Moving through difficult seasons

On Friday,  the sermon I sent to the staff did not begin with my sharing our United Methodist principals around abortion. It does today. In seminary a professor counseled us to read the church’s official statements during difficult seasons, because these statements offer collective wisdom often born by difficult deliberations, something we can never do by ourselves and rarely happens when we retreat to our self-selected tribes.  We may not always agree with these statements, but they come as kinds of mooring posts inviting us into a more thoughtful, global (in the case of United Methodism), and prayerful response. The UMC’s guidance on abortion comes inside our Discipline’s  2016 Social Principles, in a long section called “The Nurturing Community”.  There are 18 subjects in the section including beautiful aspirational ideas like “The Family” and the lowland broken realities of  “Family Violence” or “Sexual Abuse”.  Our UM Social Principles about abortion is a long thoughtful statement that resists being reduced to a slogan, soundbite or bumper-sticker.  Here is some of the statement below:

Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. .. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.

We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates…. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe. … We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause women to consider abortion. (We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.)… 

We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy…

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.” (Edited for order from UM Discipline 2016:  (umc.org/en/content/social-principles-the-nurturing-community)” 

“Thoughtful and prayerful consideration” and  “searching and prayerful inquiry” is hard for any of us, especially when we feel threatened or we fear losing control of our bodies.  Yet, thinking, praying, searching, conversing, and inquiring is essential to maintaining our personal spiritual health, fostering a nurturing community, making peace and building a just world. So we pause and pray, bringing our whole selves to the healing waters of God so that we might be renewed in our journey and redirected to the healing work of love and justice.  

Our passage today walks into life’s steady stream of transitions. Last Sunday, we heard Darren’s farewell sermon. On Wednesday, Belmonters drove the first nails in the house that we are building for Ira and Pamela, whose home was swept away in the Waverly flood.  On Thursday, we raised the first roof rafters and Jermone Del Pino and I harmonized on 99 degree subflooring stage to “We Shall Not Be Moved” and tried out various Motown classics. On Friday the Supreme Court shook the nation up. Last night, I served Holy Communion to a young woman at Pride who last took communion 7 years ago when her dad and her home church shunned her because of who she loves.   Life is always changing.

Our passage moves tells us how Elisha picked up the work of the great prophet Elijah. Elijah is mentioned 27 times in the gospels. John the Baptist modeled his camel hair outfit and fireball preaching after Elijah. (Luke 1) On the Mount of Transfiguration, Elijah and Moses appear offering comfort and counsel to Jesus as Christ faced the cross. (Luke 9) Elijah pulled no punches speaking out against his own king despite Ahab’s death threats. In 1 Kings 17, when Elijah walks into King Ahab’s throne room, the king blurts out, “Is that you, you, troubler of Israel?” Despite a warrant for his arrest,  Elijah fires back, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have!” (1 Kings 17-18)

Some of the stories about Elijah read more like parables than history. Elijah calls down fire from heaven, and God carries Elijah to heaven in a tornado.  The power of the story is not in the flaming chariots, or the twice parted Jordan River, but in Elisha stepping back into the waters, after Elijah is gone. Facing an uncertain future, Elisha demands, “Where is the Lord, the God how it used to be?” Where is God when we step into an uncertain future?  How do we cross the threshold into a new way of living when we move to a new school, families divide, the judges change our future, or we get an unwelcome diagnosis?  

Elijah knows he is dying. Elijah marks this reality with a beautiful pilgrimage to three holy sites beginning in Bethel, visiting Jericho, and finally crossing the Jordan River. All along the way Elijah repeatedly tells Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me on.” But Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” Elisha’s clinging to Elijah could be a sign of dedication, friendship, or seeking God’s kin-dom, but it might arise from Elisha feeling inadequate to face an uncertain future.   Prevenient grace teaches us Elisha’s motive may not matter as much as we think. God is always working to bring about our healing. 

Elisha has chased after Elijah’s blessing since the day Elijah enigmatically ran past Elisha as Elisha plowed with 12 oxen and  Elijah tossed his mantle/coat/ stole into the air for Elisha to catch! Elisha caught it, sold his million-dollar tractor, used the proceeds to feed hungry people and followed Elijah. Elisha chases after God’s kin-dom- seeking to  be part of Elijah disruption of  King Ahab’s exploitative system.  

So now, Elisha follows Elijah during his last days.  Twice a crowd of prophets tell Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?” Elisha said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!” It might be easy here to shame Elisha for not talking, after all we have a deep need for a spiritual community to process life’s joys and griefs.  However, this is more like ancient social media gossip than thoughtful and prayerful conversation or companionship. When 50 people approach and say, “don’t you know?” that rarely is rooted in spiritual friendship. It is likely spiritually unhealthy to invite the world into our deepest joys and woes through social media.  Elisha may be wise to say “I know. Don’t talk about it.”

 Elijah knew the crippling sense of aloneness that would soon haunt Elisha. After a great victory, 1 Kings 17 tells us how Elijah collapsed under a broom tree and then hid in a cave crying out, “Where are you God? I’m the only righteous person in the world.”  God’s Still-Small-Spirit will speak to Elijah despite his self-centered prayer. God will show up when Elisha slaps Elijah’s mantle across the Jordan River yelling, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah- Where is the God of better days?”  We believe in God’s radical grace. We believe God’s boundless love matters more than our best efforts. 

Nearing the end of life’s journey, Elijah and Elisha stand beside the Jordan River. Elijah took his coat, rolled it up, hit the water, and the water divided in two and both of them crossed over on dry ground. Unlike Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, this miracle does not allow oppressed people to walk to freedom, it just gives Elijah and Elisha some privacy from the crowd gathering to see the whirlwind show. Elijah asks Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?” There is a blunt truthfulness between these spiritual friends that is as healthy as it is rare. Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.” The commentators say that this asking for 2 portions is rooted in Deuteronomy 21 inheritance laws by asking for the ⅔ share of a first-born child. Elisha is not asking for twice as effective ministry as Elijah. Elijah acknowledges that, “You’ve made a difficult request,” realizing that God’s Spirit blows where it will and is not conveyed by human hands. It is always God’s prerogative. Elijah tells his friend, “If you don’t see it, it won’t happen.” If you miss the tongues of fire, your heart’s strangely being warmed, the Spirit’s whirlwind, or the Still Small voice, it won’t happen for you.  God will not press us into faithfulness or righteousness.  “If you don’t see me, it won’t happen…” reminds me how Jesus said  that many see but not have spiritual insight and hear truth but do not have ears to understand.

As the two friends were walking and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. Elisha was watching and cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!” Elisha’s words do not make that much sense jumbling together images and icons of chariots, riders, percolated with shouts of “Father! Father!” Loss or shock floods the emotional center of our brains: we jump from one thought to the next in haphazard motion. The steps of shock and grief are not linear, we smile remembering, fall into tears, get angry, and these feelings come all on top of one another. Sometimes we feel like we can’t make it, but we do. Elisha  keeps moving through the transition, loss, and uncertainty.   

When Elisha could no longer see Elijah or the whirlwind, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two. The ripping of clothes was a kind of ritualized grief, saying to those who might ask, “I am not doing well, I am grieving.” Sometimes we need to rip our clothes and stand in grief, acknowledging our loss within ourselves, before we take our next steps. 

Elisha went back and stood on the banks of the Jordan River and took Elijah’s coat and hit the water saying, “Where is the Lord, Elijah’s God?” Most of us are not that spiritually bold or feel safe enough to voice feelings of spiritual emptiness. Who has not cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken us?” You know, no matter how beautiful a dishonest prayer we might craft, it will never move any mountains inside of us.  Elisha acknowledges that he longs for the old days, the days of Elijah, not the today he is living in! However, Elisha does not stay stuck in the days of Elijah,  Elisha walks back down to the river bank.  I wonder how the story would have gone,  if Elisha pretended everything was okay?  What if Elisha never picked up Elijah’s dropped mantle?  What if we always live looking backwards? What if we enshrine the days of Elijah and never risk swinging the prophetic mantle ourselves? How many churches have died because they enshrined a beloved past?  How many lives have dried up pining for a now lost era?  

Elisha moves down to the river again.  “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Elisha yells while swinging the prophetic mantle for himself: The God of Elisha divides the water in two.  Every day we cross into a new day. Life is always changing. God is with us even through the changes.  Christians should be people who deeply welcome change. Paul declares: “If anyone is in Christ, Behold, all things are being made new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)  If we follow Jesus, then change is a given. If we are the same people we were 20 years ago, then most likely we have not followed Jesus very closely. 

Most often we will feel inadequate as we face an uncertain future.  We may be tempted to leave the prophetic word unspoken or throw in the towel, but let us not lose hope. Let us never fear crying out for better days: But, let us pick the mantle God has placed before us, move back down to the river of life, and swing our mantles.  Who knows, God may part the waters once again.  Amen.

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