Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah 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. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then 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. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.
Then 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. When 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.” He 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.”
As 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. Elisha 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. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He 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. (2Kings 2:1-14 NRSV)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. (Luke 24:13-29 NRSV)
Standing here at this pulpit for the last time, I’m feeling a whole range of different emotions. Surely, there’s a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment since six years is actually the average length of time for any pastorate these days. And on a personal level, there’s a sense of accomplishment that I’ve completed seminary and exams and all the other ordination requirements. But even more, there’s a sense of accomplishment, and excitement, and joy, because together, I think we’ve done great work together for the kingdom of God here in this congregation and I look forward with excitement to what God has in store for both of us.
But there’s also a sense of sadness and loss. I’ll miss Frankfort. I’ll miss watching the seasons unfold across the wide-open countryside as I drive into town. I’ll miss being maybe the only person in Ross County who thinks that purple nettle blooming in the fields is a beautiful thing. I’ll miss getting stuck in traffic jams caused by combines and tractors and wagons full of soybeans. I’ll miss street dances, and county fairs, and Sunflower Festivals, and pancake breakfasts, and fish fries. And of course, most of all, I’ll miss each and every one of you.
I also have questions today, and curiosity. I wonder about things. I wonder what the birthday party is going to be like when Bob Anderson makes it into the “Century Club” this time next year. I wonder what God has in store for all of the kids as they get bigger and bigger. I wonder why the center support of the third pew from the back is out of line from all the others; and why there’s a missing piece of stained glass in that window that focuses morning sunlight into my eyes like a laser beam throughout most of the summer. And I wonder how all of you will be, as you go on with your lives – how God will continue to be present with you, and to bless you, through good times and bad, both as individuals that I’ve come to know and love, and together as this congregation.
For the most part, those are questions that I’ll never know the answers to, since when I leave here, I really leave. According to our Presbyterian polity, once you all have another pastor, I’m not supposed to return. I’m only supposed to come back here if, and only if, the new pastor asks me to come back for some special reason, and even then, only in a secondary capacity to them. I’m not supposed to do funerals or weddings or anything else. I’m not supposed to take calls to offer spiritual care or counsel. And I won’t. No matter how close we might feel, that will be the job of your new pastor, and it’s by sharing those experiences together that you’ll form new bonds with them, just as you did with me. So if you call me with some request and I say no, you’ll understand why I have to do that.
The two passages of scripture that we heard today both have to do with walking together – with journeys, and transitions, and they both have parallels to our relationship, and what’s happening here today. You and I have been walking together for six years on a journey, and today is the last day of that walk together, just as was the case with Elijah and Elisha in our Old Testament text. Both of them knew that Elijah was going to depart, and even though they knew that it was God calling them in new, separate directions, and that it was for the best for both of them, they were both still sad about it. Of course, Elijah did leave, and as he did, he passed his mantle – the symbol of his leadership – on to the new leader. I’ll be leaving today too, but I’m not expecting a fiery chariot and horses to swing down from the sky and carry me home to heaven; it will just be my old Hyundai that carries me back home to Columbus. And I don’t have a mantle like Elijah to leave behind for the next pastor. The closest thing I have to that would be my “dress,” as Kiera calls it, and I have to take that with me. I guess the only thing that I can leave behind is my mad scientist wig and my Clint Eastwood hat, so I suppose those will have to do.
The New Testament passage that we heard – the resurrected Jesus walking with the disciples on their way to Emmaus, the story I love to talk about during Communion – is about walking together on a journey, too. But this one details the turning of sadness of separation into the joy and excitement of new beginnings. That’s what you all offered to me when I first arrived here, and that’s what you’ll need to offer to whoever comes after me. Walk together with them just as you walked with me. Listen to them. Allow yourselves to be challenged, and inspired by them. Welcome them into your lives. Welcome them to the table, just as the disciples did with Jesus.
It’s no big mystery that the next five to seven years are going to be crucial ones for this congregation. You’re going to face challenges and questions that are probably unprecedented in its long history. You’re going to have to ask, and answer, tough questions about what God is calling you to be, for this community and for yourselves. Questions about how God wants you to be the church. Questions about how you work among yourselves. Questions about priorities – what things to hold onto, and what things to let go of. Questions about whether to continue going it alone, or to merge with others, or to join with others in some other sort of cooperative relationship for mutual benefit in ministry and mission. There are a lot of examples out there of innovative solutions adopted by small congregations in similar circumstances. Congregations that have learned how to use all the crayons in their box with creativity and ingenuity to continue serving God.
These are difficult questions, with difficult answers, and the only definite part of coming up with the answers is to know that the answer is not to look to the past. These answers are going to require new ideas, new alternatives. It’s going to take listening to new voices. And as you go about that process, I encourage you to work with the Presbytery to seek out these new answers.
Over the past six years, this congregation has shown that it can successfully navigate change. And based on the new members that the congregation has attracted in recent times, I’d say that overall, the congregation’s efforts have been headed in the right direction. But there’s still a lot of hard work and hard choices ahead, and the only advice I can offer you in this last sermon is the same advice I’ve offered all along: Keep moving forward. Don’t stand still, and certainly don’t allow fear and anxiety over the unknowns of the future to cause you to react by turning back, by circling the wagons and drawing in on yourselves, because if you have that reaction, the congregation will die. There aren’t any guarantees about what the future will bring, but there is a guarantee that comes with trying to live in the past. It will fail. Elijah and Elisha didn’t turn back toward home to avoid their encounter with God and their new future. Jesus didn’t turn the disciples around to go back to Jerusalem, he led them forward to Emmaus and their future. You’ve heard me say before that the earth only spins in one direction, forward, and that’s the only direction that can lead to life. There’s no turning back. It’s living forward in faith that the hope of the gospel calls us to. The God who has loved us and been faithful to us from the very beginning; the God who sent us prophets like Elijah and Elisha to guide our paths into new futures; the God who cared enough about us to become one of us and to die for us to lead us into a new covenant and a new future in the kingdom of God; the God who continues to strengthen us and challenge us and inspire us and speak to us through the Holy Spirit – that God calls us to keep moving forward, and doing so without anxiety or fear, or idolizing comfort or custom, and without turning back. That God calls us to always proclaim the gospel to others in ways that make sense for our time and place.
Well. My time, in this place, is done. But wherever God’s whirlwind leads me, and wherever it leads you, know that you’ll always be a part of me. You’ll always be in my heart, and in my prayers. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you” – and so will I, when I remember you.
Thanks be to God.