Scripture passage: Mark 9:2-9; 2 Kings 2:1-12
Today’s scripture readings contains two stories which seem to me to be about stubborn devotion. The first is the story of the transfiguration, in which Jesus’ disciples remain steadfast at the top of a mountain even though they are absolutely terrified. (Mark 9:2-9, told to the children OR read by the group.) The second is the story of Elisha’s faithfulness to his mentor, the prophet Elijah. It is told in 2 Kings 2:1-12. Elisha was exceptionally stubborn. The man he was devoted to kept trying to ditch him. “Stay here,” Elijah repeatedly instructed. “I’m going farther.” But Elisha ignored the instructions. “The one you are following is going to leave this earth today,” people kept telling Elisha, as if he would be deterred by surprise, or should be immobilized by grief. “Don’t talk to me,” Elisha responds, “I know already.” It’s as if Elisha doesn’t want any distraction. He has one purpose and one purpose only, which is to stick by Elijah’s side as long as humanly possible. Nothing can sway him from his devotion. No matter how discouraging or disheartening the messages, Elisha sticks to his man. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself life, I will not leave you,” is his constant refrain. I see descendants of Elisha in the world today, and I wonder what keeps them going in the face of so much negative feedback. James Lawson worked side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s. “Thirty-five years later,” says Lawson, “we seem further from our goal than we did then. Racism today is more pervasive than it has ever been in my lifetime, and there are symptoms of this phenomenon wherever one turns.” Lawson is a retired United Methodist Minister. But he has not given up on his church or his country. He continues to write, to speak, to travel, to train a new generation, to lobby for healing and change. What makes him so stubborn? Philip Berrigan spent his lifetime working for peace. He tried, literally, to beat missiles into plowshares, and he spent a lot of time in prison because of his efforts. He sacrificed time with his family and friends to pursue what he believed in. He has died now of cancer at age 79, but he was writing, praying, organizing, and believing until the end. What made him so stubborn? Americans (of both Jewish and Christian faith) are living in Israel and visiting occupied territories to bear witness to the situation of Palestinians, to be companions to those who suffer, and to try to be a voice for peace and justice. These American visitors put their lives at risk, and their hearts are broken by what they see and experience. Yet they stay on, still hoping and speaking out for a better way, even though, as one woman writes, “there is no happy ending to this story. There is no cheerful resolution.” What makes them so stubborn? So devoted, when the situation just seems to be getting worse? I don’t know for certain, but I think the cause of the stubborn devotion might be Spirit. “The assessment and definition of my life do not lie in external circumstances,” admits Lawson. “I believe that I am at one with the Spirit of Life in many ways, and this infuses my days with truth and wonder and beauty and power. This allows me, and many other people, to resist racism with a spiritual fervor and to fight the contamination of our souls.” “Our father was free even in prison,” testifies Philip Berrigan’s daughters. “He showed us that freedom has nothing to do with where your body is, or with who holds the keys and who makes the rules. It has everything to do with where your heart is. It has to do with being fearless and full of hope.” “I am doing the one thing I can do,” writes the woman who has witnessed the destruction of so many homes in Palestine. “I am breaking the silence. I am refusing to just stand by as the boot stomps down.” “I see spirit in you,” says Elisha, “and I want it in me.” Elisha has great love and reverence for the way the Spirit of God has possessed and guided Elijah’s life; he has seen it at work many times. He holds fast to Elijah, follows stubbornly, because he senses that it is Spirit which makes life meaningful and fulfilling. Words are usually inadequate to describe what Spirit looks like, or what its presence means. “An infusion of truth and wonder,” “the love and laughter of freedom,” “the courage to speak” are today’s ways of trying to describe something transcendent and yet very present and real. In Biblical times, “chariots and horses of fire,” “a whirlwind,” and “dazzling white clothes” were the best images that could be found to describe an overwhelming experience of Spirit. When God comes near, words fail us, rationalizations cease. That is why Elisha says, “I know, keep silent,” and Jesus admonishes, “Don’t tell about this until later,” makes perfect sense. Stubborn devotion can’t really be explained, it can only be acted out. If we study the Bible and we look around us we see that stubborn devotion may lead people down a very difficult, even painful path. But apparently there is a payoff in stubborn devotion that makes the journey worthwhile. The reward, perhaps, can often only be glimpsed, but its power is overwhelming. You see, constant stubborn devotion allows us, on rare occasions, to witness transfiguration – God’s presence made briefly and stunningly visible in the world. Elisha’s refusal to turn aside, no matter what, meant he was there when God embraced Elijah and took him home. Peter, James, and John’s willingness to follow Jesus, even when they did not understand what he was up to, even when they were afraid, meant that they were able to glimpse the light of heaven, and hear the voice of God, even if only for a moment. People work, over the course of long years, to build peace and end racism because (I believe) that same light that dazzled the disciples on the mountaintop is seeping (or maybe even streaming) into their lives as well. A disciple of Jesus named Helmut Gollwitzer, who lived and proclaimed his faith during the Nazi era, was detained and thrown into prison by the Gestapo. He found a piece of wire, and scratched the word “Jesus” on the wall. “Every time I looked at it,” he later wrote, “it said to me that I was not alone, that God had work for me to do, that God forgave my weaknesses, that I had a responsibility to my neighbors, that my trust in God was rightly placed, and that things were not as bad as I had feared.” A prison cell is a far cry from a mountain top, and some letters scratched on a wall hardly seem to compare to a vision of things “brighter than anyone on earth could make them.” And yet, the name of Jesus, clumsily written by his own hand onto an ugly wall, was enough to radiate courage, strength and hope to a man in solitary confinement. By this I conclude that God’s presence can penetrate any darkness, and that all faithful, persistent, determined followers place themselves within God’s reach. Clearly, stubborn devotion is no easy path. Being determined to do what doesn’t make sense to the world might mean being criticized or jeered. It might mean leaving everything comfortable and familiar. It might mean living with grief or loss or tremendous frustration. But, as the scriptures and subsequent experience reveal, those in the grip of stubborn devotion are also in the hands of a mighty and merciful God. And among God’s gifts to stubbornly faithful people is the gift of occasionally being able to actually see God’s power at work. Stubborn devotion can take many forms. Sometimes it may seem bold and controversial. Other times it may seem quite mundane and ordinary. Alison Vogel bakes the bread her church uses for communion. She bakes the bread every week, whether she feels like it or not. No matter the weather, no matter her mood, no matter whether her children are helping her or making it hard for her to get anything done, no matter what else is on the calendar, Alison bakes the communion bread. It’s a job she volunteered to do, others are counting on her to do it, so she assembles the ingredients, turns on the oven, and sets about mixing and kneading. Often, nothing happens, except that the dough rises and the dishes get washed. But sometimes, Alison senses God’s light shining through her everyday actions. She measures warm water. She sprinkles in yeast. She adds three spoonfuls of honey, then oil, then a sprinkle of salt. “Bless the water, birthplace of life,” she says, in a prayer she herself created for bread baking. “Bless the sweetness that brings us delight. May this oil be the oil of gladness. Bless the salt, symbol of strength and protection, and most of all bless the flour, poured into the bowl in great quantity, plain and ordinary, waiting to be transformed by its encounter with the other ingredients.” Alison listens to music as she works. She looks out the window at branches dripping from rain. She thinks about a card from a friend, carrying the message, “The world is a holy place, for the Holy has made it home.” A thought comes to her, “These humble ingredients are undergoing the first part of their transformation into the Body of Christ.” And then she is overwhelmed with gratitude: “My kitchen is warm and bright,” she says, “and I am taking part in a miracle.” Stubborn devotion is what allowed disciples of long ago to see the shining face of God. Stubborn devotion is what cements our relationships, keeps us loyal to our work, causes us to go out on a limb for what we believe in, helps us to stand fast even when we are afraid, and brings us to church Sunday after Sunday. Stubborn devotion can involve challenge and contentment, excitement and routine, happiness and sadness, frustration and fulfillment, conditions both ordinary and extreme. Ultimately, stubborn devotion brings us near to God. Even when Peter, James, and John were nearly flattened by fear of the brilliant light that blazed out from Jesus on the mountain top, they could still tell that they were taking part in a miracle. “It is good for us to be here,” they cried out, in spite of feeling confused and overwhelmed. May OUR stubborn devotion, no matter it’s form or shape, lead us also to a moment when we too can affirm, “It is good for us to be here.” This is the fulfillment, I believe that we all long to feel: the sense that our lives and tasks may be difficult, but we’re in the right place.