What more does Elijah want?!
Just the other week he was moaning that he was the last of the prophets of Israel…the last of his kind…the end of an era. Who was left to speak the truth of the goodness of Lord to the people? Who would challenge power and authority with the eternal truths of a God so great as ours? What would happen after he was gone?
When he meets Elisha, when he finds the one whom God would favor with the gift of prophesy, he’s absolutely thrilled—he throws his cloak over Elisha, symbolizing that he would be the chosen one. But then Elijah seems to pull back. Elisha becomes a servant rather than a student; his commitment is tested at every turn.
And when Elisha does reveal his discernment of vocation, does Elijah embrace him? Does he express joy and gladness at seeing his own vocation pass into capable hands? NO! He builds in yet more conditions, yet another test. And in the end, even Elisha doesn’t know if he’s “passed” until he strikes the water with Elijah’s mantle.
Does anyone else feel incredibly frustrated by all of this? Does anybody else want to shout, “Come on Elijah, mentor the kid! You need to raise up the one who will come after you. Your work needs continuity. Give the guy a chance.”
But if I step back and really look at it, I see Elijah as incredibly human. I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves, we can all relate to that sense of worry about our life’s work, our community involvement, or some aspect of our baptism. I don’t blame Elijah for sending mixed signals: It’s hard to think about “when I’m not able to do it anymore.”
I can tell you honestly that in my ministry with congregations, the one thing that I hear even more often than “Where will the money come from?” is “Where can we find new people? How can we raise up new leaders? On whom can we throw the mantles of our baptism?”
And so in this morning’s reading from Second Kings, I hear a reminder that part of our own spiritual discipline must be the discipleship of others who might assume our mantles.[i] By taking joy in mentoring others in the faith, we make one of our most precious offerings: The offering of invitation.
So let’s look at what we can learn from Elijah and Elisha.
First, where do we even find people who would be open to a deeper life in Christ?
Those who study congregational development tell us that most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. Think about that: Most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. That makes them a little hard to reach, don’t you think?
Elijah would completely understand this conundrum. It’s not like Elisha just walked up and said, “I’m thinking about becoming a prophet of YHWH. Do you have any thoughts on how I go about that?” No! Elisha was out plowing his field, minding his own business, when Elijah ran up and threw his mantle on him. That’s exactly the risk that we are called to take when we talk about “doing church differently.” It’s hard. It’s awkward. It feels funny. I’m sure to an on-looker Elijah looked like a nut case. And we know that Elisha was completely caught off guard—“At least let me tie up some loose ends at home! I need to let my parents know I’m leaving!”
But they both took the risk…one reached out and took a chance on a possible apprentice…the other allowed himself to be surprised by joy…and we live today as heirs to the history they shaped.
Second is the invitation itself. We don’t run around throwing cloaks over people any more. Such grand gestures are not particularly suited to “the way Episcopalians behave.” But invitation is nonetheless a powerful—and intimate—offering.
In her book Christianity Beyond Religion, Diana Butler Bass tells the story of being invited to join the Altar Guild of her local parish.[ii] They asked her because they knew she liked to arrange flowers.
Instead of saying yes or no, she asked, “Why?” Here’s what transpired, in Butler Bass’s own words:
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” (the woman) said impatiently, “And I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down.
I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:
You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out that altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar. Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.
I know I would have responded, “Sign me up!”
Invitation is a powerful—and intimate—connection. Offered from a place of faith and discipleship, it invokes the Holy Spirit and strengthens the fabric of community across all that would divide us in time and space.
It is in that presence of the Holy Spirit that we find our third lesson from Elijah’s example.
Of course Elijah knew that Elisha would be his successor. He also knew that the moment of clarity and affirmation was not his to give. Elisha had to claim his mantle. YHWH had to bestow the gift.
And yet, I have to believe that Elijah smiled as we was caught up in the whirlwind. I have to believe that over the roar of chariots and horses of fire his heart was glad when Elisha cried out. I have to believe that Elijah was at peace as his life’s work passed into Elisha’s hands.
So let’s take the risk. Let’s find those people who least expect to be called. Let’s invited them into the joy of discipleship through our baptismal lives. I have to believe that our hearts—and theirs—will be glad.
Let us pray:
as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Elisha,
move in our lives,
inviting us to journey to unknown territory,
to listen for your voice,
and to speak your prophetic word
in a world that does not want to hear.
Empowered by your Spirit,
grant us the courage we need
to journey, trust, listen, speak,
and accept your commission
to be your faithful servant people.[iii]
[i] Mitchell, Carrie N. In Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 176.
[ii] Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity Beyond Religion. Harper One, 2012. p. 153