Monday, June 28, 2010

The graduate

The Prophet Elijah and the Fiery Chariot, Russian icon, 14th c.

2 Kings 2: 1-18; Psalm 19
******** United Church of Christ
June 27, 2010

Last week I spoke directly to the whole congregation. Today I want to speak directly to our high school graduates—to you, D. and R. You may have already heard a commencement speaker and a valedictory address, with some remembrances from the past four years and some advice about your future. Though we never really graduate from church (many of us have been here quite a while and we’re still figuring it out), I would like to give you some spiritual guidance to take with you, whatever bits of it may be helpful to you.

Have you ever seen the movie “The Graduate”? In the opening credits Benjamin Braddock returns home after graduating from college, and we hear the beginning of the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence”: “Hello darkness my old friend”. We don’t know what kind of a degree Ben has or which school he went to. His parents want to show him off to their friends, but Ben just wants to be left alone with his doubts and fears about his future. For his 21st birthday they give him scuba gear, complete with a full-body wet suit, flippers, mask and oxygen tank. At his parents’ insistent urging he demonstrates this overly extravagant, ill-suited gift in front of his parents’ friends by jumping in the pool and hanging out in the deep end. As the camera slowly backs away from Ben standing alone in 10 feet of clear blue water we understand all too clearly how Ben is feeling about being a graduate.

In the reading from 2 Kings, Elisha, the successor to the great prophet Elijah, seems to be feeling like he’s in a bit over his head as well. Every time Elisha comes to another city with Elijah, the prophets there remind him that his teacher and mentor is to be taken away from him, that he will soon be graduating himself and on his own. We can hear his unease and his reluctance in his response to them: “Yes, I know. Keep silent.”

The similarity of their names probably doesn’t help him either. Elijah means “Yahweh is my God”, in direct opposition to the false god Baal being worshipped in Israel at the time. Elisha means “God is my salvation”—kind of like saying “God’s prophet” and “God’s prophet, Jr.”. We can hear in their names God’s implicit determination that there will be only one God for God’s people and no other. We can also hear the continuity of leadership and ministry, the expectations that will be squarely placed on Elisha’s shoulders.

Today we honor you, the graduates in our midst. As you wonder about your future, at times you too may feel like you’re in over your head. You probably have some family expectations, hopes and dreams alighting on your shoulders. And when you heard your name called out at your graduation, you may have heard it in a way you never heard it before—as a call to whoever it is you’re going to be in this world. Within you resides your own voice and vision and verve for what is important to you, and though the world craves fresh inspiration, it doesn’t always listen, does it?

Elijah Taken Up to Heaven, He Qi, China

Let’s skip to the end of the story. Elisha has witnessed Elijah ascending to heaven in the whirlwind and collected Elijah’s mantle. He’s feeling a little lost, wondering where is God, now that Elijah has been taken up by God. Nevertheless, Elisha separates the waters of the Jordan just as Elijah had done and walks back to where the company of prophets is waiting for him to return. They acknowledge that the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha, that all the rights and privileges of his education have been conferred on him. They even go so far as to bow to the ground before him. Not bad for a newly-minted prophet.

But of course it’s not as easy as all that. This group of prophets then suggests that perhaps God caught Elijah in the whirlwind only to throw him down into some valley or on top of a mountain. They are not quite ready to grant Elisha the same status as Elijah, that Elisha is now the master and not the servant. They urge Elisha to send 50 strong men to search for Elijah, and after badgering him into shame, Elisha finally relents and orders the search. When the searchers return after three days and do not find Elijah, Elisha says to them, perhaps quite wearily, “Did I not say to you, do not go?”

R. and D., you now have an authority which previously you did not have. You have a high school education, which, including all the education leading up to high school, has required the majority of your life. You may now have some idea of how you’d like to shape your life and your corner of the world. Though you may not have mastered an area of knowledge, you do have a more educated opinion about the world around you. If you are 18, you can now vote, adding your voice to countless others as to how different levels of government should conduct themselves.

But as you have probably become aware of, not everyone listens to your voice or opinions or your truth, mostly because of your age and experience. Do not take it to heart. Ironically, this does not change, even when you get older and you have more experience. There’s always someone with more knowledge, a louder voice, a more strident opinion. We all wish we could be taken more seriously or appreciated or have our viewpoint count for something. Even those of us who have a regular opportunity to speak and to influence the hearts and minds of others try not to kid ourselves by thinking that what we say makes all the difference in the world.

Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire, Giuseppe Angeli, c. 1740/1755

Elisha asked for a double portion of strength from Elijah because he knew he would need it. However it was not up to Elijah to grant this but God. It was God who would bestow what is necessary to be a prophet, a truth-teller. And often it requires more strength and self-control to listen well before we can speak truth well.

I’d like everyone to open up a Bible to Psalm 19. In this psalm the author speaks the truth of the glory of God and that it can be found in the heavens. Even though the beauty of the skies pours forth speech, there are no words, nor is their voice heard, yet it goes out through all the earth to the end of the world.

If you want to know how to tell the truth, how to speak, how to know who you are, listen to the world around you. Listen to what God is saying to you through the creation. God’s wisdom is written in the tides of the ocean, in the passing of the seasons, in the ways of the fox and the deer and the wild turkey that visit these church grounds.

God’s law is true in the ways of life and loss and in human relationships. We see how we break God’s law when greed causes an oil spill and wildlife suffers, when loss of human life begins to outweigh whatever reason we had for going to war, when our right to defend our way of life inspires others to join the ways of violence and death. We know we have broken God’s law when we have hurt someone. We know God’s law of love when we experience the release of forgiveness, the piercing light of compassion.

So the best spiritual guidance I can give you about feeling overwhelmed, wondering who you are and what God is calling you to do, and whether or not you will be heard is to listen. Spend time each day outside in the grass, on the beach, in the woods, in daylight and in the dark of night listening. Eat some raw vegetables from a local garden and listen to the sunlight and rain in the crunch. Watch the birds. Pay attention to that ant crawling across the ground. Follow the deer tracks. Plant a tree or some seeds. Learn of the hawk by day and the owl at night. Observe the path of the sun, the cycle of the moon. All around us there is life and there is loss, and underneath it all God’s law and wisdom can be heard.

All your life you’ve been told to listen, pay attention, asked did you hear me. So why should you heed these words now? Because now you’re listening for your own life and how it intertwines with God and every other life around you. Now you’re listening for what can be heard in the silence of loss and in the clamor of living. Now you’re listening for the path your life will take and the strength to keep to that path. You’re listening for the right time to pick up that mantle of leadership that comes to all of us at some point.

Other voices will vie for your attention. You will decide what deserves your awareness and interest. But always leave room what is true, what is real, what is authentic, for in that way will you be able to perceive that indeed, God is still speaking. To you.


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1 comment:

Mystical Seeker said...

My pessimism has led me to the conclusion that nothing I do makes a difference in the world. Maybe there is something to be said for a prophetic voice that is undeterred by that kind of pessimism. For some, perhaps the need to say something becomes so strong that it overwhelms the pretty convincing objection that no one will listen or care or change anything after you've spoken your peace.

I find myself coming back a lot of Albert Camus, who may have been an atheist but who still understood the value of acting in the face of futility, rolling that stone up the mountain like Sisyphus did even though you know it will just roll right back down once you have finished.