Lesson: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
I’m freshly back from spending two weeks in England with my sister. It wasn’t relaxing but it was loads of fun; we saw and did a lot. Among other things, I discovered the perfect diet: Eat whatever you want, and walk eight miles a day. We visited dozens of churches and chapels, some huge, some tiny, all very old. Most have pulpits five or more feet higher than where I’m standing right now, not because preachers are so high and mighty, but because in the days before sound systems, the congregation could hear the preacher better if he was speaking out above them. Instead of a matching wooden lectern like ours, many churches have a brass lectern with an eagle, wings spread to hold the Bible. We visited the chapel at Corpus Christi College at Oxford, which has one of the oldest lecterns in England, a pre-Reformation lectern from the early 1500’s. But while the other eagle lecterns we saw were topped with a fierce-looking bird, the Corpus Christi eagle had a rather sad and pained expression. As the chaplain explained, you would, too, if you’d listened to over 400 years’ worth of sermons.
So it’s with that in mind that we turn to Elijah and Elisha this morning. Elijah and Elisha are the prophets with the frustratingly similar names. In the Hebrew Bible, prophets don’t foretell the future; they speak truth to power, to kings and to the elite who make life tough for the common people. Specifically, they speak truth on behalf of God, whose laws helped protect the common people from royal abuses. Often, prophetic truth was packaged as a warning about consequences. You don’t need to look into a crystal ball to tell your child, “If you don’t study, you’re not going to get a good grade on the test.” In the same way, the prophets said, “There are consequences to abandoning God’s laws, and if you continue to be unfaithful, you will face those consequences.”
The stories about Elijah and Elisha in First and Second Kings are magical and miraculous. We are not in our own modern world here, but we still find surprisingly modern themes: a mentor and his protejé, passing the baton on to the next generation, and leadership transition. It helps us get oriented if we look back a bit. In First Kings, Elijah is something of a hero, at the top of his game when publicly humiliates the prophets of Ba-al, a competing deity, obviously inferior deity to the God of Israel. It’s one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. The 450 prophets of Ba-al gather for the showdown. Elijah taunts them as they dance around, hoot and holler, and do anything else they can think of to get their god Ba-al to light a fire on their altar piled with wood and animal sacrifices. Nothing happens. To rub it in their faces even more, Elijah has the wood on his altar soaked with water. Then Elijah simply prays, and God sends fire that consumes the offering, the wood, and the stones of the altar. A big win for Yahweh. In an unbecoming fit of rage, Elijah turns the crowd into a mob that kills the prophets of Ba-al. Jezebel, the wife of wicked King Ahab, is not amused, and orders that Elijah be killed. He escapes to the mountains, where he has a holy encounter with God in what our pew Bible translates as “the sound of sheer silence,” but the King James Version more poetically translates, “a still, small voice.” Elijah says he’s been zealous for God but now he’s alone, and his life is in jeopardy. God tells Elijah he isn’t alone; there are 7,000 people who are still faithful. Then God tells Elijah he’s to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his place.
Elisha doesn’t replace Elijah immediately. When Elijah first meets Elisha, he puts his cloak, or as our bibles translate it, he puts his “mantle” on him in a ritual that tells us their relationship is almost like a father and son. They work together as mentor and apprentice, but then it’s time for Elijah to be taken up to heaven. Elijah is the only biblical prophet who did not die, but was taken up. It’s a way of saying Elijah was exceptional. In preparation, Elijah travels hither and yon, and Elisha insists on following him, even when Elijah tells him to stay put. The last stop is the Jordan River. Just like Moses before him parting the Red Sea, or Joshua parting this same river while carrying the Ark of the Covenant, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the Jordan, separating the waters, giving the two of them a path over dry ground.
Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him before he leaves. Elisha wants to follow in the footsteps of this great prophet, so he asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. This might sound arrogant. Imagine telling your mentor, “Not only do I want to be as good as you; I want to be twice as good.” First of all, any mentor worthy of the name, especially a mentor in the faith, hopes and prays for just this – that those who follow actually will surpass them. Elisha needs the spirit of God given by God to Elijah in order to carry on the work the great Elijah started. Oddly, Elijah seems unsure about whether Elisha will receive this blessing – “you’ll receive it only if you see me as I leave you,” he says. Artists, as in the painting on our bulletin covers, have shown Elijah being carried off in a flaming chariot, but apparently the chariot was just blocking Elisha’s view until he sees Elijah being carried away by the whirlwind, which means Elisha has seen the unseeable, and passed the test. Elisha tears his own cloak in grief, but then he picks up Elijah’s – and that’s where we get the expression “picking up the mantle of leadership.” And just to prove he really has inherited Elijah’s spirit, he takes that mantle and strikes the water just the way Elijah did, and it parts, and he walks across the dry land to the other side.
It’s an odd and ancient story, not intended to serve as a history lesson but nevertheless intended to tell us something about God, and about our selves. The most obvious and simplest lesson here, and one that feels relevant to where we are as a congregation, is that when the people of God need a new leader, God is on the job. God made it clear that as exceptional as Elijah was, God’s plans did not depend solely on Elijah. Likewise, God’s work doesn’t depend on any one pastor of a church, or on any individual leader within the church. God continues to raise up new leaders, sometimes even leaders blessed with a double portion of their predecessor’s spirit. Elisha was not Elijah. Elijah was a miracle worker, a signs and wonders sort of prophet, inspired and inspiring. Elisha will turn out to be more organized, less flashy, more managerial, a consolidator of the message that Elijah was so fiery in declaring. Elisha is still quite an advocate, mind you, but he is more refined, less dramatic. As the needs of the people changed, God provided the right kind of next person to spread the good news of God’s love and justice. Which is exactly what will happen here. God will raise up the right next person for this congregation. We still need to do our work, keep learning about ourselves, keep hearing where God is calling us, in order to pick up the mantle, brush it off, and get it and get ourselves ready to drape the mantle of pastoral leadership over the next person’s shoulders.
There’s also an important parallel with Jesus in this mantle-passing tale of Elijah and Elisha. The Book of Acts tells us that Jesus also ascended into heaven. Rather than passing his mantle to one individual, however, Acts reports that Jesus’ Spirit rested on all the disciples – we just celebrated this a few weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday. Jesus’ ministry continued through the disciples, a bunch of ordinary folks. And who are Jesus’ disciples today? Each and every one of us – not just pastors, but all of us. Beloved family and friends and fellow church members have passed the mantle to us with the prayer that we will continue Jesus’ work – their work. I’m sure many of you have stories about how the mantle of faith was passed to you.
Church – and perhaps especially the Presbyterian Church – is very different from many other enterprises in our culture because it is supposed to be done by ordinary people – it’s not supposed to be done by professionals. Church is “DIY” – do-it-yourself. In the Presbyterian Church, it’s the elected leaders, the elders – who, by the way, do not need to be “old” – it’s the elders who lead the church and give it direction. It’s the elected deacons who provide care for the congregation. Most of our ministries are do-it-yourself: our justice ministries, our fellowship, our education and youth and children’s ministries – it’s mostly done by you. This is countercultural, especially in a place like Marin County, where more and more often, people pay someone else to do everything from yard work to childcare to walking the dog. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing: People in Marin are less and less inclined to do anything do-it-yourself, and that includes church. That means, today, much of our do-it-yourself church work is done by retired folks. The retired folks in our congregation are a huge gift to all of us. They are the ones who have the time to serve on committees, do the yard work, run the capital campaign and so on.
I am profoundly grateful for the retired folks in this congregation who contribute so much time to our ministries. The only downside is that we don’t hear enough of the voices and perspectives of younger members, people still employed, people with kids still at home. There is a lot of important wisdom among our retired volunteers – I’ll call them the Elijah generation. We need that wisdom. But we also need those younger voices; we need to hear from the Elisha generation, especially now, as we look forward to our own leadership transition with my upcoming retirement. We need young people – and in this congregation, “young” is certainly relative – but we need young-ish people to serve on the pastor nominating committee that will be elected some time later this summer or early fall. We need those voices, the younger voices, to be part of planning for the future of this congregation.
And so we need to figure out how to make DIY church workable for the Elisha generation – for people with kids or jobs or both. We may need to look at providing more childcare for more events. We may need to look at how we schedule committee meetings. But this is the very problem: It doesn’t work for me to stand up here and guess what would help make it possible for a younger person to pick up the mantle of leadership. We need to listen to the younger people so that we know, and that, my friends, means taking time to get to know each other across generational lines. BUT – and here’s the tricky part – we need to get to know each other across generational lines because we genuinely care about each other, NOT as a means to an end.
All the recent research on church growth and decline points to younger people wanting authenticity more than they want what’s hip or cool; more than they want flashy entertainment or even lattes. Carey Nieuwhof writes this about the Millennial Generation: “This is, after all, a generation that has been marketed to more than any generation in human history. They can smell cheese and incompetence a mile away. But they can also smell fake a mile away. Being real matters more than doing.” What the Elijah-Elisha story shows us is that even though God hand-picked Elisha, Elijah prepared Elisha to pick up the mantle when they developed a close relationship. A real, authentic relationship.
Really, why would Elisha want to pick up the mantle from someone who didn’t know him and care about him; who didn’t care what life looks like to him and had no interest in his hopes and concerns? Really, why would anybody?
This morning, I challenge us as a congregation to figure out how to get to know the many young and young-ish people who are a part of this church. You may not know much about them because they aren’t here every Sunday – that’s more and more typical for the Elisha generation. But we need to find ways to drape that mantle over their shoulders, mentor them, and most importantly, let them teach us about how to be the church for the next generation.
May it be so for you and for me, and for this congregation. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 1 Kings 19:19; Neal Locke, “Elijah Rock – Chariots of Fire,” July 24, 2016, https://fpcep.org/risen_multimedia/elijah-rock-chariots-of-fire/
 David Ashby, “Passing the Mantle,” June 26, 2016, http://www.firstpresbyterianhoneoyefalls.org/multimedia-archive/passing-the-mantle/.
 See, for example, Rachel Held Evans, “Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make Church ‘Cool,’” April 30, 2015, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e2aa1c2443e1.
 Carey Nieuwhof, “5 Things Millennials Are Looking For in a Church,” https://careynieuwhof.com/5-things-millennials-are-looking-for-in-a-church/.