United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Passing the Torch"
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Sunday, February 14, 2021



        “Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.  Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

        The song brings to mind Elisha’s cry “Father, father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen” as Elijah, Elisha’s mentor is swept up into the sky.  It is a moment of grand drama, when Elijah gets to sidestep death, and go directly to heaven. 

        And as we think about the sky, the space into which Elijah disappears, that points us to other sky moments, such as when the cloud envelopes the mountain that Jesus and the inner circle (Peter, James and John) are on in this story on Transfiguration Sunday.  A cloud through which God speaks an important word--to stop paying attention to idol worship, to stop being caught in the static nature of building monuments to moments, and to hear the real message, “listen to Jesus”—follow him.

        And of course, “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” calls to mind our country’s willingness to have slavery in our midst for centuries!   “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” is thought to be one of the songs sung as a code for the coming of the Underground Railroad, the hope and possibly to get to freedom.  Sara Hopkins Bradford in her biography: “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” claimed that “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” was one of Tubman’s favorite songs.

        All of this was swirling around in my head, along with the moment that we find ourselves in at this time in our country:

under siege by a virus,

living in a culture that cannot agree on what the facts are,

and faced with trying to deal with the undeniable reality

of the ugliness of racism, and authoritarianism. 

Some of us might well want to pop the escape hatch—to go walking with Jesus up the mountain, far away from the cares of the world.  Let’s leave that all behind, let’s have our secret experience with Jesus.  Just the four of us (and, of course, Elijah and Moses).

  And it’s so amazing, this transformation of Jesus in front of our very eyes, and seeing the greats of Scripture—the Prophet Elijah, and the Bringer of the Law, Moses, right before our very eyes.  We should build booths, or temples, or museums to this extraordinary moment of vision.  And in the words of the Easy Bake kids--“we helped.”

        You could even say that this desire to “be there” is foreshadowed by our story of Elijah and Elisha.  Elijah knows that God is going to call him home, and tries to get rid of his mentee—maybe because he doesn’t know exactly what will happen if God “takes him”—maybe because he doesn’t know what might happen to the one who sees such a thing—remember in that culture no one who sees God can live.  So there is this funny dance: Elijah going here (and telling Elisha to stay put) and Elisha declaring his love and his insistence that “as the Lord lives, and as you live, I will not leave you.”  And each time, to underline the point, the company of prophets, the other ones who have been following Elijah, sidle up to Elisha and say, “hey, you know God’s going to take him today, right?”  And Elisha keeps following.  Elisha wants to see Elijah go.  Elisha wants to be there in the moment, no matter the cost. 

        And finally, Elijah stops and says, ok, it’s not for me to say whether you will see it or not, but if you do, what do you want?  Why are you following me around?  What do you want to get from this dogged devotion?  And the answer is “a double portion of your mantle”-- the symbol of the work that is to be done and the open communication line with God.  In other words, Elisha wants Elijah to pass the torch to him.  Elisha wants to be the one to assume the leadership role, to carry on.

    For he knows, Elijah going up into heaven might be a stupendous, iconic snapshot—but God’s people, and God’s work will continue.

“Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.  Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

        “God’s people, and God’s work must continue.”

That’s what I hear from the cloud up there on the mountain on the day of Transfiguration.  The cloud doesn’t talk of dwellings, doesn’t talk of getting a good selfie with Moses and Elijah, but communicates to others what Jesus heard at his baptism “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  And a command:  “Listen to him!”

        Peter and James and John did not, could not envision that they too would be like Elisha, needing to pick up the mantle and move on after their beloved leader was gone.  I wonder, in the days and weeks and months and years after Jesus’ death, whether those disciples thought about Elisha, as they grappled with what it meant to have to take over the mantle, to have to carry on the message, to have to step into the vacancy.

        And that is what I am hearing this Transfiguration Sunday—a call to us to stop looking up to the sky, to stop insisting on solidifying history, and to start listening, so we might pick up the mantle, for the torch has been passed to us, and what are we going to do with it?

        And that brings me back to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  Because as I did a little bit of reading, the story of this song caught my attention.  Now as with much history that was lived by those not writing the history books, the “truth” is somewhat shrouded.  But here is what we think we know.

        Wallace (Wallis) and Minerva Willis were slaves in Mississippi on a plantation owned by Britt Willis.  Britt Willis (and his Choctaw wife) relocated (or maybe were forced) to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, bringing their 300 slaves with them.  Wallis (and possibly Minerva) is now credited for composing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, along with others like “Steal away to Jesus”, “I’m a Rollin’”, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” and “The Angels are Coming”.  The lore has it that Wallis was reminded of the story of Elijah and Elisha “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen” as he worked the rows of cotton along the Red River, and that’s the chariot he was envisioning. 

At some point, Wallis and Minerva were lent out to Spenser Academy (a school for Native American boys with ties to the Presbyterian Church) and they began to teach these songs to the students.  It was there that the superintendent, Alexander Reid (who had gone to Princeton Theological Seminary) heard the songs and put them down on paper. While in OK, Wallis and Minerva received their emancipation and died free people.  And years later, in 1871, Reid, who was back in the northeast, passed the songs he had transcribed along to the Fisk Jubilee Singers—an African-American acapella ensemble that was fundraising for their historically black college in Nashville TN.


       The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured widely, singing before President Ulysses Grant, for Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and even in front of Queen Victoria.   Their 1909 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was added by the Library of Congress in 2002 to the United States National Recording Registry.  And in 2008 they were awarded a National Medal of Arts.

        Wallis composed it, Wallis and Minerva shared it, Reid wrote it down, the Jubilee Singers made it famous world-wide.  And we have the wonderful music and lyrics of “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” to this day.  Each person accepted the baton in the relay race of life.  Each person added what they could to the widening of who might hear this sweet, powerful song.

“Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.  Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

        Another voice shouted in my ear this week.  It was the voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as told by Professor Jeanne Theoharris (in a Washington Post perspective called “Martin Luther King Jr.’s challenge to liberal allies—and why it resonates today).  Theoharris reminds us that King was railing against injustice not just in the South but also in the North.  As Theoharris accounts, “…his critique of Northern racism and attention to police brutality nationwide are routinely missed…King identified how…moderates and liberals argued that time would solve the problems of racism, cast disruptive protest as unwise and unreasonable and embraced ideas like the “culture of poverty” to justify strong-arm policing and explain away inequities in their own cities.”  In talking about political action in New York in 1964, King said, “We do not need allies more devoted to order than to justice.” 

Professor Theoharris concludes “…King understood that disruption was necessary to unsettle the comfortableness of injustice and its often ‘polite’ accomplices… An honest reckoning with King’s legacy and what it asks of us today must begin with his long history of highlighting police brutality outside of the South and his insistence that Northern liberals see their own racism and push for change at home in their own institutions.”



        Picking up the mantle of Elijah, following in the footsteps of Jesus, are not comfortable, easy things to do.  There need to be mountaintop moments to inspire, to transform, to gird us for the trials ahead.  That is why we read the Transfiguration story each year as we head into the season of Lent.  We know there is much work to be done in our church.  We know there is much work to be done in our communities.  We know there is much work to be done in our country,  And we know that there is much work to be done in our world.  We cannot pretend that God has called us to sit inside our beautiful dwelling places and turn a blind eye to injustice around us.

        We can start by looking at ourselves, as we are planning to do this Lent, with help by Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an Anti-Racist.”  We will open space for conversations on the Wednesday evenings following Ash Wednesday.  We will start with ourselves, but the hope is that we will feel the need to go a step further—and consider how we might become more involved in a social justice ministry.

        “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”

        One can only hope that as we look over the vast swirling waters of our life at this time, we will see “a band of angels” coming after us.  For we want to be in league with the angels.  And we need to be on the move.  Whether is it tramping all around the countryside with Elijah, or wandering through the highways and byways with Jesus, or walking alongside each other as we grapple with difficult issues,

we have been called to listen,

we have been called to follow,

we have been called to be part of the chain

of mantle wearers,

and torch passers,

as faithful disciples.


May God give us the courage and the song in our hearts to make it so, Alleluia, amen.