“An Across The Aisle Friend”
June 26, 2022
2 Kings 2: 1-15a
Prayer for Illumination:
Our reading today is one of the lectionary readings – but from last week. It’s a story about an extraordinary friendship between Elijah and Elisha. As we prepare to read and hear this story, will you pray with me?
We have gathered here, O God, at the end of yet another tumultuous week for this world and for our nation, seeking direction and purpose – asking what would you have us do in the face of such deep division? Guide us by your word, we pray, that we might take part in the healing of the nations. Amen.
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing, yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”
As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water. He said, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah? Where is he?” He struck the water again, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha crossed over.
When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
A couple weeks back a member of the church called me to ask a favor. “My friend John is at UNC Hospitals in the ICU – it would mean a lot if you could go visit him.”
I didn’t need any more than that to make my way over to Manning Drive, but as we spoke about what was going on with John, he got a little choked up and said “When I heard he was in critical condition I thought ‘Lord help me, I can’t lose John.’”
That’s all I needed to hear to know that John is a dear and treasured friend.
The next day I went to visit John – we talked about his heart and his upcoming procedure, and then I just made the simple observation that he had a really good friend in his corner, and that is when John got choked up and he nodded, unable to put it into words.
Clearly the feelings go both ways in that friendship.
I pray to God that each and every one of you can relate to this – that you have somebody in your life that has been an anchor, a safe harbor, a shelter in the storm.
There is no greater gift than a true, loyal friend, and on the surface our story offers a moving portrait of that kind of steadfast, loyal friendship. Scratch beneath that surface, though, and you’ll discover that it begs us to consider friendship from a different angle.
So often we think of friends as being those with whom we share much in common.
More often we find ourselves drawn to people who share our values and our interests, our religious convictions or our political perspectives.
And there’s not a thing wrong with that at all.
It’s natural to seek out like-minded friends.
But every once in a while there are friendship that we can only describe as holy for the way that they hold deep differences together.
I got to wondering if our two prophets tucked here in the pages of
2 Kings might not embody such a friendship.
Elijah and Elisha.
They shared plenty in common – and not just the fact that their names are nearly identical. They were both prophets. They both cultivated a single-minded devotion to God.
If you read the whole story you’ll see that Elisha conducts a series of miracles that are almost identical to those performed by his predecessor, Elijah.
But these two prophets were also extremely different from one another.
Elijah was something of a hot head – he had a temper like you wouldn’t believe, and so his miracles often – not always but often – involved punishment and destruction.
He caused a massive, 3 year drought in Israel when the King was worshipping idols like Baal.
Later, in a contest against the prophets of Baal, he called down fire from heaven to consume his offering and after wowing the people with this fireworks display, he then instigated the crowds to slaughter all the prophets of Baal – 450 in number.
Elijah really despised foreigners and the gods they brought with them.
Elisha, on the other hand, had a softer touch.
His miracles were, not always but often, a bit more life-affirming shall we say.
And he seemed to have far less prejudice against foreigners – his miracles were in service to a foreign woman and her son who lived on the margins, but he also cured a high-falutin’ Assyrian general of his leprosy. Elijah would never do that. Elisha, however, practiced a certain forbearance for the foreigners in his midst.
Elijah and Elisha hardly saw eye to eye, yet they clearly shared a deep and abiding friendship.
Where we find the two prophets in our reading today, Elijah is just trying to slink off by himself so he can get swept up into heaven in a fiery chariot…you know, like you do…but Elisha is stubborn and will not leave his friend.
“As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I shall not leave you.” That’s what Elisha says to him – three times he says it. I wonder what it took to forge a friendship so fiercely loyal – especially given their significant differences.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past week.
Laid up in my house with COVID I did a bit more scrolling on my phone than I perhaps have ever done in my life. Given all of the news coming out of the Supreme Court – and then all the social media posts – and then all the comments on those posts pushing and pulling in every which direction. Rarely were the engagements civil, much less holy.
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised when anonymous social media accounts don’t cultivate civility, but these two prophets got me wondering about how important it is – now more than ever – to cultivate honest-to-goodness friendships that are holy by the way they hold differences together.
I wonder if such friendships might in fact be the most patriotic and the most faithful thing we could do. But where to begin?
Then my mind drifted towards two men – not prophets but two pastors – that I met when living in Virginia.
Their names are Jeff and Don.
Jeff served a church in Dupont Circle that flew rainbow flags out front, and not just during Pride month, but all year round. Jeff minced no words whatsoever when it comes to welcoming the LGBTQ+ community into the full life of the church.
Don serves a church in Nokesville Virginia where you literally hear – and smell – the cows as you come into worship. Gay ordination was a real struggle for his more rural congregation.
The two men did not run in the same circles.
They did not have intersecting friends.
They didn’t even attend the same kinds of conferences.
But they were thrust together on a Presbytery committee to draft what was called a “Gracious Dismissal” policy. A Gracious Dismissal policy is meant to create a less-litigious and more civil path for churches who wished to leave the PCUSA because of matters of conscience – by that I mean churches who disagreed with the denomination’s shift to permit the ordination and now marriage of LGBTQ+ persons.
Don and Jeff were about as far apart as two people could be on that issue but they made a commitment to do this work relationally.
They broke bread together.
They studied Scripture together and tried to see the Bible through one another’s eyes.
They visited one another’s churches and met with one another’s Sessions.
They became friends.
Don still calls Jeff “My across the aisle friend.”
One day Don asked Jeff to do a thought experiment with him.
Don recognized that too often we caricature people on the other side of an issue – we lift up how our side makes all the sense in the world and we put that up against the most ridiculous, most parodied version of our opponents.
“What if we flip that,” Don said to Jeff, “what if I, the conservative, articulate the very best of the progressive perspective and put it up against the very worst of the conservative community and what if you do the same and put the very worst of Liberals up against what you see to be the very best of the Conservative camp…and what if we share that with our churches.”
And so they did.
Don was able to name how conservatives too often retreat to legalism. He was able to validate how the Church has damaged too many persons in the gay community by making them feel unwanted and unworthy of God’s love. He was able to affirm the deep commitment to inclusion that he sees in Jeff and in other progressives.
Jeff was able to affirm the passionate engagement with Scripture in the conservative church; he could name how the Bible can be met with such indifference in the liberal Church but that he admired how it really does serve as a guide for faithful living for Don and other conservatives. Jeff could also name the ways that progressive Christians also insist on a very different kind of purity and how quickly they “cancel” anyone and everyone who isn’t “Woke” enough.
They shared this thought experiment with each of their congregations – and then at the Presbytery and even on national stages. They called it “Can We Talk: An Uncommonly Gracious Conversation Between People Who MAY Differ.” The optimal word in that sentence being the word “may,” because more often than not, Don and Jeff found that they shared far more common ground than either of them expected.
Yet it was a friendship that was holy by the way it held together deep differences.
In January of 2017 Jeff was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By the end of April he was gone. Jeff more or less retreated from the public to spend time with his family and closest friends.
He was well loved so there were plenty of cards and calls but Jeff kept his boundaries.
About two weeks before he died, however, the phone rang and this time Jeff did answer.
Guess who it was? It was Don. Jeff’s “across the aisle friend.”
They laughed a little, cried a little, and prayed a lot.
Don said “I’ll see you on the other side, brother.”
I spoke with Don last week – just emailed him out of the blue to ask if we could talk about his friendship with Jeff and how it continues to bear fruit. He wrote back to me within the hour and the next morning we were on the phone.
As we winded down the call I asked him one last question:
“What do you think you’ve learned through your friendship with Jeff?”
Don paused for a moment and said “I have a commitment to something bigger than being right, bigger than winning the argument. We are part of a bigger tribe.”
Don then said to me “So you’re serving a church in Chapel Hill, right? I mean, I don’t want to make assumptions but I’d wager that a lot of your people are not on the same page as a lot of my people…just a wild guess.”
“Well,” he continued, “whenever I hear people in my church start talking about ‘those people;’ whenever they start to caricature ‘those liberals;’ whenever somebody in my church even steps towards ‘enemy’ language, I remind them what Jesus says about our enemies – that we 100% absolutely must love them. I remind my people ‘if you think this person is your theological enemy then congratulations you have signed yourself up to love them. So – how are you doing that?’ That’s what my friendship with Jeff continues to teach me.”
It was a beautiful lesson.
It left me wondering – could we have that beauty in us?
Could we risk having an across the aisle friendship?
It just might be the most patriotic thing we can do and it just might be the most faithful thing we can do.
Because Heaven knows we need it – now more than ever.