Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Before the whirlwind, he was just one guy. One powerful guy, to be sure, but just one guy nevertheless.
Before the whirlwind, he was limited. He could bend kings to the will of God. He could make sinners tremble with just his words. He could bring fire down from the heavens. He could multiply food and feed entire households. He could control the weather. He could bring people back from the dead. But still, he could only be in one place at a time.
Before the whirlwind, Elijah was the most powerful prophet the world had ever seen. But still, he was only one man, even if he did have the Spirit of God upon him. And there’s only so much one man, with one body, can do.
Then came the whirlwind. Then came the day that he knew everything would change. And he made a farewell tour of the holy places. He went to Bethel, where Jacob had met God, and he went to Jericho, where the Israelites had crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. And he gave in and brought Elisha with him down to the Jordan, and he rolled up that cloak and just like Moses at the Red Sea, he parted the waters and passed through.
And then came the whirlwind. And he went straight up. He didn’t die; he just ascended; he went straight up accompanied by those chariots of fire.
And do you know what happened to him then? The story doesn’t say, but here’s what I think. He used to be just one man with just one body. Before the whirlwind, he could only ever be in one place at one time. If he wanted to heal you, he had to touch you. If he wanted to feed you, he had to be in your house. But after the whirlwind? Elijah was everywhere.
Somehow, that whirlwind of God took Elijah and dispersed him everywhere. Before the whirlwind, he was just some prophet for some tiny little people in a tiny little corner of the world that nobody had heard of. After the whirlwind? There’s not a place you can go on the planet where there isn’t somebody who knows about Elijah.
The Jews tell his story; they leave that cup for him on the Passover table. The Christians tell his story and how he met with Jesus to guide him on his way. The Muslims revere him as a prophet. The Ba’hai believe he was reincarnated as the Bab. The Mormons believe he visited Joseph Smith. The list goes on. And here we are talking about him half a world away and several hundred generations later.
Before the whirlwind, he was just one guy in just one place. Now? He’s everywhere.
A word about whirlwinds.
People who study storms, professionals like meteorologists and amateurs like our own Associate Organist and Choirmaster George Sargeant, who just spent his vacation chasing storms across the United States, those people will tell you that whirlwinds are real occurrences. A whirlwind happens any time a vortex of air, a whirling of air, is created by temperature gradients or by turbulence in the atmosphere. There are smaller ones, like dust devils and snow devils, relatively small whirls of air made visible by the dirt or snow they pick up. Then there are the larger ones, which include, among others, tornados and waterspouts.
A hurricane is a much larger occurrence, formed in a different manner, but in its own huge way, it is a whirling of wind. A great, huge storm—they call it a cyclonic storm system—spinning up there in the atmosphere. The Atlantic hurricane season, which will last into the fall, has just started, and meteorologists have released their projections for this year. They predict that it 2010, because of a weakening of the El Nino effect and because of extremely warm ocean surface temperatures, there will be somewhere between 14 and 23 named storms in the Atlantic, with somewhere between 8 and 14 of them reaching hurricane status. That’s compared to the average 11 named storms in a normal season.1
A dust devil picks up dirt and grit and scatters it a few feet, or maybe several yards.
A tornado can pick up a house and scatter it miles away.
And what do you will happen should a hurricane cross the Gulf of Mexico this summer of all summers?
What do you think that hurricane will pick up and scatter? And just how far do you think it will scatter it?
Somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels every day. Somewhere between 80 million and 150 million gallons of oil so far, and still gushing.2 Just to be clear, that’s somewhere between 8 and 15 times as much—so far—as the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989.
You know. You’ve been watching TV and looking at the maps and underwater cameras online. You know, God forgive us all, what a pelican covered in oil looks like. You know, God forgive us all, what tarballs on a beach look like. You have seen, God forgive us all, the fishermen with nothing safe to catch and no way to feed the kids. You have seen, God forgive us all, petrochemical rainbows floating on puddles in a parking lot, and you’ve seen those same rainbows covering the Gulf of Mexico and thought, “Oh my God, what have we done?”
Have you been like me? Have you watched with horror and with fury? Have you raged in your heart at the oil companies for being so damn greedy? Have you wondered where the regulatory agencies were that were supposed to keep this from happening? Have you wondered why we weren’t ready for this?
And then has your puffed-up fury deflated as you asked yourself whether you actually needed to drive to church this morning, or whether there was another way to get here? Have you asked yourself whether you should be flying as much as you do? Have you asked whether you really need fresh strawberries in Boston in December?
Have you been like me? Have you been forced to ask yourself whether it would have been so profitable for BP to be so risky if you hadn’t liked convenience so much?
For those involved in cleaning up the oil and stopping the gusher, the big problem should a hurricane blow up is the danger that it will pose to the humans working out there. Should a hurricane come, the personnel will have to evacuate. That will mean that the boats that have been siphoning off some of the spill and the boats that have been working on drilling relief wells to eventually stop it will have to be disconnected, and the oil will flow unchecked until they can come back. That will be bad.
What is completely—completely—unknown is what the hurricane will do to the oil that’s already floating around out there. Will heavy seas carry yet more of it ashore? Will the winds and the currents drive the slick into as-yet-uncontaminated waters? Where will all that oil that’s been treated with dispersants underwater go when the weather above roils the ocean below?
Have you been like me? Have you been feeling so terrible for what’s going on in the Gulf, but so glad you live so far away? Have you been relieved that all that oil’s mostly in just one place, and have you been trusting that even if it makes its way up the Atlantic seaboard, it will be so diluted by the time it gets here that it will hardly matter? Have you been trusting that even though the damage might be bad, it will be mostly localized down there?
Here’s what’s been keeping the scientists up nights: how much of that oil might be picked up by a major cyclonic storm system, and how far away, how far inland, maybe, might it disperse it before dropping it to the ground? Factories in the Midwest spew smoke, and acid rain falls in eastern Canada. And an oil spill that used to be confined to one place? How far might a big, gigantic whirlwind manage to disperse it? And what will happen then? Never before in human history has there been even the slightest chance of oil raining from the sky, so one knows.
The oil is spilling. The 2010 hurricane season may be very bad indeed. This might get very bad before it’s over. But before any of it happened. Before any of this even came close to beginning to happen, God was on it.
Before there was even a chance of oil being sucked up by a giant whirlwind and dispersed, Elijah had already done it. The spirit and power of Elijah, which is to say, the Spirit and power of God, had already been sucked up into that whirlwind and blanketed the whole earth. Where could you, where could that oil, go that they don’t know about Elijah? Where can you go that they haven’t met Elijah’s God? Elisha might have gotten a double portion of his Spirit, but you got the rest, and you got it for just such a time as this.
Elisha inherited Elijah’s spirit. Then he did what Elijah had done and parted the waters, just to prove he’d gotten what he wanted. But then do you know what he did? Do you know what the very first miracle, the very first thing he did with that power was? He cleaned up the water.
He went to Jericho, and they said, “Our spring is bad and we’re dying because the water is polluted. Can you help us?” And he said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I have made this water wholesome, and from now on, death shall not come from it.” And by the power of God, he cleaned up that well. The first thing Elisha did with Elijah’s power. Now, doesn’t that sound like just the kind of task for Elijah’s heirs, which is to say God’s people, today?
Now, I’m not saying that it’s our job to clean up the Gulf. This is a story about corporate greed and irresponsibility and about failed government oversight, and those responsible should be the ones to clean it up, and to pay for cleaning it up. But I am saying that sooner or later, the solution will have to be that the oil companies find that oil just isn’t profitable enough to be risky with any more because people aren’t buying as much of it, because people have found other ways to power their lives. I am saying that that’s going to need the kind of power that only the spirit of Elijah, which is to say the Spirit of God, can give.
That’s the long term. In the short term, the turtles are dying, and no one knows where all that oil is going, and the people of the Gulf are already suffering. You know how these things go: you know how long the lawsuits and the negotiations and the recriminations will take. You know that the big companies will never pay for everything, and you know that money’s needed now.
So, here’s a story about Elijah’s spirit for you. An anonymous family of Old South has come forward and offered $15,000 to be sent to appropriate agencies in the Gulf working on this problem. That same family has offered to match, on top of that $15,000, any gifts gathered by Old South for those same efforts. To that end, the Christian Service and Outreach Committee will sponsor a special collection from you starting next week. You’ll receive a communication in a few days about where exactly that money will be going and how exactly you can give.
Will that money solve everything? Nope. It will take a lot of work and a long time, and a lot of new technology and a whole lifestyle change. But that money’s a start, that generosity is an act of hope, this collection will be an act of faith and of power.
Now, look at the person to your left. Look at the person to your right. You will probably never know who those anonymous donors are; could be either of the people you just looked at. You may never know who it is, but you will know this: the spirit of Elijah, which is to say the Spirit of God, is abroad in the world.
Elijah left his mantle lying there for Elisha to pick up. And the question for us, in this as in every age, is: what are we going to leave behind for the next generation to pick up?
Will it be a mantle of beauty and power and authority?
Or will it be tar balls?
1 Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0626/Gulf-oil-spill-Could-toxic-storm-make-beach-towns-uninhabitable. Accessed 26 June, 2010.
2 New York Times online. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/us/26primerWEB.html?hp. Accessed 26 June, 2010.