“Picking up the Mantle” Colchester Federated Church, June 30, 2019, (2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14) Third Sunday after Pentecost
Last Sunday we heard about what the prophet Elijah faced after speaking truth to power. Queen Jezebel and King Ahab weren’t happy with Elijah’s activities, specifically singlehandedly defeating the 450 prophets of Baal and Asherah. His life got threatened and he was driven by fear and despair into the wilderness. There Elijah sat under a solitary broom tree and asked God to die because he was just done. Instead, an angel appeared giving Elijah cake and water, encouraging him to rest up and gather his strength for the journey. Elijah slept, ate, and drank water and life seemed a whole lot better (remember that!) He made his way to the mountain of God and there encountered God not in the great wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. Elijah heard the call from God that he must go forth and anoint Elisha to become his successor.
Today’s Lectionary passage from 2 Kings is fast-forwarding the story of Elijah and Elisha to the moment that the succession happens. Elijah knows that the end of his work as God’s prophet has arrived. He’s prepared to go to Bethel. And we are told by the author of 2 Kings that God was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, so the audience is prepared. Though it’s unclear if Elijah and Elisha know exactly what’s about to happen. Elijah attempts to leave Elisha behind on his journey to Bethel from Gilgal. Elisha is not having it, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they both go down to Bethel. Once there, Elijah admits that God has sent him to the Jordan. And once again, Elisha refuses to leave Elijah.
They’re gathered at the banks of the Jordan River with around fifty other prophets. Elijah takes his mantle (his cloak), rolls it up, and strikes the water—the water parts (remind you of anyone else who took an object and struck the water and parted it down the middle?) Elijah and Elisha cross to the other side on dry ground. Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit—basically asking to be treated as Elijah’s principal heir. Elijah says that this request isn’t really his to give. The two men continue walking and talking. Suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appear and separate the two of them. Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven and Elisha must have looked up in shock. He cries out and grasps his own clothing, tearing his clothes into two in mourning. Though Elisha looks around him and sees Elijah’s mantle that had fallen from his body.
Just like Elijah had done, Elisha strikes the water of the Jordan with that mantle and the water parts down the middle. He crosses back over. The prophets gathered know that the spirit of Elijah does indeed rest on Elisha now—and his work as the new prophet anointed to do God’s work is about to begin. He picks up the mantle.
Take the story literally, take it metaphorically or somewhere in between. It’s a rather mysterious story. Though it goes to show why there’s so many traditions that came about centering on the prophet Elijah. Because 2 Kings doesn’t portray him as dying since he ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. There’s this great tradition within Judaism to leave a chair empty for Elijah. Christians sometimes say that too, but it originated within Judaism. For Passover a fifth cup of wine is poured during the ceremonial blessing of the different elements of a Passover Seder meal. But that fifth cup of wine isn’t drunk. It’s for Elijah just in case he returns, along with that empty chair to welcome him to the table. There’s even verses read during the Seder dinner and the door of the home gets briefly opened to welcome Elijah who some Jews believe will one day resolve all the controversial questions connected to the Torah and usher in the Messiah. Elijah plays a significant role in some Jewish traditions, and it’s easy to see why.
The heading of today’s text in many Bibles is often something like, “Elisha Succeeds Elijah.” And that’s important. One lesson we can learn from the story is that deep mission and purpose for a group of people must never be centered on just one leader. Because there will come a day when that leader is no longer present. Whether that person moves on to other opportunities, that person retires, that person passes away, or in Elijah’s case—that person ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. If no one picks up the mantle that the leader has left behind, the mission and purpose of that leader’s life just died with them. And this isn’t just about organizations and institutions, we can see this play out in families. When a matriarch or patriarch is no longer with us in our own families, we can contemplate how we honor their life and legacy. How do we pick up the mantle that they may have left behind, what does that look like?
From our Christian lens, we realize that leadership must be about empowering people to carry on the mission of the Church. Jesus had twelve disciples for a reason, and didn’t attempt to go about his work alone. It was the eleven disciples who carried on his teachings when Jesus was no longer physically present walking around with them healing and teaching. The Apostle Paul taught that leadership is about equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. If that work only centers around a Minister or Church Staff, the work won’t continue past their tenures—no matter how long or short they happen to stay in that ministry setting. We’re called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not do the work of ministry alone. That’s an unhealthy model and yikes, it leads to bitterness and burnout. As my father always says, no one is irreplaceable and you gotta lead with humility. We can’t be afraid to collaborate and share the work.
That’s why the story of Elijah and Elisha is so empowering. Elijah’s gone. He’s not coming back anytime soon. And Elisha could have seen his mantle on the ground and walked away entirely. He could have said no to being the prophet that God was calling him to be. He has free will, we all do. Except he says yes. Elisha picks up the mantle (the symbol of Elijah’s authority and power) and he makes that mantle his own. He doesn’t completely discard the past because he knows there’s power there. Though holding the past in his hands, he crosses to the other side of the Jordan River and steps into the future. It’s one of those beautiful both/and moments. Feeling empowered by what was and empowered by what may yet be.
A powerful way that I experienced the both/and nature of Elisha succeeding Elijah (and all that means for us here and now) happened on May 11, 2018. Those of us who are connected to Andover Newton Theological School—faculty, staff, students, alums, trustees, friends of the school—gathered on the Hill in Newton Centre, Massachusetts to formally say goodbye to the campus after the decision was made to sell the campus and relocate to Yale. Andover Newton continues in the form of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. Though we gathered for a bittersweet moment to celebrate our beloved community as it had been in Newton Centre—to mourn what was and to look to the future with hope for what could be.
It was a day full of mixed emotions, especially considering that this is an institution of higher learning, a spiritual home, and a physical home where people actually lived. Some folks were still in disbelief and some were still angry. Some sad and some excited that we were about to do a new thing at a time when seismic changes are happening within Christianity in this country. Change is hard and people respond to change differently, and that was deeply felt by the gathered community.
One of the scripture readings that anchored the worship service that day in May was today’s—2 Kings 2:1-15. Those who planned the service distributed strips of cloth to all of us in attendance (purple and blue—the colors of our school.) And there was a ritual where we put the strips of cloth (representing the mantle passed from Elijah to Elisha) around one another’s necks and each of us blessed one another. (My best friend Emilia and I blessed each other that day.) There were tears and laughter as we turned to our neighbors and friends and placed the mantles of our school around each other. Moreover, there was a ritual where the mantle of the legacy of Andover Newton Theological School was passed to Andover Newton Seminary at Yale to represent the movement of the Spirit in the future. That ritual took the form of leadership receiving Andover Newton stoles that were made by an alum.
The story of Elijah and Elisha centered this moment where mantles were passed to continue the legacy of what had been, preparing our hearts for what was to come in the future. There’s a poignancy about the succession of leadership we can see among God’s prophets that can still move us today, especially in these times of seismic changes that are happening in the Church and in our society.
Remember that Elijah didn’t take his mantle up into heaven with him. The very symbol of his power and authority as God’s prophet didn’t go into that whirlwind. The mantle left his body and stayed on this earth. Elisha picked up that mantle to carry on the work, and to make the work his own. Honoring the past and moving into the future with courage. We can ask ourselves what mantles are being offered to us in the church and in our lives? How do we both honor what has been and move into what could be? May we have the courage to pick those mantles up. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 2 Kings 2:2, NRSV.