21 August 2010

General Synod 2010

Sermon for 27 June 2010

2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14

By Sharyn Hall

What a marvelous story about the prophet Elijah carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot! It is a story worthy of all the technological wizardry of Hollywood movies, but I wonder if our experience of supernatural special effects in movies would make us immune to the supernatural qualities of the Elijah story. How would we view the scene of fifty prophets standing in a desert watching a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire sweep up Elijah and carry him out of sight to heaven. Surely, we would believe that this was an act of God. Even in this 21st century, we would find this event startling and difficult to explain in any rational way.

I believe that the discoveries of science are gifts from God given to us through the talents and hard work of gifted people, but sometimes there are phenomena, which defy scientific explanation. The ascent of Elijah would be a spectacular example. If we were experience such an event, we might be jolted out of our arrogant assumption that we human beings have everything under control.

In recent years, the earth has been jolted by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and hurricanes. What do these earthly disasters tell us? For many people, they are warnings of the instability of the earth through climate change. Other people see dire predictions of the apocalypse when the earth will be destroyed. Often these apocalyptic predictions are based on religious writings, particularly from the Bible. Events, which are beyond human power to control or explain, can make people feel fearful and powerless.

In our story of Elijah and his disciple Elisha, Elijah has great spiritual power because he is dedicated to God’s will. Elisha seems fearful and powerless to prevent Elijah from leaving him. He insists on following Elijah wherever he goes. Elisha earnestly desires to have the same spiritual power that Elijah has. He asks Elijah that he may “inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah responds, “You have asked a hard thing, yet if you see me as I am taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” In other words, if God decides that you are worthy of this spiritual gift, you will receive it.

We learn in the story that Elijah’s power was transferred to Elisha through his mantle. Elisha becomes the heir of Elijah by taking up Elijah’s mantle, which gives him awesome power as God’s prophet, but also caries with it great responsibility. Perhaps from this story comes our colloquial phrase, “to inherit the mantle of a leader.” The role of God’s prophet was a dangerous job. If you read the books of Kings in the Old Testament, you will read descriptions of wars, violent revenge, treachery, invasions, blockades and other events of constant strife.

The names of the places in turmoil are familiar: Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria, Damascus, Sidon, Hebron and Samaria. The land of the Bible is the land of the Middle East today, and for thousands of years peace in that land has been fragile and fleeting. It was dangerous to be a prophet or servant of God in Elijah’s day, and it is dangerous to be a prophet or servant of God today in the same lands. Recently I met a servant of God who lives that dangerous life.

One day I was leading a bible study group at our national Synod, and to my surprise the Bishop of Jerusalem sat down beside me. We were studying the story from the Acts of the Apostles about the apostle Philip who was directed by God’s spirit to take a desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he met an Ethiopian court official. As the story unfolds, the Ethiopian learns about Jesus from Philip and he is baptized into the faith.

One of the questions in our study guide asked about the Holy Spirit directing Philip to take that road. I asked Bishop Dawani of Jerusalem about this road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He explained that the road still exists. It is a dangerous road because of the skirmishes between Israeli armed soldiers and Palestinian fighters. He has travelled this road many times because it is a central road of the region.

The Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem extends over five countries: Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Bishop Dawani travels a great deal in the whole region to minister to the clergy and people. The diocese includes 27 parishes and 33 institutions, such as hospitals, schools and homes for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly. His ministry and the mission work of his diocese is the well-being of people regardless of their religious faith. The added challenge to the mission of his church is the constant threat of violence.

Bishop Dawani spoke to the whole Synod about his efforts for peace in the region. He meets with other religious leaders of all faiths to discuss possibilities for the co-existence of the three Abrahamic faiths in the same land. Also the Council of Religious Leaders has started a program called Kids for Peace, in which they bring kids of the three faiths together for summer camps. They believe a hope for peace is in teaching children to respect and care for each other.

When asked if he has advice for our Canadian church, Bishop Dawani declined, but he said he has a prayer that the Canadian church will always be united, because unity is the strength of our witness as disciples of Jesus Christ to give hope, love and courage to others. He urged Anglicans, along with other Christians, to be friendly to both Palestine and Israel as a bridge between Muslims and Jews. In a land of great disunity, Bishop Dawani works and prays for the hope of unity to serve others. Although only about 2% of the population, he believes that Christians can try to convince all sides that peace with dignity is in the best interests of all people.

Having met Bishop Dawani, I’m sure he would object to being called a prophet, but there are similarities between his role and the long list of prophets in the Bible. He calls for another way, a way in which God’s will for peace and reconciliation is possible despite years of violence and revenge among the people. He travels dangerous roads in a land where groups of religious extremists do not welcome his message. Nevertheless, he continues his mission for peace. He urges us as Anglicans to pray for the people of the Middle East, and if at all possible, to go to the land of the Holy One, to talk to the people, to give them hope for their future as people of God. Few people are called by God to be prophets, but we are all called to be God’s servants. It is not always an easy job, but thankfully, it is not usually a dangerous job for us in our corner of the world. Whatever our role or place in God’s plan for us, we can be sure that God’s spirit is there to guide us. Thanks be to God.

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