“What Next?” 190th Anniversary

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

6Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

I wonder what the early German Reformed members would think of our 190 years of history.  I wonder if they ever thought that there would be 190 years of watering the desires of the thirsty.  Generations of people have come here for healing, for the water of life—before a surgery, after repenting, how many thousands of people heard the message of Jesus since 1820 in this holy space?

I wonder what the German speaking founders of this congregation would think of our updating the language of worship to English. In 1820, they didn’t sing these hymns we sing.  They didn’t have the electronic organ, indoor pluming, the Steele building.  I wonder what the German Reformed would think of the ministry here in this place over generations, the damage church members have caused one another through sin or broken friendships,  the healings and forgiveness expressed, the daring giving of food to the food bank.  I wonder what they would think of our internet, and computers.

Here on the wall are our previous pastors—of course, the Bible tells us they are also here in the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1)—I would love to ask them how they dealt with crises in their ministry.  They are the Elijah’s, the giants on whose shoulders we stand—we wait for them to pass their mantle to us—to get a double portion of their Spirit.  We are Elisha, the understudy, the new model.  After 190 years, it sounds to me like the story of Elijah going away was written for just such an Anniversary Service.

#1—Elisha inherits a difficult time from his mentor Elijah.  We’re talking about maybe the 9th Century Before Jesus.  The people had fallen into sin and worshipping false gods—bare, raw power ruled the day.  So-called religious people had forgotten the Ten Commandments or God’s charge to care for the orphan and the widow (Exodus 22:22).  No, the people of Elijah’s day cared about their profit margins and religions of convenience, which demanded nothing of them.

Elijah and Elisha have spoken often against worshipping other gods.   As we know, none of the Israelites’ sins were pleasing in the eyes of God. Like Moses before him, Elijah has been working to set free those who live under unjust rule and oppression. By crossing the Jordan and parting the waters, just like crossing the Red Sea into freedom, Elijah experiences his own exodus from a life of tough obligation and into the promised land of God’s own presence, in other words, crossing the Jordan into heaven.

You can almost hear the grief and worry about the future in Elisha’s words. Yes, Elisha follows his mentor and won’t leave his side, as if he’s avoiding the obvious.  Elisha is saying to himself and to others, ‘My mentor, my guide may be leaving, but don’t talk about it. I can’t bear it yet.’

Elisha can’t bear the uncertainty of what comes next.  Of what comes after Elijah is gone.  Elisha is scared by the insecurity and oppression of: “What next?  What next?”

How many of us have uttered those same words after a funeral of a parent?  Or a brother?  We’ve uttered those same words when getting a bad diagnosis in the exam room.  Or looking at the youngest child’s empty room, when she’s gone off for her first day of college.  You ask yourself “What next” as you are looking at an empty house, where your children grew up, took their first steps, said their first words, as the  moving truck pulls away from the curb with all your furniture and memories.  “What next?”

#2–When the time comes for departure, Elisha realizes that his own path is laid out for him, he’s on his own now.  Mature and grown up.  The unavoidable moment–one of sweetness and sorrow–a chariot of fire separates heaven and earth, today and tomorrow, Elijah and Elisha.  And Elijah is indeed carried away in the whirlwind as Elisha cries out, “Father, father!’  in his grief and amazement.  Elisha is leaderless, alone.

Some people validly say we are living in a leaderless time, or better,  we have a crisis of leadership on our hands.  We have more access to information than any generation ever known to humankind with the Internet and computers—but it hasn’t made us that much smarter or kinder or more clever.   One reads in magazines and newspapers about the crisis of leadership in the church, in politics, in business, in law.

And we know that Elisha lives in a time of bad leadership, the Kings of Israel were bad leaders in a long line of bad leaders. Tracing the line of succession from one bad leader through another, we might throw up our hands in frustration and say, “Who cares?  Is it realty worth it?”  Or we might ask, “What next?”

In the life of the congregation as well, there are moments of crisis and change, as when a beloved pastor leaves or becomes sick or dies, and the congregation looks for new leadership. There are moments of enforced newness in the Church, when we ask ourselves, “What next?”   Some of you, in calling a new pastor, meeting a new pastor’s family, understandably might be asking of God, “What’s next?”  I know I am.

Yet, when changes unsettle us,  it is good to remember that these times have been here before, with the Ancient Israelites, and the Pennsylvania German settlers.  The early settlers faced change; a “What Next?” moment practically every week.  Do we build here with its risk of Indian attacks?     The built a log building with pratically no budget at all—built with all volunteer labor and donated materials.

Hills Church is not an accident of history, a lucky break.  Hills had its roots in people who believed that despite the immense challenges and changes—they must “inherit a double portion of the Elijah’s Spirit” by building up this church and her ministry.  This congregation had at its center 190 years ago—some daring people who had intensity and passion for ministry, who cared enough about the gospel they sacrificed for it.

Elijahs surround us today—in the cemetery, certainly, and on the wall plaques.  Yet, those who were obedient to the call of the gospel are in the woodwork, carpentry, carpet and the masonry, altar cloths, and the candles.  Remember our ancestors’ passion for seeking the Lord and let that passion be yours, as well.

#4— Which leads me to this—paintbrush.  What do Elijah and Elisha have to do with the year 2010 or our Anniversary or where we find ourselves today in society?

A young man, Gary, just graduated high school and he joined the ministry team of his church for mission trips. He was over 18 so this was his first experience as a youth advisor.  This was the summer between graduation and beginning freshman year at college.

The day after the mission trip was over Gary’s car drove up the gravel driveway to his grandfather’s home.  His grandfather, sitting in his wheelchair in front of the big picture window rolled himself over to the front door to let Gary in.

After a lot of small talk, Grandpa asked, “How was the mission trip?”

“Well, that’s really what I came over here to talk to you about grandpa.  You know how excited I was about this trip.  I’ve been so on fire for the Lord. . . .I was so excited to finally get a chance to help lead this group. . . . .But, seeing behind the scenes, I’m not sure I like it.  The adults bickered, sometimes even in front of the youth.  The advisors forgot that the motivation  of the mission was to serve Jesus and to serve others; not  to serve themselves.”

Grandpa, who was also a member of the church, but cannot make it in as much anymore due to his wheelchair nodded, solemnly.

“Honestly, I’m thinking of quitting, grandpa, walking away.  I’m going to be going off to college soon and I won’t get there as much.  I know I made a commitment for  a year  . . . . but it will be better if I resign now than get too involved; in a year it will be even harder to back out.  I want to believe in Jesus and His Church.  I want to participate but I don’t know if this is the right thing to do.”

Grandpa looked at his grandson with understanding eyes.  “Do you have a few minutes to spend with your Grandpa or do you have to go?”

“Yeah, I’ve got time.”

Grandpa wheeled himself out of the house and back to a roomy shed in the back yard.  Gary had been in there a couple of times as a child but not in years, not since grandmother had died.

What Gary saw inside triggered something in him, he knew his grandfather liked to paint and draw as a hobby, never knew that his grandfather had kept all the canvases and sketches.  Canvases and papers were everywhere, in racks, hanging on walls, on tables.  Some unframed, some completely finished.

Grandpa wheeled over to one of the racks and reached out with his stronger arm, the left one, and started to sort through the paintings. “Here’s one I made on vacation to the Lake District in England.”  He picked up another, obviously having trouble holding it steady—Gary reached over to help.

“This painting was the last one I made of your grandmother before she died.  And I’ve got some more back here that you have to see.”  Grandfather wheeled back to the very back of the shed.  The shed was cluttered but there was a very wide path for the wheelchair.

Grandfather reached out to the top canvas; leaning against the back wall..  “This is the still life I was working on when I had the stroke.”  It was beautiful, but only half complete—of a vase full of dark red garden roses.  Half of the picture had been painted—the other half was roughed out with pencil sketch lines.  Grandpa pulled out another half finished painting of a baby girl, laughing.  “Here’s one I started of your cousin, but the stroke interupted this one too.”

Gary flipped, slowly through each of these beautiful, some half painted, other quarter painted canvases.  Some were mere ideas sketched on a page.  Grandpa reached over to a drawer and rummaged around for a few seconds.

“Gary, who’s going to finish these?  I can’t.  This arm is never going to get steady enough.  My best painting days are behind me. Someone else is going to have to finish these.”   Grandpa handed Gary a paintbrush that Grandpa had fished out of the drawer.

“Gary,” he said, his voice soft and clear, “do you understand, now?”

“I think so, grandpa.”

Do you, the witnesses to 190 years of Hills Church, understand as well? Amen.