Fr. Bob Hart
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven…”
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up…”
+In the Name of the God of the whirlwind and the lightening. In the Name of the Anointed One who calls us to follow him and proclaim the Kingdom of God. In the Name of the Spirit who leads us and nurtures in us the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.
We all have anniversaries to remember and some to celebrate – anniversaries of birth, marriage, divorce, deaths; anniversaries of baptism, confirmation, bar and bat mitzvahs; anniversaries of momentous and important, life-altering decisions. I want to thank you, the people of Christ Church, the staff of this parish, and most certainly Mtr. Kathleen and Fr. John for the gracious privilege of celebrating this anniversary with you – the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. It’s been a privilege to celebrate and preach here on occasion when your priests have been away. I think I’ve done so for perhaps four years. My daughter Martha and son-in-law Jason were married here in 2016 and are here with their children, as well Becky my wife. So, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I would hope on this Sunday we can focus on the many layered and profound passages of Scripture we have just heard read. Last Sunday we encountered the colorful and dramatic prophet Elijah. Fr. John preached so well on this text. We saw Elijah fleeing the threat of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel at a low point in his work and life as a prophet. Last Sunday as Elijah sat despondent on Mt. Horeb, God manifested wind, fire, lightening, earthquake but did not manifest the divine presence until there was a profound silence. God spoke from the silence and renewed the calling of Elijah.
Today, we meet Elijah at the end of his ministry. He knows he is soon to enter into the divine presence. He travels with his devoted, faithful disciple Elisha who is to be anointed by the Spirit as Elijah’s successor. Much like Moses who Elijah so resembles, the two cross on dry ground, in this case the River Jordan and go outside the boundaries of Israel. And suddenly Elijah ascends in the divine whirlwind as God’s chariot of fire and horses of fire separate Elijah from his disciple. Elisha sees this vision of God and is anointed with the Spirit, the Spirit that filled his master Elijah.
Elijah and his whirlwind and fiery chariot have entered into the imagination and folk lore of Israel. Elijah as the one who ascended to God and will come to announce the Messiah. Elijah is ready to assist Jews in need. Elijah has a place set for him at every Passover Seder. But just as much has that fiery chariot and horses of fire entered into the spiritual imagination of Israel, so it has for all who read the Biblical text. None as much, probably, as the African-American Church who sees this event as liberation both in this world and God’s coming Kingdom.
The divine chariot is not only part of the story of Elijah. Ezekiel as he is called to be a prophet sees a vision, the throne chariot of God. Wheels within wheels, cherubim with four faces, the throne of God above all surrounded by clouds of glory, held together and moved by the Spirit of God. One author has called these visions of chariots “the God mobile,” “glory on the move.”
This sign of God’s glory on the move inspired several African-American spirituals: One is“Ride the chariot in the morning Lord. Are you ready for the journey? Oh yes, I’m waiting for the chariot.”
“I’m a changed man, I’ve new life. And I’m gonna serve God till that judgement day. Ride in the chariot. Are you ready to ride?”
All of us know “Swing low sweet chariot coming for to carry me home.”
Another almost as well known is Ezekiel saw the wheel. One wheel was moved by grace and the other by faith as the song says.
God’s chariot of fire is God’s presence amongst us, God calling us, transforming us. The rabbis contemplating this said we must descend into the chariot which I take to mean to get on board the Chariot of God. The old spiritual asks, “Are you ready to ride?”
Are we open and aware that God is present in all things and with us right now? We can step on board that chariot at this very instant.
After 50 years I may not have more to say than that. Are we ready to ride in the chariot of God’s self-disclosure? Mtr. Kathleen on Pentecost Sunday spoke of it as the “ever expanding awareness of God’s call.” Are we ready to step on board the Divine Chariot and know the call of God.
This morning’s Gospel from Luke begins remarkably just like the reading from 2nd Kings. “The days drew near for Jesus to be taken up.” “to be taken up” The allusion to Elijah is on purpose. Twice in the 9th chapter of Luke the crowds think Jesus may be Elijah come again. And just before this morning’s portion of Scripture Jesus is transfigured on the mountain in clouds of glory. Moses and Elijah appear with him. Luke draws us into this moment when Jesus is seen in the glory of the divine presence – the Transfiguration and here points us toward the Ascension when he is taken up. These are Jesus’ chariot moments, the divine appearing among us.
The result of Elijah and the fiery chariot is Elisha picking up the mantle and carrying on the work of God. The result of Jesus ascent into glory? He looks around and says “follow me”. You will have no permanent home. You will leave the ties of the familiar behind. You will put your hand to the plow and not turn back. For the Kingdom of God is God with us and God’s summons to love. And again this is what Mtr. Kathleen said, “the ever expanding awareness of God’s call.”
Paul proclaimed it this morning as from Leviticus, the Torah, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Words Jesus himself quoted to sum up our call. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth that he had the experience of being carried up to the Third Heaven, the place of God. This was for Paul his moment in the chariot. And when we step up and ride that chariot we enter God’s love and we witness God’s love. So Paul can say to us that the experience of the Third Heaven is “Love your neighbor.”
Over the last five decades so much has happened in the church and in the world we live in. In my years as a priest I’ve witnessed the Church grapple with segregation, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, racism, sexism, climate change. We’ve come to terms with liturgical revision, a new hymnal, the ordination of women, the ordination of LGBTQ persons, the solemnizing of same sex marriages. Right at this moment the challenges facing the Church and people of faith everywhere are as difficult as any I’ve seen. Climate change is truly excelerating. Gun violence has reached horrendous proportions. Income inequality is reducing segments of the population to despair and resentment. Racism has reared its ugly head. Recent Supreme Court rulings have seriously effected all our lives and particularly those of women. Nationalism and attacks on our constitutional system are a particular threat. And most of all, at least to us in the community of faith, participation in religious observance and practice has dwindled quite markedly.
Nonetheless, our calling remains. That hasn’t changed. And times have always been hard. Like Elijah and Elisha, like the disciples of Jesus who he commanded to put their hands to the plow, we have a vocation born of our experience of the Divine, of God. We are as Paul says, “Led by the Spirit.” We have ridden up in the chariot and heard the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As the old song says, “We are changed. We have a new life. And we’re going to serve God till that judgment day. Ride in the chariot. Are you ready to ride?”
I can say after five decades. Ride in the chariot. Ride into God’s loving presence. Are you ready to ride?