3rd Sunday after Pentecost
What the children are doing:
We just heard a really strange story from the Bible about a prophet named Elijah, and being a prophet is an important job, to tell the people about what God wants to happen. So Elijah listens closely to God, even when God tells him something that’s really hard to do. So God tells Elijah to give his job away to someone else named Elisha. So Elijah finds Elisha, plowing in a field with oxen—that’s what they used in those days for farming, instead of a tractor. And Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha, and that’s Elijah’s way of telling Elisha: now you have an important job to do.
Have you ever had a mantle thrown on you? Eh, maybe not--but have you ever put on some kind of clothing for a special purpose? Maybe a winter coat for going outdoors when it’s cold. Or maybe you want to feel like a scientist and dress up in a white coat like a researcher would wear in a laboratory.
Or maybe some of you have graduated, from preschool or kindergarten, and maybe you’ve worn a cap like this (which I borrowed from my daughter Lily—she wore this at her kindergarten graduation). Sometimes graduates also wear long gowns to match their caps.
Graduates in high school or college sometimes wear stoles to show what they have studied—different colors mean different disciplines of study—or they wear cords or medals draped around their necks to show the awards they have won during their time as students.
People who study to become pastors and church leaders also go to school for a long time, and they celebrate graduation too! Their school is called seminary, and last week I saw a photo of some seminary graduates, and they were wearing long black robes and black graduation caps to celebrate their graduation. They have achieved an important goal of completing a Master’s Degree.
But this year, at Wartburg Theological Seminary, the graduates also wore colorful knitted prayer shawls! I knew they were not wearing knitted scarves—their school is in Dubuque, Iowa, where the weather was too warm for scarves at this time of year. And each graduate’s shawl was different from each other, handmade knitted shawls, crafted with love and carrying with them the prayers of faithful people devoted to God.
I’ll tell you: I don’t usually see graduates wearing prayer shawls. But it was a powerful statement to have the academic garb with the colorful prayer shawl. These graduates will be the ones stepping into leadership in the church, and the mission of the church goes with them, and the love of faithful people affirms them in their calling to serve God. They are wearing the mantle of leadership.
For pastors, when we are ordained, we also get a stole to wear, showing that we are servants of Jesus Christ, and the word we preach is not our own, but we preach God’s Word. Today I brought along my own prayer shawl, which was given to me during a spiritual retreat—Via de Cristo in Arkansas—and while I was there at that retreat, reading the Bible and listening for God’s voice and praying with others, it was special to know that someone had knitted this while praying for me. (This is obviously not just a children’s sermon, so I’m gonna stop writing in italics now.)
I could wrap the prayer shawl around my shoulders like a mantle, feeling the warmth like a hug, feeling connected to someone I’d perhaps never met but someone who still had prayed for me.
This passing of the mantle, from Elijah to Elisha, is a fascinating story. Elisha has some of the most interesting stories in the Bible—check out Second Kings--but the story today begins with Elijah. Elijah was the prophet during the reign of King Ahab in the northern kingdom of Israel, during the time when the nation was divided and Israel was the northern kingdom and Judah was the southern kingdom.
Elijah has been the outsider, living on scraps and subsisting on the margins of society. He has called out the abuses of power within the nation of Israel, spoken against the worship of other gods, which invited the wrath of King Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who wants to kill Elijah.
So Elijah is running for his life, and he has gone to Mount Horeb. It was there that God told Elijah to “stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” So there was a powerful wind, but God was not in the wind. Then there was a great earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after that: the sound of sheer silence. Elijah covers his face with his cloak—his mantle—and walks out on the mountain. That’s when God says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And Elijah replies: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
I mean, that’s a lot. Have you ever felt like Elijah at this moment? Have you ever felt all alone, trying your best to do the right thing, which is usually the hard thing? Like having conversations with people with whom you disagree, or staying in relationship with people with whom you don’t agree? Maybe you never had to run for your life, but have you felt the grief of losing your support system? Have you lost friendships or family relationships as a result, leaving you feeling isolated?
This is Elijah’s experience. He talks with God about this. And God reveals God’s self to Elijah, a profound affirmation of Elijah’s closeness with God, and a gift of grace that God didn’t have to give. This is when God provides Elijah with a map of the way forward, which includes anointing a successor as the prophet of Israel: that will be Elisha.
And Elisha is very unlike Elijah. Elisha is wealthy: he owns land and twelve yokes of oxen, which is opulent. He’s already respected by people in power, the kings of neighboring nations. Things are going well for him in life, and then along comes Elijah with this mantle of power, this calling which Elisha was not seeking.
I can only imagine Elisha might have been a bit surprised. But what’s amazing is that he doesn’t reject this mantle of leadership—he simply asks Elijah one favor, to say goodbye to his parents first. And then he wholeheartedly embraces this calling to serve God, and literally lights on fire his livelihood, butchering his oxen and feeding his neighbors.
It’s important to notice that Elisha isn’t dumped into this new role without any guidance. He became Elijah’s servant—so there’s a mentorship kind of situation going on. Elisha is not alone, and he and Elijah will be an interestingly-paired sort of mismatched team, fulfilling God’s will in their own particular ways with their own particular strengths. There’s no single template for what a servant of God looks like—God can and will use the gifts of every faithful servant.
Jesus also calls his disciples without regard for their social status, their socioeconomic status, their marital status, their gender identity, their ability, their history, their family needs—one can be a faithful servant of God from within any and all of these differing places. There’s not just one way to do it.
And the good news for us is that we’re not alone in this. The mantle placed on our shoulders is a baptismal garment, covering over our sinful selves and enveloping us in God’s grace. In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit—no one can take that away from us. And we’re not left alone to figure out faith and service to God, either: the Holy Spirit binds us together in community as the Body of Christ.
It has always been this way. Throughout history, in times of trouble, in times of war, in times of disorder, in times of apathy: God has always been present, calling people of faith to serve their neighbors.
We go to Holy Scripture seeking comfort, seeking wisdom, in times when we’re worried. The past week has given us plenty to worry about—in particular, about how gun laws may be enacted, and about abortion rights. People are worried for their safety, for their bodily autonomy, for their future. There are no easy answers here, and I’m not about to throw some cheap grace at you, like “Well, God’s gonna handle it!” while people continue to suffer.
So here’s where I encourage you to take some direction from this ancient story of Elijah and Elisha.
When you’re on the run for your life, or advocating for the life of your neighbor, or defending the dignity of your neighbor, and you’re feeling overwhelmed and alone, talk to God about it as Elijah did. And then listen for God’s response. Maybe it’s silence, and that’s okay—this story tells us that God speaks in silence, too.
And when the mantle is thrown over your shoulders, as Elisha received the mantle of leadership from Elijah: do what you gotta do, take care of whatever you’ve gotta take care of, and find a way to follow. And serve, trusting in God and trusting the team that God has put in place for you. You’re not in this alone. The one who places the mantle on your shoulders doesn’t throw it on you and leave—there’s partnership, mentorship, and community in the Holy Spirit.
And if you decide to embrace the mantle thrown on you, if you truly lean into those baptismal promises especially about proclaiming Christ in word and deed, caring for others and the world God has made, and working for justice and peace—well, do you have any oxen to sacrifice? Maybe you don’t have actual cows, but following God will frequently require some sacrifice. Is it money? Is it time? Is it security, like a roof over your head? Is it energy, like concern for someone in need of compassion? Do you need to burn away your ideals about what life in this world is supposed to look like?
Burning up those oxen may just provide enough light to illumine the way forward, which is made by walking—one step at a time, one bit of compassion at a time, one grace-filled reaction at a time. There may not be a plan, but there is a God who is present. The Psalmist says of God: you will show me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy.
In whatever way and wherever God is calling you at this moment, touch your shoulders, and feel the mantle on your own shoulders, the embrace of a God who uplifts and sustains you in grace. We’ll say a prayer for the prayer shawls that have been lovingly and prayerfully created, which will go to people in need of healing. Let us pray:
Sovereign God, you Son Jesus lived within the structures of society even as he spoke truth to those in power and challenged systems of oppression. Empower us to be courageous disciples and responsible citizens. Grant that our life in the public realm be grounded in love for our neighbors, care for the most vulnerable in our midst, and respect for the common life we share, following the example of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.