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Let’s Hear It for the Small People

San Williams

June 27, 2010
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

The executives of British Petroleum Company have been on the defensive ever since the Gulf oil spill began.  They had to make yet another apology last Wednesday, when BP Chairman Carl-Henrik Svanberg made the following gaffe, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care.  But that is not the case with BP.  We care about small people.”  His unfortunate choice of words set off an uproar from the shrimpers, restaurant owners, fishermen and other “small people” along the Gulf Coast.

Well, this morning let’s give our attention to the small people, to the largely unnoticed, the ones whose birthdays are not listed in the newspaper or mentioned on the radio.  We read today about Elijah’s prophetic passing of the mantle to Elisha. Elisha is one of the lesser known prophets.  Yet as our story reveals, God’s transcendent power is often passed on to the likes of Elisha—folks the world tends to label as “small people.”

Among the prophets, Elisha is not an outstanding figure.  Most of us are familiar with the big names like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and even with some of the so called “minor” prophets, such as Amos and Micah.  I heard about a seminary student who dozed off in his Old Testament Class.  The professor, irritated by the student’s lack of attention, woke him up with the question:  “Mr. Smith please name for the class the minor prophets.”  Thinking quickly, the student responded, “But Sir, who am I to judge?”  Of course, the minor prophets are so named not because they are less important, but  because their books are shorter in length.  But Elisha has no book named after him.  He’s in the category of the non-writing prophets.  So even among the prophets, Elisha might be considered as one of the small people.

And compared to the grand stories of the Bible, this story about Elijah and Elisha is what one commentator called “a little story.”  The big stories in the Bible are Creation, Exodus, the time in the wilderness, the Sinai experience, the Promised Land, and so on.  Next to those grand stories, the Bible places “little stories” that are reverberations of Israel’s huge identity-shaping events.  Thus Elijah and Elisha’s journey leading up to Elijah’s death is reminiscent of Israel’s journey in the wilderness.  When Elijah and Elisha part the waters of the Jordan, we think instantly of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea.  And Elijah’s passing the mantle to his successor Elisha is similar to Moses passing on leadership to Joshua.  All of this is to say that today’s episode ranks as a “little story,” a kind of reverberation from Israel’s past.

Note, too, that the episodes involving the prophets, such as the one we read this morning, were hardly front page news of that day. Prophets lived outside the corridors of power. They were voices, often discordant, unheeded voices, crying in the wilderness.  No, in Elijah and Elisha’s day, the movers and shakers were the kings and queens of the Omri Dynasty—of which Ahab and his wife Jezebel are representative.  History, or at least the history that most people cared about, was being made through the political alliances, the military battles, and the succession of kingly power. During Elijah’s brief ministry, the reign of Ahab and his son Ahaziah both ended in death, and Ahab’s other son, Jehoram, was made king.  These were the people of that day who held the reins of power and turned the wheels of history.

Or did they?  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann declares that the point of today’s story is to help us to see God’s power in those “little” people—like dusty, wandering prophets who lived outside the court of the king and answered to a very different authority.  The miraculous elements in today’s story may trouble modern readers.  We ask how reasonable people can take seriously biblical accounts involving chariots and horses of fire and persons being dramatically taken up into heaven. But you don’t have to take these stories literally to understand what they mean.  The biblical writer employs apocalyptic images of God’s transcendent power in order to convey his conviction that the future is in God’s hands, and not in the hands of those who attempt to force their will through worldly power.

Today’s episode challenges us to see and trust that God’s power is at work in out-of-the-way places and in less than famous people.  When Elisha asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit, he’s not being greedy, but is reflecting the practice of the elder son, who typically would receive the greater share of his father’s inheritance. Elisha prays for the same Spirit that directed Elijah’s ministry.  And that should be our prayer as well so that our work, however small, humble or seemingly insignificant is nevertheless part of God’s ongoing redemption of the world.

In a beautiful Japanese film called “Departures,” several of the main characters have seemingly insignificant, undesirable jobs.  One woman runs a public bath house.  Hers is considered a lowly position, so much so that her son continually begs her to close the bath.  Yet the whole town benefits from the bath and its healing waters.  The movie’s main character becomes a nakanshi, one who prepares the dead for burial. He’s despised for this undesirable profession.  Yet the loving attention, the care and dignity he demonstrates as he prepares the bodies bring great comfort, solace and gratitude to the family of the deceased.  To paraphrase George Eliot, the greatest good may come from those who lead hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs.

Friends, let’s hear it for all the small people, ordinary servants like you and me.  The Spirit imparted to one of God’s lesser prophets long ago is still a strong and living force in our world today.  Each of us is empowered to take up the mantle conferred upon us at our baptism and do the work of God each and every day knowing that our work Is not in vain.