Friends in High Places 2 Kings 2:1-14
A woman remarked to me recently–“I’m in a slump right now. . . .” She said it in passing, but her words stuck with me because that’s where I am as well—in The Slump. The Slump is a real place, at least as real as Madagascar. And I suppose it’s not so surprising that we all get there eventually, because we are on the same journey. And traveling down the same road, sooner or later we reach the same places along the way.
The Slump is a low, dim place somewhere more than halfway along life’s journey where a number of paths converge, half obscured by the undergrowth. And there we have stop and make a choice what to do with the rest of our lives. The Slump is an ambivalent place. It might be a dangerous spot, but only if we cannot make up our mind which is the right way to go. I may also be a good opportunity to pause and catch our breath before we move on. But not too long. Night is coming on. We can make out the lights of Jerusalem faintly twinkling through the branches. We know we need to be at the gates before dark. But we still aren’t sure which path to choose, and as much as at any time in our lives we need the company of someone who has been this way before.
The people we meet in the Bible have frequently reached The Slump. They stand at a crossroads in their lives, at a moment of decision. Which path to take? Right or left? Uphill or down? Each of them made a choice and moved forward—that’s why we call them saints. Saints are those who follow The Way. But none of them were saints alone. Every one had a guide, someone who had been down The Way before, and each one was a companion to another saint coming after. Each one was part of the Golden Chain that stretches from creation to the end of days.
The two Books of Kings in the Old Testament contain stories about two saints whose lives were linked together in just this way. The prophets Elijah and Elisha–master and disciple–were active in the northern kingdom of Israel some eight hundred years before the birth of Christ. Their message was clear and consistent—the people of Israel must return to a wholesome, grass-fed devotion to Yahweh and forsake their dangerous taste for rich, well-marbled foreign gods. Otherwise something very bad was going to happen. And something very bad did in fact happen to the northern kingdom—the ultimate heart attack–but in their own time prophets are often regarded as traitors. And not a few of them die because nations cannot endure very much truth. Nevertheless, Elijah and Elisha continued to deliver their dangerous message with courage in the face of the murderous kings of Israel and their still more murderous queens. They were heroes, but they did not live in isolation, like the heroes of pagan mythology. Elijah and Elisha were links in the Golden Chain, united by their love for each other and with saints who had gone before and those coming after. And their connectedness is what gave them strength and guidance to follow the Way.
In Second Kings, chapter two, verses 1-14 we are told a wonderful story—wonder-filled in every sense–that illustrates how the Golden Chain connects those who are part of it. Here find Elijah ready to depart this life. The prophet was no ordinary man, and his death promised to be no ordinary passing. It would be as wonder-filled as his life had been, surrounded by supernatural fireworks. Still the story begins quietly enough. We find Elijah and Elisha, the old master and his younger disciple, walking along together, as they must have walked many times before. Their sojourn is like life itself, and the journey we take together to all the places along the way. Then we come to Parting. We all get there eventually. And between Elijah and Elisha there is the shared awareness that Parting is near. They share a sadness that goes beyond words. We recognize the feeling immediately. It is the realization that this life is not a troubled dream from which we will eventually awaken, young and clueless. This is it. But the older prophet hesitates to bring up the matter at hand, and the younger one chooses to ignore it as long as possible, doing what we all do when things are too painful to face head-on. So they walk on together in deepening silence.
Finally they cross the Jordan River together and the dying business can be postponed no longer. So Elijah says to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ And Elisha replies, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ To this strange request the old man responds, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ So they continue walking and talking, and suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them. Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven, and as he has been instructed Elisha watches. But he is so overcome by emotion he cannot prevent himself from crying, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And when he can no longer see the other, we are told that Elisha grasps his own clothes and tears them in pieces, as a sign of his personal desolation.
It is indeed a wonder-filled story—as promised–and a tough one for us modern readers to grasp. In interpreting such a story, how literal is literal enough? And how literal is too literal? How much are we dealing with historical facts here–what we would have seen if we had been present–and how much are we delving into the realm of subjective reality—Elisha’s personal experience? Religious experiences—visions and revelations–are so stubbornly individual that they do not open themselves to outside scrutiny. So is the ascension of Elijah a dream or a vision or something more than both? Is it somehow related to the ancient myth of the sun chariot, as some scholars have suggested. The longer we stare at this wonder-filled story the more obscure it becomes. So in the end the modern question—what really happened?—cannot be settled. There is a truth here, but it is ultimately a personal truth. Elisha’s truth—and ours. So let’s say what we can say about this story and go from there.
The Law of Moses provided that the eldest son in the family should receive a double share of the divided inheritance. So when Elisha asks for a “double share of your spirit,” he is not asking to be greater than his master, but to be acknowledged as his eldest son and principal heir. The bond they share runs deeper than that between a teacher and a student. We are to understand Elisha’s request as a sincere desire to imitate, to continue, in the profoundest way to “live out” the Elijah’s life, as a son continues his father’s life. But there is more to it than that. Elisha’s parting cry, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” expresses not only a son’s grief, but a patriot’s anguish over the future of his people, because Elijah’s prophetic gifts, now departed, were of greater value in the defense of the kingdom than all its horse-drawn chariots.
Yet even in his anguish Elisha does not look away. He had been told to watch his master’s going, and he does. And by this ultimate act of faithfulness, he inherits the Elijah’s mantle, the powerful emblem of his charismatic power, which falls to the ground as he ascends. The inheritance has passed. So we are told that Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side, and to the other, and Elisha went over.” The miracle recalls the wonders performed by Moses and Joshua, who also divided the waters, and from whom Elijah had in his turn inherited his prophetic gifts. Each prophet is a link in The Golden Chain, and the gifts of the spirit—courage, insight, integrity—are in an almost literal sense “inherited,” passed down as a legacy from one to another. Elijah and Elisha were separated by “a chariot of fire and horses of fire,” but the Golden Chain was not be broken.
I read another similar story recently—equally wonder-filled in its own way. This one belonging to our own time. Early in March of this year Pope Francis confessed in a private conference having taken a cross from the rosary that had belonged to his confessor from the dead priest’s casket. He told those present that he carried it in his shirt pocket for years, but now that he does not have pockets in his cassock, he wears it in a fabric pouch under his cassock. Francis has the status of a superstar these days, and everything about him is of interest to the press, to whom this story inevitably leaked. And they, of course, latched onto it and, taking it out of context, grossly misinterpreted it.
It took considerable courage to tell such a remarkable story in the first place, especially for someone in the Pope’s position. But he did so in the context of an informal chat with other priests about the need to be merciful to those in their care. In involves the “great confessor” of Buenos Aires, who routinely heard the confessions of most of priests of that diocese, as well as of Pope John Paul II when he visited Argentina. The priest died. But when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, came to pray at his open casket, he was horrified to find that no one had thought to bring any flowers. “This man forgave the sins of all the priests of Buenos Aires, but not a single flower . . . ?” Francis recalled. So he went out and bought a bouquet of roses, and it was when he returned to arrange them around the casket, that he saw the rosary the dead priest held twined in his fingers. “Immediately there came to mind the thief that we all have inside ourselves,” the Pope recalled. “While I arranged the flowers, I took the cross and with just a bit of force, I removed it.” And in that moment I looked him and I said, ‘Give me half your mercy.’”
Here is another of those religious experiences that do not readily open themselves to outside scrutiny. Its meaning is stubbornly individual. But whatever else this story might be, this is not a story about a petty theft. It is a story about how the gifts of the spirit are passed down from one saint to another. Like the mantle of Elijah, the cross the cross Pope Francis wears next to his heart represents a spiritual inheritance, something more real than anything that can be touched. In this case the legacy he asked for was a deep empathy with human weakness, with “the thief that we all have inside ourselves.” And we must presume the request was granted. “Whenever a bad thought comes to mind about someone, my hand goes here, always,” Pope Francis told his audience of priests, gesturing to the pouch with the cross in it that he wears next to his heart. “And I feel the grace, and that makes me feel better.” It not only makes him “feel better,” but it presumably makes him be better as well—forgiving and less judgmental. An attitude adjustment we all could use, heaven knows!
So how do these wonder-filled stories from the lives of an Old Testament prophet and a contemporary pope reflect upon our own lives, beloved? They speak to something very important to the Christian life, something we confess that we believe in every Sunday—the communion of saints. The same love and power that binds the Trinity of three persons together, also flows into the world, connecting the saints of each generation to those who have gone before and those who will follow after. In baptism we became a links in that Golden Chain, and each of us possesses an inheritance we are too slow to claim, especially in those passages in our lives when most need a guide, a confidant and a friend.
So when we are perplexed, when we are confronted with several paths and are uncertain which to follow, when we simply need someone to talk to, all we have to do is ask. We have friends in high places, beloved. Friends have made this journey before and know the Way. New life and forgiveness of sin come only through faith in the crucified and living Christ, but we discover a unique source of comfort, guidance, patience and strength in his saints, in that great “cloud of witnesses,” with which the writer of Hebrews says that we are surrounded (12:1). They are people like us—parents, grandparents, teachers, friends–who struggled and sometimes stumbled, but then got up again and went on the Way. And through them the power and mercy and wisdom of God flows out of eternity into this world of time and space.
Praying to the saints involves a stretch for those of us who were brought up stanchly Protestant. In confirmation class I can clearly remember Pastor Carl Nelson telling us telling us in no uncertain terms that we were to pray to God alone, in Jesus’ name. To pray to the Mother of God and the saints is a form of idolatry, he said. But Pastor Carl Nelson, who was himself a very saintly man, is now himself dead and part of that “cloud of witnesses.” And I would have no trouble at all asking for his prayers, as I might ask for the prayers of any other Christian. And I am certain that if I asked I would get it, because as I said, he was a very saintly man.
Maybe it’s those words “pray to” that are the real problem. Maybe “talk to” better expresses the meaning of communion with the saints. They are someone to talk to. Elijah talked to Elisha, and bequeathed him his prophetic spirit. Pope Francis asked a favor of his dead confessor and received half his mercy. When I see old photographs or my parents and grandparents, I feel their presence very close by. Things that belonged to them also have that effect, like Elijah’s mantle or the confessor’s cross–they become a point of meeting between us. There is nothing more natural than talking with them, asking for their prayers and accepting guidance along the path they have already gone.
And there is nothing more staunchly Protestant than to say the saints are the saints. It is not the institutional Church that confers sainthood. It is the Holy Spirit who confers sainthood upon the baptized. Sainthood is not something that is minted. Sainthood is something that we can recognize when we see and feel it. The institutional church canonizes certain saints, which it does for its own often political reasons, but you and I are free to talk with anyone who has gone before us, asking for their prayers and guidance in the same way we would ask for the prayers and guidance of any other Christian to any member of the church, It isn’t some sort of weird form of ancestor worship, but the most natural thing in the world, as a sincere desire to imitate, to continue, in the profoundest way to “live out” the lives of those whom we have admired and loved.
We wonder what to do with the rest of our lives. What should I do next? But we don’t need a program, beloved. We don’t need map to find Jerusalem. We need a saint to hold onto. All of us want to follow Christ, but we can’t do that alone. We are links in a Golden Chain. We need to take hold of the hand of one who has gone before us and then lend a hand to someone who is comes after. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas contains several sayings of Jesus that scholars believe to be authentic. There the Lord says to his disciples—“Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom.” We feel the warmth of Jesus through the hands of his saints.
In the end it is not what we do that matters, beloved. It is what we are. The Spirit will show us what he wants us to do next. We don’t need to concern ourselves over that. Being part of the Golden Chain is what really matters. Which way we go is not important. Every path faithfully followed leads in the end to Jerusalem. What is important is that we hold on.