I Will Follow

P1020212.JPG2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Luke 9:51-62

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

Growing up, I had a neighbor who was like my grandmother a woman who I would talk with whenever I needed advice or companionship. She could do everything: kept a two acre garden by hand — and that was the vegetable one alone. She had more for flowers. Mowed, managed acres and acres of property, did all her own laundry, canning, cooking, selling at the farmer’s market, shopping, housework and bills… Her husband had died, and her kids grown – but this elderly woman kept an active life that put my own family of kids and 30-something year olds to shame. She honestly had far better lawns, gardens, and home-made meals than us. And you never, ever, saw her without her hair done perfectly and her makeup on.

In high school, I remember standing in my bedroom looking out across the corn fields and I saw an outline in the crop. I realized it was the old edge of my neighbor’s garden. Over the years, the farm land had crept into her garden, and her garden had shrunk to about an acre. It was so slow, I hadn’t noticed.

In college, the little creep had really begun to become noticeable in other areas of my neighbor’s life. Weeds – formerly an unheard of event – sometimes showed up in her flowerbeds. She stopped driving, and had her son drive her instead. More meals came from the freezer. Less tomatoes were boiled and canned each summer. Sometimes, her lipstick was crooked.

How far will you go with someone? How rough?

In graduate school, I no longer lived at home, but I still went to visit home and my adopted grandmother. She now had a ramp, and had a yardstick she used as a cane, and more often than not sat the day away. When once she told me with stunning clarity about riding the train to go meet her husband home from Army, or how as a child her parents used a team of horses to move her house on logs to its current place… now she struggled to remember what she ate for breakfast, and who the dashing young man with a bride was in the photos on the wall.

Some of her friends stopped visiting. It was too hard, too rough, to see their loved one… going away, moment by moment, erased and leaving a shell of the woman they loved behind. She would hate to know she’s out in public without makeup. Do we tell her? Cause her that pain? If we don’t, are we treating her like a child, babying her? She’d hate that too!

How do you love someone who has always been perfect, always been in charge, always been your leader and role model and guide… and now they need help remembering how to use a spoon? How do you stick by someone who goes from being parent to child? How far can you stick by a loved one’s side?

I don’t think we know until we try.

It was so hard visiting my neighbor in a nursing home the final days of her life. I felt like neither she nor I belonged there. But this is where the journey was taking us – to the river’s edge, or where the sweet chariots would swing low, the final fight with pain, or whatever analogy you want from scripture and songs: it’s the same. We were coming to when we would be separated by death.

She didn’t know me anymore. She only knew her daughter (usually). I could easily have stopped visiting and she wouldn’t have known the difference. But I kept going. This woman had mentored and tutored me from diapers to grad school. And we talked of birds and flowers and nothing consequential. We shared presence.

I wasn’t there for her final hours. God granted she spent those in the loving arms of her children, in one of their homes. I’m so glad for that; and I look forward to our conversations again.

Friends can so often be as close or closer than family.

Elisha is not Elijah’s biological son. Elisha was a teenager or so, working his dad’s lands with oxen, when Elijah the prophet walked by. Elijah dropped his mantel, the cloth, he’d used to hide his face from God on the mountain, over Elisha. Elisha was so excited – so thrilled – to be chosen as a prophet he nearly ran away from Elijah to go tell his parents and family. Elijah had to remind him to pray first – and THEN celebrate. Elisha burned his wooden plow, butchered his oxen, prayed a lot, had a big goodbye party, and joined the prophet.

Elijah became an adopted dad, a mentor, a guiding friend for Elisha.

And when Elijah felt his time on earth was done, he began to remove himself from the world. A little bit at a time, a city here, a city there — saying goodbye — telling the prophets he had helped raise up around Israel to stay behind. But Elisha would not stay. He vowed to stick by his friend through thick and thin, though the good times and bad times, through sickness and health, life and death.

We hear today how at last Elijah comes to the Jordan river. On the other side is where the great prophet Moses died, and it’s there that Elijah feels called for his ending. He again tells his followers — stay here. And again, Elisha vows he will follow.

Like Moses, Elijah splits the water in two, and the mixed family of Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan. Alone, just the two, Elisha asks Elijah to give him a double portion of his spirit. Maybe he means make me your son; or maybe he means let me do twice as many miracles. What’s certain is Elijah tells him this is a big, big wish… and only possible if Elisha can stick through this to the very, very end. As they walk and talk in the desert on the other side, abruptly there is a whirlwind and fiery chariots from God. In the chaos, Elijah is whisked up to heaven and Elisha cries out after his adopted dad, and when he can no longer see him, he sinks to the ground tearing his clothes as he cries.

Eventually, the sorrow passes, and Elisha picks up the mantle Elijah dropped, and continues the prophetic work of Elijah for God.

Elisha had stayed to the very end – through the loneliness and sorrow. Through the unknown. Through the reversal of roles. He stuck by Elijah.

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? I don’t think we really know until we begin to go.

In our second reading, Jesus knows his end is coming too. And like Elijah, he begins to walk towards where he knows he will be “lifted up.” However, as he goes, the going gets rough. How far will those who love Jesus go with him?

Through Samaria, where Jesus bans them from returning violence for insult?

Through homelessness and a lack of a safe place to lay your head?

Though inconvenience and misunderstanding?

Will those who would follow Jesus know to stick by Jesus’ ways even when their family obligations call them elsewhere?

I will follow you wherever you go is a very, very big promise. Jesus points this out right up front. Tells all those who would follow that the Way of Christ demands much. Even Elisha had time to go back and say goodbye to his family before following Elijah… but Jesus says to be Christian, there is a bigger cost – a cost where we may be at odds with our families. A furrow gets all crooked when we try to plow and look behind us. It’s like trying to drive a car on the interstate while watching the rear view mirror the whole time.

Jesus says to these would-be followers… Are you sure you mean you’re ready to commit all of yourself? To burn the plow and eat the oxen — no going back — as Elisha did? Are you sure you mean you’re willing to follow me all the way to end? Do you know what a hard thing you’re asking?

How far will you travel with someone? How rough until you call it quits? Jesus warns us up front it isn’t always easy to be Christian, and to be a follower of Christ… we will have hard tasks and hard days.

Will you travel with Christ and the Christians knowing it isn’t an easy path?

Knowing it leads to a cross long before it leads to any heavenly ascension?

As Christians, we’re supposed to stick by each other through to the end and beyond. This journey, this walk, is a hard one that demands following it through to the end when memories fade, bodies fail, there is no more that medicine can do, and prayers don’t seem to work.

It’s a walk that takes us through times when Christianity is healthy and young and full of life – a thriving new church, full pews, prophets full of fire and dreams… And through times when our faith is sick, feels weighed down, and feels hollow and dead. When we’re not certain what tomorrow will bring.

Walking with other Christians means walking when the weather is fantastic; and walking in snow and sleet. Walking when we all agree, and walking when we bitterly disagree.

Walking with each other means sticking together when roles get reversed due to illness, age, and changes. It means loving our adopted family from cradle to grave, and beyond.

Other commitments, other priorities, will always come up and demand our time. But may you keep your eye on the goal of Christ – your eyes ahead and focused on where you are going – so that in all things, at all times, whatever you’re doing, you live your life as a faithful disciple following the leadership of Christ. Amen.

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