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Passing the Mantle

The Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 30, 2019)

1 Kings 19 and 2 Kings 2 (selected verses)

If you weren’t with us last Sunday, I prefaced the Scripture by explaining a little bit about the passages that will be preached on this summer. The Lectionary gives a handful of options for each Sunday, and the preacher can pick all, some, or none of them. I’ve chosen to focus on the Old Testament texts centering on the prophets for most of this summer. I could give you several reasons for that, but the main reason is that I think these stories about the prophets are really, really odd, and therefore interesting. So, there you have it! 

For today’s reading we pick back up the story of one of the old prophets, Elijah. The snippet of his story comes from two parts, one in 1 Kings and one in 2 Kings. Let’s listen… 

Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram… So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you… 

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel…

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan…

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 

As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” 

One:     Holy wisdom, holy Word.

All:     Thanks be to God.

Elijah gives his mantle and his spirit to Elisha. These days we say “he passed the torch. If you watched the Democratic Presidential Debate last Thursday (June 27), you heard one of the candidates mention “passing the torch.” There was an exchange between Eric Swalwell, a 38-year-old congressman from California, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Swalwell jabbed:

“I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California democratic convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then-senator Joe Biden.

“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago, he’s still right today.”

Biden quickly shot back, “I’m still holding onto that torch!”

Elijah’s “passing the torch” is about as strange as how he recruited his protege in the first place. Elijah—we covered this part of the story last week—was on the run from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who were after him because he had criticized their regime and obliterated their prophets. Because he was a wanted man, he fled into the desert, taking refuge under a broom tree where he was visited by an angel who fortified him with food and water. He then made a 40 day, 40 night journey to Mount Horeb, where he takes refuge in a cave and comes face to face with wind, fire, and an earthquake and hears God speaking to him in the “sheer silence,” asking that piercing question: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God then sends him down off the mountain back to his prophetic work in the political affairs of his day. 

You may remember that when he’s at the entrance of the cave and God’s presence goes before him, Elijah covers his face with his mantle, which is like a cloak, the symbol of his office. So fast forward to when he leaves the mountain and goes to anoint Hazael. He then comes across this young farmer, Elisha, and just throws his mantle over the young man while he’s out minding his own business plowing the family fields with his oxen. Elisha suddenly says goodbye to his parents, kissing them and sharing a farewell meal, and goes off to follow Elijah.

Later, after the chariots and fire scene, after having asked for and received a double portion of the elder prophet’s spirit, Elisha picks up the mantle and assumes the prophetic role.

Wild, I know… 

But maybe more relatable than we think. Maybe a “torch” has been passed on to you at some point. Maybe a “mantle” has been laid upon your shoulders along with a double dose of the “spirit” of someone you trust, look up to, or want to be like. 

My favorite professor in seminary was the Rev. Dr. KC Ptomey, Jr. KC was the Zbinden Chair in Pastoral Ministry and Leadership. After 42 years in ministry, the last 27 at a large church in Nashville, the man knew his stuff. He was tough, witty, a heck of a preacher, and progressive for his time; a native of Birmingham, Alabama, when he was a seminary student, he took part in sit-ins with the Civil Rights Movement.

When KC taught the first ever weddings and funerals class at Austin Seminary, I leapt at the opportunity, even though it was only my first year. If you’ve ever seen me totally not botch up a wedding or funeral, you owe that man a debt of gratitude! For both weddings and funerals, he gave students a case study and we had to prepare a full service and preach a homily. For the wedding, you had a date on the calendar and plenty of time to prepare. For the funeral, he’d call you on a Sunday afternoon and say, “You’ve got a ‘funeral’ Thursday. Here’s the situation…” 

Mine? My first sermon in seminary? A man was at his lover’s trailer when his wife confronted him, shot through the front door with her 12-gauge, hitting him in the stomach, killing him on impact. I had to do his funeral because I was the new, young Presbyterian ministers in this east Texas town and the funeral director called because no other minister would do it! 

“What the heck?” I asked KC. “Why did you give me this one?”

“Because you can do it,” he replied. “And because it happened to me in my first call in the 60s.” At the end of the semester, he revealed that each case study came verbatim from his career. 

KC died shortly after I graduated. In some ways I feel as if I have maybe not a double portion of his spirit, but just enough to believe that I can, in fact, “do it,” this thing called “pastoral ministry.” 

After a death in the family, have you found yourself to be the new matriarch? Did you apprentice someone and carry on their work into a new chapter? Or do you carry on a proud legacy of a grandparent or teacher or mentor? Or are you on the other side of one of those relationships—are you the one handing off the mantle?

Here’s the thing: this story isn’t about mentoring though. It’s about how God is at work in “the big picture,” how God carries out God’s purposes over time. Providence works in, with, through—and sometimes around and despite—people to being about the future God intends. 

It’s not just with one-on-one pairs that this happens. Entire communities “pass the torch” in a way. And specifically what this text points us to is a living, breathing tradition that is transmitted from one generation to the next: a prophetic faith. As we see from Elijah, Elisha, and the other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, this prophetic faith is grounded in who God is and what God wills this beautiful-but-broken world to become. Prophetic faith has deep roots in the timeless spiritual undercurrents of life but it also speaks meaningfully to the times in which we’re living. And because of that does not shy away from critique when communities and their leaders fall short of God’s desires for equity, inclusion, and peace. It’s a tradition that takes on new meaning in each generation. 

What mantles of prophetic faith have we personally, or as a congregation, received? From whom have we received them?

What mantles are we handing on here at St. Mark’s? How are we passing down this living tradition to younger people in the congregation and in our own families? How could we do that better, in more intentional, engaged ways?

I’ll close with a story told to me by a parent of a middle schooler here. This young person’s class was learning about Anne Frank, one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, by reading her book, The Diary of a Young Girl. They learned about how non-Jewish people tried to protect Jewish people from the Gestapo and how this one family in the Netherlands tried to shield the Frank family by concealing them for two years in a room hidden behind a bookcase. 

Well, the class was charged with creating a diarama (a three dimensional lifelike scene) of something in contemporary life that reminded them of the Anne Frank story. 

What scene did this young person depict?

A diarama of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. “My church keeps people safe.”

Whether we realize it or not, the mantle is being passed. Thanks be to God who makes it so!