"Beyond what we can see"

February 9, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9

A week ago today, our sister-by-faith (and for two in our midst, a sister-by-blood), Martha Reed was taken from us. I don’t believe anyone in the nursing home when she breathed her last saw any "chariots of fire" taking her home. Of course, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. So much is beyond our ability to see, at least with these two eyes.

In the funeral home and at the memorial service, these eyes did see much rejoicing. Yes, we were sad to let her go, but no one would wish for her last days on this earth to continue. Toward the end she didn’t recognize anyone, at least not as far as we could tell. Furthermore, moving her from chair to bed was very painful. Her outer body was wasting away, and none of us wanted for her to remain in such a state, not since far more awaited her on the other side of death.

Her funeral on Thursday was a celebration. We sought to place her last days in a broader perspective, seeing as much of her four score and eleven years as we could. She was quite a woman, remarkably gifted - proof that a fifth grade education is worth something. Could she ever write poetry? It just flowed off her pen. Speaking of which, let me read you one of hers I found in preparing the funeral, entitled, "Elijah." Though the events to which it refers are not the ones from this morning’s lesson, I think it’s appropriate for this hour.

By the banks of the brook Cherith
        An indignant prophet stood.
But for sin he would never be there.
        This man loved only the good.

A wicked king many prophets slayed
        Only Elijah was saved
Provided food by ravens, God sent,
        As the king’s men stormed and raved.

Rain and dew, from the earth three years withheld
        Calming men of their madness.
When Elijah came forth from hiding
        They greeted him with gladness.

He made them a proposition so bold
        Proving his God was alive,
He prayed for fire on the wet wet wood
        As those others did connive.

Many were turned from idols that day
        To worship the one true God.
A miracle caused their minds to change
        As flames licked up the wet sod.

Can you fathom idol worship now?
        We see it on every hand.
Worship of riches, worship of things
        A craze is sweeping our land.

Unsuspectingly guilty, sad fate
        No reform, but just delay
These are good folks, have never done ill
        Only mistaken their way.

Must another Elijah come forth
        To set things right again?
Think about this, for what it is worth
        Picture three years without rain.          (1963)

Another Elijah. When Jesus asked his disciples who the people were saying he was behind his back, they informed him that many thought he was another Elijah. Lord knows such a prophet is always needed, though rarely received with eager anticipation. Of course, Jesus was more than just "another Elijah." The disciple Peter recognized as much when the Lord put him on the spot, asking: "who do you say I am?"

"You’re the Messiah," he replied in a rare moment of insight; "you are the Christ of God." From the mountaintop of that affirmation, Peter then fell to the pits. Such glimpses of truth can be fleeting, can’t they? It wasn’t that long afterward that Jesus took Peter, James and John up a real mountain with him, the episode we recalled with the children earlier. Again, a moment of insight, a vision of something far more than the three disciples could comprehend. As usual, Peter made a dumb remark. I’ve said many times, Peter is "my" disciple, constantly sticking his foot in his mouth, like me. He has a vision, but often doesn’t know what to do with it. That’s the story of my life.

Elisha had a vision, also, a moment of insight which he didn’t miss. He went on from it to become another Elijah, a powerful prophet. Because he saw the chariots of fire upon which his mentor ascended in a whirlwind into heaven, Elisha inherited a double share of Elijah’s spirit. That is, he carried on where his elder left off. The baton was passed. Elijah dropped his overcoat, his "mantle" as he left earth, and Elisha picked it up and put it on. By the way, Elisha is quite a persistent fellow, isn’t he? Three times Elijah tried to just sneak away. But does Elisha let him? No, he follows from Bethel, to Jericho, to the banks of the Jordan river and across.

On the far side of that not-so-deep river Elijah was taken up, one of the few in the Bible not to taste death, or so it would seem. These eyes aren’t too good at seeing everything that is. There is so much more to reality than what we can observe. Take our departed sister Martha. The week before her death I was visiting with her son, Emory. We talked about how her mind had been slowly slipping away for a long time. When I arrived on the scene six years ago, she was not the sharp person many of you knew. I likened a visit with her to an 8-track tape. Remember those? A continuous loop which, if you listened long enough, would bring you back to the beginning of the tape. After so long in a visit with her, she’d begin repeating herself. As time went on, the loop got smaller. By then end, there didn’t seem to be any loop.

What had become of her memory? Was it lost? Where was the woman we knew? Those aren’t dumb questions. They affect our faith. They get at what truly lasts. As Emory and I spoke and prayed, I tried to open up a broader panorama of reality that goes beyond what seems to be an ever smaller loop, a slowly erasing tape, brain cells dying one by one. How do we talk about a person’s spirit? Is it different from what is stored in the cranium? Yes. But how do we speak of it?

In the course of our conversation, Emory recalled a book he’d read several years earlier, entitled Flatland. Written by a mathematician at the end of the last century, this fictional tale enjoyed renewed popularity a decade ago. In it, author Edwin Abbott imagines what it would be like to describe what living in three dimensions is like to someone who lives only in two, or even one dimension. Pretty near impossible to do. A person who has lived in "flatland" all their life cannot begin to fathom anything more.

Well, in a way, we live in our own "flatland." There is a spiritual dimension of which we can only get glimpses, even those who are alive to the Spirit. We were tempted to think that the person we knew Martha Reed to be was slowly being erased. But such would be a flattened view of reality. There is, however, much more than we can possibly see. Jesus spoke of being born from above, born of the spirit, without which we just can’t even fathom what God’s realm is. How can one enter a place if he or she can’t catch a glimpse of the door? There is, after all, so much more than what we can see.

With Martha, I have to believe that her spirit, which was so obviously touched by God’s creative hand, was alive and well even as her mind was going. There just weren’t the connections in this "flatland" which allowed us access to her eternal spirit. But God’s Holy Spirit was not hampered by our inability. I believe that there was communion between Martha and her God right up to the end. And now she is no longer limited by the earthly vessel which once contained her. Martha’s spirit runs free in the kingdom of God, reunited with the cloud of witnesses who has gone before, with the heavenly host which surrounds us even now, in face-to-face communion with God. But how do you describe it?

In this morning’s two stories from scripture, there is talk of transfigurations and chariots of fire, clothes that are dazzling white and a whirlwind that reaches up to heaven. This is the territory of imagination, folks, where we try to transcend our limited sense of vision. Hey, so often I can barely see beyond what needs to be done today, the bills to be paid, the checkbooks to be balanced, the visits to be made, the booths that need to be built... What? The disciple Peter had a glimpse of eternity and all he could imagine was constructing three huts for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. Sounds like me.

There is so much more than what we can see. There are, however, those rare moments - times when we feel the presence of Christ, the touch of God’s Spirit. Actually, they aren’t as rare as we might think. Perhaps it’s a matter of the persistence of Elisha. Y’all were the persistent ones this morning, deciding to come to church even though you might not be too sure of the roads after yesterday’s snowfall and the night’s freeze. Tell, were you rewarded by some rare beauty along your journey here? The landscape was greatly changed, wasn’t it, so different from how it was just on Friday. So it is with our life in the Spirit. There is so much more than what we can see, and feel, and touch - even beyond what these limited brain cells can comprehend.

Put on your heavenly imaginations, brothers and sisters, let’s gather at the river, with Elijah and Elisha, with John who gave us the book of Revelation and its vision of God’s city, with the disciples Peter, James, and John, with our departed sister Martha, with Jesus... Let’s gather at the river and sing our spirit’s song.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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