Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: Learning to See

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Learning To See
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 26, 2016

A distinctive feature of Presbyterians is that we ordain not only pastors or teaching elders, but also ruling elders and deacons. All three take the very same ordination vows, plus a vow specific to each ministry area. Because they are ordained or “set apart,” deacons and ruling elders are also required to have training and to be examined “as to their personal faith; knowledge of the doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church; and the duties of the ministry.”[1]
As part of this training, elders and deacons here at FCPC utilize an online video series that includes a helpful study guide. We also ask them to write a personal faith statement, and one of those study guides provides helps for this. It lists a number of faith topics and then asks people  to complete “I believe…” statements about each one. People jot down thoughts on what they believe about God, sin, Church, humanity, scripture, and so on, the sort of things you might expect someone to include in a personal faith statement or creed. But one of the belief topics initially struck me as a bit odd: “End times.”
End times. This in the study guide of a very Presbyterian, academically oriented, video. At first I planned to skim the topic in training. I was never asked about end times when I was going through the ordination process for pastor. Surely this was something of a fringe topic.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important the topic actually is. If Church leaders do not have a picture of what God is up to in the world, of the future that God will bring, how can we show the world the hope of God’s new day? When Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he could do so because he had a clear sense of God’s purposes, of where history is ultimately headed.
I wonder if being able to see God’s purposes and ends isn’t a part of today’s story about Elijah, Elisha, fiery horses, and chariot. I’m thinking of the part where Elisha asks Elijah to inherit a “double share” of his spirit. That request may not be what you think. A “double share” was the inheritance typically given the eldest son who would carry on the family lineage. Elisha is asking that he be successor, the one to continue Elijah’s ministry.
Elijah gives a strange answer to this request. It depends. It depends on whether or not Elisha has learned how to see things that are not earthly but heavenly. It depends on Elisha knowing how to see beyond the sphere of human activity and glimpse the work of the divine.

Elijah looms large in Israel’s story. In our passage, we see allusions to Moses in the parting of the waters so that they ford the river “on dry ground.” Previously Elijah had been to Mt. Sinai and had a Moses-like encounter with God. Elijah has served God at a critical time in Israel, but who will continue his important work? Who will speak for God in a time when Israel’s kings had turned away from God?
God previously commanded Elijah to call Elisha as his successor, and presumably Elijah has been mentoring Elisha, teaching him to see, ever since. But he never tells Elisha he is the successor, and in our reading, he still sounds uncertain about Elisha’s ability to see. “If you see…” he says to Elisha. If you see...
Jesus says something similar to those who will succeed him, but he says “When,” not “If.” After the resurrection, just before he ascends to heaven, Jesus says to his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…” The disciples will continue Jesus’ ministry when divine presence dwells in them.
I think both Elijah and Jesus speak to the necessity of an indwelling spiritual presence for those engaged in ministry, whether prophetic ministry or our shared ministry as the Church, Christ’s body in the world. And Jesus makes clear that this spiritual presence, this capacity to glimpse the divine, is not about special abilities or credentials. It is a gift given to us so that we can be witnesses, so that we can be Christ’s body, so that we can see what God is up to.
Speaking of being Christ’s body, when the Session first received the results of the Congregational Assessment Tool or CAT that many of you took, the report included a list of so-called “Performance” items such as hospitality, morale, conflict management, worship and music, and governance. Our hospitality score was a bit low, but the rest of the scores were reasonably good, with one exception. Our score on “spiritual vitality” was remarkably low.
When I looked at the raw data behind the score, it was clear that there are many deeply spiritual people in our congregation. The score is not an absolute one. Rather it indicates that our percentage of those for whom spirituality and faith are a central part of their lives is lower than in most churches.
Some of this may come from our church’s personality type, another item from the CAT report. We’re described as a culture “ultimately concerned with the rational integrity of their faith, the just application of faith to life, and the journey of understanding.” At our best, says the report, we “exhibit deep knowledge, open discourse, and intellectual curiosity,” and can be “a powerful ally for those in need of advocacy.”  All wonderful things, gifts that can be a great strength of congregations such as ours.
But all gifts have a shadow side, and ours is a tendency to overvalue rational thinking and reason, which means we often undervalue the non-rational such as emotion and mystery, a description that fits me personally as well.
If you’re at all like me, you may have discovered that along with the gifts of such personality traits come blind spots. We may not read emotions well, may misread what others feel or think and misread how they see us. At times we may struggle with relationships. We may even have trouble with the whole faith thing. Faith, after all, is not entirely rational.
Faith is about saying “Yes” to something we haven’t yet figured out, trusting something we don’t really “know” in a logical sense, believing something we can’t quite see. In some sense both faith and true conversion are about discovering a different way of knowing, a new way of seeing. Rational thinking can be a great ally of such things once they are seen and known, but it will never see them or know them by itself.
I think that is why Jesus says we have to deny our self and the Apostle Paul says the old self must die. We cannot discover our new self in Christ, our true self, without letting go of certainties, ego, and identity. We cannot trust the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, otherwise. We cannot glimpse heavenly things simply with our minds. Fortunately, God gifts us with the Spirit, if we will let her guide us.
Recently I’ve been rereading one of my favorite little books, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, by Richard Rohr. In a chapter entitled “Vision of Enchantment” he says, “All religious teachers have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.”[2] The chapter concludes with this.
Finally, Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. He teaches what many thought a leader could never demand of his followers: love of the enemy. Logically that makes no sense. But soulfully it makes absolute sense, because in terms of the soul, it really is all or nothing. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see it, we’re trapped. We see it once and the circle keeps moving out. If we still try to exclude some (sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays, or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t yet understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too. The ability to respect the outsider is probably the litmus test of true seeing. It doesn’t even stop with human beings and enemies and the least of the brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. One God, one world, one truth, one suffering, and one love. All we can do is participate. [3]

[1] Book of Order 2015-2017: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), G-2.0402
[2] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 29.
[3] Ibid., 58-59.

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