Sermon for Independence Day

“Whirlwinds, Water and Foxholes: Lessons in Following”

Preached at First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio, July 1st.
Psalm 77, 2 Kings 2, Luke 9

Frankly, I’ve had a horrible six months. There have been delightful moments, glimpses of glory when I’ve been filled with pride, or laughed until I’ve cried, and even the pain has its silver lining but mostly it’s been horrible.
It started when my boss, the academic dean the university where I teach, resigned suddenly just before Christmas. A sudden resignation is never good and in important ways there hasn’t been anything other than a festival of pain and confusion to come from this one. On March 2nd my school’s baseball team was involved in a tragic crash that killed seven people and made our town the centre of the country for a weekend or more. A month and half later the Virginia Tech massacre claimed the lives of 32 people, echoing and amplifying our loss. Lee Eshleman, one half of the acting duo, Ted & Lee, died on May 17, 2007. Lee took his own life after succumbing to a long battle with depression. I lost my favourite uncle, John Hess, a week later. This week I learned of the tragic death of Peg Brown. And this whole time my government wastes money and life on a war that leaves me spinning and spinning, dizzy and nauseous.
I know that some of these events have touched your lives and I know that you likely have others. I don’t want to comment further on these things, because so often there is nothing we can say, or too much we need to say. I don’t want to comment further except to say one thing. This kind of malaise, of bad feeling, makes me wonder about following.
It makes me wonder about following because I think that in our society the desire to follow someone is strong. On one hand, I think that this is why George W. Bush is so popular. It’s easy to follow him. Bush is clear about what he wants, and he is clear that not following him means you are against him. On the other hand, I think this explains the rise in popularity of Barack Obama. He reminds us of people we want to follow like Martin Luther King Jr. The desire to follow makes me wonder about the baseball team because on March 2nd all of a sudden they all seemed to know exactly who to follow and how to follow even though there wasn’t anyone for them to follow. It makes me wonder about Lee, who taught so many people how to follow. Following is not an easy answer to sadness and tragedy; instead, it’s all we can do.
Happily, the three lessons in following that I want to dwell on this morning are available to all of us. They are found in two great gifts that God has given us: the natural world and human creativity. We don’t tend to look to nature for lessons on how to live our lives, but in each of the scriptures read this morning, following happens in and in relation to nature. We need to look to nature for lessons on how to follow, but when we look we need to look with the creative eyes God has given us, eyes which allow us to shape, see and live in, through, above and below our world. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
Here then are three short lessons in following.
The lesson of the Whirlwind.
Elisha is nothing if not an insistent and aggressive follower. Again and again he choruses, “As Yahweh lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you!” Furthermore he demands of Elijah a double share of his spirit. This is the great prophet Elijah. For most of us a half a share would do quite nicely, but Elisha demands double. Elisha may not have been easy to have as a follower.
Elijah shows himself to be worthy of Elisha’s following when he doesn’t pretend to be able to guarantee such an audacious request. Elijah basically says, “Hunh, well if God wants that to happen fine, if not, tough.” Elijah may not have been easy to follow.
God shows, in the whirlwind, and in chariots of fire, that God indeed approves of both Elijah’s life and Elisha’s aggressive following. The whirlwind is a feature of the natural world but God doesn’t appear only in the whirlwind. God appears in a chariot of fire. God sees human creativity in the chariot: wheels, perhaps some red fiery racing stripes, and recognizes that a chariot is a good vehicle in which to allow Elijah to continue to follow God. The place for following is in the natural world, but a natural world that has been visited by human creativity. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
Elisha immediately takes up his staff and parts the waters of the Jordan. Now, it turns out that the brotherhood of prophets observed all of this for as the story continues they decide that they should look for Elijah in case he was thrown down by Yahweh. Elisha knows that the time for following Elijah is finished, and when the brotherhood returns from looking, unsuccessful, he simply says, “Did I not tell you not to go?”
God uses the whirlwind to honour Elisha’s aggressive following and show when the time to follow Elijah had ended.
The lesson of Water.
In the Psalm that we read today, the waters are their own character. The waters see, are afraid, and tremble. Water gives life and we need rain in all the ways mentioned in the pastoral prayer, but water, especially to someone in Banda Aceh or New Orleans can also mean death. Water, all at once or over millions of years is an incredibly powerful force, and the writer of Psalm 77 is aware of every ounce of water’s power. In fact for the psalmist there is likely nothing more powerful than water, which makes his psalm all the more incredible. For even water, the great power, trembles before God. Followers like water may be powerful; powerful followers respect the God who leads people like a flock of sheep.
The lesson of Foxholes.
Jesus is in a bad mood in the snippet of his journey to Jerusalem. It could be that his followers had started to get on his nerves. The disciples are a singularly thick-headed and wrong-headed bunch. For instance, what’s up with trying to call down fire on the Samaritan village. Who do they think they are? Elijah?
Anyways, Jesus makes it very difficult on the next three people who try to follow him by giving tricky answers when they seek to commit to him. Following is not easy, especially with answers like these.
One wants to say good-bye to his people, and Jesus says that once you start following you can’t look back. Another wants to bury his father and Jesus seems callous when he reminds him that his duty is to spread the good news. These people probably wished that they were Elisha being called by Elijah. When Elijah called Elisha, Elisha responded with a very similar request, “Let me go kiss my parents.” Elijah’s response was a bit more civil than Jesus’ but it got to the same point. Elijah basically said, “Sure, take care of whatever you need to, but remember it is God who is calling you, not me.” Jesus and Elijah both want to be careful to let people know that following requires a real commitment to search after God’s purposes and then to let them work their way out in your life, regardless of what that might mean.
This brings us to the man who said, “I will follow you wherever you go”
This is certainly the right thing to have said but Jesus’ answer is clever. Foxholes and birdnests provide natural places where foxes and birds can easily go. The natural world has an order and it’s easy to see. If you want to follow me the road is going to be more difficult. Because I live very much in the world of foxes and birds but in a way that I am always trying to see the creativity that courses in, through, above and below that world. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
We don’t hear exactly what happens to these three potential followers. Is it possible that one of them cleverly replied to Jesus, out of earshot of Luke or his source, “Like Elisha recognized Elijah, I recognize that your call comes from the God who has given us the earth to share with foxes, and life to follow you. I will go and bless my family, but know that in all I do I will be following you.”
This morning I’ve suggested the possibility of a following that is aggressive as a whirlwind, as powerful as water, and as clever as a fox. This is a difficult following, but it is natural both to our world and to the creativity that courses in, through, above and below our world. It is perhaps not a comfortable following or one which feels close to our home, to Bluffton. When we look to the sky we see neither rain and lightning nor chariots of fire. Still, if we looked to the sky last night, and celebrated first the community of good friends, and a family of brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of a national holiday, or freedom at a cost we cannot bear, we might have seen fireworks, and in that community a way to follow. Amen