Rev. George Miller
2 Kings 2:1-14
“Passing on the Tradition ”
June 27, 2010
Once upon a time 3 brothers journeyed along a lonely, winding road at twilight. They reached a river too deep and dangerous to wade through.
But being wizards they waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the water. They were ½ way across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure. It was Death and he was angry that he had been cheated out of 3 lives.
But Death was cunning. Death spoke to them, congratulating the 3 brothers on their use of magic and said they each had earned a prize for their cleverness in evading him.
The oldest brother, a combative type, asked for the most powerful wand of all. So Death made a wand from a nearby tree and gave it to him.
The second brother, an arrogant man, asked for the power to bring people back from Death. So Death gave him a stone from the riverbank.
The youngest brother, a wise soul, didn’t trust Death. He asked for something that allowed him to leave without being followed by Death. Upset, Death handed over his Cloak of Invisibility, which allowed him to sneak up on folk.
So they continue their journey. In due course, the brothers separated, each to his own destination.
The first brother journeyed to a distant village, sought out a wizard he had a quarrel with and defeated him in a duel. Leaving his enemy dead upon the floor, he went to the inn to celebrate, getting drunk and bragging about the wand.
That night, as he slept, another wizard crept up, stole his wand and slit his throat.
And so Death took the first brother for himself.
The second brother journeyed to the home in which he lived alone. He took out the stone and turned it in his hand. The figure of his deceased girlfriend appeared before him.
Yet, she was different: sad and cold, separated from him by a veil; it was clear she did not belong. Driven mad with hopeless longing, he killed himself so to fully be with her.
And so Death took the second brother for himself.
But for decades Death searched for the third brother, unable to find him. It was only when he attained a great age that the youngest brother took off his Cloak of Invisibility, gave it to his son.
He greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly. As equals, they departed this life...
This story is taken from the Harry Potter series. Although Harry Potter is written for children, it is perhaps the most open exploration of life and death in popular culture.
Death: mysterious and unavoidable. It’s what people do not want to talk about, even though it is all around us.
How much of our money, time and creativity goes into finding ways to prevent and hide it? And yet Death always finds a way to creep in.
For example this week is the year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. People are marking it with documentaries, video countdowns, even a chance to stay in a museum filled with his stuff.
But no stone will bring him back. No magic wand will reverse what has transpired, and no cloak will ever conceal him or us from Death’s approach.
Death is a force of nature that few of us know how to face. Hurricanes? People take days to prepare. But how many prepare for death?
In the book “Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals” the authors explore how storytelling and rituals are essential to the human experience, making the claim that when a person knowingly has the chance to face their own death, 3 fears are faced.
There is the fear of being abandoned and alone. Many cultures are aware of this and take measures to make sure that someone will be with the dying person at all times. But for some reason the opposite happens here.
Technology and the fear of our emotions keeps folk away. ICUs allow only 2 visitors at a time or staff encourages people to go home and rest.
Next, the fear of letting go and losing control. After all, that’s what death is, the ultimate letting go. Letting go of one’s belongings, loved ones, and future possibilities.
Finally, the fear of incompleteness, perhaps more feared then death itself. It’s that need to know your life mattered and the desire to do one more thing. It’s that need to visit the summer cabin once more or to make love for the last time.
Abandonment, letting go, incompleteness. We encounter all 3 in today’s scripture. 2 Kings 2 is about Elijah as he comes to the end of his time on earth, and Elisha, his mentee who will not leave his side.
Now I need to be very clear that nowhere in this text is the word death used. Instead it states that Elijah is carried up to the heavens in a whirlwind.
But it sure reads like the story of a man facing his own death.
To understand, Elijah was a prophet, called by God to speak out against the current ruler with their unjust ways and worshiping of false gods.
But Elijah’s time in this world has come to an end, and he knows it. So he goes on this journey, a journey that separates him from the ordinary, perhaps the way some dying folk try to distance themselves. After all, if you pull away first, then others can not desert you.
He’s goes to Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho. But Elisha is with him every step of the way, showing a sacred attachment.
Perhaps it is because Elisha refuses to desert him that Elijah is better able to comes to a place of surrender, where he is able to regain some control.
We see this as Elijah comes to the Jordan, the place where Moses died. He takes his cloak, touches the water, it parts, like the Red Sea.
And in privacy, away from the eyes of the world, Elijah and Elisha stand on dry ground.
Elisha has a request: “Let me inherit from you your passion and spirit for what God called you to do.” In doing so, Elisha was giving assurance to his mentor that his life’s work would not be forgotten or go incomplete.
I wonder how this comforted Elijah.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Elisha has helped Elijah face the three fears of life’s departure: abandonment, loss of control and incompleteness.
The two walk on, talking. What did they talk about? Perhaps shared events, memories, apologies, words of forgiveness, words of closure.
Then something poetic happens. A chariot of fire, horses. It is time. They separate, and Elijah is taken away. When it is obvious that he is gone forever, Elisha breaks down, crying out “Father, Father.”
He picks up Elijah’s cloak, touches it to the waters, and proving that his mentor’s legacy will live on, the waters part, and Elisha goes back to Jericho, back to where there is life and community, back to complete the work of Elijah.
One man leaves the world and another man finds a way to help him pass on the tradition.
So how can the church help the person and their loved ones with sacred transitions and heavenly departures?
How does the church offer a continuity of divine purpose to overcome the discontinuity of death?
How do we give space for the one dying to know they will not be alone, lose all control and die incomplete?
Not too long ago there was a popular song that told us to “live as if you’re dying.” But today I want to challenge us by asking “How do we die as if we have lived?”
As Christians we do this by recalling the life, teachings and death of Jesus Christ.
For example, we can look at the Gospel of Luke. Did you know that in Luke we not only have the most time devoted to Jesus’s birth, but it is also the Gospel in which most of the story is told as Jesus is making his fated walk to Jerusalem?
It is on his journey to the cross that Jesus is teaching, healing and sharing meals.
For me, nothing shows this more then the Last Supper. It was a way for Jesus to face to his own death without being alone, by maintaining some sort of control and to pass on his legacy.
Listen to the words of Paul as he recalls the Last Supper in 1 Corithians 11:
“For I have received from the Lord what I pass on to you. The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and after he had given thanks he took the bread and broke it, saying ‘This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way after supper he took the cup saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of me.’
For every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.”
By creating a new tradition in his memory, Jesus finds a way to bring new life out of his death.
And I believe that because Jesus so well prepared his disciples for his death, he created a way for them to experience his resurrection; in the garden, by the shore, at the table.
So what does this mean for us?
It means that as Christians we can find ways to die as if we have lived. We can have open dialogues about death: our death, the death of loved ones.
We can finding ways to reach out, to not separate.
We can learn how to tell our stories, share our dreams so that when it is our time to depart from this world, someone else can pick up our mantle, and give us a sense of peace that what we did, and what we cared about will continue to live on.
In conclusion, if discussing death makes us feel uncomfortable or creates a sense that we are losing control, we can seek out comfort and assurance in our faith.
Assurance that the God who began life’s journey with us is the very same God who will find ways to sustain us.
Comfort that Jesus Christ, who has gone on before us, will show us the way.
And that we can live because we love life, and we can die knowing that we have truly lived.
We do not need a magic wand or a magic stone or a Cloak of Invisibility. For if we have lived our lives the best as we can, we can greet Death like an old friend, prepared for the next part of the journey.
Thanks be to the Spirit that carries us across the waters, to God who calls each and every one of us home, and to Jesus who walks with us every step of the way, never leaving our side.
Amen and amen.