Tuesday, July 2, 2019


My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.

Take all the far out visionary spiritual experiences in the Bible,
         and Elisha’s vision at the Jordan River 
         easily makes the top five.
Who wouldn’t want a rush like that?

But I’m not sure this was really so great.
This story may in fact be a splash of cold water
         in the face of what we think religion is even for. 
A great theologian named Paul Tillich
used to talk about the sin of religion.
Today’s lesson is about the sin of spirituality. 
When I call it a sin, I don’t mean it’s dark or evil. 
The word sin in the Bible literally means to miss the mark
-- and that’s what we’re doing.

We have gotten our religion off course.
We are missing the mark.
Most lot of us want to have a spiritual experience.
We assume religion is way to do that.
We just differ as to what kind of experience we want to have.

Old school evangelicals want to feel remorseful for their sins,
         then enormously relieved to be forgiven.
Pentecostals prefer a kind of delirious ecstasy. 
Contemplatives meditate themselves into a zone 
          of serenity and peace.
Our own renewal movement likes to work up 
          a sentimental affection.

Maybe we get a little experience, but it fades.
Life is then pretty much like it was before.
So we go back and try to get some more spirituality, 
         but this time it doesn’t feel quite the same.
So we keep trying to have the same experience 
          but can’t quite get there. 
We make a religion of trying to repeat old spiritual rushes
          – and a church is as good as its ability
         to help us get into whatever zone we like best.

Well we aren’t gonna outdo Elisha.
He saw God as a fiery chariot in the sky.
My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.

But let’s look at the rest of the story.
Elisha went on to do a few good things.
He also did some magic tricks like making a stone ax-head float.
But as he was bopping back from the Jordan,
still in the new glow of his spiritual high,
some kids made fun of him for being bald.
So Elisha used his prophetic super powers 
          to summon some bears to maul 42 boys.

His mentor Elijah was a defender of the people 
         challenging the kings for abusing their power 
                  and neglecting the poor.
Elisha was the king’s man, working for the royal court,
         helping tyrants win their wars.

The moral of the story is that a religious rush
         doesn’t always make us a better person.
It can even make us worse. 
So what are we doing here?
What is this religion thing all about?

As Christians who trust in the unconditional grace
         of a loving God,
         we aren’t here to earn our way into God’s favor.
But we do have a spiritual problem to address.
Sure God loves us,          
         but are we capable of taking that in
-- especially if taking it in means loving God back
-- especially if God shows up in the guise of eachother?

The poet William Blake said,
         We are put on this earth a little space
          that we might learn to bear the beams of love.
Great teachers from many religions have agreed
         life is an opportunity to grow, to learn,
         to – God help us – change.
We do not change in order to make ourselves acceptable to God.
We change so that we will the capacity to accept God. 

But how does that happen?
How do we let our souls be shaped to make us fit for heaven?
How do we become like Jesus?

I am not saying a spiritual experience of one kind or another 
may not help like a nutritional supplement.
But it’s not the main diet. 
Paul said to the Ephesians,
         the point of life is to grow into the mature body of . .. Christ.
How do we do that?
Paul answers:
         Be humble and gentle,
         bearing one another in love.

We learn to bear the beams of loveas Blake says,
         through the arduous spiritual discipline of 
         bearing one another in loveas Paul says.

Now this bearing one anotherhas a double meaning.
It means to carry each other, to help each other out.
But it also means to endure each other, to put up with each other. 
That’s actually the main meaning of the Greek word Paul used.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus was passing through Samaria
         and hoped to get a meal, maybe stay the night.
But they had that sign up we used to see a lot in the South
         and still see some places.
You know the one: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

The disciples wanted to call down fire on the jerks,
         like Elisha sic’ing bears on bad boys.
But Jesus said,
         Good Lord no! Where were you raised?
          That’s not how we spread the gospel.

Bearing one another in love means enduring other people
         when they are not exactly bearing us in love. 
It’s turn the other cheek. 
It’s Proverbs 15:1 – a gentle answer turns away wrath.
The heart and soul of Christian life 
         isn’t working ourselves up into any sort of feel good state.
We can do that. 
It may even help now and then.

But the heart and soul of Christian life
         is the discipline of how we treat each other.
It isn’t do what comes naturally.
It’s do what comes supernaturally with God’s help.