Change Is Hard But Possible
2 Kings 2:1-14
Change Is Hard But Possible
June 26, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
The chariot and horses of fire come between Elijah and Elisha, and by the time Elisha can see again, Elijah has been spirited to heaven in a whirlwind (thus the song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). Elijah’s mantle, symbol of prophetic authority, falls to earth and Elisha picks it up. And whatever it was that had made Elijah so special, Elisha receives a double share.
For two reasons, I have a soft spot in my heart for this story. One has to do with the way retiring pastors are recognized at annual conference every year. One of the—usually older—retiring pastors faces one of the—usually younger—newly ordained pastors. A stole, representing Elijah’s mantle, is placed on the new pastor’s shoulders, as the retiring pastor says,
I transfer this mantle from our generation to the young
that the responsibilities and dedication of the older generation
will be caught up and carried on by the young,
and the spirit of today’s Elijahs will rest upon today’s Elishas.
The young pastor replies, often tearfully:
We who come after you take up the mantle which falls upon us.
May we inherit a double share of your spirit. 1
It is a beautiful and moving moment, the transfer of responsibility and authority from one generation of leaders to the next. It seem so perfect and so easy up there on the stage—some gracefully bowing out while others respectfully take their place.
The only thing is, the next day you have to get up and go home, back to your church, where you discover that it is not quite that easy, that the transition of authority doesn’t happen that quickly or gracefully. All of a sudden district superintendents get all these calls from Elishas because the old Elijahs keep coming back for weddings and funerals. And they get calls from church members because the new prophet isn’t what they were looking for and, besides, can’t begin to fill old Elijah’s shoes.
There’s the old joke: how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? 13—one to change the light bulb and at least a dozen to stand in the parking lot and remember how good the old bulb was. Transition is not easy, is it? That’s what this story is about. Transition is messy and disruptive and heart-wrenching . . . and inevitable. This is true not only for pastors and churches, but in all of life. A aunt or uncle or parent dies and suddenly, ready or not, you are matriarch or patriarch of the family. Your boss moves or gets promoted, and now your job is different, precarious. One of our daughters had bad dreams for weeks when we changed babysitters. Change is hard.
And yet the Bible is shot through with transitions in leadership. Abraham gives the blessing to Isaac, who passes it on to Jacob. No one could live up to Moses, but Joshua still had to lead the people into the Promised Land. It takes very nearly a civil war, but King David is succeeded by his son Solomon. And Jesus spent his earthly ministry preparing a group—the church—to do for the world what he had done for them. This transition from Jesus to church was, and remains, a rocky one.
Elijahs bow out and Elishas rise up. The message is that change is hard but possible. Change is hard but by the grace of God, it is possible.
From this story we can see three places where the transition from one leader to the next can get blocked:
- The transition gets blocked if the old prophet won’t let go of the mantle. Elisha could not have picked up the mantle unless Elijah had let go of it. This is why there is a rule that when pastors leave a church, they don’t visit that church for at least a year, and they don’t go back to do weddings and funerals. The new pastor can’t pick up the mantle unless the old pastor lets it go.
And letting go of the mantle can be hard. Could that be why Elijah leads Elisha on that wild goose chase from Gilbal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan—because he wasn’t ready to let go? When I left Maynard Avenue Church after a dozen years, they just about had to pry the office keys out of my tight, clenched hand. Long-time leaders often say they want the younger folks to take over, that they’re tired of wearing the mantle all the time. Only when the younger folks do pick up the mantle, they often get told, "That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!" I talked to an elderly man recently and for the first time he was letting his kids plan the annual family reunion. I asked how things were going. "I’m biting my tongue, pastor," he said, "biting my tongue." It is hard to let go of the mantle, and that can block a healthy transition. Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.
- Another thing that blocks transition is when people won’t follow the new prophet. Even though Elijah is gone and Elisha has already picked up the mantle and parted the water, the people still want to look for Elijah. "Maybe he’s still around here somewhere," they say wistfully. "Maybe he’ll come back and help us one more time." Elisha tries to tell them: "Don’t bother looking for him; he’s gone." But they insist on looking. They need some time to grieve for the old prophet, and they’re not quite ready to listen to this whipper-snapper Elisha.
Oh, they warm up to him eventually. But he has to earn his stripes. And they have to learn that change is hard but possible. Transition is blocked until the people are willing to follow the new prophet.
Rev. Cean Wilson, who was once a pastor here at Maple Grove, told how when she started at one new church, an elderly woman looked at her and said, "But who will do our funerals?" She just couldn’t envision anyone but the old pastor leading their funerals. Cean stayed at the church for several years and loved the people, and when it was time for her to move, that same woman looked at her and said, "But when you leave, who will do our funerals?" We’ve got to learn to follow the new prophet. Change is hard but possible.
- Finally, th transition of leadership is blocked if no one picks up the mantle. What would have happened to God’s people if Elisha had decided not to pick up Elijah’s mantle? What if he’d said, "You know, that mantle looks a little heavy, kind of burdensome. Let’s see if someone else might pick it up." As a pastor, this always worries me, even though God has never let me down. In the first church I served, the long-time secretary retired and moved out of town. And when she set her mantle down, I could have cried. All right, I did cry. She had held that church together through several pastors and I didn’t see how we could make it without her. But do you know what God did? God provided someone, a new member, who said, "Why, I’ll pick up that mantle. I called her Elisha for a while. And the truth is, there were things Elisha did better even than the old Elijah.
Bob Skinner was Finance Chair here through some difficult years. He was dedicated, skilled and positive. When Bob had to rotate off Finance Committee, I lost sleep. I worried, what if no one will pick up that mantle? But do you know what God did? I made one phone call, and Brad Hughes is an amazing chair of finance.
Soon Barb Harrison will step down as Chair of Trustees after getting us through three roof projects, a couple of sanctuary updates, countless electrical and HVAC problems, and now a capital campaign. It’s a big mantle. I worry about what will happen when Barb sets it down. But what do you supposed God will do?
There are always mantles lying around a church—mantles for teaching children’s Sunday school and leading youth ministry, mantles for doing maintenance and repairs, mantles for visiting the sick and for inviting new folks to come. The mantles are many. One may have your name on it. Healthy transition is blocked when the old prophet won’t let go, it’s blocked when people won’t follow the new prophet, and it is blocked when no one will pick up the mantle. Change is hard, but with enough Elishas around, it is possible.
A while ago I mentioned that I have a soft spot in my heart for this story for two reasons. One is its place in the service for retiring pastors. The other is this: at my father’s funeral, now sixteen years ago, I rose to say that as far as I was concerned my father’s defining characteristic was his soft heart. He had compassion on the poor and rejected, he apologized well and forgave easily, he almost never raised his voice or held a grudge. My father’s mantle seemed heavy, his shoes too big to fill. And ever since, my prayer has been: "Oh, my father, my father. May I inherit a double share of your soft, soft heart."
Change is hard, but by the grace of God, it is possible.
1 "A Retirement Recognition Service," The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 736.