In late March of 1985, I took a road trip during a college spring break to visit some friends north of Boston. Unfortunately, a powerful and unexpected snow storm released three feet of snow and stopped me in a small town in Massachusetts. I never did make it to see my friends. I found shelter overnight and managed to trudge through the snow to a movie theater to relieve my boredom and disappointment. A new movie was premiering that week. It was titled “Chariots of Fire” and it won four Academy Awards and it remains a classic. Who can forget the 1924 Summer Olympic British running team bounding down the beach, barefoot, on their way to glory? (Cue theme song… J )
In 2 Kings, a chariot of fire rolled down the road accompanied by, what else, “horses of fire” as the mantle of prophesy passed from Elijah to Elisha. After years of being mentored by the prophet with almost the same name (I imagine it was as confusing then as it is now!), Elisha’s big moment had arrived.
If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Water in the Jordan River is struck and it parts to allow dry passage to the other side. One revered leader gives a blessing to another and a new era of God’s favor begins as the prior leader disappears forever. Moses and Aaron had a similar relationship of master and apprentice that led to the transfer of authority just east of the Promised Land as Moses drew his last breath. The water was parted and the people of Israel crossed over on dry land.
Bible theologian Walter Brueggemann comments on this passage and talks about the “little stories” in the Bible that remind us of the “big stories.” As the story of the dramatic departure of Elijah and the accompanying division of water was told among the Israelites, they remembered a “big story” and were assured that God was still with them, just as God had used Moses and Aaron to lead them in troubled times.
And times were troubled again. One corrupt king after another was abusing power and leading the Israelite people further into unfaithfulness to God. The prophet Elijah had spoken boldly and confronted all sorts of evil and injustice, but even prophets don’t live forever. It was time for fresh leadership, and the mantle was about to pass to Elisha.
The phrases “picking up the mantle” and “passing the mantle” have their origins in this passage. When we say those words, we do so metaphorically. Back in Elijah’s day, a mantle was probably a cloak or a robe made of animal skin. It didn’t just give protection from sun and rain; it communicated the authority of the person who wore it. Passing the mantle to another was highly symbolic and made it clear to anyone who saw the mantle who held the responsibility of leadership and the authority that comes with it.
In five months, we will know who the American people will anoint to carry the mantle of leadership for the next four or eight years. This has been the most fascination and distressing and surprising election season ever, I think. The stakes are high, and this week’s exit of Britain from the European Union highlights how important it is for all of us to make good choices, wherever we are.
Who will take up the mantle of leadership in a time when populism can lead us in different directions to either champion the rights of the lowly and hard-working or prevent the marginalized from sharing the benefits of our freedom?
I wasn’t here last Sunday to reflect with you on the Orlando massacre. The extent of the loss of life and suffering was just becoming known as we worshiped the Sunday before. In the weeks afterward, I’ve been heartened by the response of those who understand that many LGBT people feel less safe today than they did two weeks ago, and I’ve been encouraged by those who have rallied around sensible gun control measures despite political posturing in Washington. Those who sat on the floor of the Senate in protest bought back images of lunch counters in the south. Like how the Jordan River dividing for Elijah reminded the people of Israel how deliverance came in the past.
Who will take up the mantle of leadership in a time when it seem like guns are protected more vigorously than human beings?
I think it’s interesting in 2 Kings that the mantle isn’t just handed over to Elisha. In fact, despite all the years of mentoring and preparation, Elijah seems a bit uncertain at the last moment. He wants to be sure that Elisha actually sees him in that moment when he is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. The chariot of fire doesn’t streak through the sky, but it simply separates them as they walk along and as Elijah ascends. I hate to say it, but the old spiritual based on this story has it wrong. The sweet chariot doesn’t swing low as Elijah looks over Jordan. He doesn’t even get in it, so it can’t be coming for to carry him home. Elisha, seeing the chariot, shouts out and refers to Elijah as his father as Elijah disappears in the whirlwind.
Speaking of flying through the sky, I returned from Wisconsin yesterday on Frontier Airlines. Frontier is creative in the way they get you to pay for this and that and hopefully not notice that when you have paid separately to select your seat and bring your travel suitcase on the plane, your bare bones flight has been a lot more than the bargain you thought it was. What is not bare bones is the extensive menu for the snacks and drinks that are served on the flip down tray the size of a smart phone. Nothing is complimentary, and the menu is extensive. I noticed that they had a special deal offered with the title “Make it a Double” which meant two of those tiny bottles of vodka or rum served with your cranberry juice. That’s essentially what Elisha said: “make it a double!” Elijah asked him what his last request was before he left, and Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” Was he being greedy? Was he overreaching in his desire to have a strong influence in Israel as he took on the mantle of prophetic leadership? I don’t think so. I think he just admired Elijah so much that he wanted as much of Elijah’s wisdom and courage and integrity as possible.
Whose mantle have you inherited? Have you had a mentor or a parent or a teacher whose example is so great that you’ve wished to carry on their spirit in your own life and work?
This past week I attended a conference on an island at the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula in Lake Michigan that was sponsored by the Christian Century. The Christian Century is the flagship magazine of U.S. mainline Protestantism. It was founded in 1888 but and renamed in 1900 to reflect the optimism that the twentieth century would bring about the dominance of liberal Christianity as the whole nation came to value the “harmony of faith with the modern developments of science, technology, immigration, communication and culture.” In fact, mainline liberalism had declined precipitously by the end of the twentieth century as conservative Christian movements became dominant. The conference in Wisconsin was focused on ways in which progressive Christian churches are influencing their communities in powerful ways for good without assuming that they ever will – or should – dominate the larger culture.
Jesus talked about our influence happening in small and subtle ways, like yeast in a batch of dough. Taking on the mantle of leadership doesn’t mean that we will be king or prophet or president. It simply means that we are faithful in working for good with others wherever we are.
A number of you rode your bikes to church today. The effects of carbon on the earth’s atmosphere are not going to be undone because you chose to ride instead of drive. But it can’t be said that it made no difference at all. Your example inspires others who may choose to consider ways that they can reduce their consumption of our limited resources. You got a little more exercise than you might have otherwise today. Good things don’t have to be spectacular to be worthwhile.
Do you remember what the character Eric Liddel did in Chariots of Fire? When the 100 meter Olympic race was scheduled for Sunday, he refused to run on the Christian Sabbath. Abraham Herschel was an English Jew who ran to overcome anti-Semitism. They became unlikely friends in that time and place. Liddel ran the 400 meter race and won despite his own coach’s belief he could never do it. Herschel was badly beaten in his own event, but then ran the 100 meter race and won. Early in the film, Liddel missed a prayer meeting to practice and was chastised by his sister who didn’t understand his passion for running. He assured her that he would still be a missionary one day, and then remarked, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
For those who ride bicycles on the roads and paths and mountain trails, perhaps some might say, “When I ride, I feel God’s pleasure.” Or “I feel free and fully alive.” Or “I feel awful, but I’m become more physically fit and am making a small difference in this world for good.”
Taking up the mantle means being willing to take responsibility to do the right thing at the right time even if the task is not something that will be rewarded or even noticed by others. May we not be afraid to cross over Jordan and pick up the mantle that has been worn faithfully by others. And may our relationships with others, our work for justice, and our care for God’s creation make a difference in this world.