2 Kings 2.1-14
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
2Now the LORD was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?"
Elisha said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 4Elijah said, "Elisha, stay here, because the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So they went to Jericho. 5The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?" He said, "Yes, I know. Don't talk about it!" 6Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, because the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives and as you live, I won't leave you." So both of them went on together. 7Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. 8Elijah then took his [mantle, his prophet’s] coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. 9When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "What do you want me to do for you before I'm taken away from you?" Elisha said, "Let me have twice your spirit." 10Elijah said, "You've made a difficult request. If you can see me when I'm taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don't see me, it won't happen." 11They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm. 12Elisha was watching, and he cried out, "Oh, my father, my father! Israel's chariots and its riders!" When he could no longer see him, Elisha [in his deep grief] took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.
13Then Elisha picked up the mantle, the coat, that had fallen from Elijah. He went back and stood beside the banks of the Jordan River. 14He took the [mantle] that had fallen from Elijah and hit the water. He said, "Where is the LORD, Elijah's God?" And when he hit the water, it divided in two! Then Elisha crossed over. [And on the other side he began his new journey as the lead prophet of Israel.]
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 13113-13133).
For the Word of God in Scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
When I found this story in today’s lectionary texts, I was delighted to rediscover it and compelled to use it for my text. Delighted because it is a biblical story that I have told several times over the years. I love its drama of a journey toward the unknown, the mystical crossing of the river – twice! The dramatic image of the fiery chariots and horsemen or riders whisking Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind. I am moved by the humanity of the prophet, Elisha, as he deals with the impending departure/death of his mentor, his denial of the loss, his fierce loyalty, his grief and finally, his acceptance of a new role in the leadership of God’s people. I find the schools, the groups of prophets that nag him humorously and humanly irritating ….why do they need to rub it in that Elijah is not long for this world? Are they jealous of Elisha’s relationship with Elijah? Are they warning him about getting too caught up in the older prophet’s provocative ministry of social justice?
Beyond all these delightful storytelling speculations, I was compelled by the story because of the image of passing the mantle. Many of you have been in the bittersweet situation of anticipating retirement from a long-held profession, maybe wondering what legacy you leave? Most of us do not expect to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind upon retirements.
Revisiting this story prompted me to ask myself, what is the mantle of ministry I will leave with this community when I leave the staff? I have some ideas and will share those over the coming months. I know that I am not a legendary, trouble-making prophet like Elijah. Far from it! I do not confront kings about their apostasy and challenge them to turn back to God. I have not raised a child from the dead as Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath. I have not been given the foresight to prophesy the beginning and end of a long drought threatening the lives of the people. Those were Elijah’s calling, not mine. I do try to speak the word of the Holy One given to me each time I preach, to lead with integrity and to help us all discover the faith of that divine spark of light living within each of us.
My contemplation of passing a mantle went beyond myself to the whole of our community. I believe we have been passed a mantle of ministry in our communal experience of the last two years. The pandemic was a Big Pause that caused a Big Shift in the ministries of our church. It was a shift like the shifting of tectonic plates. We have a new landscape of ministry now. It is vaguely familiar and very unfamiliar all at once. Like it or not, we were passed the mantle of Change with all the opportunity and risks and invitations to imagination that change requires.
Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit so that he could pick up the mantle of the great prophet’s leadership. We did not ask for such a daunting gift…but we were handed it anyway. A great mantle of Change was draped over the shoulders of the church universal, not just Plymouth, by the great Pause of the pandemic during which we experienced the stark realities of a deathly virus sickening and killing so many along with a new view of the racism, the political and economic divisions in our country. Along with the epidemic of gun violence. Along with an urgent vision of the climate crisis and our responsibilities toward our mother, Earth. Like it or not, we received a double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to Change. So much so that it is dizzying and overwhelming at times. As Plymouth, our first inclination is to rush to help those affected by these seismic changes. This is what we did before the pandemic and it our passion to help the least of these and to advocate for justice.
Yet the double portion of the Holy Spirit’s challenge to holy change starts at home. What is the phrase? Think globally, act locally. Even as we are so very sensitive and responsive to the dramatic changes in the social justice landscape of our times, our ways of being church together and of being beloved community have to be tended and rebuilt as well for the sake of God’s realm here and now.
Wow, Jane Anne! I think you might be a bit caught up in the drama of this biblical legend….its not that Big, is it? We are gathering our programs and fellowship groups and outreach ministries and worship services back together despite the seemingly never-ending cycle of masking and unmasking and new rounds of vaccines.
Yes, we are picking our way through the changes of this tectonic shift. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to a bigger challenge than trying to put the pieces of what we used to do back together with extra strength Elmer’s glue. The Holy Spirit is calling us to envision and build a new spirit of community that we have only yet glimpsed. This may entail leaving behind old programs or outdated ways of working if they no longer serve us. It will include new and unexpected ways of growing together in Christian formation, in service and even in fellowship. Along with the gift of a double portion of Holy Change comes a double portion of Holy Opportunity for greater Holy Imagination. Following the love and justice of Jesus in ways we might have never imagined before. Will we accept this powerful mantle, this double portion of Change, Opportunity and Imagination? Or will we leave it lying on the ground because we are too afraid to pick it up?
If we do not tend to the opportunity for holy change in our church – and some of the changes will be small and some large and most will be in between – then the church will not be here, healthy and strong, for us to rely on in coming years. Our strength and stamina for social justice change, for all that life throws at us, comes from the Holy One who we discover within us in the midst of the Beloved Community. Even as we tend our own souls for the work we called to do, we must tend the soul, the body and structure of our church so that it is strong for the work God is calling us to do together. Self care.
What did Elisha do first at his moment of great change, before he picked up the mantle? He grieved and he mourned the loss of his beloved mentor, Elijah. He cried out in shock and pain. He tore his garments in two…a very common sign of mourning and grief in biblical times. He could not move forward until he acknowledged his grief and mourned. He let his heart break. We need to do the same.
Our hearts, as individuals and as a community, are breaking for so many reasons already – because of gun violence, because the violence against creation, because of the implications of undoing Roe versus Wade, because of so many things in our personal lives. Take a moment to acknowledge these griefs. Griefs are never separate from one another. They build upon one another. New grief brings up old grief. And know that each breaking heart, each wounded soul in this room is precious to the Holy One.
As you acknowledge your personal grief, turn to what is breaking your heart because of the changes forced upon our church community by the pandemic? (Or if you were not have with Plymouth through the pandemic, what breaks your heart about your pandemic experience ?) The loss of friends who have found another community for worship? The loss of being able to attend the memorial service of a congregation friend or a friend’s family member? The many days of isolation? The sense of disconnection that still lingers? The loss of socialization and community for your children and youth? Is anger coming up instead of heart break? Anger comes with grief. If you feel angry that’s okay.
Take a long moment here in the safety of this sanctuary to let your heart break. If tears come, let them flow. If rage comes, clench and unclench your hands so you can let it move through your system. Our bodies are holding so much heart break and they need release. Hold your hands in front of you, cupped and turned up. Put your griefs into your hands and offer them to God. (Long pause……. 90 seconds.)
Take some deep breaths. Shake it out. Hold your hands in front of you again Now take a moment to remember all the things you are grateful for in our life together as a beloved community. In your life in the world. What makes your heart sing with gratitude? Hold these things in your hands. Offer them to the Holy One. Hold them in your heart. (Pause ….. 60 seconds)
Deep breath. Open your eyes gently. Come back to this space consciously. I hope you will reflect on these last moments at some time during the day or week ahead. I encourage you to share what came up for you with a partner, a friend, your journal. We cannot move effectively into our new Holy Spirit challenge of Change unless we first move through the sludge of our grief. We will get stuck if we don’t acknowledge what we feel. This process of grief and mourning goes hand in hand with visioning and imagining new actions of justice and building anew. Grief and gratitude never happen in a linear narrative. We will be spiraling through acknowledging our grief and moving into God’s newness for years to come. That is how life works.
As I end this morning, I leave you with a question I have borrowed from marine biologist and social justice activist, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: “What if we get it right?” As we pick up this double portion of God’s Holy Spirit calling us to Change, can we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save? How do we run full-tilt towards what we love and what delights us about our life together as the Body of Christ? Guided by the holy work of our strategic plan as well as the holy surprises of the Spirit, let’s us take up the mantle of change and imagine our church community in the future through the question, “What if we get it right?” Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.