II Kings 2:1-14; Galatians 5:22-23
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
Change is not always our favorite enterprise. I don’t know how many times in my years of ministry I have heard a voice representing the elders end a discussion with the age old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And even if it is broke, sometimes we just become comfortable with our brokenness. Let’s face it, familiarity might breed contempt but it doesn’t breed surprises.
A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Cuba. I was able to spend time with folks who belonged to one of the flourishing Presbyterian Churches in Havana. Eventually all conversations led to politics, both in Cuba and in the United States. When Castro’s name would enter the conversation the response would be, “We can’t agree with what he has done, but we wouldn’t want him replaced. We know what to expect.” Change can’t always give one that level of comfort.
But change is part of life, even for Presbyterians. In its undeniable wisdom, our Book of Order states regardless how faithful someone serving as elder has been, they are eligible to repeat a three year term only once in succession. After six years they are ineligible for at least one year. This means every year we are electing new folks to serve as elder. Some have experience and we know what we are going to get. Others have never served, causing us to wonder if they will stand up to the example their predecessors have set.
Three folks will be stepping down in December after exemplary service. Ginny Simpson stepped in admirably to fulfill an unexpired term. Linda Wilk and Roger Elliott have served for six years. Every week for six years Linda headed a team that sent cards to first time visitors welcoming them to our community. Roger has served as Worship chair better than anyone I have ever experienced. Ralph Frink has agreed to serve another three years, giving us a bit of continuity but this morning you voted to allow three new folks to join the session.
What do we know of these people? Isn’t this a lot of turnover all at once? Maybe we can trust Ann Mische. She has been chairing the mission program for the past year and sure brought in two great singers last week to entertain us, so maybe she is OK. But what about Nancy Johnson? Sure she heads up our yard clean ups, works tirelessly for the food pantry, has been to Guatemala and is here almost every Sunday but she is so young. She hasn’t even retired. And then there is John Savides. That is a pretty strange sounding name. He sings in the choir, does wood ministry, is a pretty good biblical scholar, but he plays drums…..in a rock and roll band. Are these the type folks to which we want to give the mantle of elder?
Remember the original guy that passed down his mantle? Let me set the stage. It is late in the day. Two men are standing side by side. One is old and hunched over. He seems too tired to take another step. But there is a smile on his face. The ancient prophet Elijah has seen the face of God and he longs for an eternal respite. Beside him is the young, ever so spry Elisha, eagerly waiting for that moment when he will take center stage and be Yahweh’s main guy.
Off to the right are the pretenders. They followed Elijah in the shadows, never brave enough to step into the light. Now they watch with anticipation to see if the ancient warrior has fought his last battle. They view Elisha with an equal share of envy and disdain. Why should Elisha be the one to follow this great man? What has he done to prove himself? They all had desires for grandeur but deep down none really wanted to pick up what Elijah was leaving behind.
And then, just this side of the Jordan River, ready to kick into action at a moments notice, was the band. They had just finished their tour of South America and had arrived in time for the big send off. Suddenly, it happened. The Western Sky lit up. A chariot of fire, pulled by massive stallion’s, sweeps across the sky. Right on cue, the band leader begins to sing:
“Swing low, Sweet Cadillac, coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet Eldorado, coming for to carry me home.”
Once you have heard the Dizzy Gillespie version, the others pale in comparison. But no matter which version you sing, the clout of the song conveys this powerful message of both the completion of one Godly task, and the beginning the next. You see the truth is people come and go but the presence of God is from everlasting to everlasting. Even Elijah was replaceable.
Of course Elijah wasn’t sure if Elisha had the right stuff. One by one those would be successors stepped to the background until only Elisha remained. He walked with the mighty prophet, crossed the Jordan with the mighty prophet and then stood in fear as the chariot approached. But it was the request of Elisha that won the heart of the soon to be departed. Elijah placed his hand on the young man and said, “Do you really understand what it means to follow God? You will no longer belong to your old circle; you will no longer be bound by your old loyalties. If you follow God, you must follow God alone.”
Elisha responded, “Give me your strength. Give me your ability to face pain and despair. Give me what I need to live as you have lived. Give me your fire. Give me the spirit of God.”
Elijah dropped his mantle and was carried into the sky. Elijah dropped his mantle and the torch was passed. Elisha picked up the mantle, touched the Jordan, and waters parted.
When we pass the mantle from one elder to another, we often make the mistake of asking the wrong question. We are far too practical. We view a candidate and think to ourselves, would she be good on the Stewardship Ministry Team or would he fill the new void we have on the Worship Team. Do they play well with others? Will they properly fall in line and not make any waves. Are they our kind of folks? Why not start with the most important question. Is he or she filled with the spirit of God?
Our Book of Order states certain people are provided with particular gifts to share in the discernment of the God’s Spirit. They are people of wisdom and maturity of faith. They are compassionate and care about the whole church. As a member of the session they are called to make sure that the Word of God is preached and heard. They are ordered to make sure the sacraments are rightly administered and received. They are called to nurture the covenant community of Christ.
What does it take to be an elder? The Apostle Paul ends his letter to the church in Galatia by suggesting. “Let your leaders live by the Spirit. In all they do exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control.”
Reflecting on those words, Dr. King preached, “Everybody can be great because anyone can serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
It is not the job of Ann or Ralph or Nancy or John to replace Elijah. But it is their job to call on the spirit of God. It is their job to be inspired by those that have gone before them. It is their job to pick up the mantle and in their own unique way, serve God, serve this church and serve this community. If they have done this, in three years we will wonder how we can possibly go on without them. To God be the glory, Amen.