Martha M. Shiverick
June 30, 2013
Scripture: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
We all have mentors in our lives. People who have shepherded us at pivotal times in our lives and have helped shape who we are or will become. They can be your coach, a school teacher with whom you connect, a Sunday school teacher, a friend’s parent in the neighborhood, or hopefully even your minister! A decade ago when I was celebrating my 20th anniversary of my ordination, I did so by making a list of all the people that had mentored me in my life and I sent them all a thank you note. Some people here in our congregation received one. I wanted each of them to know how important they were to me and how grateful I still am to the time and support they have given me. This morning’s scripture passage is about a man and his mentor. It is about the great prophet Elijah and his protégé Elisha. The story takes place right at the end of Elijah’s life. He knows he is about to die. The younger Elisha is grieving this, does not want him to die, and has anxieties about whether he will be able to pick up and be Yahweh’s prophet after Elijah is gone. Listen now for God’s word as it is told in the stories of 2 Kings: 1-2, 6-14.
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here: for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken away from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Elijah knew his life was nearly over. He told Elisha to stay while he went off to die. Elisha was bereft and would not leave him. Perhaps an irrational part of him felt that if he stayed with him 24/7 he would not die? Perhaps it was that he loved him so he did not want him to be by himself when he did die? SO the two of them take this funny walk while Elijah is trying to get away from Elisha so that he can die and Elisha is determined to stay close to his mentor while he is dying. They traveled to Gilgel, they traveled to bethel, and now they are traveling to Jordan where they picked up some fifty other followers who traveled behind them. It must have been quite a scene!
The tension builds as the time of Elijah’s death gets closer. First, he can’t get away from Elisha and now a crowd is pressing in on the two of them. Finally he takes off his mantel and rolls it up and strikes the river and the waters part. Elijah’s mantel was a sleeveless cloak or garment which was meant to be a symbol of authority. Elijah and Elisha cross the river on dry land. It kind of reminds you of Moses and the Red Sea, right? Writers of commentaries on this passage say that this is very intentional. Where Moses strikes the water with his staff, Elijah strikes it with his mantel. Both are symbols of their power. We are to be reminded that Elijah and Moses are comparable figures. This Elijah is great… actually as great as Moses. And Elisha is to Elijah as Joshua was to Moses.
So, they get to the other side and Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha. What one last thing can he give this young man who will continue his ministry? And Elisha asks for a double share of his mentor’s spirit. In Jewish law the oldest son gets double the inheritance of the others. Elisha is asking for his inheritance to be like that of the first born son. Elisha is asking to be seen as Elijah’s rightful heir.
And we wish that Elijah just could have easily said of course. After all young Elisha left his family and everything he knew years ago to study under Elijah and become his heir apparent. But his answer was ambiguous. The confirmation was not in his hands but in God’s. His future is ambiguous. It has to do with seeing Elijah being taken up to heaven….
Oh dear, a new suspense. First we were told of poor Elisha’s anxiety over his mentor’s death and now the poor man has to be anxious over whether he will indeed become the next prophet of God. Will he get the spirit of Elijah? It has to do with whether he sees Elijah ascend into heaven.
And then the vision appears. It separates the two men as Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind complete with horses and chariots. What a vision. But we don’t know whether poor Elisha’s saw all that he needed to see. His grief is great and he tears his clothing in two. Although uncommon today, it seems that this was a common occurrence in Biblical days when one was in extreme grief. What is interesting though is that even in his grief; he collects himself and begins to move forward with his calling and ministry. He does not lay on the ground and wail, but he picks himself up and puts on the mantel of his mentor who is now in heaven with God. He puts on the cloak which represents his office and place as prophet and moves forward.
In a commentary by Presbyterian minister Carrie Mitchell who works in a church in Pittsford New York told a story about moving forward in grief:
‘Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922 he was suddenly stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many now consider his best. Puccini said to his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.” Shortly afterward he died. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926 the world premier of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing.
Everything went beautifully until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscannini’s face. He stopped the music, turned to the audience, and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” A vast silence filled the opera house. Toscanini smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “but his disciples finished his work.” When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.
In the same manner, Elisha, wearing the mantel of his beloved mentor, moves to return to the people that he and Elijah had separated from by crossing the Jordan River. He knows it is time to move forward and to begin the ministry to which he had been called and trained. Not knowing for sure whether he could do it, he took the mantel of Elijah and just as Elijah had done earlier he struck the water. He was probably hoping upon hope that it would indeed separate the water as it had done for his predecessor! It did. He had been given Elijah’s power and spirit. He crossed on dry land alone to begin the ministry to which God called.
The fact that this was the lectionary reading for today seemed such a serendipity. We too are parting and like Elisha are beginning new ministries and going our separate ways. For over eight years, we have been each other’s mentors. We have walked together, laughed together, done Christ’s work together, and learned from each other. Like Elijah and Elisha, we have loved our work and enjoyed where God has called us. The time has been wonderful. I have loved and enjoyed every moment of being one of your pastors and hope that you have too. Perhaps together we have even brought God’s realm a little closer to earth.
And God will call us again. Although we will move in separate and different directions, we know that God will empower us with the Spirit we need to move forward and continue what we started. We will put on each other’s mantels and continue ministries to which God calls. And God will equip us with what we need to do just that. Amen!