What a year of transitions!
Perhaps over time I will learn that every year is full of change, that we don’t really stand on solid ground, but on sediment that is constantly shifting. However, this year has seemed particularly full of transition. We elected, and then greeted, a new bishop. The presidential race is in full swing, with dozens of men and at least one woman gunning for the most powerful office in America.
And personally, for us at Emmanuel, we have lost many of the Saints that led this church for the last fifty years: Kate LaRue, Peggy Flannagan, Ned Morris, Mildred Lapsley, Zan McGuire, Kitty Shirley, David Smith, Louise Ellinger, and Theo Earp. I have listened to one interview conducted by the Heritage committee for their oral history project, and I was so moved to hear stories of the men and women who served this place twenty to thirty years ago on the vestry, through altar guild, singing in the choir, teaching. Their service was a continuation of the service of those before them, and we carry their work on now.
The work of the church is never ending, and though we don’t often take time to reflect on it, the work we do is always a direct result of someone else’s hard work. Our Sunday School and nursery would not be functional if not for the years of service of the Christian Education committee before I came. Chuck would not be here if Mr. Marston and Mr. LaRue had not poured their hearts into this place.
In the Christian story, generations are always passing the torch, one to another. Sometimes that goes smoothly. . . and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!
Today, we’ll look at three such stories-the transition of leadership from King Saul to King David, the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha, and finally the transition of leadership from Jesus to the Church.
The transition of leadership from Saul to David is a worst-case scenario. If you’ll remember from reading the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel, Saul was the first king of Israel. God did not want the people of Israel to have a king, but they whined because they wanted to be like all the other countries around them. The whining finally got to God, and he granted them a king. Saul was a great king. He was tall and handsome, very smart and had innate leadership skills. The problem was, he was such a good king, he forgot to rely on God. He ignored the prophet Nathan’s instructions once and that was IT. God wanted him out. For God’s second try as king, he chose David. David was not anyone’s first choice for king. He was scrawny, a shepherd, and. . .a musician. But God knew that David loved God with all his heart. God wanted him as king..
But you know, it’s hard to let go of power. History books tell us it took years for Nixon to fully understand that he was no longer president. For a long time, he would sit in his office at home and command his staff as if he were still the leader of the free world. While some find it easy to retire, others, especially if forced out, have a really difficult time letting someone else take over. Saul was one of these guys. He knew David was next in line to be king, but he was not going to go down without a fight. He fought the transition so hard, it ended up killing him-he died on the battlefield. Saul did not need to die that way. He and David did not start out as enemies-in fact, Saul’s son Jonathan, was David’s best friend. Saul could have resigned his post and then acted as an advisor to David, or taken up gardening, or some form of ancient golf. Instead, he gripped on to his power, his authority, and it ruined him.
Do we ever cling to power? Letting go of a position of authority can be very painful. My father retired two summers ago after being principal of a particular school for five years. Watching his successor undo much of the good foundation he had laid at the school, was terribly frustrating to my dad. He had to consciously let go and distance himself so he wouldn’t go crazy worrying about the students and teachers under this new administration. We cling to power, not just for power’s sake, but because we think we can do a good job, a better job than the next guy, but sometimes God is calling us to let go and to move forward in our own lives.
The transition of power from Elijah to Elisha is a very different story. If the story of Saul and David is on the very human and very sad end of the spectrum, the story of Elijah and Elisha is over here on the over the top, almost ridiculously spiritual side of the spectrum. Elijah was a stormy old prophet. He ushered in a drought to punish the nation for idolatry. And he was constantly shouting prophecies of dooooooom. Nevertheless, Elisha thought Elijah was the bees knees. In our story today, he is following Elijah around like Elijah’s biggest fan. Even when Elijah tells him to get lost, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, Elisha won’t leave. He admires Elijah so much, that he wants to inherit a doubleshare of his spirit-he wants to be able to carry on Elijah’s prophetic ministry with the same energy and vigor as his mentor. When Elijah is finally taken up into heaven, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces and placed Elijah’s fallen mantle on himself-symbolizing the transition of leadership.
Taking over leadership from a successful leader is scary stuff. It can be tempting to hero worship our predecessor and lose ourselves in their style. And while we can certainly learn from other leaders, it is important to retain a sense of our own identity. While Elisha did inherit Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was a very different kind of prophet. Instead of heralding doom, Elisha showed people God’s power by being a wonder worker. He worked miracles for his nation and for individuals. (He also killed two kids who made fun of him for being bald-but that is a whole other story.) Elisha was able to inherit Elijah’s spirit, while remaining true to himself and the gifts God had given him.
Finally, the transition of leadership between Jesus and the church is most like what we experience today in the Church. Jesus had spent three years leading and teaching his disciples. He knew his death was going to come, and come soon. He had changed Simon’s name from Simon to Peter because Jesus knew that Peter-which means rock-would become the rock of the new church. You and I know how that transition went. Before Peter could become Peter of the book of Acts, in which he is a wise leader and administrator, he first had to be Peter the impetuous screw up. Before he could become the Peter who would guide the church, he had to be Peter who would betray Jesus three times.
Peter, James, Paul and the other leaders of the early church had to deal with all sorts of problems as people figured out what it meant to follow Jesus, and they did not handle every situation perfectly. Like us, sometimes they fought, or hurt each others feelings, or spoke without thinking. Also like us, they knew they could solve these problems by remembering how Jesus handled situations and by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.
I know it is hard to believe, but I have made some SPECTACULARLY stupid decisions as I have ministered here. You are not so lucky as to get to hear these stories in this sermon, but it is sufficient to say I can relate to Peter’s moment of “Ooooh. I’ve really screwed up.” Like Peter, I have had to take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and then move on, hoping I have learned something! I’m sure none of you can relate!
When we are baptized, we each become a leader in the church. We each become a minister. We all will face times in our life when we have to let go of our power to let someone else step up. We will also face times when we realize that WE are who God wants to step up, no matter how underqualified we think we are! We will also all make mistakes as we attempt to lead and need to be forgiven.
The good news, is that God will also bless our leadership. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will be able to accomplish more than we ever would on our own steam. The trick is to remember Saul and not be tempted to do everything on our own!
Our great leaders at Emmanuel whom we have lost this year had their leadership blessed by God and all of here in this room enjoy the benefits of their hard work. As we take over their responsibilities, their areas of leadership, may be also be blessed.