Monday, February 20, 2012

Picking Up the...Mantle

Manassas Church of the Brethren
19 February 2012
2 Kings 2: 1-12

This is the story of Elisha, and it is the story of Elijah. The passage for today is just one moment in the midst of a grand narrative, a narrative filled with love, violence, intrigue, and superhero prophets. It’s a long story, but it is a story we all already know. We might have forgotten some of the details, but we know this story.

But like all good stories, this one is worth retelling. So here’s a refresher.

Elijah is one of the towering prophetic giants in the story of Israel. He’s such a pervasive presence in the Jewish imagination that even today, Jewish people set an empty cup for Elijah every week at their Friday night seder dinner, and there’s an empty chair just for him at every circumcision. Elijah and his story linger on.

And with good reason. Elijah had quite the life. I imagine, if he had actually died (that whole being taken up in a chariot of fire is great and all, but it does sort of rob us of a proper funeral and appropriate eulogy), the preaching at his funeral would have been QUALITY.

You know Elijah’s story.

This is the guy whose prophetic career got kicked off by telling Ahab - the most sinful of all Israel’s kings - that God was sending a drought to punish him. And the drought came, and Elijah survived because RAVENS brought him water and food in the desert - sounds like a Cinderella fairytale to me, what with the woodland animals bringing in food and sustenance.

This is the guy who brought a widow’s dead son back to life just by touching him and crying out to God.

This is the guy who bested all of Baal’s prophets in that epic competition - you remember: 450 of Ahab’s Canaanite prophets went up to Mt. Carmel and called on the name of Baal for hours upon hours to send down fire on their altar, raving on cutting themselves and screaming out - to no avail. And then Elijah, the only prophet of the Lord who’s left, put his bull on the altar, doused it in water three times, prayed once, and the fire of the Lord fell immediately and consumed it all: bull, altar, stones, trench, and even licking up the water in the trench around it.

When that happened, Elijah’s message to the false prophets and their king was pretty simple: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” It’s pretty clear who Elijah followed.

But that’s not all. This is Elijah. This is the guy who, after bringing kids back from the dead and calling down divine fire to prove God’s existence went into a cave in search of God, this is the guy who heard God NOT in the rushing wind and NOT in the earthquake and NOT in the fire, but who heard God in the sound of sheer silence.

And when he heard God, Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle - his cloak - and asked what was next. God spoke, spoke directly to Elijah out of the silence, and told him to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his place. “This work doesn’t end with you,” God told him. “This work is bigger than you are, and I’ve got plans that go beyond even your lifetime.”

So Elijah went out to find Elisha in order to anoint him. And he finds him - plowing his family’s fields. The moment of anointing is surprisingly casual in the text: “Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.” That’s it. Like, “Hey, here’s a prophet’s cape, come with me.” Elisha is, understandably, a bit confused. “Just a minute, let me go tell my parents where I’m going, I’ll be right with ya.” Elijah won’t have it. “Look,” he says, “I just anointed you, man! Come on! We’ve got places to go, people to heal, kings to crown, nations to warn, prophecies to preach! We’ve got stuff to DO. Let’s GO.” So Elisha gives in, kills the very oxen he’s been using to plow, leaves his life, and follows Elijah. Just like that.

And the prophets spend ten years together: Elijah and Elisha, the super prophetic duo. They took on the nefarious King Ahab and his twisted wife, Jezebel. They spoke prophecies to King Ahaziah, and when he sent disrespectful companies of his army to talk to Elijah in his stead, they called down fire to consume them - twice. And finally, they travel a long distance together, down to Bethel, and then to Jericho, and lastly to the Jordan.

And all of that leads us here, to this moment, with the two prophets standing at the edge of the Jordan river.

The scene unfolds pretty much like you would expect it to: Elijah keeps telling Elisha to stay back - he doesn’t need to see what’s about to happen, it would only upset him. But Elisha insists on being with him. Three times, Elijah tells Elisha to let him go alone, and three times, Elisha refuses. “As the Lord lives,” he says, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” A company of prophets shows up, too, and they try to get Elisha to acknowledge what’s about to happen: “don’t you know that the Lord is about to take your master away from you?” But Elisha can’t hear it: “Shush!” Twice they try to get him to acknowledge the inevitable, and twice he responds, “Yes, I know, I know, now hush up about it!”

As they walk toward the river, Elijah takes off his mantle, rolls it up, and strikes the water, and the Jordan river parts in two to let the prophets cross over. Elijah asks, “what is it that you want from me, now that I’m leaving?” And Elisha - because he knows what’s about to happen and because he feels ill-equipped to carry on the work of the prophet - asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, asks for the inheritance of the prophet’s power.

And then, in a flash of chariot and fire and whirlwind, Elijah is gone. He’s just gone, taken up, disappeared. And Elisha is left, alone, crying out in grief there by the waters of the Jordan river.

We know this story. But more than that, we KNOW this story, deep down in our bones. This is the story of Elijah and Elisha, but it is also the story of us: of living life with God, following faithfully, and learning as we go. It is the story of encountering God in both expected and unexpected places, the story of being attentive and the story of getting surprised. And it is the story of what happens in those moments where we find ourselves completely at a loss, grieving, confused, and feeling very alone.

You know those moments. You’ve had them, and they’re not pretty.

One of the things that I’ve been inviting the youth to try out these last few weeks is a practice called the Examen, or the Ignatian Examen, or sometimes called the Examen of Conscience. It’s an ancient monastic practice, but I stumbled into it completely by accident. In the 2nd of my three years of seminary, I found myself hanging onto some flimsy threads of leftover belief. The process of examining everything you think you know, taking it apart and figuring out how and why it fits and what it means and where it leads you is not only spiritually exhausting (and exhilirating), it’s also something of a process of loss. As I paid closer attention to my faith and relationship with God, I found that things were shifting so much that I no longer knew how to pray. I was writing papers about who God was and what God did and how we understood it all, I was arguing with a bunch of good Methodists about how some of our more radical Anabaptist beliefs and practices really were valid ways of being Christian, and in the midst of that I found that I could no longer RELATE to God. I had forgotten how to pray. And it was disturbing. Ministers - and people training how to be ministers - really OUGHT to be able to, at the very least, say a prayer, you know?

In the midst of all that swirling theological language and philosophical nonsense, I started casting around for something to keep me grounded, something that I COULD do to hold me over until I could remember how to do this very basic Christian thing. And I remembered the gratitude journal that my grandmother had given me when I was in high school. And I remembered that on certain days during college, I would be so full up of gratitude that I’d just start listing the reasons I liked the day - on my AIM away message, if y’all remember what that is. And I realized I could still do that. I could still name the moments in any given day when I felt deep gratitude, when I felt God moving close to me, when I felt the presence of the Divine. So I started listing those moments, daily. And slowly, gradually, that practice of listing the moments of gratitude began to give way back to being able to pray, back to a sense of God’s consistent presence.

I didn’t know when I started doing the Examen that I was doing the Examen. I just knew that my grandmother taught me to be grateful, that I’d tried it out before, and that it was something I was capable of doing even in the midst of that swirling seminary whirlwind.

I don’t know what your moments have been - maybe they’re similar to mine. Maybe they’ve been more subtle, or maybe less so. Maybe they’ve been brought on by inciting incidents that were out of your control, or maybe you just found yourself sometime in a dark valley during the long walk that faith entails. You know your own moments.

Elisha was having one of THESE moments - and how. He did NOT carry on without a blip when Elijah disappeared on him. He did NOT immediately dust himself off and move on, valiantly taking up exactly where Elijah left off. No, Elisha screamed! He cried, he grabbed his clothes and ripped them in two, and I imagine he fell down weeping on the ground beside the Jordan River.

Can you picture this scene? It’s so vivid and so familiar that it plays in my head like a movie montage. Elisha, weeping and screaming and falling down in grief. And then:

And then, slowly, Elisha calms down. His tears slow and his eyes open, and he remembers to pay attention to what’s going on around him. I imagine his glance slides over the riverbank, and his eye gets caught on the piece of fabric lying there. What’s this? Oh, Elijah has left something behind, after all! And Elisha gets up, walks toward the pile of cloth, and kind of wonderingly picks it up. It’s Elijah’s mantle - the one he covered his face with when he heard God’s voice, the one he casually threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he called him to be a prophet, the one he rolled up and used to part the waters of the Jordan.

Elisha picks up the mantle, and Elisha remembers: there is something yet left to do. This story doesn’t end here with this weird glimpse of God in chariot and fire. This story doesn’t end in grief and confusion. This story is larger than one prophet, even a great prophet. Elisha’s master taught him what he had to do, and Elisha knows how to be a prophet - he trained with the best for ten years. And so, he picks up the mantle, and he decides to try it out. He rolls it up - just like he saw Elijah do not an hour ago - he brings it up over his head, and he calls on the Lord, Elijah’s God. And he strikes the water, and the water divides in two. And Elisha crosses over.

What I find so intriguing about this moment is that Elisha - even though he has training and experience and has been called by Elijah, God’s very own prophet - even though he KNOWS what it is he needs to do, he still doesn’t know how to move forward. He still casts around, looking for some direction, some confirmation, some encouragement.

And what’s even more intriguing: he finds it. Elijah has been taken up into the heavens, but he has very strategically - or not - left behind his mantle, the symbol of prophetic power and the tool Elisha needs to find the courage to cross back over the River and get back to business.

It’s hard to say this without sounding trite, but I wonder: what are the mantles in our own lives? What are the things that remind us of what we are to do? What are the things that assure us of God’s continued and unending presence with us, even in those moments of great confusion, grief, and despair? What are the things that convince us to keep going, to continue living as characters in the great, grand narrative of God’s work in our world?

I don’t know all the answers to those questions. I think mantles come in all shapes and sizes. I think they come as simple practices of gratitude and attentiveness. I think they come as wise mentors, guides, and saints who show us where to look and what to do. I think they come in great big revelations, and I think they come in the quiet assurance of familiar routine.

Whatever these mantles are, it seems to me that we find them only by sticking close to God. Elijah keeps telling Elisha to stay behind, and Elisha refuses, again and again. “As long as you live, and as long as the Lord lives,” he vows, “I will not leave you.” And that seems like our call, too - to stick close to our Lord, to watch and practice and soak up every bit of presence that we can, so that when those moments of crisis come we can be reminded: somewhere around here, there’s a mantle lying on the ground. I better see if I can find it, and cross back over that river.



Trisha said...

B, I thank God for the good he is doing in those kids(and this old lady)through you.

David Smith said...

This is a great sermon Dana, I love your voice and your humor. I'm sorry I missed the live version!

I love that you are using the Examen with the youth. Have you ever listened to the Pray-As-You-Go podcast put out by the Jesuits? It's a great tool to for setting aside 10-15 minutes each day for doing the Examen.

Keep up the good work!