Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
It doesn’t matter whether you are old enough to remember the original Bob Dylan recording of this song, or perhaps the Peter, Paul and Mary cover of it … or if you are young enough to be thinking, “Bob who??”: this folk classic speaks a universal truth … the times are changing. It is often said the only thing constant is change, but we humans love/hate relationship with change. Some changes we welcome and others we do not want and yet cannot control.
Regardless of whether change is bidden or not, wanted or not, all change involves the loss of something and we fear what we might lose. This fear even extends into the Church. Why do you think there are so many denominational “changing a light bulb” jokes? Like “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?” I’ve heard two answers to this. Either, “What do you mean change that light bulb? My great-grandfather donated that light bulb and it will not be changed!” or “Three – one to change the light bulb, one to mix the martinis, and the third to tell us all how much better the old bulb was. As Christians, we follow a savior who came to change a lot of things, but ironically, we have trouble accepting change in the church as much as we do in our lives. So, what happens when the waters around you have grown? Do you swim, or sink like a stone? How do you respond in the face of inevitable change? Today’s readings from 2nd Kings and Mark speak to the human desire of holding on to what we have and the necessity of letting go when change comes to us.
In our first reading, we hear about the final journey of Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of God. Elijah and his protégé Elisha are traveling away from Gilgal and eventually to cross the Jordan. In an effort perhaps to ease the pain of parting, Elijah repeatedly tells Elisha to stay here while he goes on. But Elisha’s repeated response is, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” I experienced many families and friends who by their words and actions essentially said what Elisha said to their own loved ones as death approached. I recall one woman in particular: her name was Joanne. She was a cradle Episcopalian and lived in an assisted living facility in Hagerstown. She died of lung cancer at the age of 58. Joanne’s mother and sister lived out of the area and she didn’t have any close family in Hagerstown – but she built a family from the many friends she made at the assisted living home. Joanne’s greatest fear was that she would die alone. But she didn’t need to fear this – everyone who knew her said they would be there for her up until the end. The woman who ran the beauty shop in the facility assured Joanne that when the day came, she would close the shop and sit with her until the family arrived. “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” When Joanne entered her final hours, she was unconscious and when I arrived I saw five of Joanne’s friends already in her room – just sitting with her so she wouldn’t be alone. When her family arrived we began the litany for the dying as she stopped breathing. I gave Joanne her last Communion and everyone in the room shared the sacrament. Finally, we commended her to God and when we all said the final “Amen,” Joanne’s heart stopped. As long as she lived and as the Lord lived, we would not leave her.
But just like nothing could completely prepare Elisha for his master’s departure and he would tear his clothes in grief, nothing could totally prepare us for losing Joanne either. We all broke down in tears – there is something about the finality of death that hurts. No amount of head knowledge can prepare any of us for the finality of parting. We don’t know just how long Elisha stayed on that side of the Jordan River grieving, but if we read a bit past where our lectionary ends, we hear that he picks up the mantle of Elijah, goes back to the Jordan, strikes the water and calls upon the name of the God of Elijah – and the waters part and he returns to Israel. Elisha returns, but not as the same person. This grief and pain of parting has transformed him and he is now ready to continue the work of the prophet.
Our gospel text is also about change and transformation – both of Jesus and his disciples. Mark begins by telling us it is six days later: later than what? Well, it’s just been six days since Peter has declared Jesus as the Messiah and this declaration is linked to the Transfiguration. So Peter, James and John go up the mountain with Jesus where they see Jesus changed in front of them. His robes become dazzling white – Mark says they were whiter than any bleach could get them (forget new and improved Tide, this is way better than that!). Then Elijah appears with Moses and they are talking with Jesus. This vision confirms for the disciples that Jesus can’t be Elijah and he can’t be Moses – so Peter’s declaration is true!
At this point Peter blurts out, “Rabbi, this is great! Let’s build three dwellings – one for each of you!” Peter, in his terror, makes an attempt to hold on to this holy moment by building something. We might chuckle at that, but how often do we desire to seize the moment and stay there? Jesus, in this transfigured vision, is very much changed in the eyes of his disciples – they’ve had a glimpse of his glory, a prefiguring of the resurrection. Holding onto the glory sounds pretty good at this point, but Jesus does not reply to Peter’s offer. Instead, the three disciples hear the voice from the now descended cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In the Greek, this command to listen renders more like, “listen and keep on listening to him.” The voice commands them to listen to Jesus and keep on listening to him because the times are about to be changing. Jesus will be glorified … but that glory will not come by an easy path – it will come through death on a cross.
We are at a spiritual turning point, a time of change, in the church year. The season of Epiphany, with its central theme of “Who is Jesus?” is ending. This Wednesday, we begin the Lenten journey of asking the question, “Who am I in relation to Jesus?” We begin by facing our own mortality with the imposition of ashes on Wednesday. It is a season of self-examination and penitence – a season which challenges us to spiritual change.
Our spiritual growth does not happen when things are going well for us. If we could, we would avoid all suffering and pain in our lives. It is only when change comes, welcome or not, and we face the inevitable losses which accompany change that we are able to deepen our spiritual lives as we adapt to new realities. We may try to fight change. We may try to hold on in desperation to that which we love or think we can’t live without. But like Elisha and Peter, we cannot cling to what is or what was. Instead we are called to step out into an unknown future leaning solely on a radical trust in God.
Elisha knew this. He was compelled to move forward in his ministry without his beloved Elijah. Peter, James and John do not stay on the mountain with Jesus, but go forward with him to Jerusalem. Admittedly, things will not go as they plan there and the stark reality of the cross will make the disciples scatter in fear. But the changes which come in Holy Week and Easter will turn the whole world upside down as Christ’s death destroys the power of Sin and Death once for all.
Jesus did not come to this earth to make some fine-tuning adjustments to our lives. He came that we might be utterly and completely transformed. That’s some change! Our Orthodox sisters and brothers have a saying: “God became human in Jesus so that we might become divine.” Our lives are full of changes and losses which will, eventually, lead us back to the very heart of God. We Christians are a people called to change and transformation as we live a life of radical trust in God.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.