This sermon was preached on November 12, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is II Kings 4:8-37.
When I was in my early twenties, there was a season when I found myself In Between. I was living in a different city for a year, grieving a relationship that had ended, beginning a new job. I’m pretty sure all of us, at some point, have lived through these seasons of In Between.
During this year, sometimes on a Sunday, I would walk the few blocks to the church on the corner. I would try to time it so that I would walk in just as they were finishing the greeting time, and I would sit in the back by the door so I could get out of there in a hurry. I loved the music. This church also had a magnificent choir, and I can tell you, the music saved my life.
I didn’t know anybody at this church, and I made sure they didn’t know me. I would just sit in the back, and cry, and sing, and wonder about God. Like I was waiting to be found. Or found out. And if you have ever been wounded by a church… If you have wondered whether you are really Christian, if you have heard God go quiet, then you know this season.
These days, when I think about what it means to be part of the church, I will tell you that our relationships with each other are what matter. We get closer to Christ by getting closer to each other. Learning how to pronounce each other’s names is critically important. Giving money to the church, serving on committees, showing up to help when help is needed, this is how we are the church, this is the kin-dom of God. I preach a Gospel of stepping up, and going out, and giving more…
Then I remember. I would not be part of Church of Peace if it weren’t for that big city church that let me show up late, and sit in the back, and pretty much just watch the worship service until the Spirit found me. They made a sanctuary for me when I had become untrusting of churches, and their grace and space is part of what helped me come back.
When I look back on my journey so far, I see the pulsing ebb and flow. There are seasons of vivid connection when I’m in tune with the singing, and busy with the work, and alive in the immensity of the Spirit. And there are other seasons —with more distance, and drifting, and wonder.
And maybe this ebb-and-flow dynamic of intimacy and distance is not really the problem. Maybe this movement of coming together and drifting apart is part of a larger story, and it’s this larger story that holds out the hope.
Today we’re continuing the fall series called Choosing Family. Each Sunday, we’ve been hearing Bible stories about families. We’ve seen Esau forgive Jacob, and Jesus get arrested by his relatives, and Esther put her life on the line. Well, this morning’s family story is long and strange.
As we remember what happened, I invite you to pay attention to the action; notice where characters move closer together and then further apart. More than the dialogue, the plot is carried by the choreography. You know, a dance company would get this story exactly right.
The action begins early in Elisha’s ministry. Elisha was the protege of Elijah who had been taken into heaven so now Elisha is establishing himself as a prophet. He’s off to a good start because a wealthy Shunammite woman notices his holiness. “Instead of simply offering him a meal when he passes through town, we should step up and give more,” she tells her husband. They decide to build him a bedroom in their house so he’ll always have a place to stay. Which is lovely. It’s what happens next that is bizarre.
It’s like Elisha can’t speak directly to this woman. He summons her to meet him in the bedroom. Notice the intimacy. But then he speaks to her through his servant Gehazi, as though Gehazi is translating. Notice the distance. Elisha asks Gehazi to ask the woman: “What can we give you to thank you for building us this bedroom? Maybe a good word with the king or the commander of the army?” But no thank you! She does not want that.
So Gehazi points out the detail that in just about any other Bible story would have been the central conflict. “Um, hello. She doesn’t have children. Her husband is old.” Elisha calls her again. This time he says to her face, “You will have a son.” She answers back: “Do not lie to me.” Then she gets pregnant. And if this were the end of the story, we would have a splendid morality tale about generosity. Give a prophet a bedroom, and he’ll give you a baby. This seems like the end, and it is not the end.
One day when the child was older and Elisha was gone, the boy got sick and died. The woman carried her son into Elisha’s empty bedroom and laid him out on the prophet’s bed. Then she’s out the door! She saddled the donkey, summoned her servant, and they’re off to get Elisha. God help anyone who tries to stop her!
Now the next scene is magnificent. Elisha looks out and sees her coming, so he sends Gehazi to find out if everything’s all right. But she doesn’t want to speak to Gehazi! When she reaches Elisha, she grabs a hold of him, and Gehazi tries to stop her and can’t. Listen to what Elisha says in verse twenty-seven: “Leave her alone; she is in bitter distress. The LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me.”
At the beginning of the story, this Shunammite woman sees that Elisha is a holy man. In this moment, Elisha sees that she is in bitter distress. Notice the intimacy. But the LORD kept this hidden from Elisha; God was not speaking. Notice the distance.
Once Elisha realized the boy was in peril, he did what you’d expect. He sent Gehazi to the rescue. Thankfully, the Shunammite woman did what you’d expect and threatened Elisha: “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you.”
When they got to the house, and Gehazi had failed, and the boy was still dead, Elisha went up into the bedroom. He prayed to the LORD summoning God out of her hiding, and Elisha laid down on top of this child —mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. The boy sneezed seven times and came back to life. The woman got her son back; Elisha and Gehazi went on their way. And this seems like the end, and it is not the end.
All through this story, moments of poignant intimacy keep interrupting and redirecting that strange unsettling distance. When it comes to our faith, I’m wondering whether we can relate, whether you know this dynamic, whether you know the season of feeling so vividly connected to God, so charged up with the Spirit only to find there are other seasons…
Indeed, this is the day when our commitment to the church is being demanded. A few minutes ago, we made promises to Ellie and her family; we promised the whole church that we are in this together. We will sing Blessed Be the Tie that Binds and affirm that moving closer to each other is what draws us closer to Christ. These are the weeks we’re asked to pledge money to the church, to step up, and go out, and give more. And there’s no way I can do this without remembering the church that let me show up late, and sit in the back, and keep my distance from the divine.
What if all of this is part of God’s story for creation — all the moving closer and the pulling apart? And what if the story is not over…
When the boy sneezes seven times and comes back to life, that’s not the last time Elisha sees him. Later, Elisha saves their family by urging them to relocate to avoid a famine, and they do. After seven years, Elisha helps this same Shunammite family get their home back (II Kings 8:1-6).
And get this, there’s even a folk legend that when Elisha dies, another deceased man is thrown up against Elisha’s bones and then comes back to life (II Kings 13:20-21). Some speculate that this is the Shunammite’s son, so Elisha actually saves him twice. The whole story is more than the miracle of her pregnancy, more than the miracle of his revival, and the story is still going.
Today we make promises to Ellie, and (God willing) there will be many more baptisms here. Today at lunch you’ll be invited to make a commitment to pay for the two thousand eighteen church budget. But (God willing), there will be many more budgets. I can pretty much assure you, every year I will ask you to give more to the church.
If you can step up, if you can give more, I hope you will. The fact is, the church is spending more money than we’re bringing in. I pledge to Church of Peace to help close this gap. I pledge out of gratitude for the church that took me in when I had nothing to give, and I pledge so that one day Ellie can stand on these steps and give a Children’s Time about her grandparents if she wants to. If you can make a new commitment to Church of Peace of money, or prayer, or time, please do.
And when you can’t, that’s exactly why we’re in this together.
Maybe the distance between you and God is growing.
Maybe getting out of bed takes everything you have and sometimes more.
When you’re the one who needs to show up late, and sit in the back, and soak up the singing, and hope people don’t notice the tears on your face, know this: You are still in the story. You are still part of us and part of God whose love reigns from everlasting to everlasting, whose story is still unfolding. See, we are always helping each other come back to life. It might seem like the end; it is not the end.