2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
I was thinking about grief this week, because I was touched with grief this week. I heard through social media that an acquaintance from seminary in Buenos Aires had died. I felt sad, I wondered what had happened, but was not honestly very impacted at first. But then a couple of days later things started to come out about how he had died. It seems very likely to have been a murder, and with some very gruesome details. It is being investigated as a hate crime. And then I saw where he had been a pastor at the time of his death, and that he had lived in the parsonage that was right beside the church. I had been there, I want to say on two different occasions, had spent time in that courtyard formed in between the sanctuary and the parsonage. A person I know had been the victim of a hate crime and in a place that I had been. The grief started to feel much heavier, and mixed in I started to feel guilty for not being more sad at first before I knew more of what had happened. Then one day this week, I got really angry at a person I love over a simple misunderstanding. I was primed for something like this by the heavy emotions I had been feeling. Grief can come out in weird ways. It’s been more than 15 years since I’ve seen pastor Fabian but this news made me think of those times and made me very sad, yes angry too, for what happened to him.
So when I looked at the readings for this week, the grief in them jumped out at me. First in the passage form 2 Kings. Somehow it is known to all of the characters in this story that Elijah is going to be taken up to heaven and Elisha will be left behind. Three times Elijah tells Elisha to stay while he goes on alone, but each time Elisha refuses and goes with him. Elisha is grieving. He does not want to let Elijah go. Two times groups of prophets come to tell Elisha what he already knows, that his mentor is going to be taken, and each time he says the same thing. Yes I know. Don’t talk about it!
He does not want to talk about the impending loss. That is his way of grieving- a manner you might say of denying it. Holding his emotions in. Then when they cross the Jordan, Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. I had always interpreted this, and heard it interpreted, as he was asking for a double portion of the spirit of God that was in Elijah, to be able to be close to God and do some of the miracles Elijah had done, to be a prophet like him. But that isn’t what he asks for, literally. He says, I want a double portion of YOUR spirit. If your body is not here with me I want twice as much of your essence, your breath your life, somehow with me instead. Elisha does not want to be truly separated from Elijah. He grasps at straws to stay with him.
The moment when it actually happens takes them by surprise. Elisha then cries out – then rips his clothing apart. Grabs ahold of his shirt and just tears at the fabric until it isn’t a shirt anymore. Finally he lets some of his grief out. Now the way Elijah went, is arguably the best way you can go, swept straight up to heaven- yet Elisha still grieved the loss of his friend. He finally let those emotions out in a physical way.
I think that grief is also present in our gospel. But you have to back up a little- where we start reading today is chapter 9 verse 2, starting with 6 days later- 6 days after what?
Backing up to chapter 8:29 we see 6 days after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the very one God has sent, and then Jesus starts talking about how he will suffer and die. Peter had taken Jesus aside and began to rebuke him- no Jesus that can’t be the real path. Think about it. Peter just confessed that Jesus was God’s anointed, sent one, but then tries to convince Jesus he is wrong about what God is sending him to do. Jesus rebuked Peter back.
But isn’t it very possible that Peter rebuked Jesus, tried to convince Jesus to go another path, out of his own grief at the idea that Jesus would die, and in a terrible way? Peter has been beside Jesus now for many healings and many times he threw out demons, many times he defied the expectations of the religious leaders, has been beside him as he has preached talking about the kingdom of God, Peter and Jesus have walked together many roads between the towns, they are friends and Peter does not want to think about Jesus dying, not anytime soon, and not in the violent way Jesus has hinted at. The fear he had at losing him made him stop listening to Jesus.
These emotions are all emotions that the good creator made us with. Love is a strong emotion, grief is a way of loving that is when the love holds pain. it is so very human to try to deny a loss, like Peter and like Elisha. We do it, our grief comes out in strange ways that aren’t very helpful. We might think we know better than God. We shut our pain in, try to avoid it, treat the ones closest to us badly, we act in ways that hurt others.
It can make us not want to listen like Peter, it can make us not want to speak or receive any help, like Elisha. But while we all have different ways that the grief comes out, God has also given us the capacity to see how what we are feeling is what’s making us act the way we do. God pulls us through our emotions in order to reach us once again.
I have found something in grieving deeply that is hard to describe. A beauty in the pain, a stripping away of so much that allows God to be close.
In this story in Mark, Peter seems to have stopped listening to Jesus. in this mysterious transfiguration, God intervenes. God puts on a light show and makes long-passed heroes of their faith appear, to show Peter a deeper orientation. Peter is terrified and babbles. He did not know what to say, they were so frightened. God needs to let him know, there is a history that goes back before his life, and a future that will extend beyond his, Moses and Elijah are present. Jesus is THE beloved son and they need to LISTEN to him, not tell him how things should go. The way includes the pain, includes death, includes grieving, but that will not be the end. There will be resurrection. Jesus had told them that part too but I’m not sure if Peter heard it. At least by the end of this scene, when they are going back down the mountain they are wondering what rising from the dead means, in verse 10. They don’t understand it. But at least they have started to capture that death isn’t the end. That they don’t know better than Jesus. That there is something larger and deeper than they can see with their own eyes.
And it isn’t something that I think we can comprehend, really, how death is not the end because God’s love is stronger than death- and that God wanted to show us that in Jesus- Jesus suffered because he was true to his mission. But in his suffering, death and resurrection he showed us how there is a deep deep love holding us whether we live or whether we die. We can be free then to acknowledge our feelings and let our grief be what it is, because God is holding us. We may not understand it but that is what we confess, and yes even with the terrible way he died, Pastor Fabian has passed into that other realm where there are no more tears and no more pain and he’s smiling that great big smile of his and his memory will live on. This is the gospel that he, too proclaimed, the gospel of Jesus Christ in which love is strong enough for each of us to be our true selves and experience all the pain of this life but still go where God leads for in the end God leads us to life.
There is great pain in this life, beloved. There is death and death of all kinds, good deaths where people live long happy lives and are surrounded by loved ones at the end, there are terrible deaths that challenge the imagination and everything in between. There are other kinds of pain as well. We are allowed to question and struggle and feel everything we feel, grieve however is authentic for us, and somehow in the depth of it we find a closeness to God who holds that mystery there is life, there is death, and there is life beyond that we can’t yet see.
But what I can say from this story of transfiguration is that God will keep working even when grief clouds our understanding. God will not give up on the project of truth, of life, of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life. Elisha would continue to work in the way Elijah had, true to the message God had for him to share. God interrupted Peter’s misunderstanding with a reorientation so he could grow beyond that fear he had of losing Jesus towards something else, even if he still did not understand.
We want to understand what God is doing and we can’t always, maybe it’s more usual to not understand. But we can rest assured that God is always at work on our behalf and always true to who we have known God to be, source of life, truth and love. The pain and grief we experience in this life can be received as gifts, to help us know God in a new way, we can acknowledge our feelings before God without worry, even as we trust that God always has been, always will be, and we are part of this great story of how God loves us.