“Picking Up the Mantle”
June 26th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Picking up the mantle. It seems a simple idea. I mean, when one leader steps down, another leader needs to appear. And in some ways, everyone who has created, or discovered, or produced, or dreamed, has been picking up the mantle of those who have gone before. Isaac Newton is said to have written to another scientist, Robert Hooke in 1676, that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” An African proverb says that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Picking up the mantle.
I imagine the mantle of Elijah as a colorful garment, a large drape, like a cape or cloak, that he wore over his shoulders. It was an outward sign--a mantle identified you as a prophet.
Earlier in Kings the mantle has been used as a symbol of God’s call—God tells Elijah that he has chosen another servant, Elisha. And so Elijah goes and finds Elisha plowing in his field, and he throws his mantle over him to show that he is to become his follower.
The mantle is also used as a symbol of God’s power. Notice that in our reading, when Elijah and Elisha get to the Jordan, Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water, making it part so they could cross from one side to the other on dry land.
The remnant of a mantle is still used in religious settings—in the Presbyterian Church in the form of a stole—like the one I wear today. It reminds those of us who wear it, that we are in service to God. But Picking up the mantle, is not just for the few. I happen to think it is a calling for each of us.
But before we get to that—I noticed that both in the story from 2 Kings and the story from the gospel of Luke, the first step of discipleship is Being There. Jesus calls people to follow—telling us how difficult it might be, how much we might have to give up, how urgent it is to “get on the road,” not to let anything get in our way.
In the full story of Elijah and Elisha (our reading was like the Reader’s Digest condensed version), the theme of being there is especially prominent. Elijah keeps moving from one place to another, and Elisha keeping following. They are on their way from Gilgal and Elijah says “Stay” and Elisha responds “I will not leave you.”
They go down to Bethel, and other prophets try to pull Elisha away, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away?” (translation, God is coming, you might not want to be TOO close). And Elisha says “Yes, I know. Keep silent” And Elijah says “Stay”; and Elisha says “I will not leave you.”
They go to Jericho. Prophets “Do you know?” Elisha “Yes. Keep Silent.” Elijah to Elisha “Stay.” Elisha “I will not leave you.”
They go to the Jordan, and cross over, after the mantle has parted the waters. And only then, after all that traveling together does Elijah ask Elisha what blessing he wants.
What I hear in all this, is it is important to be there. It is important to follow along the way. Even if it seems tedious. Even if it takes you from one place to another place to yet another place. Even in no one else is willing or able to do it. Be there.
Second, you need to expect the unexpected because God is involved. This seems like a no brainer. We read story after story of miracles and healings in Jesus’ presence. We read story after story in the Old Testament when God shows up, as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; as a burning bush; as messengers in dreams; as travelers on the road. But I think sometimes as we follow, as we travel from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan, we might forget that God is not far off.
Because life has those long patches of ordinariness, we get anesthetized to watching for the unexpected. Now granted, a chariot and horsemen of fire and a huge whirlwind are hard to miss. But in the magic of a lectionary year, we just read the story where Elijah is hiding in a cave and God comes, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still, small voice.
Being there means you might get close to God (which is why the other prophets are trying to get Elisha to step away from Elijah who is the lightning rod in this story). Being there means you might get close to God (which is exactly why Elisha stays the course, wanting a double portion of Elijah’s spirit—of the anointing of God.)
But being there isn’t enough. Following isn’t enough. Even getting to experience a revelation, a close encounter with God, isn’t enough. For when Elijah is swept up into heaven, he leaves more than the stories of his faith behind. He leaves his mantle lying on the ground. And somebody has to pick it up. Somebody has to continue the fight. Somebody has to step into the breach.
Elisha picks up the mantle. I like that he test-drives it, striking the Jordan, as Elijah had done, parting the waters, seeing that it still has the power of God in it, and he becomes the prophet to deal with from that time forward.
As I considered what this might mean, I imagined a relay race. The first runner begins, but then comes the hand-off. And the second runner begins to run alongside, until the moment that the baton has to be transferred from one to the other. Picking up the mantle is like that. We know we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors in the faith. There have been many who have gone before us. And we know that we will have to pass the baton on to others who come after us. The race is not done, we are asked only to run our part of it.
Now picking up the mantle is an awesome responsibility. We might say, “We are not up to it. We can’t be like this person, or that person.” And what came to me were the words of the old hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead”—“if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus”—in other words, we each have been given gifts, we each have been called to follow, we each have our own ways of picking up the mantle, of serving our God, of doing our part in the ministry of justice and love.
Picking Up the Mantle is a way of making sure that we stay humble in our walk with God. The work we are called to, the leadership we are invited to, our job as disciples, is part of a great cloud of witnesses that stretch back even as they reach into the future. We are on that continuum. Droplets in a sea of beloved followers of God.
I see this clearly in our focus text today. I think there is a reason that the storyteller of 2 Kings has Elijah and Elisha going from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan. We start at Gilgal, a place of worship for prophets and kings (let’s call it “the present”). And then they travel to Bethel, known to be on the dividing line between the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom (a division that had happened in the time of Elijah). From there they go to Jericho, the place of the song “and the walls came tumbling down.” Jericho recalls those early days of the people of Israel coming into the promised land. And then Elijah and Elisha get to the Jordan—and Elijah parts the waters, calling to mind not only Joshua and the Israelites crossing into the land of “milk and honey” but the escape from the Egyptians many years before that.
Do you see how the storyteller has walked us, along with Elisha, back in history? How could Elisha not remember who had gone before? How could he not see himself as part of a line of servants? So he might ask for a double portion, but he must have known that it wouldn’t make him twice as important. I almost think that Elisha was saying, “I’ll need twice as much Spirit-help to do what you have done.”
Such a simple gesture, picking up the mantle—and yet, so life changing. Such a small statement, “I will follow you, Lord”—and yet, it changes everything. In the Old Testament we hear stories of great kings, great prophets, the forefathers and foremothers of the faith. The story of Jesus opens up who is included. From the 5 women who are included in the genealogy of Jesus, to his eating with tax collectors, to his touching of lepers, to his invitation to those on the margins to come and sit at his feet, to the stories he tells of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, and somehow showing glimpses of life with God.
So Kings talks about one man, Elisha, picking up the mantle, becoming the next great prophet. But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. It isn’t just one person picking up the mantle, it isn’t “the one” in a generation, no—picking up the mantle, becomes following the Lord. Picking up the mantle becomes picking up your cross—and is not something for the few but for us all.
It is a daunting prospect. And we may not feel up to it. Maybe we too need to ask for a double portion of spirit, so we can do our part! And thank God, it is only a part that we have to do. For we can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. And we can provide shoulders for others to step up in their turn.
So let us commit to being there.
Let us commit to expecting the unexpected.
And let us commit to picking up the mantle,
for God has need of us,
in the humble ministry of justice and mercy and love.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.