Friday, June 25, 2010

Pentecost +5

I have to confess to being fascinated by political power struggles. We all saw it coming, it might be hard to put your finger on exactly when it was that the Australian public fell out of love with Kevin Rudd, but we knew we had to go. The heir apparent, Julia Gillard must have seen it coming too, but of course you don't get to be Prime Minister if people think you're disloyal, so if you really want the top job you have to pretend right up to the last possible moment that you don't, and then when the opportunity presents itself...

Gillard's victory speech was gracious and polished and professional, and I was astounded to see her just hours later on the midday news sitting in the Prime Minister's chair in Parliament, running the show as though she had been born to it. She picked up the mantle flawlessly.  A whole lot less comfortable to watch was Rudd's emotional farewell. I actually to think most career politicians on either side are motivated by a sense of public service, and whether or not you liked his style or approved of the way he had run the government, it was easy to see-now that was all too late-how passionate Rudd was about trying to make a difference.

What makes a good leader? How much of it is down to the skill and passion and integrity of the person in the top job, and how much of it comes down to the various ways in which we project onto them our own insecurities, fears and prejudices? What do we look for in a leader? It seems to me that the leader often stands a s a symbol for everything that’s right - or everything that’s wrong - about an era.  On the conservative side of politics they talk about the Menzies years as a sort of golden age - on the Labour side of politics it might be the Chifley years, or for those of us who can’t remember back that far, it’s the Hawke years.  A golden age when nothing could go wrong.  And the leaders that follow somehow get their legitimacy from how effectively they can lay claim to standing in the same tradition, how effectively they can remind us of the great leaders of the past.

I think today's story with its wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into the relationship of the two great prophets Elijah and Elisha, leads us into similar territory. Elijah and Elisha, perhaps the best known of the prophets who don't have books of the Bible named after them, belong to that long dreary period in the history of Israel after the escape from Egypt, the entry into Canaan and the defeat or at least integration of its inhabitants and their pagan culture. The period of the kings who, according to the Bible were all dreadful, apart from the great king David who was only dreadful sometimes, and king Solomon who was almost perfect except when he was being dreadful.  And over the last few weeks we’ve been following the exploits of Elijah - who the Bible ranks as being the greatest prophet ever, apart from Moses.  So much so that Elijah’s career almost seems modelled on Moses - Elijah builds his career on talking tough to king Ahab, one of the most dreadful of all the dreadful kings of Israel who oppresses the people and allows the cultic practices of his foreign wife, Jezebel.  Ahab, in other words, is a sort of mirror image of Pharaoh, and Elijah, like Moses before him, flees into the safety of the desert where he spends long years in exile.  There are of course other little reminders in the story that Elijah is just like Moses, such as the fact that he can roll up his mantle and flick it like a teatowel at the Jordan River, making the waters part so he can walk across on dry land.  But the main reason Elijah is like Moses is that he connects us with the great story of God’s people by reminding us that God’s priorities are never dictated to by the agendas of the powerful, or by the privilege of the wealthy.

The beginning of today's story seems to give away the punch-line right at the start by telling us straight off that God was just about to take Elijah up to heaven holus-bolus in a whirlwind. None of this troublesome necessity of having to die first, which might explain the fact that Elijah's story doesn't actually stop here.  The Jewish tradition being that Elijah would come back in much the same way that he departed gets carried over into the Christian tradition - for example in the disciples catching a glimpse of Elijah with Moses at the Transfiguration, the popular rumour reported in the Gospels that John the Baptist may just have been Elijah come back to finish the job, or the bystander at the crucifixion who thinks Jesus is calling out for Elijah to rescue him. Probably the most important connection for Christians though is that so many of Elijah's words and actions resemble those of Jesus, so that Jesus through his teaching and his healing made people remember the stories of Elijah.

But what I most noticed about the story today is the relationship between Elijah and Elisha.  If Elijah represents the golden age, the great leader and the mighty deeds of the past, then the church of today is a bunch of Elishas.  Elijah is on a sort of farewell tour of the three great cultic centres of Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho, ending up at the Jordan, where he intends to cross at the exact same point that Moses died and was buried by God himself.  Elisha is following him from town to town even though - in the verses the lectionary writers left out - Elijah keeps telling him to go back.  And in each town the local guild of prophets come out and with exquisite insensitivity tell Elisha what he already knows: ‘your master is going to be taken away today’.  It’s not quite clear what Elisha is thinking - is he insisting on tagging along because he can’t bear to be parted, because he can’t think what else to do, or just to make sure he gets to be seen as Elijah’s legitimate heir?  Maybe all of the above, but he seems a bit lost.  And to reinforce his claim he asks Elijah for a double share of his power - in the same way as a first-born son would get a double share of his father’s estate.  Elijah tells him it is not his to grant - it belongs to God.  There seems to be some tension between them - Elisha was never really Elijah’s idea of a successor, even though God did seem to have chosen him.  Is he up to the job?  It seems that even Elisha himself isn’t 100% sure.  Following in the footsteps of the great Elijah is a pretty tall order.

In the end, Elisha passes the test, he sees Elijah being taken up in the whirlwind and he picks up the mantle, which now works for him just as it did for his master - he too can flick the waters of the Jordan and make them part in front of him just like Moses.  The fact that he still has a long way to go in becoming worthy of his calling is made clear just a couple of verses later - in another bit the lectionary writers decide we’d better not read in church - when Elisha uses his new-found powers to wreak petty vengeance on a group of small boys who are taunting him for being bald.

You see, Elisha stands for all of us who know it’s up to us but just aren’t sure if we’re up to the job - for all of us who remember when the church was really something, when the pews were packed and we had old Reverend What’s-his-name who put the fear of God into us.  But who seem to be living in lesser times and know deep down that we don’t quite measure up.  And it helps us take ourselves a little less seriously.

Our Gospel story echoes the same theme.  It’s even set in Samaria, the place where the great prophets of old, Elijah and Elisha, struggled against the dreadful kings of Israel.  And Jesus’ disciples want him to handle rejection they same way they’ve read about in the old stories of Elijah, by calling down a lightening bolt or two.  But even as Jesus sets them straight about religious zealotry, he models the spiritual wisdom of Elijah who found God in the experience of ‘sheer silence’.  It’s a reminder that we’re called to echo the integrity of the great mentors of the past, not necessarily their methods.

And then we encounter three people who want to be disciples of Jesus. One asks to follow but hasn’t quite counted the cost.  Another one hears Jesus’ call but can’t tear himself away from personal concerns. A third volunteers but also has more pressing matters to attend to first. And Jesus tells them you can’t be a true disciple if you keep looking back at what you’ve left behind. When you think about it, these three are no more wobbly and indecisive than any of us.  They’re just human.  In Elisha we see the basically reassuring message that being human is OK.  That it’s OK to feel inadequate, it’s OK to have doubts and to get the wrong end of the stick from time to time.  Because the power for the job doesn’t come from us, but from God.

We do follow in the footsteps of great Christians.  And I think one of the challenges for the Church today is that we’ve lost our nerve.  We keep looking back, and we’ve lost confidence in our own ability to be the Church of today and tomorrow.  But right there is also the key because we don’t actually have to be Elijah.  We don’t even have to be Elisha, who does eventually get the hang of being a man of God, we just have to be ourselves.  Luckily, we no longer have the pressure of being the socially respectable place to be.  Luckily, the Church is no longer one of the important conservative institutions of modern society.  Because now we can get back to being what Jesus wants us to be - foxes without holes and birds without nests, sure - not of ourselves, of our knowledge, our abilities or our resources - but only of God’s love.  It might take us a while yet to be worthy of our calling, to really model the reality of a community shaped by love and forgiveness, but the mantle has passed to us.