Imagine that you are a rich farmer, with lots of land and lots of crops and lots of animals. Imagine that you are out supervising your workers as they are plowing the field, and then – all of a sudden, out of the blue – someone comes riding by, he throws some cloth on top of you, and summons you to be a minister for the Lord’s work. Then you spend years following that guy around until he is lifted up into Heaven, and then you become his successor. I hasten to add that that is not the story of my life (nor is that a description of my relationship to our rector, even if St. James’s is a place to which I would be pleased to return someday). But that is how Elisha was first called to be one of the Lord’s prophets. Elisha was summoned to his work by Elijah, who was Israel’s greatest prophet since Moses himself. This morning’s Old Testament lesson of how Elijah passed his mantle on to Elisha looks backward and forward: backward to Moses, forward to Jesus – and even to ourselves.
This lesson is rooted in earlier parts of Israel’s history. Whenever the people of Israel began to worship false gods and commit injustice, God would send his prophets to call them to repent and to return to faithfulness. Sometimes the prophets were successful in their work, sometimes not. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Elijah, who – for all his power in attacking idolatry and for all his devotion to the one true God – could not carry out his mission forever. Elijah knew that he needed someone to help him, someone to succeed him. And God sent Elijah to Elisha the rich farmer who was working in the fields, plowing his crops. Initially, Elijah approached Elisha, threw his mantle or cloak onto Elisha, and directed him to join in the prophetic work. Elisha soon responded and then began to follow Elijah everywhere he went – following him so closely that sometimes Elijah would have to say, ‘I have been called to go somewhere else; so Elisha, you stay here.’ But Elisha, ever the devoted servant, never left Elijah wander off on his own until the day that God intended to lift Elijah up into the heavenly realms. [Background on Elijah’s initial summons to Elisha appears in I Kings 19:16b-21.]
When that day eventually came, Elijah knew that it was finally time to pass the torch of leadership and authority on to Elisha, and so Elijah performed the kind of miracle that any Hebrew person would recognize as a miracle on the order of Moses: Elijah took his cloak, wrapped it up into a tight rod, struck the River Jordan with his cloak, and parted the river just as the Red Sea had been parted by Charlton Heston (I mean: Moses – you remember the movie The Ten Commandments). Just as the children of Israel had crossed over on dry land to the other side, so too did Elijah and Elisha cross over on dry land to the other side. The kind of power that Moses had to part the waters is the kind of power that Elijah himself had, and it was the kind of power that he was passing on to Elisha. In order to make that point clear, Elijah left his cloak behind as he ascended into the heavens, he let it fall to the ground; and then Elisha picked up that cloak and parted the river and crossed over on dry land to the other side, doing the same thing that Moses and Elijah had done before him in their great demonstrations of power. The other prophets who witnessed what Elisha did could thus declare boldly, ‘The spirit of Elijah now rests upon Elisha,’ and so they bowed down in honor of the newly appointed prophet.
Something about Elijah reminds us of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like Elijah, Jesus knew that he needed help in his work and that he would need some successors to follow him and carry out his work after his departure from Earth to Heaven. So Jesus called disciples – the apostles and other followers – to assist him in his mission and to continue his work after he ascended into Heaven. That band of disciples extends from Saints Peter and Paul and Saints John and James down to us today, and we are now carrying out the work that Jesus gave them and us to do. As we learn from the Letter to the Ephesians, part of the task that followers of Jesus have is to build up the Church in which Christians live and work and encourage each other. And just as Elijah did not leave Elisha powerless, so our Lord has not left his followers powerless. His gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives provides us the grace and heavenly strength that we need for continuing the holy work of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit who has spoken through the prophets [Nicene Creed] has also taught us how to love our Lord and how to serve him faithfully and obediently. By sending us his Holy Spirit, Jesus has effectively passed on part of his mantle of leadership and authority to his disciples, even to us today.
But there is more going on than just the handing-off of that mantle. Look at Elisha: he was not simply given Elijah’s cloak, he had to pick up that cloak and take responsibility to exercise the authority given to him to preach God’s word to his people. Look backward now to Moses: Moses knew that he was not going to be able to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land, so he prepared his friend Joshua to succeed him. Even so, Joshua had to embrace that calling and accept his new responsibilities. Look forward now to Jesus: he has not simply given us the Holy Spirit, but he has also called us to follow him and to accept our responsibilities as his chosen servants and friends. In addition to the event of the divine gift, there is also the event of our receiving that good gift and using it wisely for service in God’s kingdom and for building up the Church as the body of Christ.
Please permit me to explain this in more personal terms. Over the years, my parents have given me a number of wonderful gifts. One car, two station wagons, and a really handsome SUV. A world-class education in college and graduate school. All kinds of computers, stereos, electronic gadgets, and certainly a secure and loving home. But perhaps their greatest gift to me has been the least expensive and the most lasting: we went to church every Sunday, rain or shine. They gave me the gift of regular, committed, in-depth involvement with church as a way of life. For us, this was not just a social activity where people could see us and we could see them, and not just a perfunctory routine that we fulfilled for the sake of duty, but rather a way of life that transforms the whole of life – our heads, our hearts, the use of our bodies, our vision of the way things are and the way things really ought to be, our priorities, our joys. I cannot ever remember my parents asking me, ‘Do you want to go to church today, or do you want to go shopping?’ ‘Do you want to go to church today, or do you want to sleep in late?’ ‘Do you want to go to church today, or do you want to go to ball practice?’ (Even if that would have been a safe question to ask me, athlete that I am.) We never debated whether or not we would go to church: we simply woke up on Sundays and went to church because that is what followers of Jesus do on Sundays and because that is where we were glad to be on Sundays, in the house of the Lord [Psalm 122:1]. To this day, my parents remain deeply committed pillars of their local church, serving in a variety of leadership positions and teaching Sunday school – both of them – and quietly aiding others in need. They are trying faithfully and obediently to honor the promises they made at their Baptism, trying faithfully and obediently to build up the Church.
I say these things about my parents not because I am trying to hold them up as perfect human beings, and not even because I am trying to sweet-talk them into taking me to lunch today at one of these barbecue joints that you have kindly recommended to me. I say these things about my parents because they have boldly passed on to me something of the mantle of their faith as we struggle to be faithful, obedient Christians in an increasingly non-Christian world. They have given me spiritual gifts by the example they set and by the life they live. They have also shown me how to accept those spiritual gifts, to develop them in my life, and to accept responsibility for being a faithful, obedient Christian. They have continued a pattern that includes the work of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, our Lord Jesus Christ, and his earliest followers: a pattern of sharing faith and helping others faithfully to respond to Jesus’ call to follow him.
I wonder about how the mantle of faith and responsibility and joyous service in God’s kingdom is being passed on in this parish and in other churches too. To be sure, there are wonderful signs of vibrant activity at St. James’s. Two days ago, we sent a group of missionaries from St. James’s to serve in Montana. Tomorrow, we begin a very busy week of Vacation Bible School where children will be growing in their faith. Later this week, we will send a choir of missionaries from St. James’s to sing in England for the glory of God. Here in this parish, we do not close up shop for the summer! St. Jamesers also have frequent opportunities for serving God’s people in Honduras and China and Whitcomb Court and on this very block in the city of Richmond, because the needs of God’s people do not evaporate from the heat of the summer! Our clergy and staff and lay leaders are busy preparing a series of Bible studies, adult forums, Sunday school classes, and outreach programs that will enable St. Jamesers of all ages to develop a deeper, more mature faith in our Lord. We recognize that serving God and others requires a lifetime of devotion, and developing that devotion does not stop at confirmation or graduation from high school!
And so, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I wonder where God is calling you to serve in his kingdom. Not everybody is required to be a prophet, so don’t worry: Randy and Dana and I are not likely to drive by your field this week and throw cloaks on you. Besides, I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet [Amos 7:14]; I have a lot in common with the prophet Amos in that regard. Not everyone is given the task to preach overseas or to be an apostle. The Letter to the Ephesians is right: there are many opportunities available in God’s kingdom, and we are expected to help each other discern our respective callings. But we do understand that the mantle of authority and leadership and faith is something to pass on, something to convey to others. And that mantle is something for each of us to pick up, something to accept graciously and to use faithfully. Who knows what good things will come when you pass on the mantle of faith to someone else in your neighborhood or in your workplace or in your family? Who knows what good things will come – who knows what waters you can part – when you joyfully accept the mantle of faith that has been given to you and responsibly fulfill the promises of your Baptism? Amen.