"On Not Letting Jesus out of our Sight"
This past Sunday afternoon my husband and I were quickly getting ready for a short trip out of town. We were just planning to be gone over night – just a short trip to see family and relax a bit – but of course even though it was a short trip, there were still suitcases and bags of books and knitting and miscellaneous all gathered together on the living room floor. The signs were unmistakable. We were leaving. And it seems that our dog, Scout, also noticed something was amiss – because she started staying very close to me. She went wherever I went and would not leave my side. That's how she was dealing with the stress of the changed situation in our living room. She was not letting me out of her sight. I think she wanted to make sure that in the scheme of things, she would not be left behind.
It strikes me that in the strange (first) lesson we have today – the reading about the old prophet Elijah and his young disciple – something like this is going on. Elisha is capable of reading all of the signs – and he knows that his master is going away. Elijah keeps telling him to stay where he is, and Elisha keeps following. He won’t give up. I like the way this story reads in Eugene Peterson’s translation: "The Message:"
Just before God took Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on a walk out of Gilgal. Eijah said to Elisha, "Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to Bethel." Elisha said, "Not on your life! I’m not letting you out of my sight!" So they both went to Bethel. The guild of prophets at Bethel met Elisha and said, "Did you know that God is going to take your master away from you today?" "Yes," he said, "I know it. But keep it quiet. Then Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to Jericho." Elisha said, "Not on your life! I’m not letting you out of my sight!" So they both went to Jericho...."
Well, you can see where this is headed, with Elijah continuing on his journey and with Elisha, the younger man, refusing to be left behind, refusing to leave. And in this strange story we hear today (actually one of two strange stories), it’s one thing we perhaps can understand, can’t we? We can understand, on more than one level, the desire not to be left behind, the desire to stay in the presence. It’s a feeling that children have, I think, particularly at a certain age, and while Elisha is not a child, he is a young man, and there’s some security, there’s some comfort in being in the presence of the powerful prophet. It’s the comfort of having someone with you that knows the answers, that you can count on, a sure guide in a time of storms. I’m reminded of the child at bedtime who is afraid of the dark, and tells his mother to stay after the prayers are done. "Well," she reminds him, "God will be with you." "But I want someone with skin on!" the child wisely replies.
"I’m not letting you out of my sight!" Elisha says to Elijah, as they travel from Gilgal to Bethel, from Bethel, to Jericho, from Jericho to the river Jordan. "I know that God is with me, but I want someone with skin on!" And we can understand that cry, as the cry of a child looking for comfort and guidance and wisdom when the darkness is descending. We can understand that, living as we do in a world of uncertainty – especially these days, as more and more people are losing their jobs, as international tensions again heat up.
But there’s something else going on in this strange story as well – something else amid the chariots and the whirlwind and walking across the Jordan on dry land – all strange events – something else that causes Elisha to exclaim and to tell his teacher, "I’m not letting you out of my sight!" He does not want to lose his teacher and his guide, the one who has been a spiritual father to him. All of us who are adult children and have had to let parents and grandparents go perhaps know this feeling – among all of the feelings of grief that we feel, among all of the feelings of the pain of separation and the loss of a precious relationship, there is also a weight we feel passing to us, isn’t there? It’s the weight of the mantle of leadership coming to us. It’s the leadership of the family, the leadership of a congregation, the leadership of a community. And when faced with taking up that mantle of leadership, we might say, with Elisha, "I’m not letting you out of my sight!" We realize that this is a big responsibility, too big for us. That is, by the way, what is behind Elisha’s request for a "double share of Elijah’s spirit." He knows that he will be taking on a work too big for him, and that he’s going to need all of the help he can get.
It seems to me that something similar is going on in today’s gospel reading – another strange story – Jesus on the mountain with his disciples suddenly begins to shine and he’s transfigured – transformed – before their eyes. With Jesus are the two greatest prophets in Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah. It’s a revelation of who Jesus really is, the Messiah of God – although of course they don’t know yet all that this will mean. Jesus has just predicted his own suffering, death, and resurrection, but no one understands it. And Jesus has said as well, that the ones who follow him, are also going to bear a cross, are going to suffer.... and are going to shine in glory, too. Jesus’ disciples are going to continue in his way, he tells them, and it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy.
And so when Peter and the others see the glory on the mountain, they also want to capture the moment – Peter says, in effect, "I’m not letting you out of my sight!" And who can blame him? He needs the comfort, the guidance, the love – and the power – of the shining Jesus, because he knows that he has a big job to do, and that he won’t be able to do it alone. Like the young prophet Elisha, he needs all the help he can get. "I’m not letting you out of my sight!" He says, and he considers building booths, so they can stay awhile. They consider making the mountain into a shrine, a place where they can come back to and say, "here is where it happened! Here is where everything was clear. Here is where the glory shone." Because they know that they can’t take a picture on the mountain, and carry it with them. They can’t carry the glory in their hands and put it in their pockets and take it with them. But that’s not what they need, really. What they really need is Jesus, and his presence, feeding them, guiding them, transfiguring them.
And that’s just what they get. For the shining goes away, but unlike Elijah, at the end of this story, Jesus does not go away. He goes down the mountain with them, back to the world with them, to continue teaching them and feeding them and setting them free. He goes down the mountain with them – it’s just that he’s not shining any more. The truth is, he doesn’t shine all that often. But he’s still the Messiah, the son of God, the one worth following, the one we don’t want to let out of our sight .... because where he is .... is life, abundant life, eternal life.
"Not on your life! I’m not letting you out of my sight!" is the cry of a disciple whose master is still here, not just among us, but within us. It’s the cry of a disciple who knows that the work she has been called to is hard, and important: to raise the children and teach them in the way, to feed the hungry, to bind up the wounded, to repair the bridges, and to build roads. "I’m not letting you out of my sight" is another way of saying, "I’m following you, wherever you go, to grief or to glory." And we will experience both grief and glory, as we keep our eyes on Jesus, as we seek to transform our lives, our congregation, our community. Notice that Elisha received both things, both grief and glory, as he saw his master ascend. And know that the disciples as well experienced grief and glory, the joy of new life, the pain of suffering and failure, as they followed Jesus.... down the mountain, to the cross....where he was not shining. where he was alone, where he was and still is the Messiah.
And we may not want to let him out of our sight, but even when we lose sight of him, he’s still with us. He’s promised to be with us, in ordinary things and in ordinary ways. First, in water, and bread and wine. Not exotic things, but ordinary things. And also in ordinary life — in the store clerk you look in the eye as she’s ringing up your groceries, in the child who sleeps in our church for a week, at the kitchen tables where we gather and in the hospital rooms and the nursing homes and the nurseries, and the classrooms. We follow him back to ordinary life, where there are bodies and souls to heal, including our own, and where there are bridges to build, and people to feed, including us.
And you can be sure that even when we lose sight of him, in the midst of daily life, that he won’t let us out of his sight.