Mother Ann’s sermon preached Feb. 14, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Feb 14, 2021 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Watch and Remember

February 14, 2021

This morning we look on as the prophet Elijah strides through the Promised Land. You and I might stumble over the place names he visits, but the Israelites know them all by heart. They are sacred places where God had been encountered in the past, at crucial moments when the people needed to find their way forward. At this place God spoke through that prophet, and the Israelites were led over there; then God spoke through another prophet, and they were again led onward. One after another, Elijah revisits the sites of famous God-driven fresh starts, only today he proceeds with the laser focus of an astronaut counting down to his own launch—4,3,2,1…

4. As our reading begins, God’s voice comes to the prophet Elijah in a settled place called Gilgal.  Before him spreads a vast circle of commemorative stones, set in place gratefully by Israelites as they reentered the Promised Land.  Their homecoming marked both the end of slavery in Egypt, and a miraculous journey through the wilderness led by Moses. But that was then, and this is now. Times have changed and God is on the move. It is Elijah’s turn to lead, and he senses he is running out of time. Watch, and remember.

3. Elijah huffs and puffs upland toward Bethel. Long ago at Israel’s beginning, this is where God had called out to the prophet Abraham, “Abraham, I will make of you a great people and bless you…and all peoples of the earth will find blessing in you.” Right then and there, Abraham halts his aimless wandering, resolutely pitches his tent, and stacks stone upon stone to build an altar to God. But alas, with time the Israelites wander away. Watch, and remember.

2. Leaving Bethel behind, God steers Elijah back down the slopes toward Jericho, the place where Israel’s return to their Promised Land had been blocked by hostile Canaanites. At God’s instigation, Joshua leads the Israelites in a great circle march around Jericho’s fortified walls, and at the blast of sacred hymns and horns, the walls just crumble. For now God’s chastened people regain their Promised Land.  Watch, and remember.  

1. Finally God presses Elijah to exit Jericho, and make one remaining sprint across the Jordan River valley.  On the far side he sloshes through the river’s shallows, to the very place where the humbled people had once mustered for that triumphal re-entry. Elijah knows this acclaimed spot well; he has returned here to preach many times, and this last arrival brings his life full circle. Having shown young Elisha the way to journey on with God, he is winding up his ministry.

4, 3, 2, 1— for the benefit of Elisha, and for us, Elijah has retraced the stages of Israel’s salvation history: at the start came God’s covenant made with Abraham, and then the wandering away and the battle under Joshua to return, and finally the crossing of the sacred boundary separating God’s Promised Land from everything else on earth. It is here, at this watery frontier, that we watch Elijah launched beyond life in a burst of flame and speed. One day in the future, John the Baptist will return to this very place to baptize Jesus.  But for now young Elisha is left behind to bravely carry on, relying only on Elijah’s parting promise: ‘If you watch and see me as I am being taken from you, and if you remember all that I have shown you, your prayer for sharing in my spirit will be answered.’ That is, if you have watched and remembered, young man, you will live in such a way that you can see God’s presence in the world as I have, and others will see it through you.  

The power of watching and remembering lies at the heart of today’s Gospel. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a hillside to personally witness his reunion with Moses and Elijah. Like young Elisha, the disciples are deeply shaken by the sacred encounter. Jesus senses how high voltage from heaven has overwhelmed them, and he cautions them not to think they can just go back home and convince others about this mountaintop experience. It’s simply one of those experiences where you had to have been there.  Ah, but go back home and manage to give your friends and neighbors some Christ-like example to watch and remember, now that’s the stuff of which the Kingdom of God gets made.

I want to tell you about my own first watch-and-remember experience.  I was really quite young, so young I couldn’t be trusted to keep my bed dry at night.  My no-nonsense Mom refused to take diapers on vacation, and so she and my Dad left me at home with my regular sitter, Miss Florrie.  Come Sunday morning, Miss Florrie, who was also no-nonsense, packed me off to church with her.  She sat me down right next to her in the front pew, where thankfully I could watch and remember what was going on. To this day I can still see the black-gowned pastor striding into the sanctuary, turning on his heel to face the congregation, and opening worship with verse 1 of Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go unto the house of the Lord.’”  My little brown eyes blinked in amazement as they swept the chancel before me.  I had never seen anything like it, and I said to myself, “I am glad to be here.”

Again, as a seasoned adult going through an especially bleak and trying time, a Christian friend took me out for coffee, and listened attentively to my struggles.  When I finished he sat silently for a bit, and then offered five gentle words of encouragement.  “I’ll believe for you now,” he said softly, “I’ll believe for you now.” What a revelation that was! What a relief! As my own faith was being tried, my soul could rest in the generous belief of a fellow Christian.

We all have our own stories to tell—if we can but recall them—about times when some ordinary believer simply drew alongside us in the moment, or paused to bear a burden with us. Someone, somewhere, simply allowed us to watch as they lived out their faith.  How else could we be here today, had we not watched and remembered those sacred moments?  Now it is our turn to do as they did, and live in such a way that others watching us can see God’s presence in the world, and draw on that sacred memory to lead them on.  Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.

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