Sunday, June 26, 2022

Sermon: “Superman-tle”, 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21/2 Kings 2:1-6, 11-14 (June 26, 2022)


In the scant free time that Nick and I have in common these days, we’ve been working our way through all of the CW superhero shows on Netflix. We’ve finished “Green Arrow” and caught up on “The Flash”. Now we’re on the second season of “Supergirl”. I thought I knew the basics of most of the main superheroes, but it turns out that I didn’t really know much about Supergirl. Apparently, the premise of the original comics was slightly different from the TV series, but the basic idea is the same: Supergirl is Superman’s cousin, whose parents also sent her to Earth because of Krypton’s imminent destruction.

Having arrived several years later than him, she looks up to Superman as a mentor of sorts. She, of course, has all the same powers as her famous kin, but unlike him, she doesn’t use her powers publicly for a long time. This is the point at which the premise of the series diverges from that of the comics: in the latter, it’s so that she can serve as Superman’s “secret weapon”, but in the former, it’s because she simply wants to live a “normal” life. Superman has the crimefighting covered by the time she gets to Earth, so she takes a different path: she wears cardigans, enjoys pizza and potstickers with her friends, and keeps her head down. She’s not quite ready to fulfill her superhero destiny yet. In fact, she lives exclusively as mild-mannered personal assistant Kara Danvers for YEARS before donning the red cape for the first time.

Elisha is kind of like a biblical version of Supergirl. He’s no alien, but I can find plenty of parallels between the two of them in this week’s readings. Supergirl winds up on Earth because of her parents’ actions, while Elisha begins HIS journey because of Elijah. Where Supergirl has Superman as a mentor, Elisha looks up to Elijah. Supergirl just wants to enjoy takeout food with her friends; Elisha can’t leave without sharing a meal with his family. But most importantly, neither Supergirl nor Elisha embrace their call right away. Both leave their old lives behind to begin a new journey, but that isn’t the most important part of their respective stories. It’s just the first chapter.

We know how Supergirl spends her first chapter, but Scripture doesn’t tell us a lot about what Elisha does between his “recruitment” in 1 Kings and the actual beginning of his prophetic career in 2 Kings. We can probably assume that he spends most of it shadowing Elijah. He obviously thinks very highly of Elijah and wants to emulate him, but he doesn’t seem quite as eager to step into the prophet’s shoes. I mean, it makes sense. It’s one thing to recognize the importance of what Elijah does; it’s an entirely different thing to take on his responsibilities yourself. According to author Gregory L. Cuéllar, Elijah’s prophetic ministry consisted of speaking to power, performing miracles, risking confrontation, discerning God’s voice, and overcoming self-doubt.[1] While an impressive resumé, it doesn’t sound like the kind of job that you’d jump at the chance to take. So the divinely mandated drive-by cloaking in 1 Kings wasn’t all there was to Elisha’s call – not by a longshot. He still had to decide when and how he would claim his prophethood for himself.

When we talk about our own “calling” in terms of faith, we often imagine a single moment of clarity or insight. Indeed, many Christian traditions place a heavy emphasis on being “saved”, by which they mean experiencing a definable, memorable moment when you chose, once and for all, to say “yes” to God’s call. This may seem like a neat, easy way to define a life of faith – dividing it cleanly into “before” and “after” – but the reality is that very few life-changing decisions are the result of a single moment’s discernment. The decision to give your life to God is possibly the biggest one any of us will ever make, and so, like Supergirl and Elisha, it often takes months, years, or even decades of journeying to get to the point that we’re fully prepared to do it.

This journey is more than a matter of just time. The process of claiming one’s calling has to be a deliberate choice as the result of careful discernment. Elisha didn’t become a prophet just because he had a mantle dropped on his head; he became a prophet because, after a tough reckoning with what it really meant, he decided that it was what he had to do. It was only after Elisha experienced denial, grief, and ultimately the loss of his mentor that he was willing to take up Elijah’s mantle HIMSELF, to claim the role that God had been calling him to all along. Likewise, Kara Danvers didn’t become Supergirl just because she was dropped on Earth with special powers; she became Supergirl because, after saving her adoptive sister’s life, she decided that the personal cost of being a superhero didn’t outweigh the amount of good she could do. It was only then that she was willing to take up Superman’s mantle (or, more technically speaking, cape) for herself. From that point on, she embraced her calling to protect humanity and wore a suit similar to Superman’s as a symbol of that commitment.

In Supergirl’s case, taking up the mantle meant joining her cousin in his mission to protect the Earth. In Elisha’s case, it meant picking up where his predecessor had left off. In both cases, it was a conscious decision to accept the responsibility that had been offered to them years before. Now, it’s our turn. We have all already been called, although there were no actual cloaks or capes or mantles involved. Instead, we have been covered with the mantle of the baptismal waters, a choice made for most of us by those who went before us. Now, we have our own choice to make: do we drop the mantle and leave it behind in our past, or do we take it up for ourselves, like Elisha, like Supergirl? Do we leave the work for others to do, or do we make the choice to embrace the responsibilities that have been divinely entrusted to us?

This is, of course, your choice…but God is counting on you to make the one that furthers the gospel message. According to DC comics, Superman stands for “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.” Presumably, in joining his mission, Supergirl upholds those values, too, but adds some of her own: “hope, help, and compassion for all.” This is what the cape and the “S” stand for. Elisha’s mantle – and ours – represent similar things. Truth, justice, a better tomorrow, hope, help, and compassion are all parts of the gospel message. But our mantle also adds joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and most of all, love. These are what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, and they are what the world sees when you take on the mantle of God. It’s quite a lot to carry, but that’s exactly why each of us must take our time making the choice for ourselves. The responsibility is a hefty one, but your willingness to take it on really can change the world for the better.

In a way, we all get the chance to be superheroes. But not because we’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We’re not superheroes because our faith is perfect or our understanding complete or because we were born to the role. We’re superheroes because we’ve decided to be, and we choose to pick up the mantle of Christ’s work, day after day. We are superheroes when we begin to see our faith not as a status, but as a duty, one that we take on deliberately and continuously. There is still so much work to be done, but we’ve taken the first step long ago. We’re well into the journey; so it’s your turn to make a choice. Remember that you don’t need a bright red cape to be a beacon of good in the world; an invisible mantle handed down from those who’ve gone before us will do just fine. May we choose to bear this mantle faithfully as long as we live. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Gregory L. Cuéllar, “Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship,” year C, vol. 3, p. 108.

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