Sermon: “Taking Up the Mantle” (Transfiguration: 2/15/15)

Tuesday night, I attended a panel discussion at the Carter Center: “Combating Violence and Discrimination against Women and Girls and Promoting Peace.” Four people made up the panel, three women—a medical doctor from Libya, an attorney from Nigeria, and an international worker, originally from Iran—and … President Carter.

As we waited for the discussion to begin, I sensed a stir about 20 feet away. Then I saw the tall guy with the wire coming out of his ear. Secret Service. It was Rosalynn!  And no, I didn’t get a picture.  The opportunity passed while I was trying to find my phone.

A few minutes later — another stir.  Before I knew it, President Carter had passed by.  Again–no picture.  I did get a picture once the panel seated on stage.  They were up there for an hour and a half.  That’s about how long it takes for me to take a picture.  🙂

The conversation began with some thoughts from President Carter.  President Carter was born in south Georgia in 1924.  It is remarkable that this man, who was raised in a racist, sexist society grew up to write a book advocating strongly for justice for women around the globe. “This is going to be the highest priority for the rest of my life,” he said this week.  He’s 90.

The other remarkable thing Tuesday night was just how mentally sharp President Carter is.  He is brilliant.  And kind.  And firm in his commitment to human rights.  He’s also a humble man.  He welcomed his three stage mates as equal partners in the conversation.  Every time he spoke…I just wished all of us–meaning every single person on the planet–could sit at President Carter’s feet and listen to him talk.  Such wisdom!  Such compassion!  So much to teach us about making the world a better place.

Much too soon Tuesday night, the conversation was over.  The Secret Service whisked President Carter out.  Again, he passed, like, 5 feet away from me.  Again, I missed the shot.  I missed shaking his hand.  But I did see his face.  He’d been such a vibrant presence on stage!  I was surprised to see how frail he seems.  He and Rosalynn both are quite spry for their ages. But their bodies– as bodies do– are shrinking, weakening.

As I frantically searched for my phone that last time, it hit me:  in the not too distant future, the Carters will be gone.  It is the natural course of things that people are born, they live, they die.  Still–the thought shocked me.  A world without the Carters?  That’s not a world I can imagine.  How will we be able to keep going without the Carters?  You say the name Jimmy or Rosalynn Carter and immediately think–human rights.  Who’s going to do that important work after Jimmy and Rosalynn pass on?

Tuesday night, I think I got a glimpse of what Elisha must have been feeling that last day of Elijah’s life. Elijah was the guy, right?  THE prophet.  The one who’d been mentoring Elisha, teaching him, training him to carrying on the important work of justice after Elijah died.

As the two walk along, Elijah tells Elisha to stay, that it’s time for him (Elijah) to move on.  Elisha says:  “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  When they arrive in Bethel, the people there say, “Today, Elijah will die.”  Elisha responds:  “Yes, I know.  I don’t want to hear it.”  He and Elijah move on to Jericho.  Elijah says, “Stay here.  I’m moving on.”  Elisha says:  “I’m not going.” The people in Jericho say, “Today is the day Elijah will leave you.”  Again, Elisha doesn’t want to hear it.

Finally, Elijah and Elisha reach the Jordan.  At the river’s edge, Elijah removes his teacher’s mantle, rolls it up, and hits the water.  The two prophets cross over on dry ground.

On the far side, Elijah asks Elisha what he can give him before he goes.  “A double share of your spirit,” the young prophet says.  His mentor responds with the most important words in this story:  “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.”

So, Elisha will receive a double share of Elijah’s spirit if and only if he watches Elijah’s departure.  If Elisha doesn’t watch–and acknowledge–Elijah’s departure, he will not receive the double share of Elijah’s spirit and, thus, will not become a prophet in his own right.

It’s so easy to cling to our mentors, isn’t it?  It’s easy to assume we can never be the person they are or do the good they do.  Is there another Jimmy Carter in the world? Or Rosalynn Carter? Or Desmond Tutu? …Or Jon Stewart? J What will we do when Jimmy, Rosalynn, Desmond, and Jon….are gone?  How will the work of human rights continue?

The answer is simple, right?  We take up the mantle.  We continue the work they started.  We keep it going.  And eventually, we hand the work over to the next generation.

I know that’s no great insight.  You knew I was going to say that.  We know what to do as our mentors in faith and in the work of justice move on.  But knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, aren’t they?  Elisha knew what was going to happen that day; he knew Elijah would be leaving…but he didn’t want to say goodbye. He didn’t want to do the hard work of grieving.  Who does, right? Grieving is hard. It hurts.

Because of Elisha’s reticence, Elijah, wise teacher that he was, knew Elisha needed to watch him leave.  Elisha needed to see that Elijah’s departure was real–okay, as real as it could be with flaming chariots swooping down out of the sky J ….  If Elisha didn’t see Elijah’s departure, he couldn’t grieve the loss.  And if Elisha didn’t grieve the loss of his mentor, he could never move past it.  And if he didn’t move past Elijah’s departure, Elisha never would be able to carry on the important work to which he (Elisha) was called.

We’re told that “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. 12Elisha 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”… a sign of grieving.  Elisha watched Elijah’s departure–something he was unlikely to forget.  Ever!  And he grieved.

So, did he receive a double share of Elijah’s spirit?  Listen: 13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah…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. 15When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

The text doesn’t say specifically that Elisha received a double share of Elijah’s spirit, but he did receive enough of a share that the company of prophets back on the other side of the Jordan acknowledged him as their leader. Elisha was now ready to carry on the work begun by Elijah…and the thing that helped prepare him to take up the mantle, was letting his mentor go. Watching Elijah leave, flying away in that fiery chariot, letting the one who had taught him so much about faith and justice and life go….that’s what made it possible for Elisha to continue his mentor’s work. And to grow into his own.

My new guitar makes her debut today. Her name is Petey. I know. I’m 50 years old. Aren’t I past the age of naming inanimate objects? And let’s face it: I’m no B. B. King. J Here’s why I named the guitar Petey. When I got home from picking her out, Allen reminded that it was the first anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death—January 27th. Pete Seeger believed, he really believed, that people singing together could create world peace. I’m no Pete Seeger, but I decided that day to do what I can to use Petey to bring people together in song.

And so on this her debut, she’s going to help us sing together: “Alleluia! The Great Storm Is Over,” by Bob Franke.   Bob is a singer-songwriter who did some time in seminary. I think he got out after a year for good behavior. I was in seminary 4 years. Make of that what you will. J

You’ll hear a lot of biblical imagery in the verses, which I’ll sing. “Sweetness in the air and justice on the wind; laughter in the house where the mourners have been. The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes. The standards of death taken down by surprise. Release for the captives, an end to the wars. New streams in the desert, new hope for the poor. The little lame children will dance as they sing and play with the bears and the lions in spring.” See what I mean? Very prophetic. Very hopeful.

About the phrase “little lame child.” That’s not a phrase we’d be likely to use today. Back in 1982 when Bob wrote the song, he chose the term specifically to refer to his young daughter, who had been diagnosed with a debilitating bone disease. It’s the word he wants used in the song…and so that’s the word we’ll use.

The chorus of the song—which I’ll invite you to join me on—is a wonderful invitation to us to let our loved ones go— even mentors who fly to heaven in fiery chariots, even former presidents and first ladies who work for human rights. Because, as Elijah knew, saying goodbye to our mentors is necessary before we can take up their mantles and continue the important work of justice. And continuing the important work of justice, the crucial work of acting others into well-being….as people of faith, that is what we are called to do.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  (C) 2015

2 Kings 2:1-15

2Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah 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. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6Then 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. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9When 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.” 10He 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.” 11As 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. 12Elisha 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.

13He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He 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. 15When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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