Sunday, June 30, 2013

Picking Up the Mantle

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… 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.     

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What are You Doing Here?

I Kings 19:1-15a

        What does the MVP do after winning the Super Bowl? He runs off to Disney World.  What did Elijah do after he defeated the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel?  He ran also, but not to Space Mountain.  After God poured fire down on the alter Elijah built, it began to rain for the first time in three years. Delirious with joy, Elijah jubilantly ran toward the city of Jezreel. He wanted to be the first to tell Jezebel that Yahweh, not Baal was responsible for the rains that were cascading from heaven.  It was only natural that Elijah wanted the chance to brag about his victory.  I am sure the prophet figured once Ahab told Jezebel about the fireworks on Mt. Carmel, the Queen would fall to her knees, begging Yahweh for forgiveness.  If that is what he believed, Elijah greatly underestimated his adversary.  Jezebel, outraged by this turn of events, sent a very clear message to Elijah.  She informed the prophet of the Lord that he was as good as dead.
        Elijah, standing at the edge of the city, filled with excitement over God’s great victory, heard the edict of the Jezebel.  Hours before, the people of Israel had slaughtered the Queen’s prophets.  Minutes before, the King had fled into the city in disgrace.  All of the momentum was on the side of Elijah.  The prophet and the Queen stood toe to toe.  And Elijah blinked.  Fear swept over him as he headed south, back into Judah where he would be safe from the Queen’s long arm.  He ran as fast as his legs would carry him.  The victor of Mt. Carmel became the coward of Jezreel.  But who could blame him?  Jezebel never played fair.  She was a woman scorned, a woman who was fighting for her kingdom.  What was Elijah fighting for?  He was the only prophet of God left.  The people of Israel were no allies.  They would turn on him as quickly as they had turned on the prophets of Baal.  So Elijah ran, and he kept on running until he made his way deep into the wilderness.  He stayed for 40 days and 40 nights, praying that God would let him die in peace.
        Sometimes I wonder which is harder, life or God?  Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have made all the right moves, for all the right reasons and even made all the acceptable sacrifices but failed?  Your motives were pure, your actions were noble but your accomplishments were limited, if at all.   Well meaning and caring friends have come to offer support and words of comfort.    Because they know nothing else to say, time honored phrases are uttered.  “You tried your best”. “Maybe it just wasn’t to be”. My all time favorite is, “There is nothing else you could have done.”  Their words are soothing but not convincing. You wonder if there wasn’t something else that could have been done?  When everyone  leaves, when the silence and the darkness begins to replace the evening light, slowly, hesitantly, and perhaps even fearfully you dare to wrestle with life, its consequences and how to begin to pick up the pieces.
        Kate Wolf, a brilliant poet who left us much too soon sang,  
                I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep,
                Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep.
                Where the years went I can’t say,
                I just turned around and they’ve gone away.
Now I find myself on the mountainside,
                Where the rivers change directions,
                Across the Great Divide.
        Elijah sat alone, high on the mountain of the Lord, far away from Jezebel, surrounded by his own demons.  If you have ever had the courage to question your actions at the end of the day you know the voices that fought for that crowded space within his psyche.  On Mt. Carmel Elijah had witnessed the power of God in a way most of us can not even imagine.  Then less than 24 hours later, Elijah had allowed his fear of death to override God’s promise of life.  Even 40 days in the wilderness could not erase that image of his fleeing from Jezebel.  And so he sat, more spiritually dead than alive, afraid to confront his own shadow. He sat, looking for direction but hoping it might not come. He sat, waiting for God, fearful God might actually show up.
The inner conflict within was disrupted by the eruption of earth and sky. Outside the cave a storm like Elijah had never witness engulfed Mt. Horeb.  This man who had fled Jezebel walked to the edge of the mountain.  Lightning flashed around his head, but the memories of his failure lingered.  Rain fell like a waterfall across his shoulders but his soul remained stained.  Rocks split below his feet not unlike the brokenness of Elijah’s own heart.  Then the rain, the thunder, even the ground became silent.  Elijah stood, daring not to move, desperate to hear anything other than the pounding of his own pulse.   And God spoke, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
                “The finest hour I’ve ever seen,
                Is the one that comes between
                The edge of night and the break of day.
                It’s when the darkness rolls away.”  (Kate Wolfe)
How marvelous that God understands us.  How marvelous  that God knows that sometimes the complications of life are overwhelming and we reach our limit.  How marvelous that God knows that sometimes we have ridden one river for so long that we need to change directions. How marvelous that God doesn’t add to our guilt, doesn’t multiply our insecurities, doesn’t make demeaning statements like, “I am so disappointed in you” or “I expected more from you”, but rather says exactly the right thing, “What are you doing here? Get back on your feet.  You may have momentarily lost confidence in yourself but you are mine and I am with you always. There is work to be done and you are still the one I am counting on.”
Some of you may remember those moments with children or grandchildren when the task of the day was to remove the training wheels and let your child take her first solo ride on a two wheeler.  That was an ugly day.  First I had to convince Martina to get on the bike.  Then the inevitable question, “Will I fall?”  We all know falling is part of the biking experience but I looked at her and said, “Don’t worry.  You will be fine.”  Then together we take off.  We ran up and down the sidewalk, running along side the bike with our hand on the seat to steady the ride.  At some point, and I don’t know if it was when my confidence in the Martina has risen or my legs couldn’t run any further but I let go. And off she went, flying free, at least for a moment.  Then she began to wobble and there was no way I could catch up in time to prevent the inevitable.  She crashed!  Immediately she looked my way as if I had caused it.  When I reached her, there were two choices.  I could coddle her, kiss her wounds and put the bike in the garage.  Or I could coddle her, kiss her wounds and say, “What are you doing on the ground?  Let’s try again. I will be right with you.”  My daughter’s response was immediate.  She remembered those five seconds of exhilaration.  She remembered and responded. Before I could say another word, Martina was back on the bike and down the street
God lifts us up and puts us back on our feet. Jezebel might give us a temporary setback but the God of Elijah still remains uncompromised by the sin that accompanies the human endeavor.  When we retreat to the Holy Mountain, or even the seclusion of a darkened room, when we are looking for a word of encouragement, a piece of enlightenment, or acknowledgement of our trials, the silence is broken by God’s holy affirmation.
Do you remember the words of the poet John Whittier?
 “Breathe through the heat of our desires,
        God’s coolness and God’s balm.
        Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,
        Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
        O still small voice of calm.”
Listen; not in the calamity of the moment but in the quiet secluded spot occupied by the God of breathtaking silence.  Listen; God will speak.  Listen; God will revive your weary soul. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

God is God

This morning we are suppose to continue with the wonderful stories of Elijah. The text read paints a vivid picture of the abuse of authority and justice by Ahab and Jezebel. It demonstrates how much power a King wheels, especially if the King is supported by a Queen who believes the appetites of her man are more important than the life of a subject.
This text sets the stage for a powerful sermon on the tenth commandment, “Thou shall not covet.” The truth found in this text is that our greed and our needs often prompt acts of physical and mental violation toward others.  In this story coveting leads to perjury, perjury leads to murder and the murder leads to the beginning of the end of King Ahab.
All the stuff is there for a great sermon and I had a grand time writing it.  But you will not see it today. Maybe sometime in the future I will pull it out, and give it a whirl. But this morning an event inspired me to go elsewhere. So if you came expecting Elijah, he will return next week.   
Tuesday evening my wife and I traveled to Charlottesville for a night out on our 39th wedding anniversary. Deb joined with 3,000 other women as they celebrated the music of the Indigo Girls. Amy and Emily have never sounded better as they weaved new songs into their repertoire of old favorites. By the end of the show more folks were dancing than sitting as all 3,001 of us waited the final anthem. We were not disappointed. Emily sang, “I’m trying to tell you something about myself”, and everyone jumped to their feet. By the end of the song we were all singing,
“I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains,
 I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain.
There is more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line.
The less I seek my source for some define,
the closer I am to fine.”
By the end of the song every one, with one notable exception, was moving, grooving and screaming at the top of their feminine lungs, “Closer to fine; Closer to fine” We were primed for more. The stage had been perfectly set for the headline performance. If the job of the warm-up band is to get the crowd in the mood the Indigo Girls had accomplished their task. Now we waited anxiously as Joan Baez took the stage. Accompanied by only a drummer and guitarist, she began to sing one of her timeless ballads about love and death. The song was a big hit in 1627 but not with this crowd. The hard work of the Indigo Girls had gone for naught. People quickly lost interest waiting to discover which true love was going to kill the other. Conversations began to spring up all around me. Even the fine amplification system was in danger of being over-whelmed by the semi-attentive crowd. Sensing she might be losing the moment, Baez followed with Dylan’s “It’s Alright Baby Blue”, a song that got the attention of those of us who were over 60. But she was still dead in the water as far as the under 50 bunch was concerned. She switched gears once again and sang a Woody Guthrie classic about immigration called “Deportee”.
The interesting thing about folk music is most folks singers just can’t sing. Woody Guthrie was no exception. He would write these great songs with memorable lines. He would repeat the lines until he had every one singing along.  Once the crowd became part of the music, no one cared how Woody sounded. Don’t get me wrong, Joan Baez can still sing. She might now be more of an alto that a soaring soprano but her tone is still amazing. But no one was listening. So she resorted to the methods of Woody Guthrie. She sang, “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye to Rosiletta, You won’t have a name when they call you, deportee.” Then she said, “Come on and join me.” She sang it again. By the third time through conversations stopped dead and folks who only knew Woody Guthrie as Arlo’s dad were wailing.  Baez followed this with a spirited version of Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem” and the conversion was complete. All 3,000 woman and one guy shifted their complete attention to this remarkable 72 year old woman.
Trusting once again in the the lyrics of Steve Earle, she then quietly but powerfully blessed us with these words.

I believe in prophecy.
Some folks see things not everybody can see.
Once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me.
I believe in miracles.
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
Yeah, I believe in God, and God ain’t me.
I’ve traveled around the world,
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness.
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust.
And as our fate unfurls.
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust.
And I believe in God, but God ain’t us.
God, in my little understanding, don’t care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe, don’t matter at all.
I receive the blessings,
That every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.
Just another lesson.
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got.
Maybe this is why I’m on earth, or maybe not.
But I believe in God, and God is God.
Imagine the response. Here we were in Charlottesville, one of the very birthplaces of progressive thinking in America. Here is this old liberal, bleeding heart, tree hugging, protest singer standing naked behind a guitar, boldly using the “G” word.  This wasn’t an ancient ballad, it wasn’t a sing along, it wasn’t even Woody Guthrie. It was just one defiant woman, giving notice that Ahab or Jezebel or anyone else who uses corruption and self-justification to appease their appetites need to look in the mirror and discover, “they ain’t God.”
As I sat and listened, I was reminded of a similar moment more than a decade ago. My church in West Texas invited Will Campbell to expound on some of his indispensible wisdom concerning the state of the world. Many folks have suggested Will was Elijah reincarnated. I would be hard pressed to disagree. Will spent one sermon talking about the Lord’s Prayer. He took us places I never imagined.  But what I remember most was his conclusion.
        He said, “When we say ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer that means we have said it all and there is nothing more to be said. So when you say Amen, say it loud; say it like you mean it; say it so God knows you believe it.”
        The he bowed his head and spoke these words. “God is God is God is God is God is.  AMEN!”
Perhaps there is a lesson in this for all of us. Truth is, the more I remember that God is God, the closer I get to fine.