A Whirlwind of Change
This is the third time I've delivered a version of this sermon. The first was at Lakeshore Baptist in Waco, Texas in 2004, the second was at Sanctuary in Tarrytown in 2010 and the third was last Sunday at First Baptist of Austin, the church I worked at from September 2005-October 2010. You may listen to the spoken words at First Austin's Website - "2013-10-27" will get you there, but be fair warned, I was a little weepy. While this is an impassioned sermon about change and loss, I did not expect to be as affected as I was. I attribute this to several realities in my life some of which I share in the sermon and others that remain hidden in my heart. Plus, this was my first time "back" at First Austin in a pastoral capacity. While I have helped with weddings and funerals since I left my position there, and performed with Trinity Street Players in Blood Brothers last year, this was my first time back to the pulpit. It was an honor to be asked back by my former boss and my former congregation, and a testimony to my journey these past three years that I was able to say yes. I've wrestled with calling... from the stage to the pulpit to the microphone to the computer - who am I? What should I do with my one wild and precious life? This fall has proved a ministerial season for me: four weddings and a funeral (yep, it's true), three lectures at UBC in Austin and finally preaching last Sunday at First Austin. No theatre this fall for Ann Catherine... no Les Mis, no Man of La Mancha, no Falsettos - too many performance conflicts. So unbeknownst to me, a season of ministry began in September and is now winding down. And amidst the winds of change in my own life, I preached this sermon about a man and a mentor and the great wind that blew over him.
Enjoy (italics is sung).
What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see?
Is there madness in my being?
Is it the wind that moves the trees?
Sometimes you’re further than the moon
Sometimes you’re closer than my skin
And you surround me like a winter fog
You come and burn me with a kiss
And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns
Elisha was obsessed, and Elijah (his master) had only three trips left to make before the Lord would take him away. Gilgal, Jericho and the Jordan all needed some final work done before he left. Elijah had anointed Elisha, and had just a few ends to tie up before he knew God would call him home.
We don’t know why he didn’t want Elisha to accompany him. Perhaps he wanted to finish those last three visits by himself. Perhaps he needed time to think or reflect before he left the earth. Maybe he worried about his disciple Elisha, and thought the trips and the whirlwind would be too much for him in these last few days. Or maybe he was tired of always being followed around by an obsessive student. But whatever the reason, three times Elijah told Elisha, “No, don’t come with me,” and three times Elisha replied, “Not gonna happen; I will not leave you.”
It’s almost humorous reading the text, for in each scenario the same thing happens. “Don’t come with me Elisha.” “Too late,” Elisha replies. Elisha’s obsession about staying with Elijah reminds me of the beginning of the book of Ruth when she refuses to return to her own county but vows to stay with Naomi instead. It reminds me of Sam’s allegiance to Frodo, Sandy's following of the Little Orphan Annie, or of C3PO to R2D2.
In each town, while Elijah took care of business, the town prophets pulled Elisha aside. “Listen, you know God’s taking him away from you right?” they asked, (bewildered it seemed) at his persistence at staying with his master. “I know,” Elisha responded, “leave me alone.”
Did Elisha think that if the other prophets kept their mouths shut it wouldn’t happen? Did denial keep him from accepting the truth? Everyone knew! He had to know as well: the Lord would be taking Elijah from him.
But Elijah was his master, his mentor, his leader, his friend. And I don’t think Elisha wanted him to go.
Two weeks ago you lost Barry English, a lay leader of your congregation and a dear friend. Last week a teenager at Lanier High School committed suicide in the cafeteria. Yesterday Japan was hit by an earthquake bringing into question yet again the effects of radiation from the Fukushima plant. And in February, Russia will debate a bill that would remove children from their parents if their adoptive parents are gay.
And suddenly, change is upon us.
You know the symptoms well… The time has come for a move to a new location, a new job, a new school, or a nursing home and you’re not ready to go. You know the days, hours, even the minutes until the moving van comes, but you’re not ready to think about that yet. Or maybe a parent is sick enough for the doctors to speculate about the amount of time left, and you can’t handle the thought of tackling life without your mother, the one person who has always been a constant in your life. Career changes, illness, break-ups, divorce, disease, all remind us of the fragility of our friendships, of the malleability of community in our lives. Life will never always be the same. People come and go whether or not we want them to; and sometimes, even if we see it coming, the pain seems more than we can handle. After all, life is unpredictable enough without having to worry about those we love leaving us!
Three times Elisha denies Elijah’s request, and follows him from town to town. As they near the Jordan on their third trip, Elijah, reminiscent of Moses, takes his mantle and strikes the ground. The water parts, and they cross to the other side. It is at this point that Elijah makes his final attempt to prepare Elisha for his departure. “What can I do for you before I go?” Elijah asks, and Elisha replies, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” In other words, “Guarantee that I’ll be as good as you at what I do.” Elisha is afraid. This great leader is leaving him, and he lacks the confidence to finish the task. Elijah admittedly tells him that he has asked for quite a lot, but states that should Elisha actually see him being taken up in to heaven, then his request will be granted.
So the two continue walking and talking, and soon enough the long awaited event takes place. A chariot of fire and horses separates teacher and student. Now I don’t really know what a chariot of fire and horses looks like, but I imagine the whole event was rather startling and confusing for Elisha, not to mention Elijah who is swept off his feet in a whirlwind up into the sky. The scene is rather reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy in her house is lifted by the tornado. She looks out the window bewildered and sees a floating cow… the Wicked Witch of the West on her bicycle…and Elijah!
Elisha knows what is happening though and screams out, “Father, father!” And he watches, his eyes burning, straining to see his master go. But Elijah is gone, and Elisha moves into immediate mourning, ripping his clothes apart in anguish.
Why was Elisha so scared? So sad? He calls out, “father, father,” and then proceeds to state the obvious over and over, “The chariots of Israel and the horseman!...the chariots of Israel and the horseman…the chariots.” Was he afraid he would be unable to complete Elijah’s ministry? Was he depressed at loosing his mentor and friend? Perhaps both. In any case, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle that had fallen from him and returns to Jordan. He strikes the water, and with the existential question that we all ask when faced with loss Elisha cries out, “Where is God?”
When pain enters our lives, it’s natural to want to find a scapegoat to blame. So we hate our ex-husbands and blame our parents and demonize our bosses. But sometimes when our pain is so overwhelming, and our situation so confusing that we can pinpoint no one to vilify, we turn our anger on God. We turn God into our scapegoat. Why God, why? Where are you now, God? We move from questioning God to blaming God. Please don’t hear me incorrectly. I’m not saying that all anger in unjustified, but when it moves from anger to the dehumanizing of another person… from wrestling with God to blaming God… then we’ve created a scapegoat to ease our pain.
I’ve been there before. Have you? I’ve stood and watched the tornado of death and depression, loss and fatigue ravage my life and I too have screamed out, “Father, father! Why God why?” When I was in second grade, my best friend moved to another city. At the end of one summer filled with hide and go seek, dress-up clothes and little house on the prairie, she was gone; I cried, and resented the parents who took away my best friend. In seventh grade a large department store moved to the opposite end of the mall where my father owned a local clothing store. All the business traveled to the other end of the mall, and my dad lost the store. That was a loss that threatened a change in community, a change in my lifestyle and a change in my father. I cried and prayed and refused to shop at Dillard’s anymore. My senior year in college, I lost the man I was going to marry to another girl. That loss changed not only my plans for the future, but my idealistic perspective on love. I cried, and prayed, and sought counseling, and very easily found someone to hate. In 2005 just one month after I began working here at FIrst Baptist as a pastoral resident, I lost my pastor, mentor and friend when he was electrocuted while performing a baptism on a Sunday morning during church. And always, because I'm a professed Christian and especially because I'm a minister, people come to me and ask, “where is God?” and often I wonder that myself.
“Where is God?” Elisha demanded. And then through his dust-clogged, tearful eyes, Elisha saw something miraculous. The waters began to part. Literally.
Was Elisha surprised? I don’t know. Encouraged? Probably. The waters split, and like Moses and Elijah before him, Elisha walked on dry land. The spirit of Elijah, or more accurately, the spirit of God had remained with Elisha, and he was able to cross over, both literally and figuratively, to the other side.
It’s interesting that Elisha finds God when the waters part: a “miracle” that his master had preformed just days before. You may remember that Elijah found God not through a whirlwind or an earthquake but rather through silence when earlier our the story he escaped to a cave to think. But his student, Elisha, finds God in the parting of the water that allows him to cross on dry land. Unlike Elijah, Elisha didn’t need silence. His head was ringing from the sound of silence in the absence of his master and friend. Elisha needed to hear God in another way, and God provided.
But God didn’t change the situation. After all, where would Elisha be if Elijah had stayed in his life forever? Could the fear of losing his mentor be turned to confidence as God developed Elisha to be a great prophet himself? Although pain’s purpose is not to do good, could not God make good result despite of and through our pain? Loss is not always an ending – God never leaves us with our loss, but works through the loss in our lives. Some pain we will never understand. Period. But in other losses (often through hindsight), we find God there working, changing things for the better. Life is not okay all the time, but as Elisha found, even amidst loss, God is.
I Am Who I Am
And I think perhaps God Is for us as well. God knows our needs, and is more than willing to meet us where we are. Sometimes God calls to us from silence as he did with Elijah, and sometimes through great events like water parting as Elisha discovered – but God always chooses to meet us wherever we are in life to help us cross to the other side.
No, God will not reverse death, or cure every cancer, or promise happily ever after for every couple married in the church. I wish, wish, wish God did. But God does promise to walk alongside us through every trial we face. And God offers the Spirit to give us peace. And amidst pain and loneliness so excruciating and unexplainable, God heals our broken hearts.
It is 8 years almost to the day that Kyle died. I saw an old friend last night who went to church with me in Waco. He startled me by saying, "October is always rough," and I realized he, too, still remembers. It is almost three years to the day since I left my job here at First Austin, and I'm still figuring out who I am when I'm not in church. And I know each of you has your own 8 years... 3 years... dates of remembering, graves needing fresh flowers, scars from surgeries still healing, AA anniversaries to celebrate, divorces to settle, and the list goes on and on...
The author of the hymn “It is Well” lost all his children in a terrible shipwreck, only his wife survived. And though many Christians lightly sing this tune, it is truly a hymn birthed out of great anguish. Knowing the author’s story gives new depth to the line, “when sorrow like sea billows roll.” But the author discovered that even in life’s most inexplicable pain, God is there, and makes it possible for wellness to exist within our broken souls.
But, God is not absent or blind. As Elisha discovered, God is present, pouring out grace and sending the Great Comforter into our lives. Truly this means we have a Good God on our side; a God engaged and willing to help us to cross over to the other side of the pain, the other side of uncertainty, the other side of loss. We must channel our obsession, our fear, our excitement into picking up our lives, planting our feet on solid ground, and walking past the confusing whirlwinds of change to discover that God will speak to us in a new way as we continue on this adventurous journey.
What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see?
Is there madness in me being?
Is it the wind that moves the trees?
Cause I feel lonely without hope
And I feel desperate without vision
You wrap around me like a winter coat
You come and free me like a bird
And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns…
Rev.Ann Pittman, October 27, 2013, First Austin