Wednesday, 30 June 2010 16:17

June 27, 2010 Sermon

“Elijah’s Heavy Mantle”
2 Kings 2:1-15
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 27, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Today, we are concluding our exploration of the Hebrew Bible story of Elijah. We have seen that he’s a complex and controversial figure.  Some of the stories have been jarring and not as comforting as we would have expected.  Such is the case when we really delve into the texts and separate them from the popular mythology of this key Biblical character.  We now turn our attention to the end of Elijah’s life.  Before he is taken away to the sky by chariots, he passes his ministry onto his student, Elisha.  Many of our professors can relate to this.  They educate students, passing their knowledge on to them.  They then hope that they will do well.  But they don’t necessarily do the exact things that are expected of them.  There’s a certain amount of letting go that teachers need to give their students.  Elisha had to live with the expectations of carrying Elijah’s heavy mantle.  But he did not follow exactly in his footsteps.   How do we integrate the lessons from our great teachers?  How do we chart our own course?

And so we enter into the story.  Elijah and Elisha were walking down the street.  The both knew where they were going but they did not want to talk about it.

Elijah and Elisha, like Mutt and Jeff; Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth; Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  Two people you wanted on your side.

Elisha, the younger one, was nervous.  He didn’t walk with the same kind of determination and confidence that his older counterpart did.  Elisha idolized Elijah, but he was also scared to death of him.

Often this is the way it is with idols.  One thinks the other can do no wrong.  The idols seem so confident, so in control, so much in command of everything that comes his or her way.  We are often forgiving of or blinded to our idol’s inadequacies.  Did you ever look up to someone like that?

Elijah was the most famous prophet of the time.  The Bible would later record him as one of the most important of all prophets.  He was also an ominous figure.  As John the Baptist would later do, he lived alone in the desert.  He ate bugs.  He had a girdle made of leather, and a mantle around his shoulder.  He looked like an overgrown caveman.  He also had a power which was to be reckoned with.  Through the spirit of God, the Bible tells us, he stood down 450 other prophets.  He mustered the power of God to rain down fire.  He alone stood up to the popular King Ahab and his powerful Canaanite wife Jezebel.  No one wanted to cross him.  As a result, he probably didn’t have very many friends.  He was arrogant and his arrogance made him lonely.

But now he was old and tired.  He was ready to pass on his mantle.  Elijah knew he was going to die.  Elisha knew it, too.  In fact, everyone knew it.  But Elisha did not want to admit it.

Not yet.  When the local prophetic offspring reminded him that Elijah was going to die, Elisha said, in effect, “shut your mouth.  Don’t remind me.”  
What he really meant was, “I’m not ready.  I don’t want to be alone.  I need to take my queues from him--he is so much a part of my being.”

Elijah  tried in vain to spare his young friend the pain of watching him suffer and die.  Three times he asked him not to follow him anymore.  But Elisha was persistent, insecure and pushy.  He shadowed him.  “I’m not ready for you to die,” he said to himself.  “I can’t do it.  I don’t have what it takes to live without you, let alone take on your mantle.  Don’t leave me here all alone!”

He had commissioned Elisha to be his disciple while he was tending his cows in a field some years before.  Elijah tried to prepare Elisha for this day.  He put  his mantle upon Elisha’s head and commissioned him to follow.  Different than the calm and peaceful Jesus calling people to follow, this Elijah was someone to be afraid of.  “Carry your mantle?  Elijah, I can’t.”

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, in reflecting upon Elisha’s commissioning, “One isn’t chosen by God without becoming at one time, God’s victim.”  Elisha felt like a victim.

He was not ready to succeed Elijah.  “There’s so much more I need to learn.  There’s so much more I need to know.  Won’t you please tell me what to do?  Won’t you please tell me it will be all right?  Won’t you please…No, I won’t leave you…I must know…I’m not finished with you yet…”

So often, we think of things to ask a loved one but did not have the time or inclination to do so while they were still with us.

“I need to know how to deal with…I wish I had told you…I wish you had known…Why couldn’t you be there when I needed you?  I wish you could really know me, not just this facade I hide behind.  But I fear if I really show who I am then you’ll se how rotten and inadequate I see myself.

Elisha did not want to leave Elijah, his hero, his mentor, his idol, the symbol of his fear.  For if Elijah left, Elisha might have to face his own demons instead of relying on the security of Elijah.  Elisha would have to be the main spokesperson for God.  Elisha would have to take all the heat and all the responsibility upon his shoulders.  It was so much easier just to be Elijah’s right hand man.  He could comfort Elijah when he got lonely.  He could support and carry out his mission.  He could even complain with him about the hard-headed people in this sin-sick world.  But who would do that for Elisha when he was gone?

“Maybe,” he was beginning to realize, “I need to get me some friends, a  community who is committed to God’s work.  A community who is willing to help me take up Elijah’s mantle.”

When church is at its best, we are a priesthood of all believers.  We share in the mantle of Elijah and Elisha for we all recognize that we each have a special and unique calling and ministry to pursue on God’s behalf.

Elijah was getting pretty fed up with Elisha’s following of him.  Elisha was ready, he just needed a little bit of a push. “All right”, he says, “I’ll give you one parting gift.  Will that make you happy?  Anything you want, just name it.  And after you name it, leave me alone for at least a little while!”

Elisha looked at him intently.   He had to carry on the tradition of Elijah.  He had to tell the truth in the face of hardship and strife.  He had to do things that would inevitably make him hated and feared by most people.  And lonely.  Would you want to do that alone?  “I want what you got,” Elisha thought.   “I want your spirit, your patience, your endurance, your hope, your righteous fury, and your clear vision.”

“Don’t just give me your mantle, Elijah, but give me twice as much power.  I am going to need it.”

Don’t we want that, too?  Here we have gathered at this church, in our brokenness, fleeing from our tired lives for an hour or so, looking for that morsel of food which will strengthen us for the long journey ahead.

Elijah has left.  Our idol.  The symbol of our hope.    Taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire.  And we have seen it.  Elisha is left.  We are left.  We need twice as much power in order to carry on!

Like many of us, I was at the Pride festival yesterday.  I plan to go there again today.  It’s a great day of people-watching.  I love the creative costumes, the whimsical booths, the earnest activists and the seemingly out of place corporate sponsors who don’t quite know what to do with rainbows, leather and PDA’s.  Amidst it all, I am keenly aware of the fact that there is a generation of people missing.  When I was in San Francisco, before the three drug cocktail saved people’s lives, the Pride celebrations were joy mixed with mourning.  For each year, there were people who were so full of life last year that were no longer walking the earth.  And we like, Elisha, have a choice.  Do we forget them and let their memories drift away, or do we pick up their mantle and move forward?  I find myself reminded of that choice at Pride every year.

We like to think that we have arrived.  We are a welcoming and affirming church.  We have been there, done that.  We have left our restrictive Baptist region and affiliated with a region across the country that shares our values.  We hardly even point out that we are a Welcoming and Affirming church.  Maybe we even drop the mantle, or at least forget about it.  But then we get confronted.  Last week, one of us noticed a sign defaced outside of the Lounge.  Who would do this?  We thought this was a safe place.  It could have been anyone.  That’s not the point.  The point is that the work is not done.

You and I are left.  Before us on the ground lies the mantle of the ones gone before.  Now comes decision time.  Do we pick it up and move on, or do we sit there mourning the fact that it is there alone.  Look in front of you.  I’m sure you can see it.  It is there laying like a clump in the corner.  It’s laying there lifeless until someone picks it up.

A similar case occurred about eight hundred years later.  Mary Magdalene came upon a lifeless cloth lying in a heap in the corner of the tomb.  Next to it was an angel, saying, “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead.”  The question comes back to us today.

Angrily and reluctantly, Elisha took the mantle in his two hands and swung it out over that water crying “where is the Lord, the God of Elijah.”

We want to do that, too.  Our friends have left and we are standing by the banks with only their mantles in our hands and we cry, “Where is God?  Where is the spirit of our friend?”

And then a miracle happened.  The water parted, just like it had for Elijah.

In Elisha’s rage, he had forgotten that he had picked up Elijah’s mantle.  He forgot that he held the symbol of his power in his hands.  He forgot his insecurities and let his passion pour forth.  And it was only then that Elisha recognized God’s power.  Elisha went on to be at least as powerful as Elijah, but he possessed something Elijah did not.  He was in touch with his own fear and his own vulnerability.  It made him twice as good as Elijah.

We all have mantles right in front of us.  We all have Elijah’s work ahead of us.  The mantle lies in a heap in the corner, or perhaps like a ribbon on a communion table.  And it calls to us to take it up, heavy as it is and move forward.

The Bible doesn’t say what happened to Elisha’s mantle.  Perhaps it is in someone’s hands right here.  Someone who has the calling to prophecy.  Someone who has the hope bottled up inside for a world in turmoil.  Someone who has the need to spread the love of God to a world in so much need.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza put it this way, “Resurrection does not simply spell the survival of the soul but requires the transformation of the world as we know it.” (Miriam’s child, p.128)  This makes people who take resurrection seriously dangerous in the eyes of those in dominant positions.  This subversive spirituality is at the heart of the Gospel.  Those of us bold enough to take on Elijah’s or Jesus’ heavy mantles will face opposition, even by the most religiously devout.  And yet, such is the work of those entrusted with the mantle.

The Jewish people believe that Elijah is still nearby.  He still watches over the people.  He sits at table with the families gathered for Passover, in a special chair reserved just for him, passing on his mantle to those who dare to say, filled with the love of God, “I want what you have.”  Elijah is as close as the memories we conjure up of loved ones and that impulse to make something of ourselves in honor of someone who has gone before.

My friends, if we have the courage to pick up the mantle of Elijah, of any of those who have gone before--and if we pick it up with humility and commitment, then we just might receive twice the power because we have coupled all the figurative Elijahs’ power with our own emerging sense of purpose.

And that kind of Spirit changes the world.