This sermon was written for Kerr Presbyterian Church by Rev. KJ Norris based on 2 Kings 6:8-23.
What do you do when you are surrounded by enemies?
When your back is against a wall?
When you have no way out?
For most of us, when we feel like we are under attack, something kicks up inside of us which is simply instinctual—the heart races, the face becomes flush, the palms begin to sweat, and we move to fight or flight. We either want to defend ourselves immediately, often by fighting back. Or we want to get out of the situation as fast as possible.
Psychologists tell us that these two responses—fight or flight—are basically hardwired into our brain. So when Kimberly and I were hiking in the mountains and happened upon a black bear, we didn’t stick around to take pictures. I know we should have taken a picture. Without it no one believes we were close enough to a wild bear to give it a belly rub (and okay, maybe that part is a little bit of an exaggeration), but the point it, when we knew we were facing a creature which could hurt us, we got out of there in an instant.
The trouble is, our natural response of fight or flight doesn’t just kick in when we see creatures in the wild. Often our defenses go up and we choose fight or flight when we really should seek a third way:
When our partner reminds us that its our turn to do the dishes, and we defend ourselves arguing that it’s really their turn or that we have too much to do to take on chores, or we take flight pretending we didn’t hear the reminder.
Or when we receive constructive criticism from our coworker and our first response is to show that we really have thought through everything, and we couldn’t possibly need their help or their suggestion. We argue against the idea or shutdown the suggestion before we ever really hear it.
It may be natural to give in to fight or flight, but the Scriptures show us over and over again that there is a third way forward.*
As we continue walking through our favorite stories of the Bible this summer, trying to alternate between the New and Old Testaments, a friend reminded me of this great tale found in the Book of Kings.
The Prophet Elisha is one of the great prophets of old. He prayerfully sought to live not by gut instinct, but by the Spirit of God. Our story today shows how he found a third way when his back was up against a wall, when his enemies had surrounded him.
Did you get the story?
The king of Aram sent men to capture or kill the prophet Elisha because Elisha was continuously messing with his battle plans. Look again at verse 15, it says, “When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, and army with horses and chariots was all around the city.”
Can you imagine? You wake up one morning and your world has completely changed.
You had plans for the day. You were going to do laundry or make a nice meal. You wanted to go see some friends. But you find yourself under siege. Completely surrounded by the enemy. You have no idea what they want, but the chariots give us a clue that this group has not come in peace. You are trapped. What do you do?
You could try to fight. Find some weapons. Choose a path of violence. Decide that violence can only be met with bigger violence. Who ever has the best weapons wins, right?
You could try to escape. Perhaps you know a secret way out of the city. Maybe you can save yourself and leave everyone else to die.
Fight or flight. These seem like the only options at the time.
But Elisha has eyes to see what others do not. Elisha has eyes to see a spiritual reality.
The truth of the Gospel is, we are not on this earth alone. We do not fight our battles alone. We are never alone in the decisions we make, in the temptations we face, in the struggles we endure.
It doesn’t matter if those struggles are ones we can see—people who want to harm us or illnesses which are ravening our bodies—or struggles that are harder to name and identify—the depression we feel inside which causes us to not want to get out of bed in the morning or the sin that no one knows about but us, but the shame of it is eating away at our souls.
Regardless of whether the enemy is external or internal, easily seen or carefully hidden, we are not alone in the struggle.
Elisha has eyes to see the spiritual reality. Elisha looks around and he sees the angels of God standing with him. And he is not afraid.
And in knowing that God is present, Elisha finds a third way forward, the path of peace.
Elisha does something incredible. Look again at verses 22 and 23. Elisha tells the others, “’Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.”
The enemies sat down together and had a meal. And they were enemies no more.
Elisha found a third way, a path of peace.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about finding pathways of peace—about seeking out third ways of doing things. We as a nation honored the life of Rep. John Lewis this week, a person well skilled in finding a third way forward.
In particular this week I’ve been considering the bravery of Black men and women who walked the road from Selma to Montgomery. I wasn’t alive in 1965, but I think it is important for all of us to understand our history. By this point, in most parts of the country it was legal for people of color to vote, but in practice almost none could vote.
To be able to vote, there were strict and arbitrary tests given in different jurisdictions across the country but especially in the south. Sometimes these tests were extremely difficult, asking college level questions about our form of government that no average citizen learns unless studying for the legal bar exam. Other times the questions were ridiculous like needed to be able to guess the exact number of jelly beans in a jar.
And even when people of color were able to pass the exam and register to vote, when they went on the day of voting, they needed to have an ID. Often the poll worker would accuse the person of not looking like their picture in the ID and saying that they were trying to cheat the vote. This tactic kept them from their legal right.
Others who tried to register or to vote were beaten or lynched for standing up for their God-given right to be recognized as one who is made in the image of God. As one who is worthy of making decisions. As one who is fully equal in every way.
A 25 year old young man named John Lewis along with a preacher named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others—Ralph Bunche, Hosea Williams—just to name a few decided to march to raise awareness to the atrocities that were being committee across our nation. Perhaps some of us who live in the north forget this part but Selma to Montgomery is not a short walk. We see the photos and only think about the bridge they crossed, but the whole march was 54 miles. They walked for 5 days. 5 days.
5 days of prayer. And singing. And marching. And preaching. And finding a different way forward. Not a way of violence. Not a way of accepting the unacceptable. But a third way.
And you know what happened when they got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those seeking peace. Those seeking their right to vote. Those seeking to be seen as they truly are—as ones who have been created in the image of God and who deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They were met with untold violence by white leaders in power who meant to keep them down.
Instead, the world was watching. People knew in their hearts that this was wrong. Thousands banded together from every part of the nation—black, white, brown, stood arm and arm to demand change. To say that violence is not the way. To sit down at a table and eat together. To talk together. To listen to one another. To demand that each person have a vote. To find a third way.
I’m so thankful for those who worked for equality and justice in the 60s. I’m so thankful for those who sought a third way, knowing that we are not in this world alone but that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, God is the Lord of Justice, the Holy Spirit is the Hope to the Nations. And there is still so much work to be done today. We too are called to work for peace and justice in our world.
I have been thinking about a third way this week, too, because Thursday will be the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima. One bomb which killed 70,000 people immediately and thousands more through radiation poisoning afterward.
Many of you know I was in Japan two years ago to hear the stories of survivors and to pray prayers of repentance. The people of Hiroshima have a monument in the center of the city which burns continuously. It is a perpetual prayer that one day there will be no more nuclear weapons.
When I first heard this, I asked: you mean, you pray that no more nuclear weapons will be used on the earth? No, the tour guide helped me to understand, that is not what they pray for. They pray that all nuclear weapons would be destroyed; that all nuclear weapons would be gone from the earth.
Their hope is to find a third way. To live in a world not where the one who has the most weapons or the biggest weapons deters others from living violently. But instead, to live in a world where we choose non-violence. To live in a world where we sit at a table and listen to one another. To live in a world of peace.
We as a nation must own up to the ways in which we have committed violence and the ways in which we still commit violence, both nationally and internationally. We as individuals must own up to the ways in which we have committed violence and still commit violence ourselves. Sometimes that violence is physical. Sometimes it is not. Often the violence is hurtful words or thoughtless gestures or participation in a systems of inequality.
How can we follow the Biblical example of seeking a third way? How can we be like Elisha and seek peace, peace for ourselves but also peace for those who may be our enemies but could be our friends.
What does it look like to move away from pure instinct and towards the Spirit of God?
Elisha sets an example before us, a way of life that has the power to change our lives, our nation, our world.
- Elisha recognizes that he is not alone.
Do you know that God is with you? We do not need to be afraid if we are doing the work of the Lord because no matter what hardship we endure, God is walking with us on the journey. We do not need to give in to fight or flight for the battle is not our own, it belongs to the Lord.
- Elisha recognizes that those who may be our enemies are also created in the image of God.
Okay, so it is true that Elisha never comes right out and says that God loves the Arameans. But Elisha sits down at a table with them. He eats with them. He listens to their stories. He shows them respect. When we see God in the other person, they are no longer our enemy but our friend. And this changes everything.
Do you see God in every person you meet? Do you know that God is the creator of all? When we start to see the enemy in front of us—when something on the news or another person makes us angry, when our hearts start to race and our palms start to sweat, what if we reminded ourselves that the person in front of us is also a child of God. They too are created by God with the purpose of God. How does that change our response to them?
- Elisha hears the cry and meets the need.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at Elisha’s dinner party but sadly I wasn’t invited. Nevertheless, it is clear that Elisha realized the Arameans had a need—they were hungry. So he fed them. Sometimes the one who we see as our enemy is seeking justice. Is seeking what is right. If we spend our lives fighting one another or running from one another we never get to hear their perspective and change cannot come.
So this week as I find myself in those moment where I am likely to be offended or to think that I am under attack, I pray that the Lord might give me wisdom. May I be reminded that I do not need to be afraid for I am not alone, may I see the other person as a child of God, and may I seek to understand them so that we may together find peace. This is my prayer for me and for you. Amen.
*For more on finding a third way forward consider reading Jesus and Non-violence: A Third Way by Walter Wink, 2003, Fortress Press.