This Sunday is my last Sunday at St John’s and it’s hard for me to get my head around that, as it all seems to be rushing to an end, and I wonder how the transition from full time ministry to retirement will unfold for me. What I can say is that after forty years as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in over eight different placements, it has been a very full, active and enriching adventure.
This Sunday we will hear the story of the transition of ministry from Elijah to his apprentice, Elisha. Elijah has always loomed larger than life as the powerful and impressive prophet who fiercely defends the faith and courageously challenges even the king and queen of Israel. He is often regarded as in the same league as Moses. We see that in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the Gospels where Moses and Elijah appear in a vision talking with Jesus.
Together they represent the law and the prophets, summing up the totality of guidance given by God over the centuries.
When I lived and worked as a volunteer Guide at the restored Abbey on the historic Island of Iona in Scotland, I had the opportunity of meeting the man who inspired that restoration and established the Iona Community, George Macleod. George was a minister of the Church of Scotland, a former Moderator who had won the Victoria Cross for bravery in war, and also become a peer of the House of Lords. He was a visionary, who in his day inspired and challenged many not only in Britain but across the world. At one stage he became the most popular preacher in Britain who regularly broadcast his sermons on BBC radio.
The first time I saw George was when he arrived striding out in his kilt and great coat, his Shepherd’s staff in his hand. Behind him, trying to catch up, was a group of American tourists he was leading in pilgrimage to the Abbey Church.
That’s the image I have of Elisha, trying to keep up with the big man, Elijah, and never letting him out of his sight. Elisha saw himself simply as the apprentice, not quite ready to step out onto the stage, or to fly solo. He had always lived in the shadow of Elijah. But now he knew that Elijah’s time was about to come to an end and he would soon have to step up. I can imagine how he might have felt daunted by the prospect. Was he up to the task? Did he have the stamina? Was his training adequate and did he have the skills, the wisdom, the maturity needed?
I can imagine Elisha feeling like that because that’s just how I felt when I drove down to Orbost to take up the responsibilities of my first Parish over forty years ago. I can still remember my first funeral, and my first wedding, and how nervous I was, and how hard I tried not to show it, in order to be there for those I served in God’s name. I was a shy introvert, and in many ways still am, but I am deeply grateful for the way people trusted me, affirmed and encouraged me in each parish by their faithfulness and dedication to God.
However, the story of Elisha not only connects with my story – it also connects with yours. For each one of us is invited to risk stepping up beyond our comfort zone to take on a role we may at first feel uncomfortable about for a whole range of reasons. Jesus’ disciples I am certain felt exactly the same when he was no longer physically present to them. But like them, we have been given the promise of the Comforter, the Advocate we call Holy Spirit.
We have the guidance of God’s Word and the sustenance of the Sacraments, and we have each other. What does it mean for you to take up the Mantle of ministry, to participate in sharing the welcome and hospitality of God?