June 30, 2013

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me, Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home.

I’m sometimes up and sometimes down, Coming for to carry me home,
But still my soul feels heavenly bound, Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” is a historic American Negro spiritual. It was written by Wallis Willis who lived in Oklahoma sometime before 1862. He was inspired by the Red River, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the prophet Elijah’s being taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. Many sources claim that this song, more than just being a reflection on Elijah’s story, and more than just being a hopeful song about going to heaven, was actually also referring to the Underground Railroad, the resistance movement that helped slaves escape from the South to the North and Canada.

Listen to the words of the third verse: “If you get there before I do, Coming for to carry me home, Tell all my friends I’m coming too, Coming for to carry me home.” More than just a hope for heaven, the song may be a song of hope for a more immediate freedom from slavery and oppression, when the singers are smuggled into freedom along the Underground Railroad.

I must say that I’ve never paid much attention to today’s story about Elijah’s ascension into heaven. I’ve regarded it as strange and unusual – a story about a prophet who doesn’t die at the end of his life like everyone else – but gets picked up by a fiery chariot and horses and taken up directly into heaven. I couldn’t figure out what this story was really about. What could it possibly mean to say to me or to us today? How was it relevant?

As I thought about it more this week, I realized that it must have been relevant for Wallis Willis and others who were impacted by the system of black slavery in the U.S. And it seemed to be relevant to others in the 20th century Civil Rights Movement. They too, found hope and encouragement in the image of the horses and the chariot of fire taking Elijah up into heaven.

I suppose that people experiencing discrimination and persecution and oppression might relate well to Elijah. I mean, he had a terribly difficult life too. Last Sunday’s story about Elijah showed him so threatened and scared that he went off into the wilderness by himself and asked God to let him die. But God stayed with him and helped him through that terrible time, and got him back up on his feet and continuing to work as a prophet for God.

And in the end, maybe the really inspiring part of Elijah’s story is that he doesn’t die. He persists through the challenges and the threats and the dangers, and God is faithful to him. He keeps going despite the terrible risks, and God doesn’t let him die, but sends a chariot to pick him up and take him directly into heaven. In the end, with God’s help, he is victorious beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. What a story to cling to for hope in the midst of slavery and oppression!

But as I studied the story a little more, I found that there was more to it than that. Did you notice, in the story, how when Elijah arrived at the Jordan river, he took his mantle (his cloak), rolled it up, and struck the water? And the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elijah and Elisha crossed over on dry ground. Does it remind you of another story?

Of course! We can’t help but remember the great prophet Moses striking the water of the Red Sea and the waters parting to allow the Hebrew People to safely cross over. When Moses did that, it was the great symbol of God bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. It was the definitive moment in which it becomes clear that God’s power and authority is triumphing over the earthly power and authority of the Pharaoh.

Trevor Eppehimer, in a theological reflection on this Elijah story, notes that “In the Hebrew Bible, Pharaoh does not meet his end in the book of Exodus, but he later haunts Israel in the form of its own kings who, intoxicated and blinded by political power, forget that the God under whose authority they serve not only despises tyrants, but also is inclined to intervene against them if they lead the people to apostasy or oppress the most vulnerable among them.” So even though Moses, with God’s help, has been victorious over Pharaoh as he led the Hebrew People out of Egypt, there is still much work for the next generations of prophets, like Elijah, to do. Israel’s main challenge is remaining faithful to God in a world in which the Pharaohs appear to have all the power. And the call of the prophets is to open the nation’s eyes to the illusory nature of Pharaoh’s power and the ultimate reality of God’s power.

When we hear in today’s story that Elijah took his mantle and struck the water of the Jordan River and it parted, it is a clear declaration that Elijah is a true prophet in the tradition of Moses. He is empowered by God to triumph over self-serving kings and rulers, and to lead God’s people into freedom.

But today’s story is not only about Elijah and his unusual non-death. It’s not only about God’s faithfulness to him and the amazing gift of a heavenly reward at the end of a life of challenge and struggle in serving God and God’s people. Today’s story is also about Elisha – the prophet who comes after his mentor, Elijah. Very much like the various people in today’s Gospel reading who indicate a desire to follow Jesus, Elisha very much wants to follow Elijah as a prophet of YHWH, the one true God of Israel. He wants it so much that even when Elijah tells him again and again to stay where he is, Elisha insists on going with Elijah down to Bethel and across the Jordan.

When Elijah asks his follower what he can do for him before he is taken, Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Like a first-born son inheriting a double share of his father’s assets, Elisha wants to be acknowledged at Elijah’s rightful heir – not to inherit his possessions, but to inherit his calling as a prophet of YHWH who will lead God’s people into freedom.

Elijah doesn’t say yes or no to the request, because it’s not up to him to decide. What Elijah knows is that the prophets who come after him must have the gift of vision. Elisha, if he is to be a great prophet, must be equipped with the penetrating vision that is required to perceive YHWH’s supreme power and authority through Pharaoh’s thick smoke screen.

And so that’s the test: “If you see me as I am being taken from you,” Elijah tells him, “It will be granted you; if not, it will not.” And as Elijah is lifted up in the whirlwind, Elisha looks and looks, and he cries out: “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” He sees what God is doing that day, just as he will perceive the reality of God’s activity in the midst of a world held under the illegal and illusory jurisdiction of Pharaoh and his heirs. This is what marks him as Elijah’s rightful successor. When he picks up Elijah’s mantle, strikes the water of the Jordan himself, and the waters part for him as well, it is confirmed. Elisha has been called to continue the work of Elijah, the work of Moses… to cooperate with God in leading God’s people out of slavery to the powers of this world and into freedom.

I think I understand why Wallis Willis wrote the song. It wasn’t just a song about going to heaven, but it was a song about freedom. It was a song about seeing God’s activity in the world… God working through prophets and faithful people… parting waters, smuggling slaves, and triumphing over the Pharaohs of the world. It was a song about the prophets of times past, and the gift of spirit and vision being passed on to the next generations. It was a song about hope for this world and the next because of God’s power and authority over all earthly powers.

The New Testament also talks about freedom. Through the love, and grace, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ we are set free from the burden of keeping the Law. We are freed from the demands of the many commandments, and we are forgiven rather than punished when we fail to live up to their high standards. As Paul teaches the Galatians, we are “called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only [we must not use our] freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Paul makes it clear that Christian freedom does not mean that we are living an unencumbered life. Think of the life that Elisha was freely taking up – giving his energy, his time, his whole life to looking for God, and serving God, and being a part of doing God’s work in the world. Or think of the life that Jesus’ first disciples were freely taking up when they were willing to drop their nets and their lives to follow him… Nowhere to lay their heads, leaving behind friends and families and other interests, taking up risks and uncertainty in order to spread Jesus’ message of love around the world.

Indeed, the freedom we are called to as Christians is a freedom that calls us into service of one another. It is a freedom that invites us give of ourselves in loving one another. It is a freedom that challenges us to look, as Elisha did, for a vision of God’s activity in the world, and in the power of God’s Spirit, to cooperate with God in leading all of God’s people out of slavery and into the freedom that we have already experienced.

As a church, and as individual Christians, we are the heirs of Moses, and Elijah, and Elisha. In our baptism, we have received the gift of the Spirit who will equip us to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our relationships and communities. May we live by the Spirit and be guided by the Spirit so that others may be led out of slavery and into freedom.