II Kings 2:1-16
David A. Davis
February 14, 2021
Elijah, Elisha, and the mantle drop. It is a classic old Testament story ripe for telling. A narrative full of imagery, all kinds of symbolism, and a list of places whose names should ring a bell. It is also an account that includes actions and things that are said that bring to mind other notable texts of the Hebrew bible. The mantle itself; Elijah’s cloak, remember how it appeared up on Mt Horeb after the wind and the earthquake and the fire. When Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence he came out of the cave, wrapped his face in this mantle as the voice of the Lord came to him. When Elijah first called Elisha, Elisha was working the plow. Elijah passed by and threw that mantle over to him. No words of call, no “follow me”, just the tossed mantle. And then here in our text for this morning, before and after the mantle drop, Elijah and Elisha both took the mantle, rolled it up, and touched the Jordan river as the water parted to one side and the other. The mantle rolled staff-like. Elijah and Elisha parting the water Moses-like. Elijah’s mantle. A sacred symbol of the call of God, the power of God, and the presence of God.
Then there are the places they stopped along the way: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho. It was a bit of a trek directionally, geographically. It wasn’t a trip that was an endurance test. Even for the ancient world it wasn’t that far. It was not a route that would be recommended by GPS, neither a straight shot nor the fastest way. Bethel is closer to the river. Some backtracking to Jericho. Then back to the river. The trip it would seem was a tad here and there, a bit meandering. Rather than the journey, it had to be about the places where Elijah had them stop. Those places, those names. That’s the point, right? Elijah tried to get Elisha to stay at Gilgal; a place where prophets came from and a holy place of sacrifice to the Lord. It’s the place where King David went after his son Absalom was killed in battle. Bethel. Abram stopped there after God called him. He built an altar to the Lord there. Jacob had a dream there. Jacob’s ladder dream, it was at Bethel. Jacob built a pillar there. And Jericho, Joshua and the battle of Jericho and the walls tumbling down. Well, that’s a long story. Gilgal. The place of prophets. “Elisha, stay here. Bethel. A notable, holy place. “Elisha, stay here.” Jericho. A strategic place. A battle place. A sort of gateway to the Promised Land. “Elisha, stay here.”
Gilgal. Bethel. Jericho. But the whirlwind, the chariot and horses of fire, and the mantle drop didn’t happen in any of those places. The sacred symbol of the call of God, the power of God, and the presence of God; it wasn’t passed on in one of those notable places, one of those holy places, one of those expected places. It didn’t even happen right at the Jordon River. No, it was over there beyond the river. After they crossed over the river, Elijah and Elisha kept walking and talking. One scholar points out that the journey went from the familiar and known world back across to the place where mysteries happen. Another writer suggests that their encounter with God, the divinely anointed and orchestrated transition of leadership happened far away from any “A-list” biblical destination. A nameless place where lives are interrupted by the “glorious and disturbing’ transforming presence of God. The mantle passing happened beyond the river.
Some will remember the infamous call Joshua trumpeted to the people. Part of the quote from Joshua has appeared on a lot of posters, cross-stitches, and painted plates hanging in kitchens over the generations. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” It is from Joshua the 24th chapter, The full quote: “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in who land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” That region beyond the river; a region full of other god worship where the ancestors served, that’s where Elijah and Elisha ended up. That’s where the mantle was dropped and passed and picked up. That’s where Elisha encountered the always notable, strategic, holiness of the call of God, the power of God, and the presence of God.
The prophets meandering journey to the mantle drop and the whirlwind of God reveals the most accessible, understandable, relatable, human element of the biblical story. God’s glorious and disturbing presence transforms lives in the most un-notable places, the least expected of times, even and especially when surrounded by all the other god-worship the world has to offer. God was as present with the prophets along the way as God was present in the whirlwind. God was as present beyond the river as God was in the biblically memorable places where they stopped along the way. So, too, God is as present among us as God would be present to us in some form of divine whirlwind. Our most sacred places are made holy not by name or fame or even by mysterious chariots of fire; but made holy by the presence of God. Unexpected, ordinary places made holy by God’s transforming presence in our lives.
And in those unexpected, ordinary places, the mantle still drops. It is part of the wonder and grace of our life in God; our being part of a community of faith. The mantle still drops. Even here, even now amid the very real, ever present, multiple forces that threaten efforts to be in community. As I sat this week with this text from II Kings, I was thinking about mantle passing. Mantle passing as not simply handing the baton to the next anointed one. But mantle passing more in the sense of what Erik Erikson called “generativity.” Though a broad and complex term, “generativity” can refer to the concern, creation, and empowerment of the next generation to come. The connotations for faith and the church are quite evident in terms of passing on faith and community and worship and values and discipleship and belief and servanthood and Jesus to each and every generation. Generativity, the life of faith, and mantle dropping, mantle passing.
If you have not participated in our adult education series entitled “On Life’s Journey”, you really need to go the church website, click on congregational life, scroll down and click adult education, and find the archive. “On Life’s Journey” is yet another new and creative idea to come out of all of us figuring how to be the church the last year. The series includes several weeks of interviews with young adults from this congregation living, working, studying all around the country. It is an opportunity to listen in on Mark Edwards just having a conversation with a few folks each episode about life, the pandemic, faith, values, division in the country, hope for the future. This week’s session posted yesterday is hosted by Shana Lindsey Morgan as she talks with Theresa Christensen and Rachel Gilmore.
With my mind on mantle passing, I went back this week and watched the entire “On Life’s Journey” series and previewed the one for this morning. If you are like me, you will laugh a bit, probably get choked up at times, and mostly just be awe struck by the wisdom, thoughtfulness, the diverse experiences, the honesty, the vulnerability, and the resilience. All of it so very evident in the lives of the set of young adults. Mark adeptly takes the conversations far beyond Nassau Church and thoughts about faith. But you can’t miss what is said about what life in this congregation has meant either: (paraphrased a bit here) It was a place where I knew I would be accepted and loved for who I am. I experience the importance of community and will never take it for granted. I missed the intergenerational connections when I went to college. Nassau taught me about the common good and to care about justice. Music is an important part of my life because of Nassau. The friendships that started there ten years ago are still so important to me. Whenever you open your mouth to sing or to talk to another person you are offering praise to God. The people at Nassau taught me by example with their lives. And I could keep going. What I am describing for you is mantle passing.
Of the many things that struck me and moved me as I listened to all of them again is what they were talking about by and large, were the ordinary parts of congregational life. Yes, of course they bore witness to the unforgettable memories of experiences like Montreat and mission trips. But there were not references to some incredibly holy Easter service, or sacred traditions of Christmas Eve, or the laying on of hands at their confirmation. What came up was choir rehearsals and being a junior high youth advisor and playing an instrument in worship and teaching pre-school church school, and serving as deacon, and talking to you, and being loved by you! Mantle dropping, mantle passing, and mantle picking up! It happens in the most un-notable places, the least expected of times, even and especially when surrounded by all the other god-worship this world has to offer. All of it made holy by the palpable presence of God in our life together.
Tim Flood and Kate Torrey welcomed baby Lily into the world on New Year’s Day. Some of you might remember that Kate and Tim recorded a gratitude video for worship back in November. In expressing their gratitude for Nassau Church, they talked about how much they were looking forward to raising their child in this community of faith. Well, at post-worship zoom fellowship just a few days after Lily was born, something really wonderful and joyful happened. Tim, Kate, and Lily came to fellowship! Far sooner than they would have if we were in the building. I think Lily wasn’t even two weeks old yet! In the bit of zoom chaos that happens as folks were appearing and greeting each other, someone asked for a closer shot of the baby. Kate brought Lily right into the center of the frame real close. And then someone started to sing “Jesus Loves Me”. Then everyone started joining in. And you know how sound and singing on zoom doesn’t’ really work. With microphones cutting in and out, it sort of had a Pentecost, everyone speaking in their own tongues kind of feel. I was remembering what Tim and Kate said in their video weeks before as I watched. Wonderful and joyful may not be strong enough words for what I witnessed. For there in zoom coffee, for Pete’s sake, I, once again, experienced the palpable presence of God in our life together. And right there on my screen full of faces I miss seeing in person more than I can ever say, but right then and there, I watched a mantle drop.