Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fifth after Pentecost, 2007

July 1, 2007 5 Pentecost (RCL 8/C) 2nd Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14

A great old hymn, that used to be sung all the time at ordinations: “God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons; Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast; Each age its solemn task may claim but once; Make each one nobler, stronger than the last.”

As you might imagine, the new hymnal plays with this language, but the sentiment still powerful, and the illustration pointing us to the passage from 2nd Kings that is our Old Testament reading today. For the last weeks I’ve spent some time talking about these Elijah stories, and this morning we come to the end in the account of Elisha’s call to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. A moment of what the Church Deployment Office will call a major pastoral transition.

I’m reminded of the great Episcopalian of the late 19th century, Phillips Brooks, who was in some sense not unlike the Billy Graham of his day. A towering figure in Christianity, above any denomination, a compelling preacher whose sermons 125 years later continue to be read for inspiration and studied as models in seminary classrooms. Called to Trinity Church, Boston, he supervised the building of that magnificent H.H. Richardson structure on Copley Square at the heart of the Back Bay, and in his huge congregation week by week were Senators and Mayors, captains of industry, and the leaders of American and international business, science, academic and social life. His sermons were covered as news, not on the religion page but in the front section of the Boston newspaper, and the collections of his sermons sold around the country at the top of the best-seller lists. Toward the end of his life he left Trinity Church when he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. He served in that office three years, and when he died, in Boston the banks closed and trading on the floor of the stock exchange was halted for half a day.

When he left Trinity Church it was one of the largest parishes of the Episcopal Church, and the Vestry undertook an extensive process to elect the next Rector. Surprisingly, few of the candidates they were interested in were willing to be considered. You may not have known this, but some clergy have, well, let’s say “fragile” egos. And no matter how great a preacher, a spiritual leader, you would be, no matter what your accomplishments, to accept this position would mean that you would be remembered forever, as “the Rector after Phillips Brooks.” The candidate who finally accepted election, a well-known and gifted leader, did so with obviously mixed feelings. His recorded comment was, “Someone must do it.” The guy who played right field after Roberto Clemente died. You may have been a great player, but who’s going to remember your name?

Because I’ve had the opportunity in my ministry to follow two gifted and beloved Rectors, Jim Berger, who had been Rector of St. Paul’s, Bloomsburg, for 25 years, and of course here at St. Andrew’s, Ralph Brooks, who had served for a mind-boggling 33, I’ve been asked from time to time informally to do some consultation with clergy in these kinds of situations. It is a complex and not always perfectly predictable environment, and it’s not really possible to predict perfectly who will be able to succeed in that effort, and who won’t. But one thing I do always look for, listen for, is language of jealousy and even resentment. Often these clergy feeling perhaps a certain sense of entitlement, which is not all that unreasonable, I guess, to be known and judged on their own merits, and not always in the context of what usually will be an unflattering comparison. (As a friend told me once on a perhaps related topic, it’s better to marry a divorcee than a widow, since as the years go by the ex-husband’s reputation continues to decline, while the late-husband’s will glow ever brighter and brighter.)

So anyway: Elijah’s mantle, o’er Elisha cast. Big shoes to fill, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks. This great man, a man of towering spiritual force, a miracle worker, a voice for God speaking out courageously, even risking his own life, admonishing king and repudiating an unfaithful priesthood. A pretty challenging job description, and even if you do a great job, Elisha, even if you raise the dead and convert the nation, what they’ll say about you is, he did a pretty good job wearing Elijah’s mantle.

But the thing is, and just what we would notice this morning, and perhaps for us the moral of the story, that’s not how it is for Elisha. We don’t hear any jealousy or resentment. If he’s awed at the responsibility of this invitation, if he has a moment of hesitation, as he does, it’s not because his ego is too big, but because in his humility he cannot imagine how he can be the one to carry God’s work forward. Even this telling phrase at the end of the lesson this morning, in the performance of his first prophetic miracle, Elisha parts the water calling in prayer, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” As the story unfolds, he’s going to be his own man. He will live out this vocation in his own way. But it will never be about him. About his power, his renown, his glory. But about what God is doing.

I always get a little nervous—not that I don’t sometimes do it myself, but even so—when I hear clergy talking about “my parish,” or bishops about “my diocese,” or presidents, as I heard our president say the other day, “my government.” We all do talk that way about things, of course: family, work, church. “Mine.” As a kind of possession, I guess. And that may work its way into our consciousness in a pernicious way. No matter how often we say the offertory prayer, “all things come of thee, O Lord.” But the point about Elijah and Elisha and that great hymn, is that it isn’t about us. When we think it is, we’re just plain wrong. Each generation has its turn of stewardship, but it’s God who is doing the work, and it’s his story that is unfolding, and if we think we’re the stars of the show, we just haven’t read far enough along in the story. It’s not about us. Kings come and kings go. Prophets come and prophets go. Bishops, Rectors, Presidents. They come, and they go. We all do. And it’s only when we get that fact down deep in our minds and hearts that we actually can get anything done in the work God has given us to do. It’s the work that’s important, God’s love opening out ever more widely through the universe of time and space, the precious gift of Christ on the cross.

Only when we are in him, and he in us, that this holy creativity is made possible. When we receive and as we become the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, and living signs of his great victory. Not about us, but about him. Each age its solemn task may claim but once, as goes the old hymn. And of course in the end it won’t matter in the slightest if they get our names spelled right in the closing credits, or even if our names are there at all. So long as the story is told, the bread broken and shared, the wine poured out, the community gathered and sent out in his name—that’s what matters.

Bruce Robison

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