The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-12
Every two years, in Olympia, Greece, there is a ceremony where some people kindle a flame using only the sun and a fancy mirror; like kids starting fires with a magnifying glass. This flame becomes the Olympic torch that, this year, traveled from Greece to South Korea.
And you know, there’s some show, some theater that goes along with the lighting and the passing of the torch. You remember in the 1992 Barcelona games, when that guy shot a flaming arrow to the top of the stadium to light the cauldron? That was awesome. Or, do you remember when Mohammad Ali, quivering from Parkinson’s lit the 1996 flame in Atlanta? Sure, the Olympics is about competition and sports, but there’s also a flair for the dramatic. This year, the Olympic torch was carried by 7,500 different runners, representing the 75 million people living in the Koreas. The torch went on a cable car on a steam train on a sailboat, it was even carried by a robot. The torch relay has a flair for the dramatic, representing the different generations, the different peoples, the different ways of life in Korea.
A flair for the dramatic. Heavenly chariots of fire and horses of fire. In this ancient relay, Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, go from Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, and then across the Jordan River into the wilderness. All along the way Elisha, the young man, stays close to his mentor, Elijah, the seasoned prophet. Elisha is not quite ready to take the grave responsibility of being a prophet; of doing God’s work like Elijah did. Elisha is not quite ready to carry the torch, to pick up the mantle of leadership for himself. That is, until, there is the flair for the dramatic when the chariots of Israel and its horsemen sweep Elijah away.
Elijah’s days of prophesying have come to an end. Elijah, the prophet who showed the priests of the other gods that the only true god was the God of Israel. Elijah, the prophet who stood down the evil king, Ahab and his corrupt wife, Jezebel. Elijah, the prophet who heard God’s voice in the sound of silence. Elijah, the prophet who raised a widow’s son from the dead. This Elijah, the Elijah of might and power, the Elijah of leadership and strength, the days of Elijah the prophet are over in a dramatic flair.
But the days of Elisha the new prophet, are just beginning. Elisha, this new prophet, will cleanse Naaman the Syrian from leprosy. Elisha, this next generation prophet will name the new king for the people of Israel. Elisha, the next prophet in a line of prophets will raise another dead boy to life again.
Take heart, people of Israel. Though Elijah the elder prophet has been carried away by the chariots of fire, God has provided a new prophet, Elisha. And though this new prophet is not exactly the same as the old prophet, Elisha will also do the work of God.
Take heart, all you gathered here today. Though the generations pass, though our loved ones come and go, though once great leaders have been carried away, and new, leaders are raised up, all is not lost. God will provide. The mantle of leadership, Elijah’s mantle, passed to Elisha. This is where we get that phrase, the “mantle of leadership.” A mantle was a type of cloak, or shawl. Like an Olympic torch, it symbolized Elijah’s power, it symbolized God’s appointment of Elijah. But, like the Olympic torch relay it must pass on. Elijah could not take it with him when he rode that fiery chariot. In the relay of prophets, Elijah passed on the mantle to Elisha.
The mantle of leadership passes on to a new generation. Before every Scout Sunday, I meet with our Cub Scout Pack to talk about the church, the funny names we have for everything. This past Tuesday evening, we talked about what I do and what this church does in the community. And we talked about leadership. After I told them that I am an Eagle Scout, one of the boys asked me if I was still active in Scouts the way I used to be. I was honest. I am not active like I used to be, because that mantle of leadership I carried had to be passed on. Elijah and Elisha show us the first lesson in leadership - always be thinking about your replacement. The mantle is ours for a time, then it is ours to give away to those behind us.
This is hard work. There is great temptation for the ones who have led for a long time to hold on for even longer. For one reason or another, they can’t let go. That’s when things start to stagnate, run afoul, and lose their momentum. But perhaps most of all, we fear that our protégés will do it differently. We fear change.
The rising leaders may do it differently. We saw this recently in Scouting, as a decision to include girls in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts was made. It was a tension of the generations. It was a similar tension we experienced in the Episcopal Church forty years ago, when we finally, finally, after two thousand years, ordained women to the priesthood. It was a tension of generations. We heard, “that’s not how we used to do it. That’s not how things are done around here.” But we heard the voice of Elisha, with that new mantle of leadership saying, “this is a new thing, and God is always doing new things.” I thank God that the voice of Elisha prevailed and that women have a full and equal place in our Church.
So where do we stand now? In this time of societal change and upheaval, the story of Elijah and Elisha is a lesson to take to heart. To those of you who are Elijah, the elder leaders - trust that what you have done and taught is good enough. Trust that as God was present in your leadership, and in your time, God will still be present in the future. The Holy Spirit does not need you to show up.
To those of you who are Elisha, the rising leaders - trust that what you have been taught are good lessons. Be strong, and be very courageous. Invite the Holy Spirit to call you forward as the Holy Spirit is always calling us forward.
And wherever we are on the conveyor belt of life, always remember that we are moving forward, whether we like it or not. The conveyor belt of life - we’re born, we’re raised, we go to college, our children are born, our parents die, we have a mid-life crisis, we retire - the conveyor belt of life will stop for nothing. You can try to jam its gears, you can hold on to your mantle with an iron grip - but even then, eventually your own death will loosen your hold, and that mantle will be passed on whether you are ready or not. Since we are always moving forward, you may as well have the courage to face the future today.
To have the courage to train your children to rise up in your place. Do not wait for tomorrow to teach your children how to pray, or how to spend their money, or how to follow Jesus tomorrow, or how to die - no, do it today. Pass on the mantle, for you do not know when the chariots of fire are coming for you.
Have the courage to let go and to let other people do the work you have trained them to do. Invite someone else take the lead on that project at work, train someone else to run your ministry, identify that new scout leader. And do it today, because one day you will be taken away in a whirlwind.
And, if it is your time, have the courage to pick up the mantle when it is given to you. For if you do not pick it up, if you do not follow Jesus, if you do not carry on the work, who will? Pray about it - is it your time to leave the mantle or to pick it up?
Like the Olympic relay torch, the mantle is yours for a time, but it is not yours forever. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to God. And as God freely gave to you, as followers of Jesus we must give it all away again. And when you put it that way, it sounds like a love, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s the story of Jesus, that’s the story of the cross. Jesus trained his disciples to carry on the work of ministry for when he had ascended into heaven himself, not unlike Elijah before him. He opened wide his arms on the cross and gave away all the love he had. And perhaps that’s the key to this story, perhaps that’s the key to Elijah and Elisha, that’s the key to good leadership - it’s love. As God has so freely loved us, we turn right back around to freely love God and love neighbor. And in that, you will find courage to change.