February 11, 2018

6 Epiphany

2 Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9: 2-9

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            It seemed to be the perfect sermon, the kind of sermon I had always wanted to deliver but never quite had the ability to do so.  I watched from a distance as this priest delivered this sermon, to a group of mostly teenagers who had just finished a high school weekend retreat at Camp Allen.  The sermon the priest delivered did everything right – it was funny, it seemed to hold the attention of both teenagers and adults alike – no easy feat.

            I wondered to myself, how does he do it?  He does this priest accomplish telling a story of a told a story about a man who was basically a lecherous sleeze ball, a man clearly in need of God’s grace, of healing.   The priest had this refrain in his sermon which got everyone laughing where he would describe this man as “sleezy, slimy, good for nothing” and I can’t remember why, but everyone laughed, it was funny.

            I watched - amazed at the moral authority I saw emanating from this priest as he, a married man, a father, and a priest spoke clearly against adultery and infidelity. It was impressive.  He was the kind of priest I wished that I could be, the kind of person who seemed to have everything together.  I looked up to him.

            Two years later, I received a form letter from the bishop of this diocese stating that this priest, the man I projected so much moral authority upon, the man who captivated me and many others at Camp Allen, this priest was suspended, defrocked, because of sexual misconduct.  And in an instant, as soon as I read the letter, the respect, the authority, the esteem I had for this person – it washed away.  The letter was a reminder to me that there is always a price one pays for having authority.  Theologian Richard Rohr reminds us that “the more elevated a person is within a system, the more entrapped they are by it.”  There is a price for authority.  Everytime.

            Today we hear a story about this price one pays for having authority.  It comes to us from the Hebrew Bible, the book of 2 Kings, and it tells of Elijah, one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.  That Elijah had authority there is no doubt.  Many looked up to him, and for good reason.  As one of the greatest of the prophets, Elijah courageously spoke truth to power, he risked his own life in speaking out publicly against Ahab, the wicked king of Israel and his wife, Jezebel. 

            So Elijah has tremendous authority, the weight of which is symbolized in an article of clothing, a mantle, Elijah wears, which is basically like an overcoat.  The mantle represents Elijah’s authority.  In a similar way, the priest who celebrates the Eucharist at this altar wears a similar garment, called a chasuble, which hearkens back to this ancient biblical concept of a mantle symbolizing authority given to a person by God.

            Anyway, Elijah identifies his successor, another prophet named Elisha, and in a dramatic climax of the story Elijah removes his mantle from his shoulders and rolls it up and strikes the waters of the Jordan river, and according to the story, the waters part, they split, and Elijah and Elisha walk across the parted waters of the Jordan river on dry ground.

            It’s an intentionally familiar motif – the parting of the waters of the Jordan by Elijah recalls the parting of the Red Sea by an earlier and also great prophet, Moses.  The gesture, by design, places Elijah at the same level of greatness as Moses.

            I think about Elijah, removing his mantle, the article of clothing that symbolizes his pastoral authority, and striking the water with it.  How odd that must have been for Elisha to watch – this revered prophet, taking a symbolic garb of clothing, and hitting the water with it.  What an odd thing to do with something that contains so much symbolic power. 

It reminds me of the moment in the latest Star Wars movie (yes – I am a Star Wars nerd) when Rey, the protagonist, finally meets Luke Skywalker, and she presents him with his long lost lightsaber, a Jedi’s weapon, the one he lost at the end of The Empire Strikes Back – it is something in Rey’s mind she thinks Luke has been looking for for a long time – and when look finally receives it after many years, what does Luke do?  He receives it, he scowls, and then throws it over his shoulder, discarding the icon which represented his power and authority, seemingly having no need for it anymore.

            Elijah was not unique in wearing a mantle, in having authority.  We all wear one.  We all have authority in different capacities – work, home, school, church.  But sometimes that mantle we wear can be too heavy.  The mantle we wear as a spouse, a partner, a mother, an addict, a father, a teacher, an alcoholic – sometimes the weight becomes unmanageable.  Every person I have ever known has struggled with the burden of the responsibilities they bear, myself included.  Part of wearing the mantle that we do means that we fail in our efforts, we make mistakes, and we fail to live up to other’s expectations.  We all do.

            Failure is but one of the costs of wearing the mantle someone either places upon us or we put on ourselves.  Many of us are uncomfortable with failure, and certainly much of what passes for popular Christianity these days seems uninterested in discovering God’s presence in failure. 

            It’s been ten years since I received that sad letter from the bishop detailing that fallen priest’s fate.  I wonder where that priest is now – that priest who once spoke so eloquently about the demons of others, while cleverly hiding his own.  His mantle taken from him, his priestly authority revoked, where is he now?  Of course his acting out behavior was unquestionably wrong.  But we should not be so quick to judge.  Because that priest is more like us than we might be ready to admit.

            Every one of us speaks from one side of our mouth, and then does the opposite.  Everyone of us wears a mantle. It might be one, like Elijah, that we are ready to remove and throw onto the ground.  It might be one we enjoy wearing.  It might be one we have no idea what to do with.  It doesn’t matter.  Because whatever the mantle is that you wear – you do not wear it alone.  God gives you the strength, the ability, the courage to wear it – no matter how often you fail, no matter how much you may dislike it, no matter if you feel unqualified to wear it.

            God has given you authority.  What will you do with it?  Will you part waters?  Will you act out?  It’s your choice.  You will do the rest.  AMEN.