2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Elijah was God’s great and lonely prophet in Israel, nine centuries before Christ. He was a man of towering deeds, deep depression, stunning courage, and mighty miracles. He had brought the dead back to life, defeated 400 pagan priests on a mountain top, and heard the voice of God in sheer silence. At the end of his life, he knew it was time for him to leave his work and go to God. He called a young farmer, Elisha, to follow him and take up his work. In this morning’s lesson, after years of standing up to the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah is about to be taken to heaven by chariots and horses of fire.
Elijah asks Elisha, who refuses to leave him despite Elijah’s promptings, what he can do for him before he leaves. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha replies. The double share is the portion given to the eldest son: Elisha is asking for the ability to carry on Elijah’s work. Elijah knows such a thing is not up to him, but to God. God gives the spirit and the call: if Elisha is permitted by God to see Elijah’s departure, that will be a sign of God’s favor and God’s provision for Elisha.
A chariot and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is taken into the skies in a tornado, presumably in the chariot. Elisha witnesses the whole scene, meaning that he has been blessed to take up Elijah’s work. So he picks up the prophet’s cloak, rolls it up, strikes the Jordan River with it, and asks, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Just as it had for Elijah, the waters of the river part, and Elisha crosses to the other side.
The imagery in this story is rich. Parting the waters: like Moses, Elisha will help free God’s people from slavery and lead them to a new future. Chariots and horses of fire: Heavenly messengers are sent to escort Elijah to God’s presence. Mantle: more than a cloak, it is a symbol of authority, power, and protection.
Among my prize possessions are a watch, a ring, and cufflinks that belonged to my maternal grandfather. The cufflinks are the only items I wear, on those rare dress occasions when I wear a shirt with French cuffs. But every now and then I look at those things, or hold the pipe my mother gave him for his last birthday, and I remember his influence in my life and try to be a little more like him. When I become a grandfather in a few weeks, I will be thinking a lot about how my grandfather loved and taught and influenced me in profound ways. I wear his mantle.
All of us are cloaked in mantles bequeathed to us by those who have gone before us. I have heard many of you talk about parents and grandparents, teachers, neighbors, relatives, and friends whose mantles you wear. Many of you who were members of this church when Joe Carson was your pastor share, with me, the mantle of great opportunities he gave to you as your pastor and to me as my District Superintendent. We wear the mantles of Francis Asbury and John Wesley, pioneers of the United Methodist movement. But, for all the mantles we wear and pass to those who come after us, the most important is the mantle of Christ.
Lloyd C. Douglas was a Congregationalist minister who wrote historical novels, the most famous of which was The Robe. The book, made into a movie starring Richard Burton after Douglas’ death, is the story of Marcellus Gallio, the Roman tribune ordered to supervise Jesus’ crucifixion. In a drunken dice game at the foot of the cross, Marcellus wins Jesus’ robe, which he entrusts to his slave, Demetrius. Demetrius has become a secret follower of Jesus, and treasures the robe. Marcellus is haunted by the scene at the crucifixion of what was obviously an innocent man, who forgave Marcellus from the cross for his execution. After the crucifixion, at a banquet thrown by Pontius Pilate, a drunken centurion orders Marcellus to put on Jesus’ robe. Shaken to the core, Marcellus sets out to trace Jesus’ life and ministry, and becomes a follower of the man he killed. At the end of the book, Marcellus has to choose between allegiance to Caesar and allegiance to Christ. Carrying Jesus’ robe, Marcellus goes to his own cross.
The mantles we wear change our lives. The clothing of a nurse; a doctor; a soldier, sailor or Marine; a pastor; a musician; a lawyer; a judge; a fire fighter; police; a chef; or a thousand other cloaks define us to ourselves and to others. We live into the history and tradition we receive when we put on that mantle, and we leave a legacy, for better or worse, to those who come behind us. And when we put on the garments of Christ, we step into a two thousand year old history of sacrifice, of compassion, of courage, of witness. People have died because they wore this mantle, but so many more have lived because of it.
All other mantles we some day surrender. There comes a day when we cease to be husband or wife, parent or child, friend or neighbor, butcher, baker, tailor, doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief. And when that day comes, as today I cease to be your pastor, it behooves us to pass that mantle as gracefully as did Elijah to Elisha.
Five years ago when Bishop Kammerer sent me from her Cabinet into this pulpit, I told some of my best friends that I regretted not being able to finish some things I had started on the Ashland District. “All our work is partial,” my friend Dr. John Copenhaver, professor at Shenandoah University, said. John’s words hit me like a ton of humbling bricks. It’s so true: we never really finish anything. We could have always done a little more, a little better. We never really tell each other everything we want to say, we never really do everything we hoped to do, we never really become all we wanted to be. Even Jesus didn’t do everything he had hoped: the rich young man went away in sorrow, Pilate never figured out what truth was, and Judas hanged himself.
But Jesus knew what Elijah knew, and what we need to remember this morning and every morning: that God is still at work, in the power of the Holy Spirit, passing the mantle of faith and leadership to those who come after us. Five years ago next week, I stood in this pulpit for the first time as your pastor and said, This is not my church. But it’s not your church, either. This is Jesus’ Church, and as long as we are clear about that, there’s nothing we can’t do together for God. And we have done a lot of it. I have no doubt that you will continue to do great things for God with Jay Kelchner.
So, at the end of this service, I will lay my mantle on the Lord’s table, for Jay to inherit. All my work is partial, just as all Jay’s work, and all your work, will be partial. But God’s work is always whole, and God will continue to part the waters for you so you can help free people who are enslaved to injustice, sin, and death.
I close with a story from my first year in seminary. One day as I was wandering the stacks of the theology library, I found myself among books whose authors’ names began with the letter H. I found the shelf with books by my hero and mentor Julian Hartt, who had taught at Yale for thirty years before coming to UVa. I pulled a book of his called A Christian Critique of American Culture, and took it back to my dorm room to read. Overwhelmed with its message, I wrote Mr. Hartt a fan letter the next day. A week letter I received a reply, thanking me for my kind words. And then this world-famous Methodist minister and professor of philosophical theology said, Since we are now peers in ministry, I really think it’s time for you to no longer address me as your professor, but as your friend. Please call me Julian.
I pass my mantle as your pastor to Jay. But you and I will share for all eternity the mantle of our friendship in Christ. Thanks be to God.