There is much I want to say today to you before I embark on my sabbatical leave. The lesson from 2 Kings seems on first blush to be perfect. Elijah handing things over to Elisha as he’s whisked away in a chariot to heaven. But once you start laying it out, that would mean I’m getting whisked away by God—who, as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn suggests, would be using a silver Thunderbird instead of a fiery chariot, but I digress—and I’d be leaving Christine behind to pick up the ministry here. Except that knowing her as I do, I would be the one like Elisha asking for a double portion of Christine’s spirit. More so, as someone who has retired from full-time ministry, I suspect Christine will be honored to do this for a season, but then wanting to return to the things she loves that sustain her life. And there’s the simple fact that Elijah is gone forever while I’ll be returning to you in three months time. So that’s not it.
As Genesis describes it in the primal history of the world, everyone used to speak the same language. The kids liked it, as they didn’t have to take a foreign language at school. The adults liked it, because they didn’t even have to deal with regional accents, wondering why someone called soft drinks “soda” or “pop.” The government loved it because it meant that you could get people to do what you wanted with clear instruction. It was all good.
So as the people made their way across the plain in the land of Shinar, they laid out plans for a city and the first skyscraper, a tower reaching up to the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves, to build this impressive and massive fortress. And they imagined that in this skyscraper, they could add in condos—surely costing more the higher you went up—so they could continue to live together instead of being spread over the face of the earth. They wanted the whole world to know that they could do anything they set their minds to.
Twenty years ago, Disney released the animated film “Lilo and Stitch.” The story begins in outer space where an alien mad scientist has engineered a creature whose only goal is to wreak havoc and bring destruction. The government officials deem that the small blue koala looking being named “Experiment 626” has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is banished to a deserted planet on the outer edge of the galaxy. Except that he gets loose and ends up on earth.
“The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step,” according to the well-known adage. But, someone will quickly add, it helps if you know where you’re going, otherwise that 1000 mile journey could turn into quite a few more miles if you head down the wrong path. Make a plan. Chart a course. Envision your future, and then work towards it.
You may remember the Cohen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which hit theaters in 2000. It’s set in 1930s Mississippi about Ulysses Everett McGill—played masterfully by George Clooney—and his two companions who escape from the chain gang on the search for buried treasure. Interestingly, the soundtrack did even better than the film itself, selling millions of copies along the way and winning a Best Album Grammy. It includes the old gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away” sung by bluegrass musicians Allison Krause and Gillian Welch. In the film, the song covers a montage of the three escapees as they begin their journey, enjoying their new found freedom.
No one slept well that weekend. The events from late Thursday night into Friday had left them all shell-shocked. They had enjoyed one last meal together and Jesus had once more taught them instructing them to love one another as he had loved them. Then they went out to the garden, a lovely place that Jesus often visited to pray. That’s when it all unraveled. Judas came with a band of soldiers and religious leaders to arrest Jesus. A skirmish ensued resulting in Peter lopping off the ear of a servant. Jesus cried, “Enough!” picked up the ear and healed the man, and then they led him away. A kangaroo court condemned him, he was whipped, and Pilate ultimately agreed to crucify him. Now he was buried in a tomb. They honored the Sabbath day of rest, but it was mostly filled with tears and questions about how all of this could have happened so suddenly. They had dreamed about this new way of life Jesus taught about, but now he was gone.
A clergy friend sent me a meme this week. It’s of an imagined conversation between the author, a man named Keith, and Jesus.
Keith: “We commemorate the day you died every year.”
Jesus: “Thats nice; what’s that day called?”
Everywhere we turn, we hear about how divided we are as a nation. During the confirmation hearings for judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, we learned how in years past the Senate often supported candidates for the Supreme Court regardless of who nominated them. The late Justice Antonin Scalia—a champion for the conservative side—received a vote of 98-0 in the Senate. His good friend and progressive icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96-3. Justice-elect Brown was confirmed on a “bipartisan” vote of 53-47. Newscasters describe states as “red,” “blue,” or “purple” depending on our voting records. Racial disparities have become increasingly prominent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder nearly two years ago, as well as the sharp disparity of the impact of Covid-19 among wealthy and poor communities in our nation. Hate crimes have risen in our country recently, and in particular crimes based on ethnic, religious, and sexual identity. Friends, we are divided, and collectively we despise each other.
Nearly every year around Palm Sunday, I encounter rumblings about the structure of the liturgy. In particular, it’s about the gospel readings. We begin the morning taking palms and blessing them and hearing about the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. A ruler with any clout, of course, would be riding in a chariot. The people lay their garments and palm branches before him, and they begin shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” For the grumblers, this part is fine. In fact, this is the preferred gospel of the day; it is “Palm Sunday” after all.
If you were alive in the late 80s, you likely recall the slogan on the backs of cars that emerged during that time. No, not the “Baby On Board” placards and all of their various caution sign iterations, but the bumper stickers with the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” It summed up in an instant the desire of the driver: to accumulate as much stuff as they could. It defined the capitalistic American good life, to achieve financial success so you could buy all that your heart desired and then some. Excess was the point, and, of course, keeping up with the Joneses and the Smiths and the McGillicuddys. If you had enough gadgets, your life would be meaningful. Besides achieving “winner” status when you died, you also left all that stuff for your kids to sort through and dispose of.