah. He will never be Elijah. He will only ever be Elisha, doing his own best job of mediating God’s grace, love, and teachings to his people. He will only ever be Elisha, and this will be more than enough. The next generation does not have to be the same as the one that went before. There doesn’t need to be another Elijah; there needs to be an Elisha. There doesn’t need to be another Martin Luther King, Jr.; there needs to be a Rev. William Barber. There doesn’t need to be another Mother Theresa; there needs to be a Sr. Simone Campbell. Times and places change, and leadership has to look different. Elisha steps up to the plate, as worried as he is that he isn’t prepared. Peter, James, and John do, too. They make mistakes. They know they’re not Jesus. In the wake of the resurrection, they found the Church.
We’re in transitions of many kinds now, in our lives. When we do them well, the next generation is more awesome, more gifted and more equipped than we ever could have dreamed. Sometimes we, too, don’t have answers to their questions. Elisha was right — that’s when we call for silence. This is always the best course when there are no answers, rather than filling the silence with words spoken, not out of knowledge, but fear, misinformation, ego, and much more. Sometimes the best preparation we can give to those who will succeed us is to teach them to be silent rather than to surmise. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter teaches by negative example, blurting out certitudes when he has no clue what is going on. Oftentimes, all we have to go on, in times of transition or continuity, is our best preparation, is perseverance, is commitment to our movement or project, and is our faith.
We are simultaneously people who are preparing others to succeed us in many things, while we are also the people in whose hands the Christian faith resides today. Elijah, we read, didn’t die, and so a chair is left waiting for him still at the Passover tables of our Jewish neighbors. Christians believe that Elijah’s spirit came to rest on John the Baptist. We believe that when John baptized Jesus the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ and upon all we his disciples. We’ve been promised that if we await Jesus’s coming, we will be clothed in power from on high.
We are Christ’s successors today. The line of succession comes through Elijah, Elisha, Elizabeth, Mary, John, Jesus, Martin, Mother Theresa, the cloud of witnesses before and since each of them, right down to you and me. We don’t have to be any of them; we are called to be ourselves. We would do well to model their faith, their perseverance, their integrity, their courage, their witness, as we live out what it means to be Christian in our own day and time. We are the people who hold the two thousand-year-old church in our hands, and we are equipped, as were Elisha, Peter, James, and John, to lead. We are today’s inheritors of the mantle, charged with speaking the truths of our faith in our own context. Some of it is unchanging, but much is new – our forebears lived before nuclear weapons, cascading humanly-responsible climate change, the financial and political choice of whether to end hunger or to make health care accessible to all. They lived before the internet and social media, such amazing tools for evangelization, and human uplift, and also radicalization, cruelty, and smut. We share the same message as our forebears about God’s love, Christ’s salvation, the Spirit’s companionship, but in a time for which we have been uniquely and beautifully prepared. And we are prepared, thanks to those before us in the line of succession, as we humbly spend our days preparing the next generation of servants of God. The transitions, the work before us, can seem quite daunting, but the testimony of the history of our faith is that we have been well prepared by God and Christ and their prophets and disciples, and have the Spirit of God upon and within us.
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