Confirmation Sunday: May 15, 2011
2 Kings 2:19-25
19Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.
23He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.
If you’ve never heard this story before, I wouldn’t feel too bad; it’s not widely circulated in Christian circles. And if you’re absolutely horrified by this story, I wouldn’t feel too bad either, that seems like an appropriate response, really.
This passage is perhaps one of the most disturbing and violent stories in all of scripture. One commentator writes, “No other passage in the Elisha cycle has offended the moral sensibilities of readers more than [this] episode…” (Choon-Leong Seow).
Most preachers would avoid this story like the plague, and rightly so! Luckily, most don’t even have to try to avoid it as it never comes up in any of the lectionary cycles. It’s like people knew that no one would really want to preach on this.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to preach on this. In fact, the lectionary passage for this Sunday is John chapter 10: Jesus the Good Shepherd. And today being Confirmation Sunday, how lovely would it have been to talk about the confirmands being guided like sheep by Jesus to green pastures and still waters, sheep who hear and recognize his voice, and get this: never leave the shepherd or go astray… it’s all so peaceful and idyllic. It’s exactly what we want for our young people as we baptize and confirm them. So why would I go out of my way to choose to preach on a little-known passage from 2 Kings?
Well, some would argue that something like this isn’t really my choice, but the movement of the Holy Spirit. And maybe there is something to that. But I certainly did make a conscious decision to go with this passage. See, unlike other pastors who might be able to fully avoid this story and pretend it doesn’t exist in the Bible, I work with youth. And I have heard it referenced all year long. It is a confirmation class favorite. When we began our Bible unit, it dominated our conversation.
And sure, if you’re not put in a position to try and explain why it’s in the bible or what on earth it could it mean for us today, I guess it could be a fabulous passage. It’s got miracles, bald heads, taunting young boys, and, well, then there’re those she-bears and the mauling….it all makes for pretty exciting stuff, I suppose.
Quite honestly, I’m preaching on this passage because our confirmands entreated me to do so. When they first asked me several months ago, I had my doubts that it would ever happen. The more I thought about it the more I realized that today was really the only Sunday I could justify preaching on this story, so I decided to oblige them.
The more I sat with these verses, comparing them to what I could be preaching from the lectionary, the more I realized, however, that our lives are actually often a lot more like this 2 Kings story than the peaceful, obedient images found in the passage in John. Most of us aren’t like those sheep who follow the good shepherd and never stray.
Rather, our lives more often resemble this she-bear story: one minute full of hope and life, and the next, facing deep, unexplainable and confusing tragedy.
Like the tornadoes and the floods that have ravaged our country these past few weeks, life is often full of events that we just don’t get; things we don’t always have answers for.
And, actually, fully encountering this story, facing it head-on, is exactly what the process of confirmation is all about. Confirmation is a journey into the unknown, if you will. On our first confirmation class of the year, we read together a prayer by Elizabeth Johnson, and it ends with these words:
“You, Holy Mystery, are the Communion in which we live and move and have our being, the Mystery growing ever more mysterious as we contemplate the paradoxes of your Being… Incomprehensible God, Be with us as we dare to take up the struggle to understand and live in faith within your mystery.”
Throughout this year, this confirmation class has not shied away from mystery and from what we do not and cannot know. Instead, we faced head-on complex, theological concepts like the trinity and theodicy, wrestling with: why do bad things happen to good people; how can three equal one; and who is this Jesus Christ and why did he come to earth?
We were honest about our questions and our doubts, and while we didn’t find all the answers in the course of this year, we did find community: a group of friends and fellow sojourners to walk together this journey of faith. And together we encountered the “she-bears” of our faith: the stories that we can’t easily explain away, and the faith concepts that seem unfair or confusing. We encountered and wrestled with the questions and fears that most of us often run from or ignore because trying to deal with them seems to complicate everything.
But perhaps we are called not to ignore that which scares us about our faith, but to encounter them and engage them fully. To live with a kind of holy wonder, that has the honesty and courage to ask God, “Why?”
Unfortunately, we don’t always get our answers neatly packaged in a box.
Sometimes, we’re left with the aftermath of a she-bear mauling if you will- messy and hard to understand.
But we grapple with these questions not because we think some satisfactory answer will come down to us from the heavens, but because the questions are important, because the questions are worthy of our consideration, and because while we may never fully comprehend that which is fully other, a life of faith that is not critical or questioning is, to me, not faith at all. Perhaps, we are to be like our forefather Jacob who wrestled with God, who struggled and pushed back.
Our faith, after all, isn’t the sum of a bunch of right answers. It isn’t, as Kathleen Norris puts it, a bunch of ideas or ideologies.
Rather, our faith is a relationship, a relationship with a God who loves us unconditionally and where we are safe to ask and struggle with that which we don’t understand. And what is a good relationship without those hard questions that lead to honest dialogue and even some tension.
There are some things we will never know, that will always remain a mystery. I’m struck by a story told by Stephanie Paullsel at a conference I recently attended. She’s an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ tradition and a professor at Harvard Divinity School, and she was once asked to preside over communion at an Episcopal church. While she was honored at the invitation, she told them honestly, “I’m not sure I can do this. My tradition doesn’t hold communion on an altar, and I don’t really understand what it all means.” The priest graciously responded, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means; we do this so that we might find out what it means…” Let me say that again, we don’t do this because we know what it means; we do this so that we might find out what it means.
Sometimes it is our actions that precede our faith and our understanding. And we do them with the hope of learning more.
I took that approach as I confronted our story from 2 Kings today. While highly skeptical about this passage, I hoped that by going through the motions, I might receive a better understanding, and I did what every preacher does when faced with a challenge: I looked to others.
Consulting the usual Biblical commentaries didn’t help very much, and when they turned up dry, I almost walked away. But, I continued to dig deeper, calling upon a great cloud of witnesses via twitter and facebook to discern with friends and colleagues across the country what this passage might say to us today.
I was reminded this week that it is truly within community, whether it is in cyberspace or over the phone or in the church library, that we grow and learn.
And I’ve realized with the help of others that even within this gruesome passage, there is something we can learn about ourselves and about our faith. I have to attribute much of what follows to colleagues in Atlanta who read my facebook post and helped me encounter the she-bears of my own faith.
See, in this story, we meet Elisha just as he has inherited the mantle of Elijah, his mentor and the premier prophet of God. Elisha has just stepped into this incredible position of power, and is now a great leader and person of God.
We see that the first thing he does is an extraordinary miracle. With merely salt he turns “bad water” into living water, saving the city from death and miscarriage. He is able to use his newfound power for good.
But as he goes on his way, some boys, at least 42 of them, come and start to make fun of him, taunting him about his bald head. And Elisha, curses them as perhaps any one of us would when taunted by a mob of immature boys. His words, however, now carry more power than ever before, and out come two she-bears, mauling those in their path.
Now, it’s important for me to note that the passage never actually says God made any of this happen. I don’t believe God sends she-bears or any other disasters for that matter to kill or hurt God’s creation.
But this story does serve as a metaphor for how we as people of faith can wield our power.
Our actions and our words, like Elisha’s, do hold great power and possibility. Our words, once said can’t be taken back, and they take on a life of their own. And our actions have the ability to change the world.
In fact, some of the greatest good, the building of hospitals and schools, the saving of lives and granting of hope to the hopeless have come from people of faith who have been empowered by God to use their influence for great good.
But we all know that people of faith have also used their power for great evil. Some of the greatest atrocities in human history have been committed in the name of religion: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, these were all acts propagated by so-called Christians. And great destruction has come from the power we can have as people of faith.
I am reminded of Uncle Ben’s wise words to Peter Parker, also known as Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Unless we recognize that we do have power, we can’t wield it responsibly.
This story about Elisha is a perfect example. I think Elisha, new to his role as a prophet of God and still green to his power and influence, simply forgot how much weight his words now carried, and there were dire consequences for that. I can almost see him wide-eyed, thinking “uh oh” as the two she-bears emerge. I’d like to think he didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt; he just failed to remember that his words matter and hold great authority.
Today, our confirmands inherit a mantle of our faith. They become full members of this congregation with the power to vote and be ordained and to shape this church in ways they never have before. Granted, it’s not a lot of power within these walls, but what you do as Christians can have great repercussions far beyond these walls.
Each one of us, as Christians, engaged in this world, has the ability to use our faith as an impetus for either great good or great harm. The fact that we have the agency to choose life or death; grace or condemnation; good or evil, is a difficult and complex reality we might want to run from or ignore. But we are called to encounter the “she bears” of our faith, and the truth is we have the free-will to do what we want with the power we have been given.
Although our history shows that we have fallen short over and over again, I believe as Christians, we are empowered by God to choose life and to choose grace in order to bring about the transformation of this world.
I believe we are called and charged to make this place more and more like the kingdom of God: a world where all are equal; all have enough to eat and a place to feel safe; where every human being is valued and loved despite our differences.
Choosing to use our power to usher in this kind of kingdom is no easy task and holds no easy answers. In fact, we might never find all the answers, but I bet we will find the community we need, a group of friends and fellow sojourners, to help make this change possible as we walk together this journey of faith.
Together, we can answer God’s call and forge ahead to encounter all that we may fear and all that must be overcome.
Thanks be to God. Amen.